Bright Lights Film Journal

Telling Stories: Sarah Polley’s <em>Stories We Tell</em> (2012)

“Part of it is about the right to privacy, and part of it is about telling the story the way she wanted it to be told. But there’s also an underlying argument regarding the existential fact of being an actor, and the related argument of identity being performed rather than essential.”

There’s a “telling” moment deep into the long interview Sarah Polley did with Terry Gross on NPR at the time of the US release of her autobiographical documentary Stories We Tell, Gross asks her what she admits is “probably an incredibly inappropriate question” that she is willing to edit out of the broadcast: whether her father Michael Polley is gay.1 What is startling is not simply that Gross gets away with a personal question apparently irrelevant to the film’s subject, since Sarah says it’s quite interesting, that she will play it for her father, and that it will make, “a really good dinner table conversation in my family that no one would be at all uncomfortable with.” Nor is it only how the question is made possible by the sense of intimacy that Polley creates in the film around her family circle, or even its reflection of Gross’s subtle, perhaps unconscious insight that the real subject of the film is as much Sarah’s father, Michael, as her mother, Diane, and certainly more than it is the person revealed midway through to have been her biological father. What is startling is that, in a film intricately structured around more revelations and twists than any modern-day thriller, we come away from Stories We Tell feeling that Sarah has still barely scratched the surface of the secrets roiling around her, and perhaps any, family. Sarah Polley is a masterful storyteller, and she revels in the substance of the telling all the while that, as her film’s title reminds us, she probes deeply into the way stories are created, told, and transformed in that act of telling.

Near the beginning, Michael asks Sarah as they settle into a recording studio why there are two cameras — it’s not the normal documentary setup. She evades the question, which was mostly a good-natured taunt in any case, but in fact the film itself will be her lengthy answer, and rejoinder. By the time it is over, we will in fact need the (hopefully) reliable evidence of the end credits to be completely sure that “Michael Polley’s Narration” was really written by Michael Polley and not his daughter. And it feels like an important fact to know even, or especially, in a film that regards the facts about stories as a dubious proposition: if Sarah put the words into the mouth of her actor father or if this actor who had always wanted to be a writer in fact composed them himself. For the narration is different in several ways from the “whole story” that Polley requests from each of the principals, including Michael, in more typical documentary talking-head fashion. It’s presented as a piece of writing, it’s literary in that self-deprecating English way (Michael was born and raised in England), and it’s as much about Michael as it is about Diane. We hear the narration over a variety of scenes, but we also hear Michael’s more off-the-cuff summary of events, hear him reread emails he wrote to Sarah at the time she told him about her discovery of her mother’s affair and the identity of her real father, and watch him recording the narration under the director’s watchful eye, as she stops him a number of times to ask for a new reading of a problematic line, no matter the emotional content of the words he will need to repeat. It is the spine of the film.

Of course, Sarah also presents us with a number of other storytelling options, including the claim of her biological father that there is only one single, definitive version — his — because he is the only surviving participant of the central events. But she undercuts the eyewitness’s claim to truth in a number of ways. Sarah edits contradictory versions together, one after the other; shows siblings and others changing their minds, receiving faulty intelligence, or simply having lied (mostly for noble reasons). We are provided with written history, oral history, and photographic and cinematic documents. We even see footage from another documentary, on her biological father. We discover while watching the end credits, if we had not suspected it already, that much of what we might have taken for home movies from the past were in fact staged with actors in the present, cleverly cut into the film in recurring snippets, just as a documentarist would have done with actual footage. And there is certainly what appears to be (and what the credits identify as) actual footage mixed in as well, including a screen test of a young and nervous Diane singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a lot of baby pictures (mostly of Sarah), and scenes from Diane’s first, and apparently disastrous, marriage.

