Oscar nominations for the yearly industry wankfest known as Academy Awards were announced on Feb. 2. As expected, James Cameron’s Avatar and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker did well: Each yielded nine nominations, including nods for Best Picture and Best Director. (Curious side-note: Bigelow and Cameron were once married; for the record, she made the better film.)
As we head into the post-awards, pre-summer period known as The Dead Zone (see Legion, The Spy Next Door, The Tooth Fairy, as well as a dumpster-load of upcoming titles), the 2010 Jewish & Israeli Film Festival should be an oasis for filmgoers seeking fare that strays from Hollywood formula. And while the festival obviously centers on films that fall in line with its namesake, viewers of any faith or nationality are likely to appreciate and enjoy its humanist-leaning, character-driven offerings.
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday when the topic of my favorite movies of 2008 came up. She had read my Top 10 list in this week’s CityBeat and complained about the fact that I presented them in alphabetical order instead of ranking them from 1 to 10.
I tried to explain my reasons for doing so — something pretentious about how ranking art devalues it and the fact that the order could change based on my mood on any given day — but she wasn’t hearing it.
The New York Times published a story Aug. 21 that attempted to dissect why so many established movie stars have failed generate their once-golden numbers at the box office this summer.
Among those mentioned were Denzel Washington (The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3), Eddie Murphy (Imagine That), Will Ferrell (Land of the Lost) and Tom Hanks (Angels and Demons).
There is a story embedded in this review. Maybe, in fact, this isn’t a film review at all, just a story, several stories, like little assignations – drawing a reference there to a Joyce Carol Oates collection of short stories that triggered in me a desire, for the first time in my adult life right after college, to pick up the proverbial pen and write. The Assignation assembled pieces that were brief, sometime no more than a paragraph long, but even the shortest of the shorts told so much, too much about their subjects.
And that is what Sarah Polley, the Canadian actress and now writer-director, whose documentary Stories We Tell is ostensibly the focus or subject here, has done; she has spun the most amazing and haunting of stories about (and with the assistance of) her family and a secret that had remained unspoken for so long among them. It seems Polley’s mother Diane, an actress and later a casting director in Toronto, married Michael Polley, an actor and writer, had three children – Sarah being the third – but this bright and passionate woman found herself seeking a love that matched her own. Failing to do so within her marriage, she stumbled headlong into an affair, while working on a play in Montreal, which produced Sarah.
Diane and Michael resumed marriage life after the end of the show and raised Sarah together until Diane’s early death in the late 1980s. Sarah was approximately 11 years old and left to grow up in the loving comfort of Michael Polley, but thanks to a series of family jokes about her parentage, Sarah, began a quest to discover the truth about her father. Stories We Tell, built on the framework of frank interviews with her siblings and Michael, along with extended family, friends, and fellow artists from those early days, captures her telling of this story of the surprising revelation and its impact on everyone involved.
What is the story, her story, but a collection of memories, fragmented perspectives on the truth? It is a thing of intriguing beauty to watch unfold, raw and honest, but always, in every moment, calling into question, the notion, the very idea of truth. What is the truth?
No one lies; they tell what they can, from their point of view, but the truth, as we find out, is not something that one person can know, not without being privy to all other points of view. And when we tell our own stories, we are never as truthful as we might hope or desire.
But what Sarah has done is wrestle with the impossible. Her aim was to corral as many angles as possible, to tell the truth – the whole truth and nothing but. Although for all her effort, Stories We Tell falls short, in two ways.
We discover, along with Sarah, who her biological father is beyond a shadow of a doubt (thanks to DNA testing), and she works in not only his perspective but also that of his daughter from another relationship – another half-sister for Sarah who already has half siblings (a brother and sister) from Diane’s marriage prior to her union with Michael as well as another half-brother & sister set from Michael. It is all rather confusing to document here, but the film grants each one of them their own time to speak and breath as more than mere characters before us.
But we never hear from Diane. She is the hole at the center of things, the voiceless presence that looms large, so large that the film nearly tricks us into believing that we have heard from her. We want to and our desire is so strong that we, along with Sarah maybe, convince ourselves that we have her from her. There are so many images – photos and video – of Diane that dance before us and tease us with thousands of unspoken words.
