Look Both Ways
directed by Sarah Watt
(Kino, 2005)

We spend our lives concentrating on the accidents that could kill us -- train wrecks, car accidents, shark attacks -- and very little time being aware of the chance events that have saved us.

The characters in Look Both Ways are certainly aware of the way life and death can blindside us. What's a little harder for them is getting past paying attention to how people die to pay more attention to life going on around them.

Meryl (Justine Clark) can't rid her mind of all the ways things can go wrong. She pays the bills by painting seascapes for greeting cards, but the dreams she exorcises in splashes of color are darker and obsessed with danger. Writer-director Sarah Watt, an award-winning animator in Australia, pitches Meryl into painted, animated daydreams as she has flashes of drowning, being attacked or getting sucked into the ground.

Around the corner, photographer Nick (William McInnes, husband of director Watt) has returned temporarily from his globe-trotting assignments to care for his dying father. Already the kind of guy who distances himself through a camera lens, he's now faced with a battle he can't photograph: cancer that's spreading in his own body.

It sounds like a real downer of a movie, especially after Nick and Meryl meet (at the scene where a train has run over a pedestrian) and try to fumble their way out of their well-settled loner ways into ... what? Not a relationship, necessarily, at least not at first. More like a truce, in which two people, remarkably similar, struggle against "politeness" and fear to make some connection.

Nick has to answer to himself for his newspaper photo, capturing the moment the accident victim's widow is told of his death; his editor has to debate the merits of publishing her grief. But Look Both Ways never gets heavy on the death and dying routine, doesn't bring in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross or a whole lot of philosophizing. It just looks at a variety of people to whom life "happens," and asks: Is it always for the best? What's the difference between living and just surviving?

Nobody gets to be noble; nobody gets to be a martyr; they all just stumble through that realization that hits adults: I will die. Now, how do I want to live?

It's surprisingly funny, romantic in the true sense and, in its own way, death-defying. With its interwoven characters and its refusal to resolve much of anything, it's reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia.

review by
Jen Kopf

20 September 2008

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