Story is the manna our sense of self feeds on and is nourished by. The Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's first autobiographical documentary film inspired this discussion between Gary Stewart and me. A staple of Canada's film and television culture, Polley has done strong work as a multi-hyphenate actress, singer, screenwriter, director and political activist who came to attention in the United States with a moving performance in the stirring movie The Sweet Hereafter. Polley's creative work began as a child actress.
Stories We Tell reminds us of Rashomon, the Kurosawa classic about the subjectivity of perception. In the recollection of a crime, several contradictory though plausible accounts of what has transpired arise. Our observations come from different center points. Mine is a story heals a wound. Gary's focus is the storytelling.
For us, this movie has many narrative reveals. What seems like a peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek is not gimmicky. Rather it is how we perceive a story that examines as well as reveals itself. That it takes you along the journey it purports to be is one of its great strengths. We create a new story as we write this blog. In making choices how and what to tell, we edit.
It's in our DNA the film instructs us, to take chaotic data and make meaning out of the experience. The story tellers are consistent with their own worldview but also collaborate to comprehend the whole picture. Needing to connect denied repressed truth is so big the challenge is how to get a grip on it or grasp it for long. Polley's friends and family differ primarily in how parts they come into contact with are described.
These are ultimately civilized and principled people. Their excitement generates and resolves heated conflict. Reality television this is not, though the dramatic subject matter may be. Two competing fathers and one daughter who lost her mother too young is the primary story. The secondary stories are selective views and a compelling need to tackle the material. Each one arrives through a prism they then challenge.
Perspective often finds its most powerful expression in the editing bay. Each has respect for inquiry and the other's point of view. This is a contemplative group. This complicated process of helping Polley is delivered with compassion, patience and aplomb. A minimum of blame, hysterics and shame is refreshing.
Our species drive to make meaning out of moving targets occurs in infancy with the central accomplishment of object permanence according to developmental psychologists. The confidence that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen, heard, or touched is a concept without which there would be no separate existence in or outside of the collective.
Stories are told and re-told. The end of the story is never attainable even in death. The inadequacy of approaching infinity or zero in the elusive and profound calculus of life is as good as it gets. In essence one never gets it right. As the director Sarah Polley's presumed legal father (because her mother was married to him at the time of her birth) sums it up as the "illusive vagaries of truth."
Accurate stories are powerful, necessary and relevant yet difficult to achieve. People's need to find the story that can set you free through short-term negativity, discomfort, and questioning generated. For Polley, solving the paternity issue is the centerpiece of her quest for a true birthright. But the bigger meta-truth is what my story is.
One question settled, and in its wake you find out other facts in an ever-expanding larger picture. It's not just about who created your nature/nurture. In her quest for true parentage, Polley finds out more about her late mother, which opens up new uncertainties.
Each father wants to steer the story or parts of it. We all want and need to tell a story and capture it all. Acceptance becomes the knowledge you get what you get and never all of it. What of Polley's mom and the degree to which unexpressed material was left unexposed upon her death? Dead or alive everyone is complex and a mystery. Bit by bit, what we get is revealed in a non-linear narrative.
Sometimes information about another is bared as the players become known. Layers of meaning are based upon trust, adding another piece of the puzzle that surfaces as you figure it out. Getting to know each other is intimately tied to the nature of consciousness and how it emerges.
Dole out reveal, repeat. How the story plays out is not a mystery. Forty minutes into it, you don't realize the story double backs on itself. As you drill down the facts, more unpleasant yet enlightening information is uncovered. A recipient of a work of art alters the work. Interactivity and multiple interpretations become one. Healing wounds through stories never entirely resolved is a naturalistic approach precisely because you never achieve the entire story.
The film --like the editing process -- winds and rewinds reaching resolution before the band aid is ripped off. The filling in of facts piecemeal while struggling with the truth is Charlie Kaufman-esque. As you get close to understanding self and healing wounds of the past through a series of reveals, the revelation is you're in the midst of an enriching story becoming more meaningful. In asking questions from a place of inquiry the value of this process grows.
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