Friday, February 28, 2014

True/False 2014, Preliminaries: Acting Out

The True/False has started in earnest, but I've still got a couple of films from the screening process to write about. As I was saying in my last post, there's a dichotomy at True/False between films with large-scale concerns and movies that have a much more narrow scope. Some of the films with a narrower scope are personal stories or accounts of quirks in the way the world works. These are sometimes the festival's most pleasurable films. Sometimes, they are the most unpleasant. Regardless, they're usually the most daring entries at any given festival. The fun part of festivals is the blindness surrounding these films. You pays your ticket and you takes your chances and good luck to you.

Actress (2014, directed by Robert Greene) follows the fortunes of Brandy Burre, who had some small notoriety as one of the cast members of The Wire before retiring to raise a family. As the film unfolds, Burre tries to resurrect her career, at no small cost to herself.

This is a film where one wonders about the barrier between the film and the subject. During the course of the film, we watch Burre's marriage disintegrate. There's an episode early in the film that elides an infidelity on her part. Her ex-husband is on screen, so he participated in the film. Did he see footage that set things off? What is the ethical obligation of the filmmaker here? These are troubling questions, but the film isn't terribly interested in them. It's more interested in life as performance. Given Burre's profession, this is an ideal vehicle for such an inquiry, but it also calls into question the reality presented to the viewer. The film is up front about this. The opening shot of the film shows Burre in her role as housewife and mother, while she's speaking lines from The Wire.

Visually, this is a beautiful, wintery film. This is mostly a one-man band, with director Robert Greene shooting and editing the film in addition to directing, and there's a unity of purpose resulting from wearing all three hats. Certainly, having a photogenic subject who is comfortable in front of the camera helps this, but the film's visual splendor is more a result of an eye for details and an eye for composition.

The feminist in me would be remiss is she didn't mention the trap Burre has made for herself. She is obviously unfulfilled. She doesn't seem to garner respect at the restaurant she and her husband own, nor from many of her other day to day contacts, professional and personal. The film doesn't demonize motherhood, but it doesn't exactly glamourize it either. This is compounded by her husband, who appears to have very traditional ideas of the gender roles in a marriage. This, more than Burre's infidelity, is at the heart of their marital discontent. At least, according to the film. It butts up against the limitations of what a documentary can know about its subject. This is especially true of the end of the film, in which Burre shows up with a blackened eye. An accident, she says. She's clumsy, she says. Man, that image and how she describes it is loaded. Can we trust her? Is she the victim of violence, domestic or otherwise? It's a sequence that detonates the film's other concerns. Is it a performance? We have no way of knowing.

Greene was also the editor on Approaching the Elephant (2014) a first film by Amanda Rose Wilder. It's very different. Shot by its director in stark black and white, This film follows the founding and first year of a "free school," a type of school created as an alternative to the dominant education model developed to serve the industrial revolution. It's a portrait of good intentions paving the road to hell.

The premise of the free school is to involve the students in the actual running of the school. The kids participate in rule-making, curriculum development, everything. The practice of education in this model is free-form. In theory, it empowers the students and encourages them to take an interest in education. In practice, at least in this case, it results in the inmates running the asylum.

One of my screening companions mentioned that at least there wasn't a pig's head on a stick being paraded through the halls of the school. It was a joke between us by mid-film that this was the kind of film you might get if Frederick Wiseman were to make a version of The Lord of the Flies. It makes an impression, I'll give it that, but I don't know if it's successful in communicating the aims or the results of free schools. It's very good at demonstrating the fault-lines instilled in human relationships by anarchy. I mean that as a formal description as well as hyperbole, because this is essentially an idea designed as resistance to capitalism. I don't know that it's a fair hearing, in part because the period of time is likely too short to demonstrate the kinds of people this type of school will produce at the end of the process. That's a flaw, but likely a flaw that can't be addressed by a documentary short of a Michael Apted-esque devotion to a lifelong project.

Still, there's value in this film. It may not depict what it wants to depict-then, again, maybe it does--but what it does depict is important. The kids--particularly the bully who winds up ostracized by a jury of his peers--are the world in microcosm. Whether that's comforting or not is a matter of perspective, I suppose.

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