Representing Reality: Stories We Tell and the Desire for Truth

Hastie focuses in her piece on a sequence towards the end of Stories We Tell, shortly before the revelation that many of the “home videos” sprinkled throughout the film were in fact staged recreations. Polley interviews Harry and asks him, “So what do you think of the concept of me making this documentary where we’re sort of giving equal weight to everyone’s version of the story?” He responds, “I don’t like it.” He expresses his belief that there is only one version of the truth—a version that only he and Diane are qualified to tell. All other versions of the story are tainted by the experiences, loyalties, and/or assumptions of those who tell it. He finishes by stating, “the crucial function of art is to tell the truth.”

Immediately following this is an interview with Michael. As Michael begins speaking, he is interrupted by a makeshift cutboard with: “Shot 1, Take 4, etc.” hand-written on it that is held in front of the camera followed by hands clapping to signify the start of filming. He begins again, “You realize when you’ve finished all this, you’ve got about six hours of stuff and you’ll decide what you want out of it.” He tells her that the film would end up very differently depending on who edited it—her version will be very different from his or Harry’s. He tells her the closest to truth she could get would be to present the interviews completely unedited—and even then, the film still wouldn’t be able to present the “truth” completely objectively.

In “Documentary Film, Nichols explains that in documentary, photographic images often function as evidence, because of their indexical relationship to a referent that exists in reality (106). We’ve been discussing all semester how cinema and photography differ from other art forms because of their indexicality—because, as Bazin argues, “Only a photographic lens can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it some- thing more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it” (162). The supposed tie between objectivity and indexicality tends to be stronger for documentary; not only does the audience assume that what they are seeing “really happened,” but they also tend to presume that they are seeing these events without bias or authorial intervention.

Harry seems to take this point of view. He makes it clear that he believes there is one version of the truth and that art’s goal is to find and present that truth. His version of the documentary would likely fall into the expository mode with him as the sole voice of authority. Michael on the other hand seems to favor a more reflexive mode—as evidenced by the decision to keep the moment with the cutboard in the scene. He recognizes that although the film allows us to be as close to the referent as possible, the presence of the filmmaker makes the product not a reproduction of reality but a representation of reality. This may not be the Truth but this is Polley’s truth.

Hastie writes about this same sequence, pointing to the way that this revelation changes the way that the audience watches the film and allows us to “witness the complexity of memory, narrative, and belief layering and unraveling before us” (59). She argues that Polley “shows us that film is like memory in its vagaries, its inconsistencies, and its shifts” (61). Polley, fully aware of the audience’s expectations of film (and documentary in particular), forces us to reconsider our ideas about reality and truth. The two interviews are followed by Sarah’s brother asking her—as she sits behind the camera—what the documentary is about. “Memory and the way we tell the stories of our lives,” she responds. Then, as Sarah’s voice-over reads a an e-mail she sent to Harry in which she describes the purpose of the film, it is revealed to the viewer that many of the scenes the film seemed to present as “home movies” or documents of the truth have actually been recreations that were staged and directed by Polley herself.

This revelation drives Polley’s point home; the one seemingly “objective” evidence in the film—the grainy footage that we assume must be trustworthy—is also tinted by Polley’s perspective, memory, and purpose—this is not unfiltered footage of her mother; this is her memory and her interpretation of her mother. This film reveals itself to be (perhaps predominantly) about filmmaking and documentary; Polley asks the viewer to question their expectations of documentaries and how these films allege to present the “truth.” And although she presents both Harry’s viewpoint and Michael’s, I would argue that it’s clear that she favors Michael’s way of seeing things (as evidenced by using him as the “voice-of-God” narrator). The film encourages us to, as Nichols says we must, interpret indexical images rather than accept them as fact.

Lazy Gaze: A Synthesis of Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure”

Laura Mulvey begins “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by stating her goal to “discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by preexisting patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him,” and promptly asserts that psychoanalytic theory is the proper “political weapon” necessary to complete this goal (711). She acknowledges the difficulty in challenging patriarchal structures when one has no choice but to use language that has been constructed by the self-same structures; however, she consciously chooses psychoanalysis—itself a crucial tool of patriarchy—as her framework in an attempt to “make a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides” (712).

