Sunday, May 31, 2015

i thought we were going to a costume party

I spent 365 days (plus today is the 10th follow-up viewing) explaining and exploring why I chose (or, in retrospect, needed to choose) Groundhog Day for this blog.

(And, I didn’t set up a recap for the past month—and those entries take more time than a single viewing—so I will recap two months next month... maybe.)

If you want a good idea of what that was all about, start with Day 365 - so this will be the last time we do the groundhog together and work backward. There are some good highlights in that entry alone, with some links to past entries. Or, if you want to be able to see all of the topics ever covered, start with Day 363 - and you’d be an expert and work backward from there instead.

Yesterday I argued that my discussion of films in this blog serves as a deliberate counterpart to discussion of life. I also do it because it’s fun.

Officially, I’m going into my upcoming (starting in the next week or two) reread of all of my entries without a specific gold in mind. I’m using what’s called Grounded Theory to start looking at the posts in order to figure out what is worth looking for. Unofficially, I already know some of what I want to find. I’m looking for notes on my presentation of self, where I inject the personal into the blog... which on some level is almost always, so I will have to code it down to specific types of personal. I also have a feeling that I will need to code for a few other things that demonstrate what I do through this blog on a regular basis. There’s the philosophical stuff, of course—like the eternal recurrence trio of Day 39 - if you could be anywhere..., Day 40 - ...where would you like to be? and Day 41 - probably right here, or that jelly bean bit with Day 52 - if you only had one day to live, or so many other entries along the way... This blog offered me a chance to voice just about any opinion I wanted to express, as long as I could justifiably link it back to, initially, Groundhog Day, then all the other movies since.

That brings me to another thing that will, in some way or another, get on my code list—bragging about how much I know about movies (even when I’m not entirely right or fully informed). For example, with all the various movies in Phase Two, I have often included a day (among the usual seven) in which I elaborate on what was going on at the box office when the movie came out, and I just love to let you know how many of the top 10 or 20 movies that weekend I had seen in the theater, or would see later. I’ve occasionally quoted movies without citing the source—if you’ve seen the movie in question and know it as well as I do, you’d notice, but many probably just read on by, maybe confused momentarily, maybe just not getting the in-joke. It’s exclusionary, and... well, I don’t apologize for it. If you want an all inclusive blog, then get your own. Or just ignore the exclusionary behavior and read all the rest of this thing. Especially the aforementioned philosophical moments—I am what some might call a bleeding heart liberal. When, I get into topics on, say, identity, like I did this past month, I am generally of a mind that, if you’re not hurting anyone, present whatever self you want to present to the world. Be who you want to be. Find your voice and let it sing.

So, in the past ten months, I have watched a lot of movies for this blog. Leaving behind the various films I watched and specifically wrote about during Phase One, I watched The Ring, The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project and Scream for month one... along with Ringu, Rings, The Ring 2, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch Project 2, Scream 2, Scream 3 and Scream 4. Then, I watched When Harry Met Sally..., Moonstruck, The Mirror Has Two Faces and Pretty Woman. I think the only extra film I threw into that month was the PBS presentation of La Boheme. There were no extra movies in month three because rather than spend 7 days with each film, I watched 33 slasher films (because that first month of horror films wasn’t enough) in 33 days—Peeping Tom, Psycho, Prom Night, plus four Texas Chain Saw Massacre films, eight Halloween films, seven Nightmare on Elm Street films, ten Friday the 13th films, and finally the Freddy vs. Jason crossover. Month four happened to be November so I went with Thanksgiving films—sorry to those outside the United States. I watched Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Dutch, Pieces of April and Home for the Holidays. If—and that’s still a decision to come—I’m still doing this blog this November, I will have a more interesting theme. December was all about Christmas, with a bit of a slasher film flashback. I watched Home Alone, Black Christmas (with the addition of the remake of Black Christmas), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (with the addition of the original Vacation and European Vacation) and A Christmas Story (with the addition of Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss, A Christmas Story 2 and My Summer Story. The new year brought us action films from the 1980s—Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Commando, Rambo: First Blood Part II and the bonus film (for the sake of timing with Groundhog Day), Top Gun. I didn’t add extra sequels or anything because it was Oscar season and I was catching up on all of those movies.

I’d like to say that I remembered all of this order without having to look things up, but that would be a lie.

The next month was musicals—Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, Moulin Rouge! and Across the Universe. Then came high school movies from the 80s—Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. Then, things got weird again, with a month of movies recommended by other people, readers, friends, family. The month included The Room, Flash Gordon, Westworld, The Wicker Man, Rent, After the Dark, The Grand Seduction, Speed Racer, The Notebook and (500) Days of Summer. And, this past month offered up some movies that dealt with identity—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Toy Story and Stories We Tell. I also watched Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and five Toy Story shorts. And, just this morning I watched Take This Waltz, which I mentioned yesterday.

And, I may have missed some of the extra movies in that list. (And, I didn’t even mention the extra movies during Phase One, like Scrooged or Edge of Tomorrow or About Time, or Mr. Nobody (also mentioned yesterday) or Doc Hollywood or Caddyshack or numerous others.)

And, I’m avoiding the issue by listing all of this stuff. We’re coming down to the last day of the time loop—Phil’s actually working on the piano right now—and I haven’t gotten back around to my point.

What is my point?

This blog has been (and will be for at least another two months) a place for me to express my interest in movies and use that interest to explore just about anything else I have liked to explore. That being said, I often brought everything back down to a few themes—gender roles, identity and the presentation of self, and something like self improvement. Whether it is because of this blog alone—and this right here can come up in the limitations section of my master’s thesis—or because of grad school or because my living situation improved, or some combination of all three of these things, my life improved as this blog went on. And, I suppose I wish that, with all of my philosophical rants and whatever else it is that I have had to say for 668 days now, I would have helped or inspired someone else to fix his or her life as well. I would rather the world be better than it was when I got to it. I would rather say positive things—with the occasional bout of negativity to keep things honest—and make the world a better place than just type and type and type into the ether with nothing to show for it.

That is who I am today. It is not a costume I put on, though maybe it’s a part I play. It is not some new aspect of my identity, but is an aspect that has had a lot more energy in recent years. And, I am happier for it.

I don’t have the chance to save and improve lives left and right like Phil Connors on those last days of the time loop, but I have found myself in a position—as father, as teacher, as coach—that affords me the opportunity to help others shape their lives into something good. I hope I can live up to that responsibility. I know I will try.

...

And that sounds so conclusive… I’m wondering what I’ve got to talk about for another two months (at least).

...

Those who have been reading along will know, I will come up with something.

(This next month has a whole lot of extra movies planned ahead, for example, because summer break is coming.)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

am i breaking the fourth wall, here?

What else is left to say?

I mean, identity and the presentation of self are both big throughlines in my upcoming master's thesis, but there I will probably be stuck with a lot of the prior scholarship on the topic--a little Goffman, a little Butler with a bit of Munoz maybe. Also in my thesis there's going to be some Weick, a communication theory of his that deals with sensemaking. While he applies it often to organizations, I deal with it on an individual level; it's basically how we make sense of the world around us. (There's more detail to it, but I won't bore you today.) Stories We Tell actually deals in something closer to Weick's organizational sensemaking than any individual sensemaking. The whole Polley/Buchan/Gulkin brood is re-contructing a story together because of the structure Sarah Polley has chosen. Except, they are not working together to do so. She has positioned their various stories next to each other to manufacture one larger story, but it's not like they are sitting in a singular space bouncing ideas off one another. That is more like we do it in reality. Here, it's a process that takes place off screen. We're seeing the results as individuals take what they know of the larger story and present it.

Today, I'm interested in something more personal. Sarah Polley's personal sensemaking. And, like me with this blog, she's doing it through movies (and here, also plays).

Just here within the context of Stories We Tell, for example, several plays and films are referenced directly. These are not the only productions that Sarah's mother or father(s), or Sarah herself, were ever involved in, but they are the ones that get namechecked.

The opening lines of Stories We Tell come from Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace, of which Sarah Polley is working on directing a film version. Though based on real events, the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, the novel injects a fictional doctor into the investigation to explore the dichotomy between (one of) the convicted killer(s) and her rather mild mannered appearance. I've never read the novel, but I understand that Atwood plays with shifting points of view to create uncertainty. This is what Polley chooses to begin her film about how we tell stories, how we establish history and truth from opinions and disjointed narratives. And, it's also potentially the next film Polley will be directing.

