A Gamma’s Midlife Crisis


Sideways by Rex Pickett, St Martin’s Griffin, October 1st, 2004

I first learned of the film Sideways through this post on what was (it is now hard to believe), one of the more entertaining websites on the Internet. I remember watching the film around this time too — though I don’t remember exactly when. I don’t think I disliked it but I do remember thinking that the two main characters were pathetic. This was when I was in my early twenties and still at university. About four years ago, I watched the film again — now being long married with children and a regular job. I still thought the two main characters were pathetic but I was better able to understand the film’s appeal. The wine tasting for example, was also something I could relate to but not for good reasons

More recently I found out there was a Japanese remake that changes some details but is generally the same film with the same title rendered as Saidoweizu (サイドウェイズ) in Japanese. I sought it out just recently and watched it. I only now remained curious about the novel that the original film was based on. Interestingly the film was in development before the book was published and released in theatres just months after the novel’s publication.

It might seem odd to be interested in reading a book based on a film that I didn’t really like but this is a film that was both a critical and box office success. It won numerous awards and unlike so many Oscar-bait films, remains well-regarded even twenty years later. The original book has also now had a third sequel Sideways New Zealand: The Road Back release this year so it clearly still has an audience.

Last year, I was working through some books that had been acquired by chance which I thought should be either read or disposed of. One was a memoir by screenwriter William Goldman which I briefly mentioned in this post and another was his novel The Princess Bride. The latter is much more famous for the screen adaptation directed by Rob Reiner with Goldman delivering the screenplay. It is now my go to example of a film that is genuinely better than the novel it is based on. This is so rarely the case that I suspect even with the required breadth of knowledge, I could still count all these examples with my fingers. Sideways is certainly another example but as will be demonstrated, this is faint praise.

As I will be very critical, it is important to make it clear first of all that Pickett can write and his prose is engaging. He can certainly be pretentious, and is almost any time wine is being discussed by the characters — which it is almost every chapter. His purple prose isn’t limited to wine though and the novel actually opens with this horror:

The sun poured bright parallelograms of mote-swirling light through the venetian blinds of my rundown, rent-controlled house in Santa Monica. 

With an opening like this, I’m not only surprised he got published, I am surprised he got any editor to read past the first sentence. I don’t think I could come up with a beginning more likely to provoke collective groans from every publishing house in New York than this. But his pretention aside, he can write a story and my problems with this novel are more to do with the content than the writing itself.

It is hardly a secret that the novel is autobiographical. The opening line mentioning a “rent-controlled house” certainly suggests he is writing from direct experience. The Maddox article linked above that mocks the shallow fools who base their tastes on what is fashionable also mentions that Pickett is unsurprisingly fond of pinot noir just like his self-insert character Miles is. This is a lot more evident in the novel than in the film and it doesn’t surprise me that Pickett wasn’t the screenwriter for the film adaptation despite himself being one. The director, Alexander Payne did these duties along with Jim Taylor and while I am sure the author wasn’t completely left out; the people making the film clearly understood what parts of his novel should be.

I remember even as a young man who was no stranger to profanity, finding the film to be shockingly crass — especially considering the kind of audience it was made for. The novel is much, much worse and I naturally will not be providing any examples here. In the film it is mainly Jack Cole (played by Thomas Haden Church) that utters the filth but almost every character does in the novel. The language is frequently vulgar, blasphemous and sexually explicit and always unnecessarily so. The filmmakers also sensibly excised Pickett’s pornographic fantasy between Miles and Maya and other too-much-information sections.

As the title of this post suggests, Sideways can be analysed through Vox Day’s Socio-Sexual Hierarchy. The novel is written in first-person through the eyes of Miles Raymond who was played by Paul Giamatti in the film. Giamatti’s Miles is easier to sympathise with than Pickett’s. For example, the film had him as a teacher and struggling author rather than just the latter expecting the world to do him a favour. As the novel is first-person, we don’t get much of a description of Miles except through Jack when trying to cheer up the frequently morose Miles:

“You’re a handsome guy. You’ve still got all your hair. You’re smart, funny, a little dark, but some chicks dig that…”

This doesn’t much match the portly and balding Giamatti so I found it best to just imagine the Miles of the book as looking like the photograph of the author on the back cover. As mentioned, this is autobiographical and Pickett, like Miles, was a struggling writer with an ex-wife and a love for wine before the film’s success gave him his big break. He is also a massive gamma male.

