I’m convinced that a great movie can be made on any subject, no matter how arcane, provided that its makers find something of greater significance in the material or else employ cinematic form to transform that subject into something interesting. One of Vincente Minnelli’s best films, The Cobweb (1955), centers on a debate over who gets to design the curtains of a posh sanitarium’s common room. In the movie’s intricate structure, the debate becomes intertwined with larger psychiatric issues—namely, the benefits of regimented treatment versus a more exploratory approach. The patients who want to design the curtains (and the doctors who encourage them to do so) see the project as an outlet for self-expression, and Minnelli presents their case sympathetically. The curtains come to reflect the his long-running theme of the redemptive power of art.
For a very different example, consider the sequence in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Meat (1975) where beef-industry salesmen in Colorado make phone calls to potential clients. It’s a brilliant piece of social portraiture, showing men who dress and talk like cowboys even when employed in bureaucratic work. Wiseman, a great listener, is keen to their jargon and cadences—he illustrates how every office place develops its own particular music.
If curtains and beef salesmen can inspire genuine film art, then it’s possible that professional wine tasters can too. Yet Somm, which opens tomorrow at the Music Box Theatre, is a terrible movie. It makes no attempt to place its subjects in a larger context and demonstrates little interest in what makes them unique. Structured like a reality TV program, it follows several San Francisco-based wine tasters as they prepare for the Master Sommelier Exam, a highly difficult test that fewer than 200 people have passed in 40 years.
This isn’t particularly suspenseful stuff. The Exam is not competitive—entrants can take it as many times as they like, and they don’t face any professional setbacks if they fail. All they stand to lose is the chance of getting a better job. And since all of the sommeliers profiled in the film seem to be living comfortably from the start, there’s no sense of urgency that they live any better. Yet director Jason Wise frequently cuts to his subjects addressing the camera (just like on The Real World) about how preparing for the test stresses them out. And he presents their various taste tests like playoff games, despite the fact that the big exam won’t look much different.
In the past few years I’ve watched several documentaries that take this approach, horning their subjects into the prefab structure of preparing for the big showdown. Not only does it undermine the feeling of spontaneity that’s often the prize quality of nonfiction filmmaking, it has the awkward effect of making cerebral or otherwise noncompetitive activities seem like sports. One of the more interesting things about Somm, it’s worth noting, is the revelation that several of the subjects had been athletes in college. You’d expect wine tasters to be effete, but these guys behave, for better and for worse, like stereotypical campus jocks. They’re energetic and motivated, but also arrogant, cliquish, and callous. There’s nothing wrong with a movie having unlikable subjects, but Wise simply proceeds as if these unlikable traits didn’t exist, presenting these men as heroes because that’s what the “big showdown” formula requires.
This points to what makes Somm such a disappointment. The movie doesn’t want to introduce wine-tasting culture to a larger audience, but to appeal to people who are already part of it. It seems designed as a meet-up event for wine aficionados—and the Music Box is encouraging this interpretation with their presentation of the film. At the 7 PM screenings on Friday through Tuesday, a Master Sommelier will introduce the movie and lead a discussion afterward. For $20, you can take part in a wine tasting along with the postshow discussion. I imagine these activities might be more enlightening than the movie itself.