Stories We Tell


Veracity may fade with time but love never does.

Veracity may fade with time but love never does.

(2013) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Diane Polley, John Buchan, Harry Gulkin, Mark Polley, Geoffrey Bowes, Joanna Polley, Susy Buchan, Cathy Gulkin, Anne Tait, Claire Walker, Marie Murphy, Mort Ransen, Pixie Bigelow, Robert Macmillan, Tom Butler, Deirdre Bowen, Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz, Mairtin O’Carrigan. Directed by Sarah Polley   

 

There is a maxim in law enforcement that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable. That is because human memory is generally unreliable; it is shaded too much by our perceptions of things and people. A liberal for example will have a different point of view of President Barack Obama than a conservative would and not just politically – the man as a person as well.

This also goes for our personal memories. Oscar-nominated director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, a movie that you definitely should check out) turns the cameras on her own family. Her mother Diane passed away when Sarah was only 11 but remained a huge presence in her life. Her family members and family friends describe Diane as a “Good time Charley,” someone who loves to dance and be around people, whose heavy walk would cause records to skip.

Her four children – Sarah and Mark, along with John and Susy who were Diane’s children from a first marriage – clearly adored her but the more that everyone talks about Diane the more clear it becomes that nobody truly knew her well.

We get bits and pieces of the story – her marriage to Michael, a stage actor in Toronto who shared a stage with her and eventually a life – and how truly mis-matched they were as a couple, with Michael preferring solitude and self-reflection, her first marriage to an abusive husband who eventually divorced her and the consequences of her actions. How both Diane and Michael gave up acting to raise a family, although Diane later returned to it.

On paper, this sounds fairly boring and self-indulgent. Trust me, it is far from that. Like most people, Diane harbored secrets (although at least one of her friends stated with absolute certainty that she was so open that she kept no secrets) and some of them are shockers. A Google search will reveal some of them but I urge you not to if you intend to see the movie – the film is far more effective that way.

The movie isn’t so much about Sarah but about the persistence of memory. It is about her family yes but inasmuch as her family are characters in the story. The story may change from teller to teller but it is essentially all part of a larger truth. One of the interviewees (Polley calls them “interrogations” which I suppose is accurate) is loathe to have others tell this story, because he feels that only the two main characters who were involved in it really can get at the truth (he refers to it as hitting bottom) but that’s not quite true – things have a way of creating a ripple effect and affecting more than just the people immediately involved.

Her father Michael does the narration, much of it from a recording studio and from his own memoirs. That is fitting enough and he makes a charming narrator. The love Sarah has for her dad is clear and unequivocal. However, it should be pointed out that her second love is filmmaking and the movie is about that too – we see her setting up shots, taking part in interviews, a kind of in-movie “Making of” feature that we usually have to wait for the home video edition to come out in order to see. While family home movies and photos add to the film, Polley also re-creates some home movies on Super 8 with actors playing her family members in the 60s and 70s which are integrated seamlessly into the movie.

Early on in the film one of Sarah’s siblings asks “Why would anyone be interested in our family?” and the question hangs over much of the first part of the movie, particularly during the slow moving first reel when Diane is being reminisced about. I think Sarah’s aim was to provide as complete a background of who Diane was in order to provide some context for the rest of the film, but it does go on a bit longer than I thought it should.

By the end of the movie however the question becomes more or less moot. All of us can look at our family and find a story there – maybe one not quite like this one, but one nevertheless as interesting and vital to ourselves as the Polley story is to their family. It would be quite an interesting exercise to do something similar in your own family – take a story well known to all and quiz different members of the family on what happened. The results might surprise you and change your own outlook on things that happened to you – and grant you a new understanding of who you are and where you came from.

REASONS TO GO: Appeals to head as well as heart. Illustrates how events and outlook change with the witness.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a hair too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes here are pretty adult; there is some sexuality and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100; thus far one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rashomon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: A Dangerous Method

Rashomon


Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

Toshiro Mifune gets the point.

