Monday, September 30, 2013

Stories We Tell

Screen shot from Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley
A few weeks ago a student told me I needed to watch a film she had just seen called Stories We Tell. For a brief time it was available at our local indy theater - Sundance - and now, because this is the miraculous and odd era we live in - it is already available to stream from Google Play online (not to mention to purchase as DVD). So last night I finally streamed it and got a chance to see it.

She recommended it heartily without saying much about it, which leaves me now in a similar position, having watched it last night. I want to say a lot about it, but also don't want to "give away" what is revealed over time. This is a good non-spoiler summary from Rotten Tomatoes:
In this inspired, genre-twisting new film, Oscar (R)-nominated writer/director Sarah Polley discovers that the truth depends on who's telling it. Polley is both filmmaker and detective as she investigates the secrets kept by a family of storytellers. She playfully interviews and interrogates a cast of characters of varying reliability, eliciting refreshingly candid, yet mostly contradictory, answers to the same questions. As each relates their version of the family mythology, present-day recollections shift into nostalgia-tinged glimpses of their mother, who departed too soon, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Polley unravels the paradoxes to reveal the essence of family: always complicated, warmly messy and fiercely loving. Stories We Tell explores the elusive nature of truth and memory, but at its core is a deeply personal film about how our narratives shape and define us as individuals and families, all interconnecting to paint a profound, funny and poignant picture of the larger human story.
(c) Roadside Attractions

I italicized four phrases that I think I can address without spoiling anything, then I will give a spoiler alert below and discuss the film in more detail for those who have seen it.

genre-twisting: It is true that this film works the line between fact and fiction in a coy way, much like the expression of Polley's mother's face in the photo above. I, of course, can't give away (without the spoiler alert - if you don't care about suspense, then read more below) why or how this manifests without spoiling the film's turns, but I admire the deft craft of how she depicts not just the contradictory "witnesses" stories but also the way memory - including film and photos - stays as images in our heads and tales.

varying reliability: Because the core structure of Polley's tale, which, in a non-annoying meta way actually is clearly shown from the very beginning, is interviews, right away we realize no "one story" can be told about her mother's life and early death. At one point, Polley says "Because I love learning about my mother's life before I was born," and another universal point opens up - even if her mother were still alive, she'd only get one version, if any, of the story from her. Her mother's best friend says, "after the truth comes out", that she promised to never say anything about "the big secret" during her mother's life - and she kept to that. So there is this way, a way I am so curious about myself, in which someone has to be long gone before people will tell some kind of truth about them, and yet, the more time passes, the less reliable people's memories are. What a conundrum.

elusive nature of truth and memory: Along the lines of the previous conundrum, the very adventure/venture of memoir is tricky. Memoir, in case you don't know, comes from the French word for memory. It is as if, in French, one is already acknowledging this is a story based one what we remember, not on what actually happened. There's a huge difference there, one Polley does not try to avoid.

the larger human story: I just taught a Shambhala Art program this last weekend, and in it we watched a lovely video interview, interspersed with poetry performances, with Allen Ginsberg. One of the things he says in an interview is that we cannot ever suppose to speak for other people - groups or individuals. And yet, by telling our own tale with total honesty and clarity, we will speak for other "lonely eccentric beings who make up 99% of the population," as Ginsberg says. I tell my students all the time - this is why we say "write about what you know" - what is universal is specific, and vice versa. The more the stories we tell adhere to this, the better and more profound their effect.

If you have not seen the movie and wish to let it unfold naturally, do not read the following.
This is also a spoiler alert for Ruth Ozeki's film Halving the Bones, which I also discuss.

When the film began, I had no idea how twisted it was going to get.

This line from the summary "(She) discovers that the truth depends on who's telling it," keeps haunting me because I trust Sarah so much to begin with. She is the innocent, the victim, the curious one, the silent one. Then it turns out she takes her own turn with deception, slowly revealed to us.

About a year ago, poking around the internet, I happened upon an "autobiographical film" by Ruth Ozeki. I didn't even know she made films, though she has made three, but Halving the Bones stuck out most to me, and that, too, could simply be streamed as a rental. So I streamed it. I was blown away. Much like Stories We Tell, it not only depicts how complicated family is, but, like Polley did, Ozeki actually stages scenes. She makes them look as if they really occurred, giving us the belief, at first, that we are looking at family movies. Ozeki lays her hand out really directly, saying overtly about a third of the way through the movie that none of the scenes we have seen so far are actually archival film.

Polley is more subtle. For me, I only began to suspect that what I am seeing is, in fact, not archival film when we are in Montreal, at the bar, with the theater group. I started asking myself - wait one second, how do they have all this footage? Family scenes are one thing, but the bar? I mean, I know her dad was attached to the camera from the moment of her parents' honeymoon, but really? It isn't, however, like the good little suspended believer I am, until she actually shows people dressing up and setting up for scenes as "her mother" and other "characters" that I am fully sure of the half fictional/half memoir nature of the film. In film,  the "code words" for this are unknown to me - is "genre-twisting" my cue? I am pretty ignorant about film, and assume that "documentary" means factual.

However, in neither case do I feel duped. I feel astonished, surprised, and yet, I think that in this way these two films are able to do something - something, indeed, genre-bending - that is hard to do ethically in written memoir. People shy away from, consider the code of composite characters to be a weak point in a memoir. And yet, that composite character is an actor, portraying certain happenings, right? Or is it? What would the corollary be in written form? In writing, we use phrases like "creative non-fiction" in hopes that such a classification can forgive poetic license.

In particular, I am still turning around in my mind a book I read weeks ago: The Lifespan of a Fact by John D'Agata and Jim Fingal.  I keep wanting to write about here but I am not sure even what I could say about it, except to excerpt a bunch of the final parts of the conversations at the end. D'Agata is famous for writing very genre-bending creative non-fiction, and the essay under discussion in this book is no exception. He takes great poetic license, both with fact and also with language itself, and Fingal, a trained fact-checker, is very distressed by trying to pin down what D'Agata is doing.

This whole liminal world - facts intermixed with poetry, with fictional depictions that strive to, sometimes, support the storytelling more than the factual occurrences - is a powerful and controversial place. I am very excited to keep exploring it, and happy to be adding films to the list of genres playing in these spaces.

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