Michael Polley references two plays early in the film--Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, in which he plays Mick and that's how, he says, Diane was initially attracted to him--

(It occurred to me last night that when my then-future, now-past wife first met me in person, she expected me to be someone else. Physically, I mean. Having read stories and poetry on my website, she imagined me as a taller, lankier kind of nerd. I forget the details, but I think she imagined I had longer hair as well. But, I was short, overweight, with short, often messy hair. The reality and the imagined person were not the same. Now, it's not the same as what Michael is suggesting here, because I don't think the personality was different. But, it's an interesting idea--that we imagine people to be things they are not. We fill in the gaps when we don't know all there is to know.)

--and The Condemned of Altona by Jean Paul Sartre in which he and Diane acted together. The former includes a character, Davies, who constantly invents his personal stories depending on to whom he is talking. The latter--with some existentialist themes--includes a character, Franz who has locked himself away because of a troubled history that needs to be investigated by other characters.

The play that takes Diane away to Montreal is Toronto by David Fermario. A quick Google search offers up absolutely nothing about this play. I want to suspect that the play doesn't exist at all, that is is a construct of this narrative. It is a specifically unmemorable piece about actors auditioning for roles. And this, as Diane has left her home, left her family, and is trying on a (new?) (different?) version of herself.

Another play mentioned is Filumena Marturano by Eduardo De Filippo, and the film version, Marriage Italian Style. This play (and film) involves a prostitute who passes off one of her three sons as the son of the man she wants to remarry. But she doesn't tell him which son, and--as presented here using footage from Marriage Italian Style, the man cannot figure out which son is his and ends up marrying Filumena again. As quoted in Stories We Tell, the last line is Filumena telling Domenico, "Children are children, and they're all equal." Stories We Tell presumes an equality of children's stories, but also involves a question of parentage, offering up three fathers instead of three sons.

Harry Gulkin produced many films, but the only one mentioned here by title is Lies My Father Told Me. (This is mentioned in context of the documentary Red Dawn on Main Street, which is actually about Harry Gulkin.) The title alone suggests a thematic link to the story here, but I'm more interested in the specifics. For example, Gulkin tells Forward that he was drawn to the story because of the love story between grandson and grandfather, "without the complications that exist in the relationship between parents and their kids... [a] kind of love, which was untrammeled by the difficulties and strains of the relationships between parents and their kids."

We see Sarah on the set of Mr. Nobody. I wrote about this film back in Day 352 - every morning i wake up without a scratch on me; you can read about it in more detail there, but the basic throughline is that the last mortal human is recounting his lifestory (or possibly losing his mind, or both). But, Nemo Nobody's story keeps branching in multiple directions... two possiblities when his parents separate, three possibilities depending on which of three childhood friends he marries. I tied this structure back to Groundhog Day because Phil Connors gets to "play with the possibilities" by reliving his day again and again. Nemo Nobody does this in retrospect, building a story out of potentialities and possibilities just as the Polleys/Buchans/Gulkins here do the same. Truth lies not in the facts but the versions thereof that exist in the head of the storyteller. Within Stories We Tell, this moment involves Polley dressed as a Neanderthal, upset by a phone call and running outside, forgetting her costume and her makeup and then wondering why so many passersby are staring at her. It makes for this outlandish, comedic moment even as within the narrative it is a potentially tragic moment for Polley. Like many of the references already mentioned above, it plays just a little too neatly.

I would not suggest, without more information, that these titles are referenced deliberately to make a point. But, I must wonder if these titles are not specifically memorable, specifically tied to the story by these storytellers because they connect to the themes present in the larger story. Diane Polley starred in other plays, but those are not relevant because they are about other things...

If they can be.

I mean, I keep coming back to a lot of the same themes regardless of what film I am watching for this blog. I've argued more than once that every film tells us something about gender roles in the time and place it was made. I've suggested more than once that all of these films deal in ideas like identity or some archetypal ideas of who we are; seriously, that I can keep coming back to the cinematic Christ-Figure, for example, suggests that a lot of the stories we choose to tell, and act out, and put to film, are about saviors, about heroes who can step up and do things we generally cannot in our own daily lives. We watch all these stories, we tell all of these stories, to each other, to ourselves, because we want to believe that we can do these things, that we can also step up and do what is necessary if it comes down to that. We identify ourselves within the stories because that makes life open up; it offers up possibilities that might never actually come but that are real in that moment. We exorcise and exercise our demons and our dreams by watching film, by making film, by telling and retelling stories.

It's the same thing every day with our personal presentation. We tell our story in deliberate ways to create in the minds of others, at the least, and to convince ourselves, at the best, that we are who we say we are. And, who we are, who we believe our selves to be, affects what other stories we seek out--like Gulkin, perhaps, seeking out Lies My Father Told Me because he has missed out on having grandparents around in his childhood.

(Note, Lies My Father Told Me predates Harry's affair with Diane so his choice there can have nothing to do with missing out on knowing his own daughter as she grew up. Still, namechecking that film within this film can have something to do with that.)

I didn't choose to write every day about Groundhog Day because that film specifically tied into my life. It did, and it would day in and day out (and will again tomorrow), but I chose to write about film because film has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I swear we rented movies from the Wherehouse on close to a weekly basis when I was a kid. At least, that's how I remember it. And, the memory is more important than the facts here. My experience of it was that we were renting movies regularly, seeing them in theaters about as regularly, and my childhood is all twisted up with film after film. If I made a documentary about my life, I would invariably namecheck movies in the process. This blog has just been a more deliberate version of that...

Coming back to Sarah Polley, though, I must note a few more films. First of all, my own first recognition of her comes from Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, a film that is also about the construction of truth out of multiple perspectives; specifically in dealing with the matter of guilt regarding a school bus accident that left most of a small town's children dead. Polley plays one of the (or is the only?) children who is still around, having survived the accident. The investigation into the accident hinges on her testimony. It has been a while since I've watched the film, but I'm finding myself more interested in my memory of it right now than looking up the details. But, Polley's character has had a (consensual?) sexual relationship with her father, and what version of events she presents to the investigators depends in some way on what her father wants her to say and whether or not she will do what he wants. Meanwhile, the primary investigator has a bit of a crisis going on with his own daughter, a drug addict who calls him for money from time to time. This is a story I connect to Sarah Polley, even as I come to watch the films she has directed, whether or not the association is relevant.

As for her other films, I think they are worth mentioning here as well. Away from Her, which I have seen, deals with an old married couple separated by the wife's Alzheimer's. Take This Waltz, which I have not seen, deals with a wife who finds herself attracted to a neighbor. Her (potential) next film, Alias Grace, I've already mentioned, deals with a woman who is not quite what she appears too be. I wonder if, as Michael Polley suggests late in Stories We Tell, Sarah is dealing with issues from her life experience in her choice of subjects.

I think of the stories I have written. A lot of stories with supernatural elements. Perhaps coming from my own history with horror films and reading a lot of Stephen King as a teenager and in my twenties. Or was I interested in those things because I had trouble with my own upbringing in which I was supposed to be believing in a supreme being but wasn't really seeing it, feeling it. For a while in my twenties, I had the I WANT TO BELIEVE poster from The X-Files on my wall. I spent a lot of time reading about aliens and ghosts and cryptozoological creatures, searching for something... outside normal. I think I did want to believe in something. But, ultimately, I came to the conclusion there was nothing. And, while I still have that poster, it is rolled up with some other old posters, collecting dust.

But, I still wrote stories with supernatural elements. Inevitably, they were bogged down by discussions of things that were real, personal relationships, politics, philosophy. But, most of the time, spiraling around to something outside the ordinary. The most grounded-in-reality novel that I wrote--a love story that twists on the power of memory, by the way--still depends on the main character having had an experience with the supernatural in a previous novel of mine. The fantastic, in my writing, often served as a deliberate counterpart to ground the more real elements in contrast. Just like, I think, my discussion of films in this blog often serves as a deliberate counterpart to ground discussion of, well, life in contrast.

More on that tomorrow, as I return to Groundhog Day once again, as has been my monthly habit in this second year. It punctuates the separate chapters of the story of this blog, and it draws all of them together as one cohesive story. My story, in what by now is hundreds of thousands of words.

And still, it seems incomplete.

in the beginning, the end

I've already pointed out that in the instance that Stories We Tell reveals that a good portion of its "past" sequences are fake--

(Watcing the documentary several days in a row, the differences between the two Dianes (especially in their chins) become more obvious, and the past Harry comes across a little fake in appearance (though, to be fair, the present Harry seems a little fake... does he really think that look works?), but despite Polley's insistence to Charlie Shmidlin at The Playlist, that, "It really wasn't the intention to trick anybody," I think it has to be the point to hide the reenactments among the genuine footage so that they both seem "real." Now, I'm not saying she's lying. I don't think this is a "trick." I think it is part and parcel of the structure of this documentary, blurring the lines between versions of stories, memories of events, and reality and representations thereof. Polley specifies,

We worked our asses off to match our recreations as closely as we could to archival footage, and we hoped that every now and then people would have a question about whether it was archival or recreation. But I never thought that it would actually fool anybody for very long.