(1950) Drama (RKO) Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Kato. Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the grand masters of cinema and the greatest director to come out of Japan ever, possibly from all of Asia as well. Rashomon is one of his masterpieces, a movie that is as relevant today as it was the day it was made.

It is based on two short stories; one, the titular Rashomon is used as a framing device; a priest (Chiaki) and a woodcutter (Shimura) are taking shelter in the half-ruined Rashomon Gate during a deluge of a rainstorm. A commoner (Ueda) joins them. The first two are feeling a little depressed and mystified after witnessing a trial earlier that day. The commoner asks them to explain what is bothering them.

The second short story, In the Grove (both were written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa by the way) depicts a nobleman (Mori) and his wife (Kyo) set upon by the notorious bandit Tajomaru (Mifune) who lures the nobleman into a trap with the promise of swords he’d discovered, surprising him and tying him up. He then lures the wife to the same grove by telling her that her husband has fallen ill. Once he has her there, he rapes her in front of her husband.

That’s when things get interesting. All we know is that the husband gets murdered but during the course of the trial, the story changes significantly depending on whose telling it. The bandit, who proudly proclaims that he did the nefarious deed, has a reputation as a fearsome killer to uphold. The wife, shamed by her actions but even more so by her husband’s reaction to her dishonor, claims she did it. The husband, speaking through a medium (Honma) has his own version which makes him look truly victimized. And there is a surprise witness at the end who has a completely different story, albeit one possibly tainted by their own self-interest.

This is a story about the human condition and asks the basic question asked by philosophers and theologians from the beginning of time – is man basically good or intrinsically evil? Kurosawa uses an ingenious method of storytelling in order to explore the question and refuses to spoon-feed the audience a definitive answer. You are left to decode the truth for yourself.

The acting is over-the-top in places and is definitely more in the Eastern tradition. Mifune stands out as the arrogant bandit who becomes inflamed by desire for the beautiful young noblewoman. Mifune, one of the most respected actors to ever come out of Japan, was better known for his samurai persona in films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai as well as the American television mini-series Shogun but most experts agree that this is one of his most compelling performances. Mifune modeled the body language and movements of Tajomaru on that of lions, footage of which he studied intently before taking on the part.

The cinematography is breathtaking. Kazuo Miyagawa, the cinematographer for the film, developed with Kurosawa several lighting techniques that made the forest look incredible with diffused lighting through the trees as well as the pouring rain which was made more visible by adding black ink to the water in the rain machine.

Kurosawa also used different styles of filmmaking for the three distinct portions of the film. For the framing narrative at Rashomon Gate, it’s fairly standard straight-on camera angles. For the trial sequences, the camera is set low, looking up at the actors. For the grove sequences, the camera is often high, looking down on the action and turning the audience into observers.

This is one of my mother’s favorites and one of mine as well. It is a movie that bears up under repeated viewings – it is so rich in detail and so amazingly layered and full of depth that you are constantly discovering new things each time you see it. Rashomon has appeared on a number of best lists, including 22nd on Empire magazine’s top 100 films of World Cinema of all time and has influenced directors from Woody Allen to Christopher Nolan to Alfred Hitchcock. Simply put, it is an amazing achievement that everybody who considers themselves a film buff or even a casual film junkie should see at least once, if not more often.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the great classics of cinema. Is the kind of movie you’ll be thinking about for days after seeing it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You don’t like foreign movies or you don’t like movies period.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes may be a little bit more than the youngsters can handle. There is also a depiction of a rape and a murder.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is often cited as the reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. The category didn’t exist when Rashomon was released so the film was given an honorary award instead.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The recently released Criterion Collection includes interviews with director Robert Altman on the influence of Kurosawa on his own films as well as with surviving members of the cast and crew talking about the film and it’s impact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Outrage (1964)

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Looking for Palladin