Mulvey argues that mainstream Hollywood cinema exploits the audience’s unconscious erotic desires through a “skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure” (713). And the most prominent pleasure of cinema is scopophila—which includes both “pleasure in looking” (voyeurism) and “pleasure in being looked at” (exhibitionism); in each of these variants, the active watcher reduces the passive watched to an object and “subject[s] them to a controlling and curious gaze” (713). Mainstream cinema provides the perfect atmosphere for fulfilling scopophilic desires; the characters appear unaware that they are being watched and the dark theater contrasted with the light of the screen creates an illusion of separation between the viwer and the viewed. The screen becomes a window into an unsuspecting, private world; however, Mulvey explains, the screen is also like a mirror wherein the watcher recognizes himself. Like a child who recognizes his/her image in the mirror for the first time and in the process, uncovers his/her subjectivity, cinema allows us to at simultaneously escape our own subjectivity while also reinforcing it. So, the second main pleasure in cinema arises from narcissism. And the delicate balance between scopophilia and narcissism allows the audience to fulfill their laden desires while also remaining separate from them.

Cinema maintains this balance by contrasting the passive female object with the active male protagonist who “mak[es] things happen” (716). Mulvey argues that the female character has two functions: to be an “erotic object” for both the characters within the film and the audience outside of it (716). Her performance exists outside of time and space and “freeze[s] the flow of action” to allow for “erotic contemplation” (715). On the other hand, the male protagonist’s actions make up the plot of the film. In short, she “bears” meaning while he “makes” meaning (712). Therefore, the viewer is encouraged to “identify” with the male protagonist, and the language of cinema fosters this identification through camerawork and editing that promotes a “satisfying sense of omnipotence” (716).

Finally, Mulvey explains that there are three “looks” in cinema: that of the camera filming the actors in real-time, that of the audience watching in the theater, and that of the characters looking at one another. Hollywood cinema, she claims, tends to disregard the first two looks—which are grounded time and space—and focus solely on the third in order to maintain a feeling of distance between the viewer and the events played out on screen. In focusing only on the third kind of look, these films ensure that they will never achieve “reality, obviousness, [or] truth” in favor of maintaining the “neurotic male ego” (721). Mulvey suggests that “alternative,” avant-garde cinema may be able to destabilize the male gaze. In order to do this, she claims, these films must emphasize the other two looks: of the camera (which will return the film to a particular space and time rather than appearing to be only a scocophilic dream) and of the viewer (which will destroy the illusion that he is merely an “invisible guest”) (722).

In this piece, Mulvey glosses over the fact that a film can have a female protagonist—in a footnote, she claims that the strength of these characters tends to be “more apparent than real” (716). How does the male gaze operate in a film like 4 Months where the narrative is moved forward by a female protagonist? Who are we being encouraged to identify with? Or, is this an example of the kind of “alternative” cinema that breaks free from the gaze? How do we conceive of the male gaze knowing that women tend to go to the movies more than men? Does the male gaze operate no matter who is in the audience? Can a woman watch something with a “male gaze?”—especially considering that women presumably don’t experience castration anxiety? While thinking about this piece I was reminded of Boyhood and how some of us gawked at the idea that “anyone” could identify with Mason—who is the ideal viewer of that film? And finally, while watching Lost in Translation, I found myself questioning whether or not Charlotte falls prey to the gaze—especially considering the opening shot that Erica discusses in her post. Mulvey claims that “conventional close-ups of legs … or a face … integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism. … One part of a fragmented body destroys … the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon rather than verisimilitude to the screen?” Does this opening shot merely play to the voyeuristic male gaze—especially since Charlotte is presumed to be completely alone in this moment? The shot was influenced by the paintings of John Kacere, so is Coppola providing commentary on the omnipresence of the male gaze? Is she “mak[ing] a break by examining patriarchy with the tools it provides” (712)? Or is she merely inviting the gaze—which, according to Mulvey, must be easy to do since “cinema builds the way [the female character] is to be looked at into the spectacle itself” (721).

Image result for john kacere painting

John Kacere’s Lorena 91
(Literally, all he does it paint butts.)