It's not a trick, but it is a ruse of a sort, the costuming of the artificial to resemble the real so as to be, at least "every now and then" indistinguishable from one another. I'm reminded of an oft repeated line from folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand: "The truth never gets in the way of a good story.")

--the voiceover mentions how fictions get into our true stories. That timing is too perfect to not be deliberate. And, this film has several juxtapositions that draw attention to not the unreality but the structured reality of the documentary approach to the story.

(Before I get to the examples here, I want to mention a juxtaposition that happens in the reality of the Polley's lives--not Diane's affair, but the reason Diane got together with Michael in the first place, at least how he remembers it. He recounts:

I think Diane fell in love not with me, but with the character I was playing on stage. The character is something that is so different from me. It's such an exciting and dominating character. You can't take your eyes off that character. That's absolutely nothing like me at all, but you can see why I would want to play it.

He even describes the first time they have sex as if he wasn't even there. "And then they made love," he says, "Mick and Diane." Mick was his character in the play he was in when he met Diane.)

Two clear examples come to mind. The first occurs when Sarah is in the cafe with Harry, in what is clearly a reenactment of her learning that he is her father. The revelation, in the film, comes from her siblings' interviews in cutaways before it happens in the scene--and we never hear the dialogue in that scene. We only hear the voiceovers of the storytellers, including Harry. The juxtaposition of the visuals and the voiceover is the obvious one (not the one I'm getting to), as if the visual is the story these storytellers are constructing as their voices mix.

The juxtaposition comes when Michael, in his voiceover, tells us that Sarah was speechless. The visual contradicts this. She is actually quite talkative in that moment.

Later, something like the opposite happens. Sarah meets her half sister Cathy Gulkin and they get along like gangbusters, and Cathy, in voiceover--again, we don't hear the dialogue in the scene we're seeing--says, "...and then we realized that we could talk our heads off for hours and hours and hours and hours and never run out of things to say." In this moment, in the visuals, Sarah and Cathy sit in silence.

The movie also relies on a real-life juxtaposition of Montreal and Toronto. According to Sarah's brother John, Toronto was more "live to work" and Montreal was more "work to live." Diane, as the story goes, wanted out of Toronto, and gets her first chance to do so by playing, oddly enough, in the play, "Oh, Toronto."

Speaking of John Buchan, Sarah's half brother from her mother's first marriage, he is a casting director, and he cast the actors for the reenactments. Of his mother's portrayer, he tells Nicole Sperling at The Los Angeles Times, he was ready to cast his mother "since he met actress Rebecca Jenkins 25 years ago. 'I'd always remarked on how she closely resembled Mum and I always thought, "If ever anyone wanted to make the Diane Polley story, there she is,"' said Buchan." On casting himself, he offers:

It was surreal having to audition myself at age 18. I've been casting for about 25 years and never have I had to release a breakdown describing what I was like as a teenager... I made sure I got someone who was way better-looking than me too, because I like the idea of rewriting history.

Rewriting history...

I know what I need to write about tomorrow, Day 7 with Stories We Tell.

Friday, May 29, 2015

an amalgam of the dna passed on to me

“Family is undeniably inescapable. Like a silent shadow, it’s your blood, your roots, and (at times) your ball and chain.” So begins Meredith Alloway’s review of Stories We Tell for The Script Lab. In the terms of these last few blog entries (today is Day 5 with Stories We Tell), family is those people who are telling a story that keeps weaving in and out of yours. They are the people who have a bigger investment in your story than other people do, and vice versa, you have an investment in theirs. Whether by blood or by circumstance, family is, as Anderst’s piece on the film, suggests the storytellers here are, a chorus of voices, each telling a variation on a motif of the heart of the story.

I’m reminded of words outside my own language as ways to conceive of family. One you might know from Lilo & Stitch if you’ve ever seen it—‘ohana. On that show, they liked to say that ‘ohana means family, ‘ohana means no one gets left behind. (That word might be a relatively recent invention, but its history is less important than its... well, the idea of it.) ‘Ohana is the extended family, not just those related by blood, but the adopted (formally or not) family, those friends that are always around. Those friends that are closer than some of your family probably is.

(The Kahiko Connection tells us, by the way, that ‘ohana comes from ‘oha-ana. ‘Oha is the shoot of a taro plant, “which is cut from the plant and planted to become the next generation; ana is a conjunctive word connoting regeneration or procreation. Furthermore, “There are responsibilities attached to ‘ohana just as there are to nuclear family units. When you’re a member of an ‘ohana, you share in its responsibilities, whatever they might be.”)

The other word I think of is the Pirahã word xahaigi (the X is basically silent, close to an H as much as I could manage pronunciation). I did a speech about the Pirahã back in my first year of competitive speech. (Broke into final rounds with it a few times, never placed.) Douglas (2006) tells us the Pirahã have “the simplest kinship system yet recorded.” I learned for my speech what few kinship terms they have—probably getting the list from Daniel Everett’s (2009) book about the tribe, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes; they have baixi for a parent or grandparent or “anyone to which you want to express submission;” hoagi for son; kai for daughter; piihi for an orphan, stepchild, or favorite child (and I do so love the deconstructed dichotomy there); and xahaigi, which, in my speech, I said,

simply translated as sibling. But, the Pirahã do not use it to refer just to blood relatives. In fact, they do not use it to refer just to other Pirahã, but anyone with which they have peaceful relations (or, really, anyone with which they have relations, as war is unknown to them).

Back in Day 118 - what are you looking for?, I linked this concept into Groundhog Day, suggesting it fit Phil Connors having to learn to be a part of the community. In my speech, I suggested the best counterpart in English for xahaigi was the word brotherhood. Like ‘ohana, xahaigi surpasses the blood relations of family to offer up something more intangible.

The story’s edge blurs. Maybe the main story gets a spinoff, or a backdoor pilot for some other story—to mix in some television terminology. Maybe it’s simply a shared universe, two (or more) stories running parallel. But, the people in each story—they know each other, they care about each other. And, like it or not, they’re stuck with each other. In the immortal words of Bilbo Baggins, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” That’s family. Or Robert Frost’s take on home in “The Death of the Hired Man”: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” That’s family.

References

Alloway, M. (2013, May 13). Stories We Tell: Weaving narrative with honesty. The Script Lab. Retrieved from http://thescriptlab.com/review/category/movies/2265-stories-we-tell-weaving-narrative-with-honesty#

Akaka, Jr., D.K. (2006). ‘Ohana, the root of culture in Hawai’i. Kahiko Connection. Retrieved from http://kahikoconnection.squarespace.com/ohana-a-cultural-root/

Anderst, L. (2013). Memory’s chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley’s theory of autobiography. sense of cinema, 69. Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/feature-articles/memorys-chorus-stories-we-tell-and-sarah-polleys-theory-of-autobiography/

Douglas, K. (2006, March 18). A people lost for words. New Scientist, 189(2543), 44-47.

Everett, D.L. (2009). Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. New York, NY: Vintage Departures.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

the whole story from the beginning until now

When you are in the middle of a story, it's isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you're telling it to yourself or to someone else.
--Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

With this quotation, Stories We Tell begins, Michael Polley reading it even before his "narration" begins.

think of the story we are telling
a twisted, amalgamated beast
that eventually becomes history
a history written by the winners
the privileged
hooks' "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" perhaps

most of us knowing only a small piece of the whole
many of us lack the capacity

or power

to substantially alter our place in the larger story

some of us
but for the grace of god or gods
or corporate boards and politicians
have little to no power at all

tossed along like unhelmed ships
on a ceaseless ocean
neath an endless storm
wondering if the sun will ever rise again

working by artificial light
for alms too thin
to cover unwanted children
as they sleep, cowering and dreamless

A story, a poem, a flight of fancy with a truth to tell. An interruption drifting away from the film, but so what? I was thinking about stories, about the story--who we all are. The collective concept of humanity, or the national identities that we hold onto even thought they force us against each from time to time.

(And, even my prose distracts from the film. But isn't that the point?)

I put together this month of films to watch to explore the idea of identity and of self--two concepts that will be big parts of my upcoming master's thesis--and I'm finding that I want to turn it into bigger things. I think it's very much the way I conceptualize these two things... twisted (there's that word, again, suggesting a force outside control) in with the other people around me. I am not myself without the people and the things with which I interact every day. I might describe myself as a father (a role defined in relation to other people), a teacher (a role defined in relation to other people), a student (a role defined in relation to other people)... Even here, where I am a blogger... that role is also defined in relation to other people. There is no blog without an audience. Big or small, I write here with the assumption in mind that someone else will read it. Late in the film--see, I can reference it directly--Michael Polley writes to Sarah in an email:

My dear Sarah, when you make a documentary about your own discovery of a new father, are you doing so to avoid your own deeper concerns of its real impact on you? Is that why you describe it as a search for the vagaries of truth and the unreliability of memory, rather than a search for a father?

