Sidewalks and Stories
September 09, 2018
Story is hard. Lynn and I end up having a version of this conversation every year at the Sidewalk Film Festival. So often, if the movies fail to satisfy, whether they be narrative features or documentaries, it's because the story doesn't cohere. If the story is compelling, we can overlook other flaws. But if the story isn't sharp, no amount of cinematic excellence can make up for it. This year's films made that point multiple times in multiple ways.
The challenge for the documentarian is different from that of the filmmaker trying to compose a fiction (whatever the source material might be). Michelangelo believed that the statue was in the stone and his job was to discover it -- "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." Real lives are messy and complicated and there are many stories between birth and death, most of which don't have clear beginnings, middles and ends. The documentarian has to figure out which story is most amenable to being told and then be ruthless in the carving in order to free that story in a way that's satisfying to the audience. These stories will only ever be partial truths.
Sometimes the story that the director thinks they're going to tell turns out to be very different from the one that emerges during filming. Real life events aren't beholden to whatever script the director has in mind. Some of the best documentaries we've seen have been the result of those shifts and a filmmaker canny enough to follow the story they didn't realize was going to be there. (This was the case with Gip, which won Sidewalk's audience choice for documentary in 2016). Sometimes the story that the director pursues turns out to be even richer than he or she might have imagined.
Near the beginning of White Tide: The Legend of Culebra one of the participants explains the difference between a northern and a southern fairy tale. "The northern fairy tale starts out, Once upon a time..., the Southern fairy tale begins, You're not going to believe this shit!" The story told in this very Southern tale is mostly true. But since the director, Theo Love, came on the scene after all of the events had concluded, he didn't have much as-it-unfolds film to work with. He solves the problem by recreating the crucial scenes using the real life protagonist, Rodney Hyden, and a crew of accomplished actors. Hyden is a very effective collaborator, willing to show himself at his most foolish. Love radically pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to tell a story that's true and satisfyingly unbelievable. Rodney Hyden may not be an angel, but he emerges at the end with at least a bit of a wobbly halo.
There are no angels in the fictional Hot Summer Nights. There are some good performances, a love of movies, a technically accomplished crew, but in the end, no story worth telling. Elijah Bynum mines a few decades worth of teen coming of age movies and noir films about drug deals gone bad to string together a series of clichés that form something much less than their sources. Lynn was ready to leave two-thirds of the way through, but by then I was in trainwreck fascination mode -- I needed to see how Bynum was going to get out of the mess he'd made. Not well, as it unsurprisingly turns out. One of the three main characters is killed, the other two hit the road, never to be seen or heard from again, but living on in the trite myths of the useless narrator. We've seen this kind of thing at Sidewalk many times before -- movies that bring together a lot of talent, that are visually rich, have good acting, are put together by people who've immersed themselves in the lore of cinema, but are lacking the key element.
The creator of Union on the other hand, has way too much story to deal with and, despite years of trying, hasn't yet managed to create a satisfying movie out of it. Spurred by the legend of Joan of Arc, Whitney Hamilton discovered that over 400 women, disguised as men, fought on either side of the Civil War. She wrote a play, then a novel, and then a series of films, the latest of which is Union, all trying to tell their story through the tale of one such woman -- how she came to make those choices and how it affected her and the people who connect with her life. It's a marvelous concept and there's much that's marvelous in the movie. But we were baffled by it. All through the first quarter I was uncertain if I was just missing connections among the characters, or if those connections weren't being made clear. To my relief, when we talked about it afterwards, Lynn said she'd experienced the same thing. The next day, in line for another film, we talked to some people who'd also been at Union and, not only had they felt the same way, they said that was the main topic of conversation on the shuttle bus they'd been on afterwards. It wasn't just us.
Lynn did some investigating and discovered the multiplicity of works Hamilton has created so far. After we got home, we watched an earlier film, My Brother's War, hoping that it would provide some answers, some continuity. It did some, but there are still huge gaps. Where did the young boy, Harrison, come from, for example? Perhaps it's all clear in Hamilton's mind, since she's been living with these characters for so long, but she hasn't made it clear to her audience. It's the danger of being writer, producer, director, editor and star. There's nobody to push back in the service of the material. It might help her to enlist the aid of one of those ruthless sharp-eyed documentarians.
"Story" doesn't have to imply linear chronological plot. I loved Cloud Atlas (book and movie), thought Arrival and Shutter Island were brilliant. I like stories that are complex and twisty and multi-layered and surprising. Take Damsel, which also played at Sidewalk this year. I loved it when I saw it and in retrospect I find myself loving it even more. Call it a fable. The opening shot, of two men sitting in what looks like a 19th century version of a bus shelter in the middle of a Monument Valley-esque wilderness waiting for a stagecoach, establishes firmly that this will not be a conventional narrative. Don't waste time wondering how they got there or how long they've been waiting. If you do, you're missing the point.
By the time Penelope and Butterscotch (the miniature horse) disappear in their rowboat into the fog of the mysterious sea, a wonderful story has been told, of a damsel whose only distress is caused by the men who are trying to rescue her or, in the end, be rescued by her. It's puzzling and quirky and a little confusing and completely satisfying.
I think of Lynn and I as naive movie-goers. We're not cinema buffs by any means. But we're old, so just by default we've seen a lot of movies. The ones we come back to, the ones we hope to find every year at Sidewalk, have great acting and cinematography and editing and music and all those things, but mostly they have great stories. Well told tales with beginnings and middles and ends -- not necessarily in that order.