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Stories We Tell

Ours is an age of unreality cloaked in apparent realism.  Television, of course, is saturated with reality shows, demonstrating, if nothing else, our estrangement from language and meaning.  Your housewives of Jersey, your small town security guards, even people who operate storage facilities.  I don't believe there have been any shows centered on the lives coma patients.  Yet.


News broadcasts, both national and local, increasingly melding with those of entertainment, like some incestuous marriage destined to produce deranged kids, will sometimes let observers look in from a street-side window.  Or the broadcast itself will take us behind the scenes, perhaps bring its anchor out from behind the barrier  - its fourth wall if you will  - of the desk, or let a camera break free of it usual straight-on perspective and sweep around the studio (the narcissists at ESPN really enjoy this).  Television commercials will revel in their outtakes - some stiff who owns the car dealership or furniture concern flubbing his lines and then lost in a paroxysm of laughter.  Oh, what priceless spontaneity. 


All communication - from the Pavlovian corporate down to the billion points of personality publicity light which is social media - would seem to be flowing toward advertising.  Or trending, perhaps one should say, to be more timely.  The history of that dubious medium is a pendulum swing between the hard and soft sell.   In this latest, most insidious period of the soft sell parading as hard truth...do, by all means, pay attention to that man behind the curtain pulling the levers, because he's probably trying to sell you something.

All of which is to say beware the television show or film that would seem to take you behind its scenes.  Pulling the levers behind her first documentary film is Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley.  She gives us her own reality show with Stories We Tell.  The overall story itself is a whopper, as her father - at least the father who raised her  - Michael acknowledges, in one of several instances of surprising perspective on events that very much involve him and his family.  Beyond its absorbing story, the most impressive aspect of Ms. Polley's documentary is the skill and meaninfulness with which she both perpetrates and reveals her own artifice amid the questing after a truth.

The story involves Sarah Polley and her mother Diane, who died just two days after the daughter's eleventh birthday in 1990.  Stories We Tell is, at least in part, the many stories, the many perspectives on Diane Polley revealed by her husband, children, friends and loved ones.  All are in agreement on what a vital, room illuminating presence was the wife, mother and sometime actress.  How much the the bright lights of personality concealed an inner sadness is but one of many points of diversion among the storytellers.


As part of the mystery that was Diane Polley is the paternity her youngest daughter, Sarah.  This might well sound like the PBS version of a Springer episode; the gossipy common rendered highbrow.  But Stories We Tell distinguishes itself not only by the thoughfullness of all involved, but how expansively the travails of Diane Polley played out over several families and even in Canada's national media.

We find out that Diane had been married before she met and fell in love with fellow actor Michael Polley.  As a few, including Mr. Polley, intimate, his wife may have fallen in love with one of the exciting characters he was playing on stage, ultimately leaving the passionate Diane married to a solitary man who was hardly the dashing figure for which she might well have longed.  Or as put with surprising bluntness by Michael Polley, "A night with a dead wombat might be more fun than a night with me."

Little wonder then that the live wire Diane Polley would look for some passion and validation elsewhere.  But when she had strayed from her first unhappy marriage the price was the custody of her two children, apparently the first woman  in Canada to suffer that sentence.  Little wonder as well that Diane would keep any affairs from her second marriage secret, particularly if the last of her five children might have been the product of such a liaison.

Sarah Polley gathers all five of her mother's children, a few of the men in her life and others who have a take on  her mother and the events under consideration.  We see the various siblings nervously settling themselves before their interviews, wondering how they look or if they have already begun to sweat.  As with any such medley of documentary talking heads, there's a good bit to be gained or lost by how compelling a group is put together.  Stories We Tell certainly benefits from how attractive, articulate and seemingly forthright are the people in front of the camera, particularly Diane Polley's children.  One of the film's most powerful sequences is a late series of silent takes of many of the film's participants, as they would seem to be reflecting on the sadness of Diane Polley's life - her loneliness, longing and premature death.  All of this involving stuff, the tears, the appeal of given storytellers, is perhaps the one significant portion of structure that Sarah Polley doesn't deconstruct, doesn't challenge.  That is left to the viewer.  As with that powerful silent montage, whether we're seeing what we think we're seeing or something edited and shaped for maximum effect, it comes to how much you trust the filmmaker.