Sarah replies:

Hey, Dad, I've been thinking a lot about your last email. Maybe you're right. Maybe there is something underneath my need to make this film that I've been denying. Every time I feel I have my footing, I lose it. I can't figure out why I'm exposing us all in this way. It's really embarrassing, to be honest...

It goes on with specific bits about her mother, but the important part for me, here and now, is there already. In the prospectus for my master's thesis, I argued that this blog, writing it every day now for 664 days, serves a very specific purpose for me. The current version of my research question is this: How does the act of blogging through a life crisis contribute to personal sensemaking and the re-creation of one's place in the world? I've written before about where I was when I started this blog. Where my life was. Pending divorce, living alone, waiting for... something. Grad school hadn't started yet. It was summer break, and I was spending the majority of my time by myself. At first, it seemed, to echo above, a flight of fancy. A whim. A crazy little thing to do to occupy my time. It quite readily became something bigger. And, I would offer personal details here and there.

(Soon, I will be reading through all of these entries again, finding those details, coding the entries for content.)

The blog became wrapped up in my life, but still, there are things I do not say here. As Polley wonders why she is exposing her family with this film, sometimes I write very personal things in this blog and wonder why as well. I wonder why I need this outlet to get by. I wonder if I need this outlet to get by. But, then I think back to who I was back then, when my marriage had only recently ended, or even in the strained last couple years we were together. Who I am now is... I'm trying to think of a good metaphor as to how me now is very much not me then, but is also fundamentally and totally him as well. The transformation is beyond my poetry for the moment.

And, I think of a bit in one of my favorite films--Adaptation. Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter and his fictional counterpart in the film) anguishes over where to start his screenplay, where the story really begins... and in the midst of a good ramble, one of his options is, "Okay we open at the beginning of time." That is where the story begins. His story. My story. Diane Polley's story. This blog's story. The world's story.

a story of inequality
a story in which
i am not he
as you are not he
as you are not me
and we are not all together
because we're too jealous
over our little tracts of land
our electricity
our computers
our smartphones
our position on top of the world

unless we're not on top
and the story twists away and away
regardless of our pain
and our sadness
and our joy
and our love
and our hate
and all that makes us one among many
alone and impotent
muted and blind

This is how it goes. My story. This story. The story. Mark Sisson, in his blog, Mark's Daily Apple, writes, "brush away all the public posturing and cocktail party introductions we all end up doing to some degree at least in certain situations. What is the real narrative you live each day when it's just you and you?" In other words. who are you when there is no one else around? Who are you when there is nothing else? Could you be better? Could you do more? Does the story need something more from you to make it better?

Or, is this all that there is? Are you all that you can be?

(And, I clearly do not intend to echo that old U.S. Army slogan, but it's as good a concept as, say Nike's line, if you just separate it out from the source, take it for what it is. If there is something more you can do, just do it.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

the ambiguity of the parentage

I'm reminded of a line I said way back on Day 69 - i don't even have to floss--back in the Groundhog Day phase of this blog--

He isn't just an everyman because he represents each of us. He's an everyman because he represents all of us.

But, I get ahead of myself by getting behind myself.

What is absent from a great deal of Stories We Tell is Sarah Polley herself. She is present in the majority of scenes in the film (only absent from the past footage that is genuine) but here story is not a part of Diane's story. Now, Acts Two and Three of the this documentary turn this into a story that is very much about Sarah instead, about her parentage and what that means for the bigger story of Diane. It was the weekend of Sarah's 11th birthday that her mother died. Eleven years old, her mother dying from cancer--there is no way that Sarah cannot remember it. It is acknowledged within the film that Sarah did not know that her mother was dying when her older siblings did, but still....

I must acknowledge the obvious, of course--that Stories We Tell is Sarah's story. This is how she chose to tell a story that is ultimately about not just Diane, not just the Polley/Buchan clan, not just a love affair (between Harry and Diane) and how it affected the people around it, but also about Sarah. Early in his narration, Michael Polley offers up this as his origin story:

In the beginning, the end. I am unique. From the precise moment when I was dragged out of my mother's womb into this cold world, I was complete... an amalgam of the DNA passed on to me by my mother and father, and they too had been born finished products, with their DNA handed down by their respective parents, and so back ad infinitum. It is clear to me that I was always there, somewhere in my ancestors' DNA, just waiting to be born.

Now, I would argue against the notion of anyone being a "finished product" but Michael makes a great point about the way we eventually come to exist and become who we must become. Just don't get--in historian terminology--all Whiggish about it, assuming destiny and the importance of the "end product," and I'm fine with it. I am, for example, Robert E G Black, son of Robert M. and Rosalie M. Black. (For the purposes of this example (and because I have more information) I will follow the patriarchal line backward). Robert M. is the son Ellsworth and Rosella. Ellsworth is the son Elmer and Bertha. Elmer the son of Samuel and Lisa. Samuel the son of Erastus and Jemima. Erastus the son of Hannah (a single mother, near as I can tell). Hannah is the daughter of Jacob and Elizabeth. Jacob the son of Adam. And, Adam is as good a place to stop this line since I'm starting to sound a little biblical (thought I specifically avoided saying anybody begot anybody).

Each result (read: person) is the product of not only the parents who literally come together to produce it but also every other person who it comes into contact with along the way to whatever the present (or its final day, if we are talking about someone who has already died) offers up. So, in her father's terms, Sarah very much is in this film, in every bit of it. The building blocks for her are in the genuine past footage and her present has built the fake past footage. She exists between the two and in the two, and before them and after them. Sarah exists within her siblings, her father(s), her mother... within all of the storytellers. Hell, now she exists, in part, within me for having written this. I don't believe in a soul in any supernatural sense of the word, but I also think there is some essence of every person beyond the body, stored and incessantly rewritten in the hearts and minds of everyone else. This, above all other reasons (perhaps), is why we merge together into families and groups and tell our stories (and our selves) to each other. We are greater than ourselves by deliberately putting ourselves out there.

Early in the film, Joanna Polley tells Sarah,

I guess I have this instinctive reaction of who fucking cares about our family. Can I swear? Who caress about our stupid family? I'm sort of embarrassed, 'cause I think it's our family, and every family has a story.

Leah Anderst, at senses of cinema suggests, "this line, almost a jokey throwaway, is, in fact, key to Sarah Polley's conception of autobiography and documentary filmmaking." It is indeed the heart and soul of this film. It is also what makes this film universal in its specificity. Anderst argues:

Polleys film seems to forward an argument about autobiography and documentary filmmaking: that these are plural, collaborative genres most effectively and truthfully made through a chorus of many and diverse voices, a "medley" as her other sister, Susy, describes it, each given freedom as well as equal weight.

We are but one author among many.

I had an idea for an autobiography (in case I ever got famous) years ago, in which I would tell my story by telling the stories of other people named Robert Black. I had the chance in the recent winter quarter at school, in a Performance Studies class to present a miniature version of what that might have been. I talked about the Scottish serial killer named Robert Black, a Professor Emeritus of Scots Law named Robert Black, a Welsh professor of Renaissance History, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Public Health, the Chief of Nephrology at the Worchester Medical Center, a cardiovascular surgeon, a Bass composer/musician, an author of short stories, a fashion designer, and finally I arrived at my own father and then myself, but only for a handful of sentences, almost an afterthought to the rest of the story.

I would go beyond Anderst's argument, beyond autobiography or documentary filmmaking, to life itself. To our very identities. I've said before that we exist in the battle between Butler's performativity--the pressures the world put on us to behave in certain normative ways--and Munoz' disidentification--identifying yourself in what makes you different. If there is a singular point I am making with this month of this blog, that may be it. We exist in the space between who we're told to be and those differences that push us to be unique. And, our choices--despite what I said above in regards to the DNA line--position us within that gap, closer to one side or the other

And, thought I do not think it is conscious, Sarah Polley's "absence" from her own film, and her own story, is presentative of that gap.

That absence is what Cloud (1999) calls the "null persona." (Edwin Black coined the "second persona" as the intended audience ("third persona" the excluded audience), while the "first persona" is the rhetor.). The null persona, Cloud tells us, "refers to the self-negation of the speaker and the creation in the text of an oblique silhouette indicating what is not utterable" (p. 200).

Sarah Polley doesn't need to tell her story. Not verbally. This film, with all of its storytellers, is her story. It is an aspect of her being.

This blog is an aspect of mine.

This film is about one family, but it is also, disregarding its own details, about every family, about each and every one of us, who we are, how our families affect that identification, how family decides us and we decide it, how stories make us and we make stories. How each and every one of us is each and every one of us.

