Stories We Tell

June 3, 2013 4 Comments

Stories We Tell is director Sarah Polley’s gripping exploration  of her own past and of the way we all seek to tell/find our own stories.

This amazing film, created in documentary style, with super 8  hisorical video from Polley’s own childhood, is blended creatively with re-enactments and carefully edited interviews with family members.  Polley’s gift is to create a film that is emotionally moving as we learn the story of her long-dead mother, a vibrant woman who died when Sarah was only eleven.  Yet, she bravely reminds us throughout the film of the nature of our own storytelling, which creates versions of “truth”  that reflect the needs of those grappling with the emotional impact of memory.  We are pulled into her story and lose track of the transitions from “reel” footage to staged drama of significant moments as we join Polley in her search for the mother she lost and (spoiler alert) for the identity of her biological father, who is not Michael Polley, the man who raised her.

‘Why do we care?” is a question asked throughout the film by those revealing their own stories.  Sarah Polley’s siblings and half siblings, her fathers and close friends of the family (including the “usual suspects” of her own paternity) share poignant details of their own stories, which often enrich and sometimes contradict each other.  Throughout this film, Polley lets us see her sitting at the control panel (literally) in a metaphoric attempt to gain mastery of a past that she had no power to control.   We wince a bit as she asks her father, the story’s chosen narrator, to repeat emotionally charged “lines.”  He chides her for being a “cruel director” and we once again are reminded of the “story” aspect of the truths we are being told.  Polley’s own discovery of the past that literally created her and her own attempts to influence it resonate with our own attempts to do the same with our own stories and make us complicit in her quest.

Polley’s decision to create her film in Rashomon style, with each character given the opportunity to tell his/her  story, risked creating a post modern cliche (there is no truth, etc.) and could be criticized for being overly stylized and manipulative.  That, however, would miss the point of the film.  We need our stories, and despite the risk of self deception, rely on them for our emotional survival.  What is the alternative?

This is a must see movie, and in fact, deserves repeat viewings.  And that’s the truth.
Jolyn Wagner

Must See Movie of the Week
4 Comments to “Stories We Tell”
  1. Norm says:

    This film is no “Rashomon”. The facts, once revealed, were never in dispute. And the revelation only really mattered to Sarah, who is so self-obsessed that she forgot we are paying to see her film and not just listen to old gossip at a family reunion.

    The private lives of actors and filmmakers are always the most fascinating to themselves. For the rest of us ordinary types, we have already heard too many stories of backstage romances and love children for this film to justify its existence. Who cares, and why? We learn little about Sarah’s inner feelings or her feelings towards her dead mother. With that omission, her story really hasn’t been told.

    This movie is merely self-indulgent heresay. Please, tell me a real story!

  2. Robert MacDonell says:

    Stories We Tell is an excellent and thought provoking film, though it may not be experienced on an emotional level as a very satisfying one.

    It is a deliberately paradoxical approach on the part of the director Sarah Polley to ostensibly tell her family story in a docudrama. But it is not a story. Instead, as is her intent, it is many stories from many different points of view which makes it at once so intriguing and at the same time so unsatisfying. As film goers we are use to stories being told with a plot line; that is in context. When confronted with a story told from many different points of view, it requires a great deal of effort on our part to put ‘the story’ in context.

    The human brain has evolved over millennia into an exquisite pattern recognizer. One of the foundations of our cognition is to recognize patterns, attribute meaning to them and put those meanings to practical use for everything from avoiding life threatening situations, to navigating our way to the grocery store, to recognizing emotions that lie behind facial expressions. In Stories We Tell our brains are taxed by trying recognize ‘the’ pattern to put this story in context. But the context keeps changing. This leaves one with the feeling that what we are witnessing is fragmented. And, of course, it is since it is told from so many points of view.

    As Bruce mentioned in our discussion, there is ‘truth’ being told in the film. But there are also many points of view; and the many points of view make it difficult to hold things in context simultaneously; and doing so is mentally exhausting. Bruce’s parable about the blindfolded men touching an elephant and attempting to describe what it is, is a very appropriate one relative to this film.

    In addition to being Sarah’s family story, another of the main points of the film became manifest in the discussion we had afterward. Audience members had become emotionally invested in one or more ‘versions’ of the story as told by different people in the film. We were in turn sympathetic to some versions/characters, frustrated by others, and even indignant about others. We all had our own stories in mind as we attempted to describe what we thought the film was about. At some level it was not only about the story, but the process inherent in telling it as well.

    Based on Norm’s comments, it seems like he felt that the film was an exercise in banality. I can understand that point of view toward this film.

    I think Sarah Polley’s point goes beyond the banality of our individual and/or family stories and why we feel compelled to tell them. The point, she seems to be saying, is that way we feel about and attribute meaning to the stories that are our lives is by examining them in context. And to struggle in the effort if need be to reconcile it all.