The solo piano music composed by Jonathan Goldsmith for much of the score recalls Don McKellar and François Girard’s Thirty-Two Films about Glenn Gould (1993), an undoubted influence on Stories in its fragmentary approach to its subject and its liberal use of actors to recreate the past. But Diane Polley is a less elusive figure than the eccentric Toronto pianist, and Polley’s film is closer to a portrait of 32 figures around Diane than of the many facets of an unknowable central subject. Her camera unerringly captures the embarrassed confusion of the top paternity suspect, revealing the existence of a secret in his attempt not to reveal it. She skillfully limns producer Harry Gulkin’s character as a consummate narcissist, charming and seductive but lost in his own world. She almost mercilessly probes her four siblings’ faces in the snippets from the interviews, choosing to retain their weaker moments along with their happier ones. And she gives Michael even more close-ups than Diane (or Diane’s stand-in), lingering on his aging face in several recent incarnations, as if considering in him the effects of an old age her mother, killed by cancer at 54, never reached. Moreover, it is only through her portrait of Michael that Sarah permits herself to allude to her own burgeoning career as a filmmaker, self-mockingly including footage of him acting in a film-school short and showing herself directing him onscreen in a way she doesn’t with anyone else, almost as if they are collaborators in the story.

Sarah’s decision to include herself as actor as well as off-screen documentarist in the film reminds us of the biggest gap in it: her own illustrious career. It’s a fascinating omission, if understandable only as avoidance of the charge of narcissism. And yet her acting career is so essential to the stories she tells that it would seem impossible to ignore it. There is the practical fact that a main reason she can get all these movie and theater people to talk to her is because of her celebrity and standing in the industry. After all, her story is compelling, but it’s also, as she is quick to note, an old, familiar story, and Sarah makes it clear that Diane was nothing like important enough to have merited a documentary on conventional grounds. What’s new, even more than the telling, is the person telling it. Moreover, Sarah’s acting is also part of the story of her mother, a casting director responsible for her daughter’s entry into the business at the ripe age of four. By the year of her mother’s untimely death in 1990, the 11-year-old Polley already had over a dozen film and television credits to her name, none so high profile as her role in the long-running television drama series Avonlea as Sara Stanley, a girl who has just lost her mother, which she played for six years (1990–96). Her father played with her on that show; he also played with her in the more recent Shakespearean rep comedy series Slings and Arrows (2003-2006). Nor would you know just from watching Stories that her older brother Johnny, in addition to working on Avonlea, has worked as casting director on over a hundred films, mostly English-Canadian features. We get from the film that they’re a show business family, but Polley puts her mother’s much sparser resume at center stage rather than her own, her father’s, or her brother’s. This is a profound distortion of the historical record.

But Stories is not about the historical record, so the distortion is not an issue in the film (at least not for me), although it may betray the director’s ambivalence regarding her profession. It certainly reminds us that the stakes for the film lie somewhere else entirely. But it also begs us to analyze what has been left out, since so much of the film is concerned with the choices made by Michael and Diane in pursuing or abandoning acting and writing careers. The stories Sarah tells us, strangely, leave her professional history out of it, with the exception perhaps of one extremely hammed-up snapshot of the young redhead on her front porch, arms stretched out above her head, garbed in a color-knit sweater and a movie star smile that look right out of her role in Ramona. And there’s one extremely funny anecdote played with Sarah as a young mother in Neanderthal makeup for the independent feature Mr. Nobody (2009), when she receives the news that a reporter has found out about the story of her real father and is planning to publish it. In other words, the only actual footage of Sarah Polley as an actor not only shows her in grotesque makeup, but in order to raise the question of whether a film celebrity deserves privacy. And the punch line, when Sarah, having wondered why the Montrealers were staring at her crying in the park when Torontonians would have just walked past, sees herself in the mirror and remembers what she looked like, neatly elides the other reason she may have been getting the stares — she’s a famous actor, after all. In the event, Sarah managed to win the argument (here’s the story of one of the critics who agreed to keep her secret, and here’s Polley’s long blog on the National Film Board website where she first revealed that secret). Part of it is about the right to privacy, and part of it is about telling the story the way she wanted it to be told. But there’s also an underlying argument regarding the existential fact of being an actor, and the related argument of identity being performed rather than essential. But if her mother’s story is all about the elusiveness of truth and identity, of someone who was always performing and always hiding multiple secrets, the stories of Sarah’s fathers are, it turns out, about fundamental truths. A turning point in the film occurs when the results of a DNA test verify beyond a statistical doubt the identity of Sarah’s biological father. And the emotional climax of the film comes from Michael’s response to that news and the growing realization of the bond between them. Or at least that’s the story the film tells us. For all its concern with discovering the secret of paternity and for all its excavation of Michael’s shortcomings as a father, what we are left with is a film about the power of lived experience over biology, emotional truth over fact. However paradoxically, Polley is claiming the right to be loved for herself, for her story to be loved for itself, too, regardless of what brought her or it into the world to start with.

