' ' Cinema Romantico: Stories We Tell

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stories We Tell

I confess I saw Sarah Polley's documentary nearly a month ago and that I have written several reviews of it. These reviews, however, have not been revisions expanding upon original drafts. No, each review has taken a life of its own, journeyed in a different direction. I was hesitant to publish this review. That is because "Stories We Tell" not only lingers in your mind, but expands and deepens. Elegantly, it weaves in so many ideas, your own ideas about it may go on and on and on. I get the sense these ideas might, to quote a character in the film, never touch bottom.

It is centered around Polley’s family and its cache of secrets. Slyly, though, it turns into something else without ever betraying its poignancy or, crucially, its honesty, even as it eventually reveals its own sleight of hand. It opens not exactly with talking heads but with us, the audience, seeing the talking heads taking their seats, getting situated, hitting the bathroom, receiving instructions from the filmmaker, boom mics hanging right there on the screen in plain view. This is the polar opposite of current documentary dictum in which it seems so many of their makers are eager to evade or partially slant the truth, sort of dressing up non-fiction as fiction.

Ah, but then that is precisely part of Polley’s point – dressing up non-fiction as fiction. This happens via those home videos, filmed on an old 8MM camera, all of which appear authentic but which, it turns out, are roughly half and half. Half are the real thing, half are recreations. This might seem like a cheat, it might even seem like a critique of the recent documentary re-enactment fad, but I would argue that it is a stellar – and wondrously unspoken – illustration of the way we tend to keep memories that are both real and imagined. You know, we choose, whether purposely or subconsciously, to take a real memory and tailor it. And perhaps these make-believe videos of her mom, Diane, is the way Polley has chosen to remember her mother. That is what the film, in theory, is all about – Sarah Polley’s mother, Diane, and a long held family mystery surrounding her.

Polley’s father, Michael, stress-smoking (understandably) throughout, is tasked to the narrate the film, adding additional layers of immediacy and mild agony. Throughout, as he narrates, the camera often returns to its ostensible handler, Sarah Polley herself, listening from the sound booth, now and then offering him instruction. This might prompt accusations of navel-gazing but, really, Sarah Polley is not the protagonist. Diane Polley is.

It is difficult to discuss “Stories We Tell” in depth without revealing its secrets – the biggest of which is unveiled in a lovely sequence that almost recalls a silent film without intertitles – and I have no intention of revealing any of them here. What I can say is the film turns out to be not so much about the revelation of its secrets as about why they were secrets to begin with – why they were kept and what stories were told to cover them up and what stories were told on account of not knowing these secrets. A critical interviewee admits his hesitation with Polley talking to everyone even remotely associated with this particular familial story. He says that doing so prevents you from ever “touching bottom.” That, however, is the exact effect for which Polley strives.

Even when the film ends and cuts to black, a talking head from before pops right back up and offers yet another revelation. No story touches bottom.


Unknown said...

Really nice review Nick. Glad you decided to publish something.

I'm dying to see this film again.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, sir. Yeah, this film definitely requires multiple re-watches. I can't wait to see how much more it opens up with a second viewing.