Saturday, November 2, 2013

Trying to get time onto our side

No (2012) and Stories We Tell (2013) both play interesting games with time and memory, and use similar means to do so, specifically by employing outdated technology

No, the based-on-fact story of the advertising campaign employed to unseat Pinochet as dictator of Chile in 1988 confused me when I first popped it into the DVD player, because the picture is in the 1:33, Academy ratio, often called "Fool Screen."  I couldn't believe that a distributor of serious foreign film was still issuing full screen additions, and had to check Imdb to confirm that the film was indeed shot in the old television ratio, and for a very specific reason.  No was shot on 3/4" Beta so that its original footage could be seamlessly integrated with historic advertising and news footage.  Some scenes actually show the same real-life figure shot in 2011 side-by-side with 1988 footage running on a nearby monitor.

So No hopes to make the intervening years melt away for the viewer, not by bringing the past up to the present, shining it up and making it contemporary, but sending the present back to a fuzzier, grainier time with bad clothes, bad music and even worse haircuts.  And somehow it works, making the present-day performances and the old videotape blend into one slightly blurry but still quite legible artifact.  Which contains its own irony, in that the whole story is about a manipulation of the truth which was engineered so as to make the truth possible to be spoken aloud.

For somehow, somewhere, someone realized that we are not rational beings.  We do not vote, or purchase things, or live places, or fall in love based on any kind of rational measuring of the risks and rewards, costs and benefits.  We live emotionally, and most especially we vote emotionally.  So the tiny band that wanted to unseat Pinochet, given an absurdly small volume of resources, limited money, personnel and a mere fifteen minutes a night, had to turn the enormous slow-moving ship which is a nation's politics 180 degrees from the direction it was moving.  (Pinochet was seeking a vote of confidence and to give the illusion of fairness the television stations -- all state-controlled of course -- granted fifteen minutes per night for the "Vote Yes" and the "Vote No" contingents.)  The old anti-Pinochet crowd wanted to trot out all the old sufferings and martyrdoms, the torture, the suppression, the shunning by the rest of the world.  But the marketing consultant they bring in (a composite character played by Gael Garcia Bernal) points out that you can't vote against a negative.  There is no such vote.  You have to vote for something.  And Bernal proceeds to market the new Chile like a new soft drink, car, or even charity appeal (one part of the campaign includes a "We Are The World" type anthem, a recording session recreated by the original participants).

To these eyes, we were plunged back into 1988 (especially the corny advertising of the day), the intervening time elided and the filmmakers doing their best to render the film itself transparent so as to let the rather astonishing events show through clear.

Stories We Tell, on the other hand, is reflective to the point of being reflexive, a film about itself, a film seemingly determined to eat its own tail -- or perhaps to be eaten by it.

It's the most familiar old kind of family secret -- I feel as though I've seen two or three films this very year that have turned on this device (although here it is not a device, because it is what really happened in and to this family.)  But the focus is not on the story, but the telling of it, or more precisely, of them, of stories in the plural, which is the whole point.  Everybody has a story, or at least a point of view about the central story and everyone is permitted to chime in, much to the discomfort of some of the participants.

Like the central character of No, Pinochet, the central character of Stories We Tell is dead and cannot speak for herself.  So she must be created out of the collective recollections of her family, friends and extended family and friends, like the elephant described by the blind men, or a whole gang of people describing their own shadows in Plato's cave.  Also like No, the illusion is aided by blending authentic antique Super 8mm footage with newly staged and newly shot Super 8mm with lookalike actors and artificially created settings supplementing the real footage.

However, to be honest, the stories don't really contradict each other, but only inform them.  The only real conflict (this is tricky to do without writing a spoiler) is between Polley and the man who would like to be accepted as part of the family, but is not and cannot be, who asserts that only he knows The Truth, whereas he knows his own truth, which he refuses to share because it will not be accepted as the sole or at least the primary truth.

And finally there is one piece missing.  Polley herself never addresses the ambiguity of her own situation caused by the events she relates in her film.  We see her interacting with her father and with other family members who refuse to be passive participants in the film and can't resist the urge to drag her into the storytelling, whether she wants to be included or not.  And we see her working with her director of photography on the staged sequences, yet never clearly labels or identifies which sequences are real and which are re-created -- in fact she does not even acknowledge the artifice but for editing in these "making of" shots into her film.  Her father points out on camera that she will take all the interviews which in all fairness should run unedited at length and chop them out and put them in counterpoint with each other to create a new narrative, "her" narrative, a constructed thing.

But honestly what is her choice?  To make a film is always to force a liason between reality and artifice and the question is what balance will be struck.  No film will ever live entirely in one camp or another, so why all the embarrassment and reticence about the very medium Polley has chosen to explore these questions?  She needs to take a look at Exit Through The Gift Shop or even Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story to see just how this bargain can be made without equivocation, in fact with the kind of cheeky grin that Stories We Tell could really use.

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