Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Daddy of A Doc: Playing with Paternity and Storytelling in "Stories We Tell"

"Stories We Tell", directed by Sarah Polley (Canadian, 2012).

Sometimes digging up secrets doesn't get us closer to an answer, but lets us ask more difficult questions. Sarah Polley's self-examining documentary, "Stories We Tell" (named best feature-length documentary by the Toronto Film Critics Association), grapples with that all-too-human drive to attach narrative to personal experience, and tests how that desire can distort or even completely obscure what (may have) actually happened. Polley's directorial story focuses on her parents -- her mother, Diane, died when she was very young, leaving her father, Michael, to raise her on his own. We hear from siblings, friends, colleagues riff on Diane and Michael's relationship, who lived the quasi-glamorous lifestyle of stage actors in Toronto. Polley's questioning is at once general but leading, simple but suggestive, and the audience gradually finds where the story of Michael and Diane fractures -- when Polley learns that she may be the product of her mother's affair.

So from the very beginning, the documentary-expectation of objective distance is completely collapsed -- the stories are purposefully subjective, with familial interviews supplying a network of gossip, opinion, hearsay and hindsight that only Polley provides with editorial structure. "Stories" is documentary film laid bare, at least insofar as it can still have intelligible form, but it's remarkable as a performance of simultaneous storytelling and documenting. Alongside talking-head interviews, Polley integrates imagined home movies, shot on Super8 with actors that could pass for time-travelers, mimicking sweetly the nostalgic framing of romantic memories. This trick is a really slick one, the movies as found-footage are so off-handedly believable, they seem to verify the spoken narratives, but in fact are just fantasies -- Polley can dress and direct her actors as she likes to remember them, as she tries to form the story of her own conception. The entire film is kept on track through shots of Polley directing Michael in a sound booth, as he reads from his memoir, giving loose structure to the cut-away interviews and reenactments.

Once the story turns into present-day discussions of her parents' legacy, the focus is on Polley herself, as she realizes that she was conceived by her mother's extramarital affair. This is probably the shakiest part of the documentary, but also its most compelling -- we hear from her biological father and see reenactments of his earliest meetings with Polley, which took place while "Stories" was already in production. Once Polley's paternity becomes the main topic of conversation, the documentary-laid-bare format stretches open a bit more, as sibling-interviewees begin asking Polley questions and her (now figuratively if not biologically) father claims her documentary is a gestalt therapy attempt to cope with the news.

This shift towards Polley and away from the ephemeral relationship between Michael and Diane is dramatic but a bit compromising, as the portrait of her mother gets lost in the fray and the film's story is forcibly reoriented as Polley digests the information. But it is perfectly performative of what "Stories" drives home -- that lives are constantly being retold and adjusted, and no matter how much we learn, we can never be certain. Even paternity tests are only 99.9% sure.

Monday, November 5, 2012

I Want To Be Like Everybody Else: Fragments toward a review of Holy Motors

Courtesy of Indomina Releasing
In Leos Carax’s befuddling, beautiful all-the-world’s-a-stage revue Holy Motors, the incomparable Denis Lavant plays a very peculiar sort of everyman. Monsieur Oscar is seemingly an actor who’s been kicked upstairs — he doesn’t work in the confines of a stage or a set (with one weird exception), but takes appointments out in the real* world, interacting with others who may or may not also be actors. (In one episode of Sellars-ian multiple casting, he has a fatal encounter with an individual who may or may not also be him.)

Motors certainly doesn’t hide its basic philosophical investigation, but it goes well beyond a metafictional exploration of performance, constantly fascinated with technology and setting and modes of perception or observation. I’ve been mulling over Holy Motors for three weeks, trying to parse it or at least find a good angle for attack. Without the benefit of repeat viewings, I can’t help but feel I’m only scratching the surface. So I’m going to come at it from every direction — below is a series of brief considerations on different aspects of the film, I think a fitting approach to an episodic and many-splendored work of art.

Rather promptly if somewhat obliquely, we are introduced to Oscar’s profession — he rides around in a limousine converted into a dressing room. There’s a mirror framed with bright bulbs, and everything he needs to transform himself bodily for each successive appointment. He can become an old lady, a spry acrobatic performer, a crass imp, a scarred thug, all with the application of some makeup. At first, it seems he’s interacting with non-actors — “real people” — but the lines are blurry from the start.

One of Oscar’s assignments calls for him to dress up as a motion capture performer and participate in a movie shoot. The actress who he encounters on the set: is she a performer like him, or just a “regular” actress? As we later learn, many of Oscar’s engagements seem to be with other performers, so it’s hard to say.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Today Is Not Like Today: Surrealist Language in 'Dogtooth'

Censorship is a powerful tool -- it limits imagination, potentiality, expression and agency. It can create stigma with a stamp, make moral judgments and draw boundaries with a thick line. Powerful censorship doesn’t always take the form of political power or pure prohibition -- it can appear in a remarkably insidious form through translation, an equation of meaning from one thing to another. Dogtooth’s title, the 2009 Greek film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, is already a translation of signifiers, a colloquial version of canine teeth. The [d]ogtooth is significant because it is the harbinger of maturity and independence for three adult-children, who have been confined by their parents to the boundaries of their house’s property since birth. The eldest is a boy, the other two are girls who patiently, at least at first, wait for their dogtooths to fall out so that they can encounter the outside world.