As Stories We Tell is in it's early stages, we also see an older gentleman who turns out to be Michael Polley led huffing slightly upstairs in a building and into a recording studio.  The former actor and father to Sarah Polley is called upon to narrate a version of the story at hand and occasionally even asked by his director daughter to repeat lines.  This would seem, as with several the film's meta moments, the documenting of the documentary, to verge on the precious, to swell toward a kind of self regard.  And in the case of Michael Polley,  narrating a story that features episodes either painful to him or in which he is hardly seen in a flattering light, maybe a bit cruel.

But such is the patience and grace with which Sarah Polley structures her film, that several of the contrivances are revealed to be either questions in themselves  - aside from those posed to people in front of the camera - or a  very meaningful, even loving avenue that she allows her film to take, down which she allows it to conclude.


The early shots of film within film, whether of Sarah Polley at the mixing board in the recording studio responding to her father's line readings, or the apparent revelation of the film's process, can easily give the impression of disingenuousness, preciousness, a filmmaker's self-regard indeed getting the better of her.  This seems particularly the case with sequences documenting the filmmaking that are shot on or at least imitate the graininess of Super 8 film.  This a parallel to the excerpts of Polley home movies that show the  mother always ready to mug for the camera,  or Michael and Diane as a young and seemingly happy couple.


But are those Super 8 films authentic? Is it Diane and Michael Polley we're seeing in those home movies, or just actors standing in for Sarah Polley's mother and father? Stories We Tell is at once a series of narratives all trying to get at a central truth and a series of feints which makes us question not only its own process, but memory and personality reality as filtered through the stories we tell ourselves.



The big mystery in Stories We Tell has its big answer.  But what follows is hardly anti-climax.  The possibility of Sarah Polley being another man's (not Michael Polley's) child was apparently a family joke as she grew up.  About the time Sarah would have been conceived, her mother was in Montreal, acting in the play Oh Toronto.  Many among the children and friends of Diane Polley believed that she had an affair with her handsome co-star, Geoff Bowes and wonder aloud as to whether he might be Sarah's biological father.  Bowes initially expresses surprise at the suspicion, but his brushing off the notion that there was a romantic involvement with Diane Polley is one of the less convincing attempts at artifice in Stories We Tell.  

Further complicating the paternity question is former film producer Harry Gulkin, who is quite open in his admission of a relationship with and abiding love for Diane Polley.  Gulkin, looking like a lost Marx brother by way of Albert Einstein with his great fountain of wavy white hair flowing down to the shoulders of a torso dominated by comically rounded corpulence, insists that the film's central mystery is a story that only he can tell accurately.  But in his way, with all of his apparent candor, Gulkin is no more convincing (and less appealing) than Bowe.  When he tells Sarah that his memory might not be perfect but he'll tell the truth, it seems an unconscious slip that is still only half accurate.      


Who's your daddy?  A few of the contenders - real and fictional - in Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell.  

One of the unexpected revelations of Stories We Tell is how generously Michael Polley accepts the process to determine the identity of Sarah's biological father, whether it proves to be him or not.  He may well have experienced private moments of bitterness, but all we see on film from the solitary man is a surprising empathy for his wife and another man who loved her.  The story that he reads in that recording studio is actually his narrative, a burst of writing that occurred after the paternity results were made known to him, the sort of thing that Diane Polley had always hoped she would see from the husband who seemed to sell his talents short, or at least showed little desire to have them validated in public.  Moments of exacting direction notwithstanding, the fact that Sarah Polley allows Michael to bring the film home in meandering fashion would seem an indication of where her model of family is centered, DNA test or not.  

As foolish as is the assumption that any television program, whether sitcom or  something supposedly drawn from actual lives, might represent 30 minutes of reality is the notion that any documentary is a work of filmed objectivity.  There's always editing, there's always a point of view.  Beyond its big story and compelling characters, Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell is impressive in the manner in which it sets forth and then exposes its artifice.  Even better, that artifice - the fake super eight family films; the father reading a version of the story - has purpose.  It's easy enough (and essentially true) that Stories Well Tell is indeed about the stories we tell ourselves, about memory, family and even how each of us craft our own reality.  You may choose to question what you see in Sarah Polley's film.  The most commendable aspect of of Stories We Tell - the heartfelt and the patently contrived - is that it would seem to encourage that questioning and stand up to it.   




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