Film Review and Criticism: Themes in Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation went a long way from transforming Will Smith from a TV star and rapper into one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.
Six Degrees of Separation went a long way from transforming Will Smith from a TV star and rapper into one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. | Source

Six Degrees of Separation, a Hollywood film that interweaves the themes of human life and relationships against the backdrop of the post-modern temper, has inspired enough debate and interest in both its themes and characters to warrant its place in American academia. T

he film stars Stockard Channing, Will Smith, and Donald Sutherland. These actors, along with other less central characters, find themselves in a modern morality play that unfolds itself in typical postmodern faction—through fragmentation and the juxtaposition of diverse themes, ideals, and characters. This might seem ambitious, but the film works because of how well it is realized. For example, the rhetoric is understated, the characters well acted, and the themes suggested rather forced down the audience’s throat.

At first, the film appears to be a pop-culture mystery about the enigmatic and street-smart con-artist Paul (Will Smith), but as the film develops, it reveals its chief concerns to be the impact of social responsibility, art, wealth, imagination and their impact on, as well how they are impacted by, an emerging postmodern reality where every ace is a new possibility or opportunity.

One of the most common themes of Six Degrees of Separation is the nature of relationships between people. Even the title alludes to the importance and possibility of human relationships, and more significantly, the emerging network of human connections that directly result from postmodern reality. In several scenes, a Kandinsky painting, which shows the balance between chaos and control, is used to illustrate the balance, or lack thereof in the different characters’ lives and relationships with one another.

Most notable of these relationships is that of Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan (Donald Sutherland), whose lives take center stage within the film. When Paul enters Ouisa’s life, her main concern is maintaining her affluence and standing in the high class society to which she belongs. Ouisa is married to Flan, an art dealer. They both are very obviously upper class New Yorkers whose lives, though they depend on art, are ironically not enriched by it at all.

Instead, their out-of-balance lives have become obsessed with control, security, and money. Art has become for them a meal ticket, reduced to simple figures and stripped of its imagination, significance, and lasting beauty. A great example of this is the inclusion of the discussion of Catcher in the Rye, in which Paul discusses the role of imagination in society by the filmmakers. Paul defines the role of imagination as a “passport” with which we create our reality.

The postmodern implication about our reality in this discussion is that it is not some objective thing, but something we form out of our connections, prejudices and beliefs. This means that we make our reality, be it heaven or hell, something we manufacture out of the materials of reality we find around us. The correlating success of such personally constructed realities is based, ironically, upon an individual’s ability to see past the glitz and spectacle of postmodernism, into the heart of the matter. For Ouisa and Flan, who have become confused within the complexities of postmodern reality because they only look at the surface, existence is not even worthwhile without this passport of imagination. The characters and their lives, or any human life for that matter, is not truly relevant if it only exists on the surface.

Kandinsky's Work

A Kandinsky painting much like the one in the film.
A Kandinsky painting much like the one in the film. | Source
Another Kandinsky like the one in the film.
Another Kandinsky like the one in the film. | Source

As has been discussed, the reason for this is that true meaning and relevancy is not, for all of the postmodernism focus on exterior and expression, something that can be found on the surface. The irony is that the more surface changes Flan and Ouisa make to enrich their lives only distract them from looking deeper, and therefore, have not enriched their lives at all. They have, in fact, isolated and separated themselves not only from their human relationships, but also from each other, and most importantly from themselves.

This fact is made clear when, at the end of the film, Ouisa questions everything about Flan when she asks, “How much of your life is accounted for?” On the surface, several of Flan’s comments about the beauty of art would seem to indicate his awareness of the deeper value of art that cannot be measured in dollars; however, his behavior at the end and his revelation that he is a gambler shows who he is on the inside: nothing more than a slightly higher-brow con-artist than the enigmatic Paul who started this process of self-examination for Ouisa and Flan.