Jack Cole is a more interesting and Pickett’s description of him fits that of an alpha very well:

Jack was outsized in every way. When he broke into laughter, it rattled the shackles of your unconscious and demanded that you join in. When he walked into a movie theatre he swallowed the entire aisle. He was the guy who got hired on the spot because of his infectious charisma, the guy who didn’t have to work to get the girl. Unlike me, any weaknesses he had were secreted and any negativity painted over with broad strokes of optimism. Truth for Jack was what he could touch and smell and taste at any given moment. Self-reflection was generally too deep for him. He was a meat eater, a problem solver, a spirit lifter after a tough day, the guy everyone would want to rub-shoulders with in a foxhole while mortars rained down. He seemed an unlikely candidate for marriage. Given his personality and looks, opportunities for long nights with the opposite sex were limitless, and another man not so endowered would wonder why Jack wouldn’t want to live the Casanova life until his privates gave out. But Jack had a sentimental side, too, and I could—if I tried hard enough—envision him with a brood of children, sprawled in a La-Z-Boy with a six-pack on ice, spinning anecdotes about his colorful past.

Though a gamma and an alpha pair might seem unlikely, it does work for the story and you can quickly understand what Jack likes about Miles. He is a useful source of knowledge as well as a good sounding board. Miles also won’t just go along with everything which must be somewhat refreshing from Jack’s general experience with other men. He of course, still finds Miles irritating but you do get a sense of why they get along.

The changes made for the female characters are more interesting. In the film Maya is played by Virginia Madsen; who was in her early forties at the time. The Maya in the book is a decade (or more) younger and a brunette:

At the far end of the bar, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with brunette hair cascading over broad shoulders, in an eye-catching black cocktail dress, appeared with a drinks tray and recited an order to Charlie. She was the kind of lavishly built woman who had the magnetic pull to pry men’s gazes away from their martinis and steaks.

At the time the film was made the director was married to Sandra Oh and she was cast as Jack’s jilted paramour-to-be. She is named Stephanie and from memory, is also a single mother.  The character Terra she is based on is quite different:

She was all of five feet five with short blond hair combed over in a left-center part, framing a pale, lightly freckled face. She had flashing gray-green eyes an alert as a bird’s, suggesting that she might be a product of the East Coast rather than the West with its sunworshipping surfer girls, skin tanned to leather, all trancelike smiles and no ambition. When she spoke, her New York accent came through, and she was quick-witted and sarcastic, affirming my prediction.

Sandra Oh was in her early thirties in the film but I believe Terra is even younger though I can’t recall if the exact age of any character was mentioned. Having two middle-aged men pursuing women in their twenties was rightly assumed to be less easy for audiences to sympathise with so they cast older actresses. From memory, Maya and Miles have a bit more of a background than in the book too which adds a bit of fairytale to their romance. Browsing Wikipedia suggests Pickett was not happy with Oh and the changes made to Terra. Jack’s fiancée also had a name change for some reason as well. 

Most of the main events of the novel are present in the film and play out more or less the same way. Some events are moved around such as the famously disgusting scene where Miles drinks from the spit bucket happening after Jack deliberately crashes his car to explain his broken nose. In the book, this was actually caused by Miles as were two or three other injuries — including one involving being shot at by Bradley, a deranged boar hunter Miles meets in a bar. Terra gives Jack a gash on his face after attempting to shoot him with a firearm taken from Bradley. If this sounds over-the-top then it is and one can easily see why these were all removed.