As a writer, Polley is a brilliant architect of narrative structure. Her favored genres are models of concision: the short story (her debut feature Away from Her was adapted by her from one by Alice Munro’s) or the pop song (Take This Waltz gets its name from the Leonard Cohen song that plays over a bravura montage at a narrative turning point). In all three of her features, Polley weaves songs into the structure, most memorably and viscerally in the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in Waltz‘s scene on the “Scrambler,” but more abstractly in the other films. She is especially fond of the short sharp shock ending of the classic short story: the beautifully ambiguous moment where we want Fiona (Julie Christie) to have suddenly returned to Grant (Gordon Pinsent) after he has sacrificed so much to win back her awareness of him, even as we know that it’s only a moment, and perhaps not even a lucid one. But that’s where it ends, just as in Waltz, the muffin baking scene that brackets the film echoes the impossible choices of Margot (Michelle Williams), recasting our assumptions from the film’s opening at its end and leaving open how we might evaluate them, or if we can. And Stories rattles off a whole series of surprises, of which the identity of the biological father is only the earliest and perhaps least shocking. [WARNING: Stop reading here if you don’t like spoilers.] There is, in particular, the marvelous moment where Michael defies expectation not only by understanding if not actively condoning his wife’s actions, but then by pitying the lover as well, who lost out not only on Diane but on the daughter, too. It’s a classically ironic twist that would have done Chekhov proud. Then there’s the revelation Polley sneaks in right before the credits, although after the impatient viewers will already have turned on their phones and left the theater, when the prime suspect for paternity, long since cleared of the charge, admits, sheepishly, that he may, in fact, have slept with Diane once or twice. By editing in this confession after a string of adamant denials, Polley pulls the rug out from under any assumption that we might really have gotten any factual truth out of these stories. And then there are the credits themselves, where we first see the interviewees credited under their own names, and then the actors that played them in earlier days.

Polley does have a regretful propensity at times to overwrite dialogue and spell out the meaning of the action. It’s there at times in the first two films, and it’s there in one of the few voice-overs we get directly from her, reading an email comparing her mother’s life to a tsunami leaving wreckage in its wake. Michael’s writing has its fair share of clichés in it, but that somehow suits his character as an aging actor and novice writer. Sarah’s is more unfortunate, dotting the i’s of her tightly controlled and elegantly edited images in highly unambiguous fashion. I like to think she’s being true to the moment that produced that grandiloquent email (after all, who hasn’t written a grandiloquent email in an instant of great emotion?), but it’s a jarring moment nonetheless. Far more successful are the two sequences where she cuts in parallel fashion from one talking head to the next, near the beginning catching each sibling in anticipatory nervousness as she prepares to film their statement, and then, near the end, after she has brought her father to tears by making him talk about Diane’s death, stringing together a montage of sad, pensive, or tearful faces, as if the entire film has been grief-stricken by the death. Yes, she’s taking them all out of context, but isn’t that a perfect and perfectly cinematic metaphor for the same effect the tsunami image was striving for? The life and death of Diane Polley have rippled through these lives and these years in uneven and undiminished effect, and no matter the origin or the moment of the sadness, somehow she was always responsible for it. That’s the story Sarah Polley wanted to tell us, although the stories she ends up telling, and the ones she leaves out, exceed that one in any number of equally compelling directions.

  1. Although I prefer as a rule to refer to filmmakers, actors,and other individuals by their full names or last names, I have used given names here to avoid confusion. []