Friday, May 3, 2013

It's a Family Affair: Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell

At the beginning of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig's film Frances Ha, Frances is in bed with her roommate and first love, Sophie.  Frances says, "Tell me the story of us."  Sophie replies, "Again?"

Anyone who's had or lived with  children knows how much they need to have family stories told again and again.  Stories are our way of affirming our roots, our connections, and in doing so, they soothe and comfort us.  Stories are how we make sense of ourselves in the world and among other people.  Stories are rituals, and rituals make us feel safe.  Psychology 101.

But then there are some stories we tell because we are compelled to, not out of joy, but perhaps out of pain and wonder.  This is the stuff of Sarah Polley's genre-bending documentary, Stories We Tell.  Genre-bending because it's not strictly a documentary.  40-50% of the footage is real, Polley reported in a post-screening Q & A at LACMA on May 2.  Some is shot in the present, some is vintage Super-8, and some is faux Super-8 reconstructions.  The documentary includes her siblings' stories as well as a memoir written by her father.  And the stories of other players in her mother's life.

The film is essentially about Polley's search to find out the truth of her paternity, and it is also an hommage to the lively spirit of her mother, who died of cancer when Polley was about 11 years old.  Polley asserts that the film was not undertaken as a form of therapy, although clearly it was a painful and a therapeutic journey--she described the process as not only unenjoyable, but "tortured."  In fact, the process was so intense that Polley had to leave it for a while, and went on to make Take This Waltz (click here for my post on that movie).  I can't help but remember a scene from that now, in which the Michelle Williams character meets the Luke Kirby character for a drink and asks him to tell her [the story of] what he would do to her--perhaps one of the sexiest narratives ever on film.) 

Stories We Tell works on a personal as well as a universal level, because Polley is, above all, a storyteller herself, and a smart one at that.  Her film asserts that all of the characters' perspectives are "subjective and legitimate," to use Polley's words.  "It's amazing," she said, "what you find out if you manage to be quiet."  She was referring to her need to bite her tongue when siblings were telling their versions of events on camera, when her natural inclination would have been to interrupt and correct with her version.  (What a perfect description of family or couples therapy!  Inviting family members to listen, reflect.)


Polley's dad's memoir comes out of the paternity revelation, and ironically makes him the writer that his deceased wife had always wanted him to be.  Polley confronts the "chaotic, bewildering mess that we try to make sense of" by, ironically, constructing a film that is a refracted melange of past, present, real, and imagined.  Structurally, the film is a wondrous mess--an editorial tour de force (kudos to editor Mike Munn).  And Polley has managed to tell her own story while making a movie about the act of remembering and storytelling.  (Interesting, isn't it, that Polley's first film, Away from Her, was about a woman who had lost her memory to Alzheimer's?) "The story itself was changing because of our telling," Polley told the audience.  And so were the storytellers, I would argue.

The process was also interesting because, as the filmmaker, Polley took a stance largely outside of the family players, echoing her childhood role as the youngest (unplanned and almost aborted) and the outsider--her family members had always openly joked about how she didn't resemble any of them.  This is most poignant when Polley is sitting alone at a recording engineer's control panel in a studio where her father is reading his memoir on the other side of the glass.  She occasionally stops him, asking him to repeat a line here and there (her father, like her mother, was an actor--or at least an aspiring one).  It's not clear if she wants a better reading or wants to hear the line again in order to savor it or to process it--likely all of those things.  Polley has herself filmed listening to him; she's shaking her leg anxiously.  And yet even though Polley distances herself from her clan by directing them, the film ultimately reveals how the experience has brought everyone closer.  How much affection there has always been among them.  And how much of that was due to the glue of shared love, admiration, and grieving for her mother, who was 



neither quiet nor apparently reflective, or who more likely managed to camouflage that side of herself along with her disappointments and her own grief (her first husband had gotten custody of their children after they divorced) with a manic energy, big personality, and joie de vivre.



As Sly sang, "Blood's thicker than mud."  And stories are muddy, yet always, in their messy refracted ways, true.   Because the truth is always, well, relative....

Be sure to stay for the hilarious coda!


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