This brings me to something that puzzled me in the film but still more reading the book. When the character’s don’t have a wine glass, they’re generally consuming it from plastic cups or directly from the bottle. Yet, they drive everywhere and if not drunk, were certainly almost always over the legal limit. They also commit a number of serious crimes and somehow get away with them. I get the absurdity of it all being part of the intention but it is still hard to believe in a novel set in the real world.

As I mentioned at the start, I thought the characters were both pathetic. The book makes this all the more evident but particularly so for Miles. As a first-person narrative we get more of a window into Miles’ Pickett’s thoughts. As relationships are a main theme of the novel and wine is more the backdrop, we get Pickett’s shallow outlook while on one of multiple trips to the hospital to treat Jack’s injuries:

What women don’t understand, I sassed the magazine, is that for most men adultery is the best sex they’re ever going to experience. Its clandestineness in motel rooms, parked cars, and unfamiliar apartments with promiscuous and naughty love-starved tarts who delight in husband theft is just too much for the intervention of Freud’s superego. It rocks men’s worlds, reducing them to sex-crazed primitives, blithering idiots, and reckless drivers. Sure, they leave dumb paper and phone trails and are quickly found out, becoming blubbering fools contritely seeking forgiveness from their bruised wives, while their paramours weep over unfulfilled promises whispered in perfervid clenches. Contrite for the moment, that is, until the next whiff of torrid betrayal grips their groins. And marriage, with its imprisoning aspects to a man, often inspires the full flowering of its always hurtful, and destructive, recrudescence. Except for pockets of God-fearing Christians staring at hell through a crucifix, cheating is not going to stop. Spouses should probably encourage random sex with anonymous partners on an infrequent basis to halt the charade of fidelity. That way, relationships could actually prosper and grow deeper, I concluded cynically.

This is not something Miles comes to rethink in the course of the novel as he briefly comes back to this subject right near the end:  

Maybe marriage isn’t natural, I philosophized. Sure, bonding, coupling, that’s in the genes, but perhaps marriage is just too inadequate an institution, faultily designed to curb our primitive instincts and preserve the family unit. Is that why men go nuts before taking the vows and women make such a ceremonial pageantry of the whole thing?

Unlike in the film, there is no real sense that either Miles or Jack grow from their experiences on the trip. They both just continue being who they are while the latter resigns himself to social expectations. Jack gets married because that’s what you do. I think the film — though not explicitly — does a much better job of showing that the characters understood they had behaved poorly and by the end, were ready to change. A traditional comedy usually ends with a marriage but for Pickett, it is more of a cop out to what he really believes.

His lack of understanding of what marriage is and why it is important is also displayed shortly after his cynical conclusion above:

I returned to my magazine and found another questionnaire, this one measuring self-esteem. After honestly answering all the questions, I tallied up my score, compared it to a chart, and found myself in the clinically depressed category. They advised me to immediately seek professional treatment. Apparently, 98 percent of the nation’s populace possessed a brighter outlook on life than I did. That startled me. Wouldn’t all those nuclear families living in their middle-class shoeboxes have to be more suicidal than I?

No they wouldn’t. Pickett and his self-insert are childless, alcoholic, divorcees.  That Pickett and his self-insert don’t understand why people who live for more than themselves might be happy is very telling indeed. When you struggle for something good, you tend to be happy despite the difficulties. Something I hate about the modern novel (and indeed many films), is the way the creator wants to project their own insecurities and perversions onto everybody else when most people simply aren’t like them. What makes this worse is when this pathetic behaviour is made to look more attractive in the context of fiction than in reality and is then imitated by weaker souls that absorb these evil messages. Novels like Anna Karenina contain adultery but they also show the scandal and destruction that results. Modern novels like Sideways instead wallow in this filth and act like it is just a normal part of life that should be accepted.