References

Anderst, L. (2013). Memory's chorus: Stories We Tell and Sarah Polley's theory of autibiography. Sense of Cinema, 69. Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2013/feature-articles/memorys-chorus-stories-we-tell-and-sarah-polleys-theory-of-autobiography/

Cloud, D.L. (1999). The null persona: Race and the rhetoric of silence in the uprising of '34. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 2(2), 177-209. doi: 10.1353/rap.2010.0014

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

discrepancies in the stories

So... the twist.

Let us just get this out of the way on this Day Two with Stories We Tell. SPOILERS ahead, of course. Not that you would normally think of a documentary as having SPOILERS even be a possible thing.

So, Stories We Tell is built of multiple interviews about Diane Polley, director Sarah Polley's mother, and a whole lot of amateur footage of her--Michael Polley explains early on that he bought a camera around the time they met and took to filming much of their lives. Before we get to the big SPOILER, I offer this critique of the film's overall structure from Harry Gulkin, who it turns out is Sarah Polley's biological father--that is not the twist, but it is a notable turn in the course of the story here. Asked what he thinks of giving equal weight to everyone's version of the story, he replies:

I don't like it. I think that it takes us into... into a very wooly... You can't ever touch bottom with anything then. We're all over the place. I think they can all be heard. It's giving them equal weight which I find... Particularly those who are non-players. First of all, there are the parties to an incident, those who were there and who were directly affected by it.

As he says this, the film cycles through shots of those credited in the end as "storytellers." Here, we see Harry and Michael.

Then there is a circle around that of people who were affected tangentially because of their relationship to the principal parties.

We see Sarah Polley's two sisters and two brothers.

And then there's another concentric circle further out there, which basically has heard or been told by one of the principal players about it...

We see various relatives and family friends who have had a little bit to add the story throughout the film.

...and all of these may have different narratives, and these narratives are shaped in part by their relationship to the person who told it to them and by the events. One does not get the truth simply by hearing what their reactions are.

It is clear already that Harry believes that his version is closer to, if not the, truth. At this point in the narrative of the film, Harry has written his own version of the story that he wants to publish. Meanwhile, Sarah has apparently convinced a reporter not to publish a story about how she found her biological father because she had not yet told Michael, the father she has known her entire life, that she has reason to believe he is not her father, let alone that she has been looking for the other. In voiceover, Sarah explains the train of thought that would eventually lead her to make this documentary and which made her not want Harry to tell the story. Harry continues:

People tend to declare themselves in terms of what they saw, in terms of what tthey felt, in terms of what they remembered, and in terms of their loyalties. The same set of circumstances will affect different people in different ways. Not that there are different truths. There are different reactions to particular events.

His next lines seem to be intended as a critique of what Polley is doing with her film, but ultimately express the exact purpose thereof instead. He continues:

The crucial function of art is to tell the truth, to find the truth in a situation. That's what it's about.

Later, Harry explains further:

You can certainly get very close to [the truth], but you have to limit it to those who are involved in the events... directly involved and affected... and the direct witnesses to the events are only two, and one is not around. Diane's not here to talk to. That's really the person who could provide the essence, the essentials of what took place... The reality is, essentially, that the story with Diane, I regret to say, is only mine to tell, and I think that's a fact.

Harry assumes that only he can tell the story of his love affair with Diane, which he also implies is the heart of Diane's larger story. Different truths, indeed; Diane's daughter Joanna, Sarah's sister, later suggests that Diane was always in love with Michael, Michael was simply unable to return her affection as she wanted it. But, the personal elements are not the point, here. If you want to hear all the personal details of the story, watch the film. What I am interested in today is this idea that there is any one version of any story, or any one person who can tell it.

That there is a singular truth to any story like this... No, that is, in fact, the very point of Stories We Tell--that the truth is not singular but collective. The truth that matters, anyway. What Harry remembers, what Michael remembers, what John and Mark and Joanna and Susy remember, what any of the "storytellers" remember--these are all just pieces of the truth. As Harry explains, each is affected by his or here relationship with the subject; each truth is subjective. But, that does not make them untrue. What the home videos show--that might be objective, but...

Here's the thing. As you watch Stories We Tell for the first time, if you get into it, if you are enjoying the way the story unravels, you don't notice some key detail. Michael's explanation early on about purchasing a camera sets up the idea that there will be a lot of home videos. So, when the old footage ventures away from the home, away from Michael even, you might not notice that some of these scenes have got to be reenactments. And, you could, in retrospect, go back and try to weed out which footage is genuine and which is not, but the film offers up two conclusions that keep me, at least, from bothering. 1) a scene late in the film that reveals Sarah Polley directing what is clearly a piece of "old footage" actually suggests that, barring some amazing casting at least on the part of Diane, every piece of home footage may be fake but 2) so what? Really, the twist comes down to the very structure of the documentary, the use of reenacted footage not only without telling the audience but deliberately leading the audience to accept it all as quite real. I remember when I first saw Stories We Tell in the theater, think within the course of that single scene that it was a bit dishonest to present so much footage when it could all very well be fake, then almost immediately appreciating the sense of storytelling this approach offers. The film lies to us. In order to get at the truth.

Many a documentary does, really, though not always to such an extent.

Now, I've seen discussions online about which footage might be genuine and which is not, but I think distinguishing the two is ultimately irrelevant. If it all is fake, or if some of it is actually real, it still tells the same story. Reenactment is just another version of the same story--Sarah's version. There are clear reenactments of parts of the "present"--Sarah learning from Harry that he is her father or Sarah telling Michael that he is not, for two examples. There is actually a strange instance before Sarah finds Harry, when she thinks her biological father might be a stage actor named Geoff Bowes. At some point in the "past" Sarah went to meet him, and she is, in the "present" filming an interview with him for this film. In the interview he talks about meeting her in the past tense, but then she asks him about his relationship with her mother, as if it is a new question, but if it is a new question, then their initial meeting would have been very slight. Watching the film again, there is something a little off about how the topic seems new when the very pretense to this second, filmed conversation would have to be to recap this very topic from the previous conversation.

(Interestingly, the last bit of the film comes back briefly to Geoff Bowes as he admits that he had sex with Diane once, which suggest an entire chapter to this story that was excluded; surely, unless the timing was completely wrong for him to be Sarah's father--a detail easily mentioned in the film--surely, Sarah would have talked to him more and maybe even gone ahead with a DNA test with him before she ever got to Harry. That there is something (deliberately) left out makes this even more... real. We miss out on elements of the lives of those around us all the time.

In terms of documentaries, it reminds me of Capturing the Friedmans, a feature-length documentary dealing with one family caught up by accusations of sexual abuse that arose spontaneously during production of a planned documentary short about child birthday performers. Tangents can turn into something quite large sometimes. Harry seems stuck on the idea that the story of his love affair with Diane is the heart of the larger story. But, what might Geoff think of his affair with Diane?)

As the camera reveals Sarah Polley directing a reenactment--and the only reason for that second camera to be there, making that movement in that instance is to make this revelation--Polley herself recites in voiceover a letter to Harry about her interest in the way stories differ. She says,

I'm interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down, and many of our stories, when we don't take proper time to do research about our pasts, which is almost always the case, end up with shifts and fictions in them, mostly unintended.

The timing of it is this: we see the camera at the edge of the screen at the word "fictions" and we see Polley directing the scene as she finishes "unintended." She's playing with the usual levels we might see in a documentary to tell a larger story about the way we tell stories. Just after this, JoannaPolley offers this (as we see more behind-the-scenes footage of "past" characters having their make up applied):

...there's this misconception that there is a state of affairs or a thing that actually happened, and we have to reconstruct exactly what happened in the past, and I don't think there ever was a "what actually happened." I think there were lots of perspectives from the very beginning. You don't ever get to an answer. You don't ever get to, "Okay, now we've figured it out. We know exactly what happened. We know exactly what kind of person she was." I think those things are just illusory.

Of course they are. That is why sometimes, fiction tells the truth far better than any nonfiction can. Truth shows up between the lines. Whether those lines are facts or not is secondary.

Monday, May 25, 2015

when you're telling it to yourself

Because I'm sure many have not heard of it, let alone seen it, I must explain: Stories We Tell is a documentary about a mother, about a family, about the way we re-create memory in the telling of it, about how we decide what is history and what is not. Future thesis-writing me (sometime this summer probably), will appreciate the following. This is a reflection of everyday life; we pick and choose the moments within our past to hold onto, we pick and choose the people in our lives that matter and those worth forgetting, we pick and choose what parts of our personalities to express and which to hide away where no one else can see it, and we pick and choose the face we put on, the clothes we wear, the words we say. In other words, we invent ourselves as an ongoing process. You do it. I do it. Life is a story we are constantly telling and retelling until, we hope, we get it right.

