Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Performance, Perspective, Emotion: Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell

It’s a truism that when actors make a career shift into directing, the strength of the movies they make is usually in the performance factor. The most recent example is Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet from last Christmas, a silly, sentimental comedy about retirees at a home for aging musicians that manages to stay afloat through a combination of the actors in front of the camera and the musicians on the soundtrack. Sarah Polley is a beguiling case, though. The movies she’s directed, Away from Her and especially Take This Waltz, find not only their shape but also their meaning in the performing rhythms of their female stars, Julie Christie and Michelle Williams respectively. In Away from Her, the more conventional of the two pictures (though hardly conventional by comparison to anyone else’s movies), about a woman’s entering an Alzheimer’s facility and her husband’s learning to accept it, Polley, a gifted actor herself, seems at first to be surrendering the movie to Christie – a choice that only makes sense for a debut filmmaker working with one of the greatest instinctual camera performers in the history of the medium. But it’s not as simple as that. The way Polley gets at the character’s altered approach to ordering the world around her while retaining the essential mystery of what she’s going through – since the prevailing consciousness of the movie is really that of the husband (beautifully played by Gordon Pinsent), not the wife – shows the already considerable skill and dominant presence of a talented director. (The balance Polley achieves with the two principal characters recalls Richard Eyre’s work with Judi Dench as the Alzheimer’s-afflicted writer Iris Murdoch and Jim Broadbent as her husband in the unjustly ignored Iris.)

You can really see what makes Polley unique as a director in Take This Waltz, which has a less firmly formed narrative. (Away from Her takes off from a fine short story by Alice Munro.) The movie is about how a young woman, whose fragile sense of herself has led her into a marriage with a man (Seth Rogen) who is more a playmate than a partner, finds her way out when she makes an emotional connection with another man (Luke Kirby). The movement of the film is similar to that of Williams’s previous picture, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (though the movies have completely different structures), but that picture is equally divided between the perspectives of the husband (Ryan Gosling) and wife whose marriage is imploding, whereas Polley anchors Take This Waltz to Williams’s character’s point of view, and Williams is in every scene. She’s possibly the best American actress of her generation; you can make a movie work just by hitching it to her. That’s why the flaws in the screenplay for My Week with Marilyn, in which she plays Marilyn Monroe, don’t matter very much. But Polley doesn’t just stand back and watch her star act; she thinks through the movie in terms of Williams’s working process, her genius for centering an entire performance on a series of delicate mood shifts. There are entire sequences (like the opening) that are pivoted on the movement in her character from one feeling to another or the overlap of moods. If you don’t catch on, you may make the mistake of thinking there’s nothing going on in them, but Williams is such a commandingly intuitive actor that with her the subtlest shift can be like the roiling of a ship in a storm.

Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz

Performance finds its way even into Polley’s documentary Stories We Tell (released in Canada in 2012 and in the U.S. early this summer), which is about what happened in Polley’s own life, and the lives of her family, when she accidentally discovered that the Montreal Jewish producer Harry Gulkin, and not the English-born WASP actor-turned-insurance-salesman Michael Polley, was her actual father. In this strange and compelling film, Polley interviews everyone who knew her mother, the actress and casting director Diane Polley who died of cancer when Polley was eleven. In the case of the principal players (Michael, Harry and Sarah’s two brothers and two sisters), the interviews are extensive. Since she encourages them to tell their entire versions of the events as if they were talking to someone who’s unfamiliar with them, the interviewees are often in the odd position of reporting to Sarah their conversations with her while she refrains from adding her perspective or prompting them in any way. The interviews are intercut with scenes from Diane’s life that are shot to look like snippets from home movies but are in fact dramatized, with actors playing the roles of Diane and the younger versions of the people in her life. (Rebecca Jenkins, a well-known Canadian actress, plays Diane, so Canadian audiences viewing the movie wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they’re watching found footage of the real person.) Documentarians like Errol Morris like to use dramatized scenes, though generally I find them a manipulative cheat, but here, given the director’s relationship to the subject, they’re not problematic, though they are unsettling. They’re not surprising, though; how could a director like Polley, who always thinks in terms of performance, not fall back on drama to suggest the missing parts of her narrative? It’s as if she’s improvising with her mother’s ghost and the ghosts of Michael’s and Harry’s younger selves. Furthermore, she recreates the scenes between her and Harry (when they first meet in Montreal and he identifies himself as her birth father) and her and Michael (when she tells him what she’s learned from Harry), without dialogue, with the three of them playing themselves. (The ersatz home-movie scenes with Diane are also silent, though the real Diane speaks in one fragment, where she talk-sings – I assume for some TV show – “Ain’t Misbehavin’ with revised, Brechtian lyrics.)