And in the same way, it could be argued that we never get Sarah’s real story either. Her meticulous focus on gathering so much from so many allows her to disappear. I don’t believe that was her intention, but still, it is the result.
How do we tell our own stories?
I have returned, again and again, to a quote from Roger Ebert’s memoir Life, Itself, which I picked up about six months ago and read before his death. Speaking of advice he received once he took on the assignment of covering film, by way of Esquire critic Dwight McDonald and Pauline Kael: “I go into the movie, I watch it, and I ask myself what happened to me.”
What happened to me, while watching Stories We Tell?
I found it difficult to separate from the story, which for me, was a focus on fathers and fatherhood. Like Sarah Polley, I grew up without knowing my biological father. That’s not quite true. Unlike Sarah, I knew who he was, but he wasn’t involved in my life and there were periods when I considered seeking him out. There have always been people close to me who knew where he was and would have assisted me in the search, but I always found reasons to back away from the quest.
At one point, I hatched a plan. I started a novel about the experience of finding him. My fictional telling was rooted in the idea of creating him from the snippets of anecdotes and traits I had been told over the years. Once the book was completed, I would track him down and compare notes, see how close I had come to realizing him on the page. I got about 13 chapters and pages and pages of notes into the project, but set it aside. That was almost 20 years ago and for the life of me, I’m not sure what put me off that time.
Two years ago, I finally accomplished the mission, driving down to North Carolina for a meeting, which lasted all of 30 minutes. He told his story, as best he could, in a breathless rush that led me to believe that he realized this would be our only meeting face-to-face. I sat and listened. I stared into his face. And now, as I sit here relaying the story, there’s not much to tell. I don’t remember much of what he looked like. I can’t say that I found myself in any of his features. I do remember him saying that God brought me to him. He said it several times, but the truth, my truth at least, is that God had nothing to do with it. I came, I saw, and I returned to the only story that mattered.
This story was originally published on tt stern-enzi's blog, here.
What's up with the rush of interesting documentaries in recent weeks? On second thought, make the years.
Many have called this the golden age of documentaries ever since Errol Morris and, to a larger extent, Michael Moore broke through and had relatively robust box-office and critical success in the late 1980s, cresting with the unprecedented frenzy that surrounded Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and continuing with Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, March of the Penguins and a flood of other unique contributions to the genre.
More recently, the last few weeks alone have given us such diverse docs as Catfish, Restrepo, I'm Still Here, Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman and even Jackass 3D, all of which are presented via different perspectives and techniques that challenge what a documentary is and should do.
After several days of technological dissonance, I've finally gained access to our blog. The logistical reasons for said dissonance are far too tedious to recount here, so I'll get right to it: I've seen 10 films over the last 60 hours, some good, some OK and none less than interesting.
The Harry Potter movie series comes to a close this week with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which, if I'm not mistaken, represents the eighth movie adaptation of J.K. Rowling's wildly successful book series.
I confess: I've never watched a Harry Potter movie. I've caught a few minutes here and there on HBO or at a friend's or family member's house, but for some reason I've never been compelled enough to sit down and take in the entirety of even one of the series' movies.
As is the case every year, the big studios use the first quarter as a dumping ground for its duds, movies that for one reason or another they think are unlikely to generate much interest in an audience whose expectations are already diminished. Still, this year's list of dumpster dwellers seems even more robust than usual. On the other end of the spectrum, I can think of only two studio films to this point that have transcended the mediocre: Paul Feig's Bridesmaids and Duncan Jones' Source Code, both of which tweak genre conventions in slightly unexpected ways.
Why can't Sam Rockwell find a movie that fully takes advantage of his singular talents?
Long one of our most expressive, instinctual and interesting actors, the 42-year-old Rockwell has added spice as a supporting player in a string of high-profile studios movies (Iron Man 2, Everybody's Fine, Frost/Nixon, Matchstick Men, Charlie's Angels and The Green Mile, among others) and has been compelling as a central figure in a handful of smaller films (Choke, Joshua, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Lawn Dogs and Box of Moon Light).