Of course, there is no right. There's just the way it is.

Right off the bat, I must say of Stories We Tell that it enjoys existing on multiple levels. Many a documentary divides its time between talking head bits and old footage. It seems in recent years there are a lot of instances of documentaries offering a brief behind-the-scenes energy, a slightly Markward moment of silence as the scene is setup for an interview or as the interview has ended but the subject has not gotten up to leave just yet. This documentary relishes these moments, even including its own mistakes. (For instance, Polley asks her father to reread a line of what is essentially his narration for the film, but the previous version of the line is still there, and so it Polley telling him to do it again.) It begins as almost a making of itself, showing the subjects before their interviews begin...

...showing cameras and equipment that will soon be out of frame, recording its own process--what director Sarah Polley calls "an interrogation process." A review of the film at filmslie.com tells us that Polley "did not know how to make a documentary and remembers writing a 300-page script because she was felt not [sic] prepared for shooting and the documentary approach to movies" but really I've got to return to the idea that there is no right, there's just the way it is. Documentaries, like any other film, are expected to do certain things, show us things certain ways. But, every documentary still manages to be different, not just because of the subject matter but also the filmmakers, the individual subjects interviewed. By not privileging certain versions of the story here, Polley offers up something that is both different and entirely the same as every other documentary, every other film. Plus, as I said above, every day of every life. Polly tells the Guardian in an interview, "Telling stories is our way of coping, a way of creating shape out of a mess. It binds everyone together" (Kellaway, 2013, June 22). We create one story of which we are all a part--and every documentary must inevitably produce a singular story for its audience. (This story--Stories We Tell even has a clear 3-act structure.) But, the audience understands (and rewrites) that story in its own way, each individual taking in the details and incorporating it into what he or she already knows and understands about the world. About life, perhaps. Bain (2004) offers a rather straightforward description of how this process works--he's writing about learning within a classroom, but the same applies in all situations. He writes:

For example, I have a mental model of something called a classroom. When I enter a room and receive some sensoyr input through the lens in my eyes, I understand the input in terms of that previously existing model, and I know I'm not in a train station. But this enormously useful ability can also present problems for learners. When we encounter new material, we try to comprehend it in terms of something we think we already know. We use our existing mental models to shape the sensory inputs we receive. That means that when we talk to students, our thoughts do not travel seamlessly from our brains to theirs. (p. 26)

Nor does a filmmaker's message travel seamlessly to our brains. Nor do the things we are told by our teachers, our parents, our religious and political leaders, our friends, our family, our loved ones and our adversaries. Everything gets filtered through what we already think, what we already know. Polley offers us numerous versions of the same story in Stories We Tell to make a point about how numerous stories become one story... The stories we tell not only produce personal history and family history but societal history, everything we know and understand about, well, everything. I'm reminded of a line from John Izod (2000, which I think I've quoted a few times by way of Julie Ellen Benesh's (2011) dissertation about Groundhog Day):

...for viewers, no less than for Phil, an imprint remains as during the film the audience members "introject" or take in its psychic content including symbols, images, and narrative, as well as projecting individual personal concerns. After the film, if it is particularly "resonant." the process continues as the film "plays on" in the viewer's mind. A personal "edition" of the film is thus created and is assimilated into the psyche of the viewer. (Benesh, 2011, p. 8)

A personal edition of a film, a personal addition of a life. I imagine it like this: I am a story with many writers--my parents, my sisters, my friends, my ex-lovers, my children, my teachers... everyone that has come into and gone out of my life, and those who went before them--but the final cut is mine.

I am also a writer of many stories--not just the actual short stories and novels and screenplays I have written, not just the 661 blog entries now that I have put here, but the story of each person that I affect each day.

I will write you as well as I can.

(For those familiar with the film, I have deliberately left out the so-called "twist" of the third act. I will deal with that particular detail on its own another day this week.)

References

Bain, K. (2011). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Benesh, J.E. (2011). Becoming Punxsutawney Phil: Symbols and Metaphors of Transformation in Groundhog Day (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (Accession Order No. 3450252)

@filmslie. (n.d.). Stories We Tell Analysis: Sarah Polley's Documentary. filmslie.com. Retrieved from http://filmslie.com/stories-we-tell-review-sarah-polleys-documentary/

Kellaway, K. (2013, June 22). Sarah Polley: 'Stories are our way of coping, of creating shape out of mess.' The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jun/23/sarah-polley-stories-we-tell-interview

Sunday, May 24, 2015

i'm so glad you're not a dinosaur

In the past 24 hours, I've watched Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and five Toy Story shorts (don't know the proper order, but they are the three "Toons" Hawaiian Vacation, Small Fry and Partysaurus Rex; Toy Story of Terror! and Toy Story that Time Forgot). For the record, I have never seen more than a couple minutes of the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command cartoon. Right now Toy Story 3 is playing. The "end" of the feature story, of course, leads into those shorts; they are all set after the toys become Bonnie's. Still, it is an ending of a sort of the story of these toys.

(Those shorts focus more on other characters more than, say, Woody or Buzz (except Small Fry) or Jessie (though the climax of Toy Story of Terror! does depend on her). Instead (taking the order above), they focus on Barbie and Ken (minor nitpick: Barbie and Ken stay at Sunnyside at the end of Toy Story 3, so they really shouldn't be with Bonnie's toys), a fast food restaurant miniature version of Buzz, Rex, a bit of Jessie but also Combat Carl (who is not one of Bonnie's toys), and Trixie and Rex (with some Mr. Pricklepants to make it interesting). I'd like to see a short that focuses on Buttercup the unicorn. Like Francis in A Bug's Life, the juxtaposition of a stereotypically masculine personality in a feminine guise, Buttercup leaves room for some interesting storytelling.

(Of course, the discomforted looks from Buzz and Woody when they realize Ken wrote the note with the nice handwriting at the end of this film suggests that maybe it would actually be a little Markward for Pixar to get into telling a story that really explores gender identity--Brave offers us an independent, strong-willed female but it doesn't really invite us to contemplate the implication of such a thing. Instead, her story turns into what would otherwise be classified as a masculine adventure (Need I go back to the my oft-cited Groundhog Day reference, Daughton (1996)? The basic gist--and not just from Daughton--is that a masculine quest is outward, feminine inward.)

The usual theme of toys existing for their owners was covered well in all three features and revisited in Toy Story that Time Forgot. The idea of toys as disposable and/or collectible bits of plastic was covered in Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3 and Toy Story of Terror! There's got to be something else worth exploring. The politics in at Sunnyside Daycare here in Toy Story 3, for instance--that's an interesting take on toys, especially old toys.

Maybe I'm weird. But, I want something more deliberately thoughtful, perhaps, instead of the incidental (but, I don't mean to imply unintentional) emotion we get in the features. Right now, Buzz just found some of the Sunnyside toys betting on the a See 'n Say. It occurs to me that the See 'n Say might have a personality of its own. Mr. Spell did. Etch did. And, they are treating the See 'n Say like an object.

Which brings up a tangent about how (and I don't mean in any existential sense) toys have personalities at all. Does it require a face? RC has eyes. But, the "hooker" in Sid's toys has no face at all. And Sid's Ducky's head was a Pez dispenser; do all Pez dispensers have lives of their own when we're not sucking food out of their throats? At what point does a toy get a personality? Being played with imbues them with personality...

(I had a toy truck--with no face at all--that took on a good bit of personality after years of play... looked a bit like this:

That thing could do some serious tricks and often played the villain.)

...with realness a la The Velveteen Rabbit. So, I've got to wonder about, say, Etch. Could Woody's interactions with Etch have given Etch his own self? Or does it take an owner? If so, how do we explain Stinky Pete?--

Chuckles' story about Lotso is awesome, both a play on Jessie's story from Toy Story 2 and something new, even darker. Reminds me a bit of The Usual Suspects for some reason, more a myth than a real story, which sort of universalizes it for the rest of the toys--what can go wrong when you are lost.

It also sets a counter to the Stinky Pete story. A toy doesn't have to be unwanted to turn bad. There would be just a bit too much determinism in that.

--So, why do some toys gets personalities and some don't? Plot convenience? Realistically, yeah, that's pretty much it. But, the overthinker in me wants to figure out an in-universe explanation. The See 'n Say has faces on it, and has voices, yet it's just a glorified table/slot machine.)

As Toy Story 3 comes to an end and the original is about to begin on this Day 7 with Toy Story, I can finally get to some sort of point. Like Andy changes, getting older, heading off to college, so do the toys, really. We may all (figuratively speaking) have our Andys and our Emilys (even our Daisys) who leave us to our own devices just when we most need them. But, we can figure things out, move on with our lives. And, not be dinosaurs.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

Being actual dinosaurs would be awesome.