The most experimental element of the picture is Michael’s rendering his testimony through not only a series of interviews but also his own written version of the story of his marriage to Diane. As a young man Michael was a writer as well as an actor and musician; he and Diane met after she saw him in the North American premiere of Pinter’s The Caretaker in Toronto and they performed together in Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona and Eduardo di Filippo’s Filumena; and part of her frustration with him during their marriage, we learn, was that he sank into the role of reliable breadwinner for their large family – including her two older children, John and Susy, from her first marriage – and abandoned the talents that made her fall in love with him in the first place. When Sarah uncovers the truth about her parentage, Michael opts to write down his reaction in the form of a memoir of the marriage, and Sarah shoots him as he records it in a studio, interrupting him from the control booth every now and then to ask him to repeat a sentence, presumably to make it clearer or underscore its significance. She keeps her own emotional responses to herself, and his reading is as objective as if he were reading an audiobook. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about these scenes. They feel affected, and the emotional distancing is puzzling. On the other hand, Michael’s choice to tell his story in this weird way emulates his striking emotional self-control even when he’s just talking to his daughter on camera – except when she gets him to talk about the day Diane died and his last words to her, when the potency of those memories overwhelms him. It appears that Polley means us to see his loss of control in that interview in contrast to his unemotional reading of his own text. After he comes close to dissolving into tears, Sarah says to him, “You told me I had to break you down more,” like a director who’s finally succeeded in pulling a great scene out of an actor who knew he needed her help to get there. But then he replies, “Well, you’ve done that, haven’t you? There was no acting in any of that.” Michael’s use of the word acting is ambiguous. He talks like a performer who’s distinguishing between acting (stirring up genuine emotion, keeping it real) and “acting” (faking it, playacting). But he’s also indicating the difference between his performance of his narrative in the recording studio, where he keeps himself – his own feelings about what he’s reading – out of the scene, and his revealing for Polley’s camera just how devastating Diane’s death was and still is a quarter of a century later.
Footage of the real Diane Polley in Stories We Tell
And what about Polley’s feelings? Stories We Tell is very moving, and it contains other moments when her interviewees break down – when her brother Mark, for example, imagines what it must have felt like when Diane, who lost custody of John and Susy (in a judgment that made front-page news) when she left her first husband for another man, discovered that they had been physically abused by a housekeeper and a stepmother and she hadn’t been able to protect them. At the end of the movie Polley intercuts portrait shots of most of her subjects evidently contemplating the loss of Diane, and they’re extraordinary. (This montage follows Michael’s remembrance of her death.) Yet Polley’s own emotions, however much we can imagine them, are pointedly absent from the movie, and at one point Michael floats the idea that she’s making the movie to avoid dealing with them. If so, the irony that she’s made the story of her mother’s love affair with Harry Gulkin and her own identity public and yet structured that revelation as a magnificent evasion is overwhelming. And there’s a lot of evidence for Michael’s theory, including the fact that though her sister Joanna talks at length about the fact that after the truth came out about Diane and Harry, all three sisters got divorced, Sarah’s divorce – or, for that matter, her marriage – never comes up again; certainly she herself doesn’t allude to it.

Polley begins the movie with a quote from Margaret Atwood about the way events only become stories in the aftermath, when we order them into a narrative; she calls it Stories We Tell because she’s interested in the contradiction or juxtaposition of stories that constitute the lives of the people we love. When she learns the truth about her birth, her mother’s life – as well as her own – acquires another layer, another story that, in this case, makes sense. (Everyone in the family, including Michael himself, recognizes the deep problems in his marriage with Diane.) You can see how Diane’s other children work to assimilate this new story – through tears, Joanna expresses her happiness at learning that her mother founds someone to love her as deeply as she deserved to be loved – while Harry’s daughter Cathy quickly claims her as a sister, delighted to recognize physical and personality parallels between them. It’s easier for Cathy, of course, than for Mark, who feels he’s lost something – he’s disappointed in his mother’s behavior – or even for Joanna, whose generosity toward her mother here is paired with sadness. The one who holds most stubbornly to his own story is Harry, who becomes angry at Sarah when she decides to make a movie with his and Diane’s romance at the center because, in his view, that tale belongs only to them (and, since Diane is dead, now only to him).

Michael Polley in Stories We Tell

In the final analysis, though, I don’t think the movie is primarily about the co-existence of many stories, even though Polley cleverly saves one revelation for the very last scene. Mostly it’s a tribute to Diane, a vivacious, talented, life-embracing woman who was adored by everyone, including all five of her children – and whose loss has been in some way irreparable for apparently everyone close to her. That adoration and that loss provide the emotional core of the movie, whether Harry is talking about the all-inclusive quality of their romance or Michael is talking about what it was like to say goodbye to her. Of course you see Polley’s point, that these two men present significantly different stories about her, but whether memorialized by these men or her children or her friends, or impersonated by Rebecca Jenkins, she towers over the movie. Stories We Tell is, more than anything else, Polley’s attempt to capture on film the mother who vanished tragically from her life when she was a little girl. And perhaps that’s why she doesn’t put her feelings directly into the movie: those feelings motivated it in the first place.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


1 comment:

  1. What a gem. This documentary touched me to the core. Sarah is brilliant!