    -Bob MacDonell

  3. Bruce Russell says:

    Several reviewers of “The Stories We Tell” say that it supports the idea that truth is subjective, and some compare it to “Roshomon,” which they think makes the same point. I think neither film supports the view that truth is subjective. In “Roshomon,” there is some truth about who killed the Samurai warrior: the bandit, his wife, or himself even if we don’t KNOW which it is. In “The Stories We Tell,” there is some TRUTH about who is Sarah Polley’s biological father, why her mother had sex with that man, whether she had sex with other men besides her husband, and so on. What, if anything, we KNOW, or are JUSTIFIED IN BELIEVING, about these truths is a different matter.

    In a paper I argue that we are justified in believing what the wood cutter in “Roshomon” says, namely, that the bandit killed the samurai. In “The Stories We Tell,” I think we are justified in believing, and even know, that Harry is Sarah’s biological father. Not even justified belief, and knowledge, are subjective!

    What about other claims, say, claims about what Sarah’s mother was like? Here my parable of the blind men seems relevant: testimonial evidence is more likely to lead us to the truth if there is agreement in what different people testify, or if it’s possible to form a coherent view that unifies divergent testimony. One blind man feels the tail and thinks an elephant is like a rope; another the trunk and thinks it like a snake; a third, the a leg and thinks it like a true; a fourth the side and thinks it is like a wall. Some view that makes sense of all the testimony is more likely to be true. It’s an elephant: a big animal with a trunk, a tail, and huge legs!

    But isn’t Harry right when he says that the testimony of people nearest to the truth is what should be given most weight, is the most trustworthy? It depends, for they may have a personal stake in what is accepted as true and their memories might be skewed by wishful thinking, anger, or fear. The testimony of those in the concentric circles further from the truth may provide valuable meta-evidence, evidence about the reliability of the testimony of those nearer to the truth. And in the case of Sarah’s mom, we are interested in the kind of person she was, not just who Sarah’s biological father was. That man (Harry) might be a reliable source about the romance that took place between him and Diane, but not about other aspects of Sarah’s mom.

    One of the reviews of the film that I read said that a personal story should have a universal point. I thought that maybe Norm was focusing on the personal story and ignoring the universal point. I think the point is that truth is NOT subjective and that we can have good reason to believe what it is if we gather enough evidence. Sometimes we can acquire enough evidence to KNOW what the truth is, say, that Harry is Sarah’s biological father. Other times, we can have enough evidence to at least have justified beliefs about what the truth is, say, that Diane was a lively and loving mother. Other times, we do not have enough evidence, and we should suspend judgment, say, on what the reasons were for Sarah having an affair with Harry.

    When Jolyn began leading the discussion, she said that a reviewer (it turns out that is was Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News) said of “The Stories We Tell, “The film is a mystery uncovered like a detective story, wrapped in a love letter.” The “little mystery” is who is Sarah’s biological father. The bigger mysteries are who the mother, and everyone else, is, that is, what kind of people are they. We do not get the same amount and quality of evidence to solve those other mysteries…but we get some. Sometimes it is enough to form justified beliefs in answer to the mysteries; sometimes it is not and we should suspend judgment. In no case should we think that truth is subjective, nor even that justification is. The injunction is always: gather evidence. The maxim is always: fit your beliefs to the evidence! That’s what reason requires.

  4. Bruce Russell says:

    Here are some quotes from an article from the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), some from the film, some from an interview with Sarah Polley.

    (1) When you are in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all,” says a man with an English accent at the opening of the film, “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 are willing it to yourself, or to someone else.”

    (2) “You know a lot of what the film is about was making sure everybody involved in the story was included and we told the story from everyone’s perspectives, as opposed to just one. So somewhere in the mess of all that is the truth, and I can’t claim to know what that is.” (from interview with Sarah Polley)

    (3) “I was talking to people and asking their opinions, and I never really knew if what I was hearing was real,” Polley said. “I never knew if it was factual or if it was fictionalized, if it was actually the past or it was memory imbued with nostalgia. I could never really be sure or touch bottom or have solid ground underneath my feet, and I think in the filmmaking itself I wanted the audience to have a similar experience of not ever be completely certain about what they were seeing.” (Sarah Polley interview)

    (4)”For me the film is mostly about storytelling,” she said over the phone. “And about why we tell stories and why as human beings we have this need to create narrative out of our lives, and I tend to think it’s to make sense of a pretty bewildering life to try to create some sort of narrative arc.” (Sarah Polley interview)

    Bob equates our lives with stories, but as the first quote (which is from the film) suggests, our lives when lived are not stories. We can tell stories ABOUT our lives when we step back from them and reflect on them. Contra postmodernism, not everything is a narrative (and truth is not subjective). Stories are tales, whether factual or fictional. Lives are not tales, though tales can be told about them.

    My previous note is relevant to (2) and (3).

    I agree with Bob that we sometimes tell stories about our lives, or parts of them, to help us make sense of our pasts, our presents, and the relationship between the two (as 4 says)…and to understand the people who have loved us and frustrated us and made a difference in our lives. Sometimes we do that in context, sometimes in solitude.

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