An interesting image comes at the end of Toy Story 3 that leads me into this final discussion of Toy Story.

Clouds.

But, not just clouds. The same clouds repeating. Pixar by the time this movie came out had managed huge amounts of very realistic detail in their animation, including animating hair and water. Yet they pan up from Andy's toys transitioning to being Bonnie's toys to these obviously fake clouds. Where did we see those clouds before?

Andy's room. In the house he leaves at the end of the original film. Pixar could already do better clouds even in the first film. So, this is on purpose. A deliberate callback to the original for a nice sort of poetry... But also, a thematic loop. Andy is heading off to college and the toys have been left for Bonnie in a larger "room" where the Pixar writers and animators have been playing with these toys for a decade and a half. Including Andy and Sid and Molly and Emily and Bonnie. Movies are Pixar's playtime, all their animation programs and character designs making up their toybox.

This loop back around to the beginning bookends a chapter in Pixar's history. The fourth Toy Story (announced but with most details sounding more like rumors than anything concrete) needs to be disconnected from these toys and this storyline because returning to the old characters is a dinosaur thing to do. Pixar just loves to move forward, come up with new animation techniques. Some pretty good flames and smoke in Planes: Fire & Rescue if I remember correctly.

But, separate from Pixar, Toy Story--the three films together--is all about dealing with being forgotten, with getting old. These films are stuck on mortality and all that comes with life. We're made a certain way, but ultimately, we can be something else. Buzz can get over his Space Ranger delusion, Lotso can stop just being a cuddly teddy bear... Yeah, it isn't all positive. We can be raised to be good--and, really, aren't we all? I mean, yeah, hate group members have kids and raise them into their way of life, but I think we can assume they at least think they're raising their kids to be good. Anyway, we can be raised to be good and turn to bad...

Actions that others deem bad. I don't think anyone ever turns bad. Call me moral relativist or what have you, but I think actions can be bad but people can't. The key is trying to do good. Trying to do new things, too. Reinventing and reconstructing yourself from time to time, just to make life interesting.

Anyway, Toy Story is done. Tomorrow, a documentary as this month about identity an self moves forward.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

all this time i thought it was an act

I've got a couple questions: Who is worse off--Toy Story Buzz who thinks he knows who he is (with "years of academy training" in his memory) or Toy Story 2 Woody who doesn't know who he used to be (with years of cowboy adventures behind him)? Who are these toys, really? Hell, they choose to be toys; the "rules" are apparently voluntary and can be broken. They choose to live in servitude of an owner--recall Woody saying, "It doesn't matter how much we're played with. What matters is that we're here for Andy when he needs us. That's what we're made for, right?" It's a strange existence, built to be "played with" by others but having full consciousness of it.

When Toy Story was on earlier--right now, I've got Toy Story 2 playing--I was talking with my daughter about there maybe being some metaphor or allegory for the practice of slavery in the way these toys exist for the sake of others... the difference being the (apparent) choice aspect. More like indentured servitude, I guess. Buzz in the first film is then the new arrival, and he has to fall in line so things are good for everyone. Woody's jealousy is representative more of a protective feeling for the order of things.

But, back to the identity thing... who's worse off? We must answer a few things before moving on. First, when is the movie set? While the whole transition from cowboy toys to spaceman toys suggests something much older the the 90s, Barbie specifically tells us that the Buzz Lightyear line of toys came out in 1995 (the same year the first film came out)--sure, that line is part of a joke, but it's still there. So, Woody is an old toy, nearly forty years. How long until he lost his memory? Is that a normal thing for old toys? An evolutionary adaptation to deal with the kind of situation Jessie talks about in Toy Story 2. Except, there's no way that toys could have evolved. Their existence is quite literally beholden to a creator (in addition to an owner). I think I've already said they don't really have free will. They also cannot really make of themselves what they want. They serve a specific role and are supposed to serve a specific role forever... or until they end up in storage or a garbage heap or are destroyed (like all the main toys here nearly are in Toy Story 3).

Imagine a world in which toys don't pretend they are inanimate but instead are alive and active when with their kid. Woody would be sheriff, Buzz would be a space ranger, Rex would be as scary a dinosaur as he wants to be. I found what is apparently a sermon from a youth minister named Luke at a Presbyterian church in New Zealand that is about Toy Story and identity, about how

The concept of identity is significant. Who we are shapes what we do, but what we do also shapes who we are...

It's not particularly profound, but I found it interesting that it even exists. The concept is real, though--so I gotta wonder, if these toys simply live to serve, than they remain servants. Robert Velarde, author of The Wisdom of Pixar: An Animated Look at Virtue, offers up the usual Christian terminology that fits this situation pretty well; these toys have a calling.

I think of Stinky Pete lamenting, "You don't know who you are." But, doesn't he? Sure he doesn't know about Woody's Round-Up and Jessie and Bullseye and the Prospector, but so what? I know some people obsess about their ancestors and where they "came from" but if they just accept who they are in the present, does that mean they are somehow... less?

I think it's two different kinds of identity, two different ways of knowing who you are. And, I'm not sure either one is better or worse than the other. Except, perhaps, inasmuch as the present is concerned. Toy Story's Buzz, for instance, doesn't understand his present. Toy Story 2's Woody doesn't understand his past.

Where does the self lie? As a conclusion to your past experiences or as the present, only? Or both.

Friday, May 22, 2015

watch one of these again

When Toy Story was released in theaters, November 24, 1995, I worked at a movie theater--the United Artists Marketplace in Old Town Pasadena... which doesn't exist anymore. I remember one of the ushers complaining about the tagline "The Toys Are Back in Town" being inappropriate for what was not sequel. I don't know how many times I've seen this movie, but I saw parts of it several times a week when it was in the theater. That happened with a lot of movies in the seven months I worked there. Also, since our theater had a deal with another theater a block away we could arrange to see movies for free at either theater. Except for the midnight premiere of Batman Forever, which I arranged somehow, we weren't supposed to use our free movie privileges to see "busy" screenings.

(And, don't even get me started on the mess that is Batman Forever, except to say that watching the beginning of that movie and the end of that movie time and time again when it was on the bigscreen demonstrated to me that the middle... 60% or so of that film was superfluous.)

Anyway, Toy Story was number one opening weekend. Lined up behind it were GoldenEye in its second week (saw that one its opening weekend), Ace Ventura When Nature Calls in its third week (saw that one in its opening weekend), Money Train in its opening weekend (never saw that one), Casino in its opening weekend (probably saw it that weekend), The American President in its second weekend (saw it some time that previous week), It Takes Two in its second week (didn't see it), Get Shorty in its sixth week (probably saw that one its opening weekend), Nick of Time in its opening weekend (not sure how quickly I saw that one but I did see it) and rounding out the top ten Home for the Holidays in its fourth weekend... I remember the big vinyl banner for that one (which I also wrote about in this blog last (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) November) we had hanging in the lobby of the theater with the turkey flying through the air.

Needless to say, I saw a lot of movies that year. My biggest year for movies was 1996 or 1997 (I forget which, but it was around 400 viewings on the bigscreen or the smallscreen for both of those years... If I count every viewing for this blog, the past two years would rival those, for sure), but '95 included a lot of bits and pieces of movies. If I wasn't the guy taking tickets at the door, I had a lot of downtime and so I'd wander into the back of a theater (the Marketplace had six screens) and watch a few minutes. I got very familiar with the ending of a lot of movies, if nothing else.

(A quick aside, because I only just noticed this detail and it would never be worth writing an entire entry about: the knob on Sid's dad's TV has fallen off. There's a wrench on there, its handles taped so it won't loosen and fall off. It's a detail that is entirely irrelevant to the rest of the film but makes for a nice little real detail for those who notice it...

See. Another detail I just noticed is that Sid's work table is actually a door (sans doorknob) lying on top of a sawhorse and some plastic crates. Pixar always has such awesome detail.)

Of course, you can assume, since I write this blog and am willing to watch movies every day that seeing a lot of movies is, like, my thing. It occurs to me--because I was just thinking about other Pixar movies and the first movie that my then future wife and I would see together in the theater was Monster's, Inc.--that I never saw a movie with my first girlfriend. That's probably why we could never work out as a couple. Seriously though, next girlfriend wasn't much better. We saw only three movies together in the theater--Unbreakable and Valentine and The Mummy Returns. I only just remembered that we saw that last one together... I should have remembered it because she had a crush on The Rock and he's in that movie. Prior to us being together, my wife didn't see a lot of movies but I changed that. So, we lasted longer. It makes perfect sense. I just gotta find someone who wants to see as many movies as I do and we'll last forever.

