9/7: Stories We Tell (2012)
Through no fault but my own, I often struggle with documentaries. It’s their unflinching tendency to ignore the multiplicity of truths and the elusive capture of the Truth. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell approaches that latter challenge head on, interrogating the lives, stories and emotions of her family members as a means of uncovering a holistic portrait of her deceased mother. Polley interviews her brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and even family acquaintances, but her film is anchored by intimate dialogues with her father Michael Polley and her biological father, former Hollywood producer Harry Gulkin. The latter revelation, that Gulkin is Polley’s real father, went unbeknownst to Polley for much of her life and is a moment Polley treats with maturity. There’s an understanding for Gulkin’s selfish approach to keeping his memories of Polley’s mother to himself; in short, Gulkin maintains there are only two people who can fully understand the story of his love affair with Polley’s mother, and one of them is dead. Polley is respectful in this point, but her arto-biographical project also rejects Gulkin’s notion of the one truth.
The film’s other anchor, and really the emotional core through which Polley filters thoughts and ideas, is the man who raised her. Stories We Tell begins with Michael Polley reading letters (presumably written by Sarah) in a sound booth, with Polley occasionally requesting a re-read or firmer delivery on certain lines. Polley never shies away from the orchestration behind recreating her memories, something that Gulkin ironically seems incapable of understanding in his obstinance. Polley treats this post hoc puzzle-piecing of her mother as an exercise, less a goal. Re-enacting certain pieces of her parents’ lives — those that weren’t already captured on home video film stock — is an admission that film, like an interview, a Polaroid, or even a conversation, is merely another lens through which we tell our stories. Stories We Tell is all the better for admitting that, turning its questions about truth back around on its auteur.
9/7: Miller’s Crossing (1990)
John Torturro famously steals the show in Miller’s Crossing as a ragged worm of a man, weaseling his way out of seemingly inescapable problems. With every scene of Torturro’s blubbering, his backstabbing, and his bullshitting, each word seems to dig his character further into a rut. He’s such an oozing, pathetic presence, admirable in his resourcefulness, endlessly loathsome in his squirmability. It’s a showy, breakout performance from the man who would go on to star in the Coens’ next feature, Barton Fink, but it also distracts from capable turns from Albert Finney, the cartoony Jon Polito, and Marcia Gay Harden. The polar opposite of Finney’s cool, collected mob boss Leo, Polito’s Johnny Caspar is like Pinocchio’s Stromboli made flesh, and Harden is steely when she needs to be but always reflects a damaged vulnerability underneath.
Admittedly, it’s the lead, Gabriel Byrne, who does nothing for me. Byrne is appropriately stone faced as Tom Reagan, a mobster’s fickle, triple-crossing right hand man. But then again, when isn’t Gabriel Byrne stone faced? Byrne’s performance is buoyed by the smart ass quips he’s given — and boy does everyone let him know what a smart ass he is. Miller’s Crossing‘s overly complicated story is dense, but much of the charm is owed to the script, with plot taking a back seat to big characters and the Coens’ top notch dialogue. Strangely enough, it’s why Miller’s Crossing shares a likeness with Big Lebowski, which ultimately lives and dies by character and chit chat. Byrne pursues Torturro, who’s more of a ghost than a man, an exaggerated re-appropriation of a “shylock” stereotype from old Warner Bros gangster pictures of the 30’s and 40’s, until Byrne is left all by himself. The story and its machinations, like leaves in the forest, ultimately wither and die, tumbling to the ground, leaving nothing but a frail frame behind. Don’t forget your hat.
9/7: Le doulos (1962)
In his Criterion essay, “Walking Ghosts,” Glenn Kenny writes that, among Jean-Pierre Melville’s playing with sound and visuals, his gangster picture Le doulos roots so much in the past:
The answer, like almost everything else in the convoluted plot, lies in what has gone before. As Faugel enters Gilbert’s house at the film’s opening, he carries himself like a specter, one who is himself haunted. Only later do we find out what he was avenging, and having committed the deed, he then can’t stop obsessing over what he’s done to a former friend. By contrast, Silien (“a guy who does not exteriorize himself,” as per Pierre Lesou’s source novel—and can’t that be said of almost all of Melville’s gangster heroes?), brisk and efficient as he lends Faugel some gear for a robbery, is confidently looking forward to getting out of the rackets and enjoying his newly built house.
What’s great about Melville’s overly complex if not otherwise remarkable gangster plot is how it draws out the dour shadows on its characters faces and externalizes them as prior snippets of a sordid biography. Yes, police informant Jean-Paul Belmondo’s assault of Thérèse is “unspeakably violent,” but his character spends much of this foiled jewel heist trying to escape that seemingly inescapable cycle of low-stakes crime, looking ahead to the future while gunning down his past. The death toll here is remarkably high, but it’s a callous reminder that perhaps death is the only freedom from this walk of life.