In contrast to Flan, Ouisa’s revelation at the end of the film shows she is able to rediscover her true self that has laid dormant and unused from years of living in a materialistic upper-class that only cares about surface, despite its claim to deeper meaning. Ouisa’s life is spent catering to rich investors and social events, like baptisms and weddings. The artificiality of the social circles Ouisa and Flan run in are underlined by the fact that half the time neither of them have a clue whose wedding or baptism it is they are even attending. Furthermore, until Ouisa’s revelation at the end of the film, neither of them seems to care.

Once again, this surface artificiality is a result of an inner disposition which, in turn, is the result of, as the film suggests, an imbalance between imagination and reality, between good and evil, between chaos and control. This imbalance is indicative of postmodern art because it reveals the breakdown of human relationships under such financial and materialistic pursuits that have become the overwhelming focus of postmodern life in America.

John Guare not only wrote the play Six Degrees of Separation, but also adapted it to film.  He has wrote numerous other works.
John Guare not only wrote the play Six Degrees of Separation, but also adapted it to film. He has wrote numerous other works.

While Ouisa could not grasp about the Kandinsky painting and its insight into her life, she could not help but recognize when another symbol of the balance between chaos and control, good and evil, sane and insane, entered her life: Paul. Paul, as a character, is the manifestation of the postmodern ideal embodied in the painting that is so central to the film.

The film reinforces this by presenting several aspects of the culture and society in the movie from Paul’s point of view. Paul is an outsider, and the point of view of the outsider has been used in both modern and postmodern art to represent the growing disconnectedness between humans in such a fragmented and materialistic society that seems to place focus on the surface over the interior at every opportunity. Paul does well to serve this end in the film: he memorizes behavior patterns, speech, cooking recipes, names, places, dates, etc. in order to become the upper class, but by doing so he only makes the breach between himself and that which he seeks more evident.

This breach is paralleled by Ouisa and Flan’s existence and who they are buried underneath. I believe the homosexuality references may have been meant by the playwright to underline the fact that Paul is, in fact, the opposite ideal of the society to which he aspired. This means that if Paul were to reach his goal, he would be as unfulfilled and empty as Ouisa and Flan. Other aspects of Paul’s behavior and its effect upon Ouisa and Flan’s friends serve to illustrate his place as an outsider. Ultimately, Paul’s importance within the film does not come from his aspirations or beliefs, but comes from his role as a catalyst in Ouisa’s life. He is the one in a thousand possibilities that opens up a “New World” for Ouisa. It is both fitting and sad that as Paul sets Ouisa free, he strives to take her place in the surface world of postmodern concerns.

Ultimately, the film goes into detail about several other aspects of human relationships and their breakdowns under the surface pressures of spectacle and sensation: the relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, upper class and lower class. However, I find myself thinking back to the ending scene where Ouisa makes her way into the overwhelming mass of civilization. This scene does not offer hope that the society these characters find themselves in can be changed. Nor does it point towards big, politically correct answers that shallower films have. The films refusal of an overfed simple answer and picturesque ending is refreshing, forcing the audience to internalize what they have seen to understand it. This will not be effective on every movie watcher, just as only Ouisa responded to Paul, not Flan.

The ending sequence, despite the difficulties it presents, does suggest that human beings, despite their individual insignificance in such a vast postmodern society, can still retain the ability to chart their own path. The key, I believe, about the film is that it offers this not in refutation or denial of modernity, but also because of it. Ouisa’s salvation lies in the fact that every face is a new opportunity, that the breakdown of traditional relationships under the pressures is not definite or final because possibilities are now truly endless. From this end, it seems that the most important thing the filmmakers have to offer us is the notion that in such a materialistic and fragmented society, the individual can evolve in a way that allows them to retain their ability to reclaim and live a life of fulfillment. That is, that the individual has never been and will never be completely at the whim of socio-economic and psychological forces beyond her control. In contrast to some other postmodern films, Six Degrees of Separation suggests that this ability is not hampered by the confusing mass of relationships and opportunities the individual finds herself in, but rather, it is equipped to and can, with the aid of imagination, triumph over such a confusing and splintered world into a new and truly fulfilling reality, just as Ouisa does before the credits role.

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