But, anyway... back to 1995. I saw the end of Toy Story many times, this whole RC sequence that's playing right now. It bugged me then--and still does--that the moving truck has almost nothing in it. Hell, moving day and there were still posters on Andy's wall. It actually runs counter to the parenthetical above about Pixar putting so much detail into its films; at least one person at Pixar had to have actually moved before and should have know the truck should have been packed full of furniture and boxes. I had only moved once by then, and we didn't even use a moving truck, and I knew that.

Pixar's animation would get even more detailed over the next two decades, but at the time Toy Story was amazing to watch. Animated films would never be the same.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

a sad, strange, little man

I wanted to write about masculinity and identity--Woody's and Buzz's conflicted relationship as a sort of testosterone-fueled contest, who can more fully fill the role of man. I wanted to tie this back into identity and how Buzz being all alpha male even when he doesn't really know who he is effectively reifies a notion that all is nature... and I wondered if that was reassuring or damaging. Or if I actually do read too much into things sometimes...

Meanwhile, I just paused to check the photos on the wall by the stairs in the Davis household. I didn't see any picture of a couple. Nor on the mantle. Andy's mother is inexplicably single... And, that sounds like it's shocking or unusual, but I meant, literally, we are not offered explanation. Anyway, I noted out loud that there's a theory that Andy's father has died (Actually, the theory is about he and Andy's mom going through a divorce but I guess I conflated the two ideas in my head... but don't read anything into that.) and that's why they are moving; they don't need so much space anymore. I pointed out that there's no reason to assume such a thing... and there isn't. And, Saer says to me, "That's not your job. You're supposed to make it seem like it matters, because you overanalyze stuff."

I don't think I overanalyze things. I think I analyze things just as much as they need to be analyzed... until I run out of time. This seven-day-per-film system means sometimes I don't have enough time to cover everything... I'm reminded of Gandalf's line--"A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to." That's how I analyze stuff, analyze movies; I don't overanalyze, nor do I underanalyze. I analyze precisely how much I mean to.

What was I saying?

That carpeting, for example. Yes, it was apparently copied out of The Shining (and there are other references to The Shining in the sequels), but does that mean that there's some specific allusion going on other than the visual? The Shining--and I mean the Stanley Kubrick version, specifically--is about an abusive alcoholic father who moves with his wife and kid to a mountain hotel in the off season, ostensibly to write a novel while serving as caretaker. But, the hotel is haunted and feeds on his weaknesses, eventually driving him to homicide. The story beats are mostly the same in the novel. But, none of these beats is here... unless we're supposed to see Andy and his mother as Wendy and Danny Torrance (Danny and Andy even share the same letters), maybe having taken on assumed names after killing Jack at the Overlook. (Buzz's turn as Mrs. Nesbit could be a clue into the altered names.) But, what does that mean for this story? I don't think that Sid's toys are ghosts. Can it simply be that the carpet is supposed to link into the horror atmosphere that Woody and Buzz experience, at least initially, at Sid's?

(Andy's mom being Wendy does get in the way of the theory that she's Emily from Toy Story 2 all grown up, but this link outside the Toy Story films might be more interesting.)

In The Shining--the novel (and the TV miniseries version), not the Kubrick version, there are topiary animals that move when you are not looking at them, just like the toys here. Perhaps it is just as basic as that--somebody involved in the production here thought of those topiary animals and they needed a pattern for the carpet, so they went with that one. There are some interesting pattern choices elsewhere in the film (the wallpaper with the ducks in the room where Sid's dad is asleep with the TV on, for example).

Or maybe the toys move just like those topiary animals move. Those animals were only (apparently) evil for the same reason that Jack Torrance turned homicidal--the Overlook's malevolent influence. I assume that any toys (in the universe of Toy Story) that get dragged to the Overlook Hotel (assuming it was rebuilt after the fire) turn on their owners and try to kill them. Hell, Sid might not realize it but he may be doing a service for the rest of us, defending the world from potentially homicidal toys.

Jack Torrance--his story also could work as an in for a blog entry on masculinity. He's supposed to be this good father but he has weaknesses he cannot control. The question is, what is masculine, what makes him a man? Taking care of his wife and son or demonstrating power over them any anyone else, even if it has to be violently? And here, assuming Andy's father has recently left (or died), we can imagine that Andy is having a hard time dealing with it. Maybe Woody reminds him of his dad, who got him interested in cowboys. (Dismissing the aforementioned Emily theory, of course.) Andy needs a newer, shinier, fancier toy to help him get on with his life--and it's all subconscious, of course. Woody's need to remain in Andy's life becomes a sort of synecdoche for everything Andy's father ever was for Andy. (And, we get into some Freudian film analysis, with Andy (Buzz Lightyear being his proxy) has to "kill" the father to be in charge of his own life. Woody, then, is the father. And, by sticking around, by fighting so hard to be in Andy's life, he's just keeping the memory around. Andy cannot move on.

Hell, whatever happened to Andy's father, maybe his mother has been dating. Buzz, then, is the interloping new lover who Andy has to accept and embrace to get past the grief of losing his father. Essentially, every bit of conflict between the other toys and Woody becomes representative of Andy's psychological struggle. Maybe the entire film is really just happening in Andy's head as he deals with moving and with moving on.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

the dolls must really go for you

Clearly, Toy Story is built around the whole "buddy picture" sort of structure, but that's close enough to the romance genre, specifically romantic comedy, that I figured it's time to share this:

For the record, I did not draw that. It was drawn by a deviantart user who seems to be named May Pong, lives in Brunei. And, if seeing Buzz and Woody kissing like that bothers you, you really shouldn't read the rather brilliantly titled "And Beyond" by Kass, a fanfic in which Woody realizes he has fallen in love with Buzz and Buzz overhears him breaking up with Bo Peep and one thing leads to another until eventually, Buzz plays with Woody's pull string and Woody pushes Buzz's buttons.

Seriously though, I think there's more to it than some playful imagining or adolescent fantasy. (And, I'm not suggesting that Toy Story is feeding into homosexual references like, say, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, even though Woody is clearly jealous because he used to sleep with Andy and now Buzz gets to. And, let us not think about the strap on Buzz has when he and Woody finally learn to work together.) Just like the buddy genre is like the romantic comedy, there's a universality to a story about two characters meeting in conflict and learning to work together. I'm reminded of Dowd & Pallotta (2000), who write:

With the coming of the industrial age, the potential for the romantic drama increased. Social horizons expanded as transportation facilities reached into sectors where ordinary workers and their families lived. The middle class emerged as a dominant social category; its structural position between the wealthy and the workers enables its members to interact on a regular basis with diverse others. (p. 559)

We can take a few points from this. First of all, in terms of romantic drama (and comedy), it makes sense that such stories are often driven by social differences, even differences in social class. A) that fits with our notions that opposites attract and B) it turns all romantic stories into, on some level, stories about social class. Second of all, we can apply this to Toy Story, specifically. Woody is not upper class, but he does enjoy a certain comparable status as Sheriff. Buzz is also not upper class, but more a working class schmo. There will be conflict, even if they don't effectively fill the same role for Andy or the other toys, because they are inherently different. Yet, there are similarities that should draw them together as well; they are both men of the law... I assume. I'm not exactly sure what Star Command does from the little bit of information we're given in this film.

That doesn't mean romance, but the affect is the same. Their differences, and their competition drives the plot... except inasmuch as Buzz's delusion drives him away from where he's supposed to be. But, structurally, this extends the animosity that might separate a couple in many a romantic comedy (and generally separates the buddies in a buddy picture through at least the first act)--Hinnant (2006) describes a storyline that should be "familiar to readers [or viewers] of contemporary popular fiction," a storyline which "presupposes an atmosphere of bitter animosity. It involves the initial antagonism of an improbable pair of lovers who will only slowly come to appreciate..." well, one another (p. 297). Hinnant refers to the characters appreciating moral characteristics in one another, because he's specifically writing about courtship novels. In modern romance, especially romantic comedies, it's far simpler.

Let us ignore Henderson's (1978) idea that "romantic comedy is about fucking and its absence" (p. 22). When I start looking at the film as veiled homosexual love story, it feels a bit juvenile, reading double entendres into things, like Woody's lament that because he doesn't have all the fancy accoutrements that Buzz has, all he can do is... [well, he plays with his pull string].

References

Dowd, J.J. & Pallotta, N. R. (2000). The end of romance: The demystification of love in the postmodern age. Sociological Perspectives, 43(4), pp. 549-580.

Henderson, B. (1978). Romantic comedy today: Semi-tough or impossible? Film Quarterly, 31(4), pp. 11-23.

Hinnant, C.H. (2006). Jane Austen's "wild imagination": Romance and the courtship plot in the six canonical novels. Narrative, 14(3), pp. 294-310.