The world within the house is acutely defined through the parents’ rigid control on vocabulary. Words whose signifieds refer to the outside world are reassigned to refer to objects within the house, a boomeraging of linguistic signifiers back to the children’s immediate physical surroundings, so as not to even hint of concepts larger than “swimming pool” or “airplane”. A “zombie” is a little yellow flower, a “telephone” is a salt shaker. Questions of what-is and why-is are rigorously limited to familiar terms and objects, leaving outside objects that would otherwise be common or harmless taking the brunt of descriptors like fear, danger, mystery, threat. When a stray cat finds its way into the compound, it’s an opportunity to create fear in the mundane, as the father rips his own clothes and covers himself in fake blood to explain an encounter with the beast. The father is slipping certain words into his own children’s dialect, and making words like “swell” sinister and threatening.

The children, ignorant of all this linguistic substitution, live in complete surreality -- the pipe is not a pipe, cats are murderers, zombies are flowers. Words exist in stark authority over the physical world, as a method of parental control that is so ambiguous in its rationale and so pious in its application that you start to question the sanity of the parents themselves, rather than fault them. As restrictive as the use of language is, it pales in comparison to the application of sex -- as a biological energy to control and appease. The plot bends with the sexual drive of the oldest son, mediated by the father with the almost pharmaceutical prescription of encounters with a woman security guard from his workplace. He drives her to and from the house blindfolded and pays her for her compliance and silence (towards their agreement and with the son’s sexual preferences). It is when her sexual demands of the son are denied that she seeks satisfaction from others in the house, taking advantage of their malleable relation of signifier to sign. A lick becomes a lot more here, leading surreal censorship to upturn the family entirely.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Convergences: Deren / Bush

from Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943, d. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid

cover of The Dreaming by Kate Bush, released 1982

Monday, September 3, 2012

William Vollmann and Michael Glawogger in Conversation

Is it funny how you end up reading the right books and watching the right films at exactly the right time, or is it freaky? 

William T. Vollmann's semi-fictional travelogue The Atlas just happened to be splayed next to my bed when I first watched Michael Glawogger's docu-triptych on third world prostitution, Whores' Glory. Had I not encountered Vollmann prior to watching Glawogger, I probably wouldn't have realized how kindred they are, and I might not have been as profoundly disturbed by their work.

If you had to boil Glawogger's films or Vollmann's books down to one word, "prostitution" could work for either of them.
Vollmann is much more prolific, churning out thousand-page books on violence, San Francisco prostitution rings, the John Smith legend and California desert counties seemingly every few months while Glawogger took thirteen years to finish a trilogy on globalization. But both share an obsession with prostitutes and everything that they represent about the cruelty of desire, the exploitation of the developing world and sexual/economic/political/cultural domination.

Stalking Stalker: The Film Critic as Guide

Lately, like a bunch of scrawny preteens pathetically slap-fighting in the middle school parking lot, critics have been bickering with other critics about how to be a critic. "You're a wimp!" someone shouts. "Yeah? Well you're a meanie!" another retorts. "Fight! Fight! Fight!" others cheer from the sidelines. Problem is, the model of criticism at the center of all this mudslinging—a model based on binaries like nice/mean, good/bad, recommended/not recommended—is a paradigm that serious critics have long outgrown. If all you have to say about a film is that you liked it, or alternately that you hated it, you're perpetuating a very dull and hackneyed form of criticism. I hope Roger Ebert will forgive me for saying this, but readers who only want the thumb verdict on a film are better off relying on sites like IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes or Netflix than flesh-and-blood critics.

Now I'm not saying that critics are useless. I mean, I consider myself a critic, so I sincerely hope we're not useless. What I'm saying is we have to go beyond the subjective act of pronouncing our assessment of a film's worth. We have to enrich our readers' experience of a film somehow. We have to justify ourselves as worthwhile voices apart from the film we're reviewing. Of course we'll always be leeching off another's artistic labor, as Richard Brody argues. But in doing so, we're still capable of creating something that retains value on its own.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Fashioning The Original From A Copy: On 'Certified Copy' and 'Vertigo'

Disclaimer: This post contains so, so many spoilers, and it probably won’t make a shred of sense unless you’ve seen both Certified Copy and Vertigo.

Some films are riddles -- puzzles waiting to be put together, codes waiting to be cracked, jokes waiting for a punch line.

At their core, riddle-films are cinematic questions -- ones that require viewers to come up with answers on their own. Films like Mulholland Drive, Last Year at Marienbad, and even gimmicky blockbusters like Inception may seem indecipherable on first viewing, but they’re not total enigmas. Those willing to do the painstaking, obsessive detective work these films demand will find clues for deciphering the films’ central mysteries. There’s a lot of heavy interpretive lifting involved, but never without some kind of pay-off.

In this sense, Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy is a textbook riddle-film.