We also unsurprisingly learn that the author is mentally ill:

I felt like something was about to go horribly wrong: heart attack, stroke, asphyxiation. As my anxiety slowly tightened around me, I wheezed for air, pusillanimously invoked God—a god I didn’t believe existed except when I need him—and cursed my absence of a partner who might have consoled me in this troubled moment. I broke down and dissolved a Xanax under my tongue. It took maybe thirty minutes for the drug to kick in, but that half hour felt like a terrifying eternity. Storms raged in my head. At the height of the attack, a sentimental memory of Victoria [ex-wife] caused tears to spring to my eyes, and the fortress of my cynicism started to crumble. In that vulnerable moment I thought pathetically of the Beatles song, “All You Need is Love,” and for a few minutes the refrain wouldn’t leave my head. Eventually, as the Xanax worked its magic, the undersong of crickets lulled me over the precipice into a welcome sleep.

Judging from the Beatles reference: also a boomer. We get a repeat of this when he learns his book deal has fallen through:

I unpocketed my vial of Xanax and swallowed two as q8ickly as I could. I planted one hand against the side of the building to steady myself. Shutting my eyes and closing off the world seemed to help. The bitter-tasting Xanax dissolving under my tongue reassured me a little. After a few moments, I mustered up my coverage and went back inside, my future no longer hanging in the balance, but foundering instead with every shambolic step. 

As with his knowledge of wine, that he is name dropping an anti-depressant brand and describing how it tasted, suggests he is more than a little familiar with Xanax. Yet one can easily gather that most of his mental health struggles come from the way he lives. This includes being conscious of serious sins and Pickett reveals something much darker through Miles describing his loss of innocence:

I had a vague memory of six months of heavy petting, ending one clumsy night in the parking lot of a Presbyterian church in five minutes of frenetic, soul-emptying penetration. I remember Lisa looked stunned, like, Is that all it is? Three months later I was holding her hand in a fluorescent-lit office listening to a gynecologist sympathetic to teenage mistakes, a thousand bucks lighter in the wallet, and scared sh**less I had almost become a teenaged father. 

Given how much of the novel is autobiographical, I don’t doubt that the main details happened although I hope I’m wrong. There are no shortage of novels written as confessions of the author’s sins. Miles’ novel within the novel is even called Confessions of an Onanist which is really a more accurate title for Sideways. We even learn at the end that his ex-wife Victoria is pregnant after her many years with Miles not bearing any fruit.

Confessing in print without sorrow for sin is obviously insufficient and there is certainly nothing redeeming about the novel. Miles is still Miles. He hasn’t changed or grown. He’s just starting again with the same attitude as before. As in the film he is shown to disapprove of Jack’s antics but it is made clear that it is not because of any genuine moral disapproval. For these characters lying, infidelity, vulgarity and living selfishly are normal — everyone does it! Miles even sells out his best friend by revealing his upcoming marriage in the most gamma of ways while pretending he is above it all:

“I’m afraid the majority of men are pathological liars. They’ll do anything, say anything, to get a woman’s clothes off. It’s in their DNA. Some have more of the bad genetic stuff than others. As cynical as it sounds, if I didn’t associate with them, I probably would have no male friends. ” I turned to her. “I apologize on behalf of our sex.”

This groveling naturally doesn’t endear him to Maya although they still somehow come together at the end.

The Japanese version of the film is more or less the same as the original with some changes that work better for the Japanese context and audience. Instead of Santa Ynez, it is set in the more well-known Napa Valley. And the “Jack” of this film first wants to go to Las Vegas before resigning himself to wine country. In reading up for this I discovered this article in a now defunct online magazine which goes more in-depth on this version specifically and my opinion doesn’t differ in any important ways.

So what is the appeal of the film and indeed the book? I mostly put this down to middle-aged people seeking out Bacchic self-indulgence and rationalisations for engaging in such behaviour. The film arrived when America was still much more prosperous though just a few years into “The War on Terror”. A lot has changed since then but I think that is a major part of the appeal. The other I think is the backdrop, which is similar to what I said of Lost in Translation which came out just the year before. The scenes of the characters simply tasting and enjoying wine are the more enjoyable and memorable parts of the film though these don’t come out as much in the book. 

I had to buy a copy of this book used and it appears to be out of print though the sequels are still available. I assume the novel was only successful for the original run of the film but Pickett clearly still sells enough to bring sequels. I definitely don’t recommend it and it will be going in the bin after this is posted.

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