Why is it that we talk and talk, or at least I certainly do, without somehow conveying what we’re really like?
Stories We Tell
(SPOILERS) Sarah Polley has traversed from child star to leading lady to director. For now at least, she seems settled in the latter mode. Given her lifelong immersion in the performing arts, it should come as no surprise that her family background is theatrical. This background informs her third feature, ostensibly a documentary on her mother’s eventful but short life but with the broader remit of addressing the nature of storytelling, memory and perspective. If each person recalls someone or something differently, can any single truth be divined? Or is the past in a state of perpetual, subjective flux?
Stories We Tell revolves around family secrets, mysteries, perceptions and assumptions relating to Polley’s parents. Polley’s mother died in 1990, when Sarah as 11, and her portrait is sketched through recollections, archive footage and reconstructions (the last of these, I will come on to). The first 45 minutes or so of Stories is keenly judged, unhurriedly reeling out the narrative hook of a relationship between two very different people. One (Michael Polley) is private and contained while the other (Diane Polley) is vivacious and sociable. While the details of recall may vary, it is noticeable how the picture of Diane is largely consistent (so undermining, at least partially, one of the tenets of the piece). Central to the story in question is the discovery that the longstanding family joke, in which Sarah is not in fact Michael’s daughter, is true. Polley presents this as an entertaining piece of detective work, in which many of the parties concerned give their tuppence worth before she stages the big reveal. Interweaved are additional insights that could easily branch off into full narratives of their own (Diane’s first marriage, which produced two half siblings of Sarah’s, ended in a divorce that made the front pages of Canadian newspapers).
Polley has the disposition of the pseudo-intellectual who can't quite perceive the way her own creative egocentricity overwhelms her subject matter. One can sense the outspoken and politically agitated Polley of yesteryear in this approach. She carries the assumption of importance and significance that can, at times, border on the precious. When she muses aloud over why she is making this documentary, exposing her family’s life and secrets to a broader audience, the act is one of false modesty. I suspect there are two reasons why she has broadcast this family history. One is of the broadest order, and it’s why her wider family and friends, most of them from and in the artistic world, take part; as a performer, she desires attention and recognition.
But there’s another, stronger motivation that, perversely, manifests itself most clearly after the documentary has lost its initial momentum. During the first half, inconsistencies spring up, but they tend to be mistaken conclusions or emotional blind spots (how aware each was about how ill their mother was, for example), rather than anything to dent the generally united picture we develop of Diane. Later, when Polley probes her subjects about whether the truth of things can ever be reached, it seems like a question hiding the elephant in the room. There doesn’t really seem much left to “solve” in respect of her mother. Her sister suggests that, with multiple perspectives, one can never get to the point of having figured things out, yet the areas left for discussion are emotional minutiae. So it is in biological father Harry’s slightly pathetic attempt to possess the memory of Diane for his own ends that the true core of the film is announced. He pronounces that he is uncomfortable with Polley’s approach of giving everyone equal weight; only two people know the truth, and one of them is no longer around.
Couch this in terms of the involvement of the father who raised her, and the picture becomes clearer. From the beginning, Michael is seen in a recording studio reciting his memoir of Diane, a script that will conclude with Polley telling her father the truth about her mother and Harold. Michael felt impelled to set this all down in writing almost as soon as Sarah told him (the tidiest part of this tale is how the revelations provoke Michael into writing again, an activity Diane had unsuccessfully encouraged him to pursue). Then we learn Polley reacted angrily on being informed Harold intended to publish his own memoir concerning his relationship with Diane. So how better to divest them of this claim than to make a film encompassing both, tearing attention from either as the heart or pulse of the story? Encouraging Michael to dictate his story has the appearance of generosity, but actually allows Polley to control the material. Michael seems relatively aware and magnanimous about such matters, noting how the “truth” ends up in Polley’s hands as she decides what to keep through the process of editing (although he is as capable of scoring points through apparent humility; his comment that he pities Harry, who didn’t get Diane and didn’t see Sarah grow up, is close to sounding like “the poor, sad sap”).
Each of the main protagonists has a proprietorial aspect to the material. And Polley, as the most prominent and “powerful”, wins the battle in an almost passive-aggressive manner. She becomes the child disguising her cries for attention under the robes of intellectual discourse. To an extent then Harold, who comes out worst, is right to be wary of the effect of Polley’s doc, although obviously not for the reasons he states. This is her version of the different versions of her mother. One gets the impression that, if she hadn’t finally called time out there would have been an infinite regression, dissecting the dissection of the meaning of subjective recollection. Ultimately the question is focussed on to the point of over-ripeness, but it is clear that she has divested her fathers of possession of her mother, even appropriating her father’s memoir and gutting it of its strongest elements. It is his reminiscence through her prism; her cajoling and call for retakes.
The question arises, then, of whether Polley has the honesty about or the clarity to meet her philosophical pretext. There’s a continued sense that she isn’t the right person to self-edit, that she over-extends her subject when she should be honing it, and that when she comes to address her themes directly she should actually have tackled them indirectly, so they become plain through the talking heads. Instead, we experience a series of endings so bewildering as to make The Return of the King look inadequate; it becomes plain that she could easily have shaved 20 minutes off the picture. And yet this ultimate lack of distance also makes the film more interesting in retrospect. It becomes as much to do with what it tells us about its director as it does its subject(s) and theme(s).
With regard to the use of actors in the home movie footage (or, at least, about half of it) I have to raise my hand and say I didn’t realise. I questioned the volume and convenience of available footage, as it seemed unlikely that even a family of luvvies would be so prodigious in recording their lives, but I guess I was more involved with the themes than visuals; indeed, the “found” footage is so repetitive that one tunes out after a while. Ironically, the only the material I really questioned was the flimsy restaging of Polley’s reality-adjusting meeting with Harold. Perhaps the amateurishness was intentional, so as to add verisimilitude to the not-really home movie recordings. Retracing my steps, I realised that when the overt reveals occur (Polley on set with her period parents), 90 minutes in, Polley has already over-extended and indulged her subject matter. While there remain elements of interest there visuals no longer hold sway, and the overt dissection takes over. Or maybe I’m just announcing my terrible observation skills. I don’t feel duped by this realisation though (which came with the credits); as a thematic choice it’s a coherent one. At least, it’s coherent with the announced theme.
Stories We Tell is interesting for the way the elements Polley doesn’t address make the picture more layered and interesting, in spite of her attempt to analyse her subject to death,. The real problem here is the absence of a strong-minded producer or hard-hitting editor willing to say, “That’s enough, Sarah”. Prune it a bit, and develop that extra bit of distance so you consciously address your position as the daughter vying for dominance. The final words, given to the man everyone thought might be Sarah’s father (but wasn’t) would be perfect for the film Polley set out to make (“We did sleep together once”, an ironic invitation to reconsider the firm opinions that may have been formed), but by that point it has become something else.