Saturday, June 1, 2013

Stories We Tell

STORIES WE TELL      B+               
Canada  (108 mi)  2012  d:  Sarah Polley         Official site

We talk and talk … without conveying what we are really like.        —Michael Polley

The true story lies
among the other stories,
a mess of colors, like jumbled clothing
thrown off or away,
like hearts on marble, like syllables, like
butchers’ discards.

—Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, essayist, literary critic, environmental activist, and poet, excerpt from True Stories, 1981

An extremely personal and heartfelt film, something of an experimental memory play that gazes into one’s own past, where curiously it’s not at all what it seems, despite everything that one’s been led to believe.  Similar to Clint Eastwood’s THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995), the extra-marital love affairs of our parents are rarely, if ever spoken about while they’re alive, often discovered in a series of romantic letters found stuffed into an old trunk that no one’s opened in decades, or found personal diary entries that can be a startling revelation.  Sarah Polley goes on a search to learn more about her mother who died from cancer when she was only eleven years old, where so much of what she knew and remembered about her had been told to her by others, including the possibility that her mother may have had an affair that resulted in her own conception, so she set out to investigate further.  What she discovers about her mother is simply marvelous stuff, as she’s a flailing actress with energy to burn and a wonderful enthusiasm for life, a free-spirited woman who lived and loved openly, always displaying her feelings, seemingly without a secret in the world, most often remembered as the life of the party.  As a mother she adored her children and had a knack for performing multiple tasks simultaneously.  She married a fellow actor, Michael Polley, whose internal clock was the exact opposite, a social recluse who only expressed himself through the characters he played onstage, as otherwise he was reserved, rarely expressing any emotion.  When they had children, he redefined his life around financial responsibility and fatherly obligations instead of the changing vicissitudes of art, to his wife’s lament, as she felt he was giving up on his craft.  This tempered the romantic aspect of their marriage, where they remained respectfully joined together as parents, but something remained missing between them.  This may actually define marriages in the socially conservative era of the 50’s before the onset of divorce became a socially acceptable alternative.  In this sense, her parents were like many others, where they internally drifted apart, but also where her own siblings often teased her about having a different father, as she bore so little resemblance to the one she had.

Stylistically the film blends actual interview footage of Polley with her brothers and sisters, her father, as well as her aunts, but for the character of her mother, which may be the most beautifully crafted aspect of the picture, she resorts to artificially recreated Super 8 footage, using actors playing the part, simulating scenes using a faded, grainy home video look from the era, as if we were seeing actual archival documentation, where her mother, Diane Polley, played by Rebecca Jenkins, is always seen smiling, talking on the phone while cooking dinner, dancing, or singing, continuously expressed with a special warmth and affection, seen here described by her own children, STORIES WE TELL - Clip 1 YouTube (1:28).  At some point, with her husband’s silent approval, her mother traveled from Toronto to Montreal to perform in a play, where a red-haired actor was always thought to be a possible suspect as the director’s father, so tracking him down after all these years felt like the central focus of the movie.  As he fondly recalled the director’s mother, and gave the usual “she was a lovely gal” speech, but somewhat awkwardly insisted he could not be her father, instead referring her to a movie producer that spent more time with her, Harry Gulkin.  Meeting him for lunch, he’s an Einstein looking guy with frazzled hair that looks like he stuck his finger in an electric socket, but soft-spoken and extremely cordial, where they comfortably chat for hours before Polley asks if he knows anyone her mother could possibly have had an affair with in the actor’s ensemble.  Surprisingly he does, suggesting he was waiting for that question, as he thought that was the reason for the interview.  When he shockingly tells Polley that her mother was the love of his life, the director resorts to Silent era melodrama for her reaction, as she goes speechless, where her mouth is moving but no words can be heard, only the soft rumble of the voice of the man sitting across from her at the table, someone she has reason to believe, for the first time in her life, could be her actual father.

The featured speakers playing themselves in the film are her actual family members seen today, while simultaneously simulated footage continues to run of her mother with Harry, seen onstage, having drinks after the performance, frolicking at parties, playing with her own children, swimming in a backyard pool, or singing a slow and melancholy version of “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” the only footage in the film that shows her actual mother, reflecting a kind of shy and child-like quality.  But it’s especially poignant when we learn that this affair in real life cost her mother the two oldest children, one of the first women in Canada to lose custody of her children due to charges of adultery, where newspaper headlines of the era scream about her moral shortcomings, as she was only allowed to visit her lost children once a month, eventually forced to raise the baby Sarah alone.  What is not in dispute are everyone’s recollections of her mother, always warm and affectionate, where as children they were all more drawn to her than to their father, but her early demise changed everything, bringing them all back together again under one roof without a mother, where Polley, a child actress, always felt something vital was missing from her life.  In many ways this film attempts to get underneath the veneer of melancholy that has followed her throughout her own career.  The most telling scenes in the film do reveal a unique personal characteristic about the director, where both her father and Harry reveal an ecstatic rush of enthusiasm when they were initially approached, hoping they could revitalize what amounted to non-existent relationships,  But even now, they rarely get a chance to see her, as she barely shows either one of them any affection, largely maintaining a relationship through e-mails.  While her father Michael’s seemingly endless narration seems to drag on far too long, continually seen in sound studio shots like this one STORIES WE TELL (Clip) YouTube (50 seconds), recalling memories alone in a vacuum where this hermetic-like existence may be where she feels most comfortable, where she seems to defer to Michael’s solitary and aloof nature more than Harry, as he always seems pained and exasperated by an everlasting sense of mounting loss and regret that perhaps best expresses the impact death has on these albeit brief lives together.  Polley gives her mother the last word, making what amounts to a Valentine’s Day card remembrance for a woman she knew all too briefly, and without the help of others, could barely recall at all.  

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