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A Slipping-down Life

Director: Toni Kalem
Cast: Lili Taylor, Guy Pearce, John Hawkes, Sara Rue, Irma P. Hall, Shawnee Smith, Veronica Cartwright, Clea DuVall

(Lions Gate; US theatrical: 14 May 2004 (Limited release); 2004)

Backwardsness

Evie Decker (Lili Taylor) wears a rabbit costume at Kiddie Acres, small town North Carolina. Each day, in A Slipping-Down Life, she stands in a booth, listens to her walkman, and occasionally sells hotdogs. She’s a sad girl, living with her widowed, ham-radio operator father (Tom Bower), yearning for an escape or at least a diversion.


In the mornings, she reads her cereal box and shuffles to work, where she hides away in her booth until she’s inevitably badgered by her employer (Bruno Kirby): “Take your head off when I’m talking to you!” he yells on first confronting her about hiding her walkman under her awkwardly large furry rabbit head. Then, as his point about working hard and obeying arbitrary rules is obviously lost on her, he takes the opposite tack: “Put your head on when I’m talking to you! Think of the children for Christ’s sake!” Amid such contradictory demands, it’s no wonder that she contemplates how little she seems to matter: “Did you ever think how it wouldn’t matter if you lived or died?” she asks her best friend Violet (Sara Rue), “That you could just disappear and no one would notice?


Argh. Though Taylor’s performance is, as always, delicate and smart, she has her work cut out for her. A Slipping-Down Life is rife with the sort of quirky drama that fills up Anne Tyler novels; and indeed, Toni Kalem adapted her film from one, back in 1999. It’s probably not a good sign that it’s taken five years for the film to find a distributor, but neither is it a reason for dismissal out of hand. There are other reasons that A Slipping-Down Life is troubling and, finally, unsuccessful.


For one thing, Evie’s dullsville home life is portrayed as a series of montagey miseries, some including the walking cliché of her dad’s advice-dispensing housekeeper Clotelia (Irma P. Hall): at one point, this character is literally rendered a her vacuum cleaner’s point of view shot. While this might have looked clever in the editing room, it’s a peculiar visual joke: Limited vision creates judgmental wisdom? Or, you are what you suck up.


And for still another thing, Evie’s eccentric but also familiar desperation finds a too-convenient focus in a local rocker, the self-named Drumstrings Casey (Guy Pearce). While her glomming on to his voice over the radio—“on the air with Dick Dundaire”—is neatly visualized: she’s gazing on her own reflection in a mirror as he begins to talk to a dismissive interviewer, then, drawn to his meanderings, she puts the mirror aside, switches to he other end of her bed, and gazes upon the radio. And how could she not be so enticed? “We all have our own way of fighting off the devil,” Drum drones, “You think you’re invisible, but I see you.”


Smitten, Evie decides to “take a risk,” that is, she hauls Violet along with her to attend a show by Drum’s band (namely, the “unorthodox duo” comprised of Drum and his drummer/manager, David [John Hawk]), at which point she is utterly entranced. Though the local vixen, Faye-Jean Lindsay (Shawnee Smith) makes the first move—dancing up under his guitar and showing off her lack of clothing—Evie believes he’s singing to her alone (“I’ll keep your monkey, / I’ll treat him good. / I’ll talk to him like he talks to you”). Even more to her liking is his between-songs patter (mostly inane, but deep-sounding, I suppose, if you’re 12, which she is at heart). A few more trips to the club, and his mournful songs have moved Evie to action. In the bathroom, she slashes her forehead with her idol’s last name (“CASEY”), written backwards, as she’s done it while looking in the mirror.


Backwardsness becomes something of a theme in A Slipping-Down Life, as Evie and Drum slip into their romance as if they’re both looking the other way. With her carved-up forehead, she’s an instant celebrity, or more precisely, a photo in the small town paper with a caption under it that links her forever with Drum, who appears at the hospital for the picture snap. (Clea Duvall, by the way, has a minute on screen as Evie’s unnamed nurse.) When Evie offers to appear at his shows as a publicity stunt, Drum says no (perhaps he does have integrity, beneath all that performative angst), but David says yes. While the subsequent montage—Evie’s face lit up at her lonely table at shows, Evie breathlessly urging her love-object to “Speak it,” Evie still not getting that she’s a prop in a movie that is making less and less sense.


Though he’s initially suspicious of exploiting a girl who’s carved his name into his forehead, Drum eventually comes round to appreciate looking on her in the audience, and to miss her when she’s not there; after he decides not to bring her along to a gig in Athens, GA, she accuses him of not understanding her value to his art. It sounds silly, as his art is rather limited, but he comes to believe her, and asks her to marry him, so that they might continue to create his art forever. When she asks why he’s asked, Drum fumbles, “Because you make me feel like myself.” But it’s hard not to notice that he sees himself in her—on her face as well as in her eyes. She’s all about him. He’s not into her.


Realizing soon enough that her prince is not so ambitious a rock star as he fronts, Evie suggests a more mundane life, at least for the time being. They work their day jobs, they put together a humble home, they invite the parents to dinner. At this point, you start to understand why Drum is so apparently psychotic: Mrs. Casey (Veronica Cartwright) and Mr. (Marshall Bell) are as terrible a pairing as you can imagine, with dad an especially mean-spirited sort.


The movie’s gradual devolution into a series of events sends the characters slipping and sliding into and apart from one another (in so haphazard a fashion as you wonder if entire scenes are missing). It’s hard to say whether this is a function of killer editing or some effort to maintain an episodic structure in the novel. In any case, Drum and Evie endure extreme changes in one another and themselves. Imagining himself a “true musician” who can’t be bothered to promote his work, Drum can’t bear to be with her (“It’s like you’re pushing me to lift something I don’t have the muscles for”) or can’t live without her. When he finally has all that he feels he needs, they’ve got a happy ending. And you’re left wondering just what she sees in this fellow, except that abstract backwardsness that she’s inscribed in herself.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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