Thursday, March 11, 2010
Get Real: The Bullshit Artist As Hipster Historian
Several years ago, when my novel Troublemaker was published, I was inevitably asked by people whether it was autobiographical or not. They wanted to know how much of it was real. That seemed like such a bizarre line of questioning to me. It wasn't something I'd heard much, or asked of the books I'd liked. This was 2000. It's worse now. Back then, already, everything had to be memoir. Everything had to have "really happened." You had to watch it live on TV, as it happened, like breaking news. Story and narrative were only relevant, only interesting, if they had basis in fact, in which case they ceased to be story and narrative, really. This was the framework through which you approached creative material and assessed its validity and worth. How could you relate to it if it hadn't happened? How could you value it if it was nothing more than a lowly entertainment?
What I'd always appreciated about the work I loved was sensibility, the feeling that, whatever the piece happened to be about, it presented a distillation, however abstract, of the artist's world view. I didn't need the experiences to be "real" in order to make something real of them for myself. I didn't need for them to have happened. I had no problem negotiating those illusions. My imagination was evolved enough to make all the necessary distinctions. I was just the opposite: I tuned things out which didn't go to a place that let my mind roam freely. There's something beautiful and terrifying about the fiction of Jean Rhys, one of my favorite authors. Some of what she describes might have happened. A lot of it didn't. What matters is the way her characters, her surrogates, navigate the world as she saw it. What matters is the mood, the feeling the work gives you. Rhys was faithful to her vision and carried it out to its logical conclusions--arriving at something close to dreams. Her work alters your mood like a drug, freeing you to view things differently.
Who cares what Ford Maddox Ford, her early benefactor and lover, and Sybille Bedford, his wife, thought of their time with Rhys? Each wrote about her. Neither made any of it sound as compelling as anything their subject produced. Rhys got beyond reality, touching on archetype. Bedford and Ford fell into the trap of trying to "recreate" their experiences faithfully. Ultimately I sided with Jean, and her indirect accounts, because Bedford and Ford, insistent that they could report their time with her as it happened, without embellishment, without bias, reinforced the impression Rhys gave that they were pompous, self-satisfied prigs, unwilling or unable to admit that in telling a story, even recounting real life events, they were presenting a point of view as subjective as any fiction Rhys had written, and far more manipulative.
You get the same kind of egotistical over-estimation of the "real" from filmmakers every now and then, as if the reality they present were anything more than their own perspectives. Along comes Director A, who insists, with the stupid purism of someone who hasn't reconciled himself to the subtle enormity and predictable consistency of the lies artists tell themselves, that story, script, preparation, et al. obstruct you from arriving at reality on film. Story is manipulative, this argument goes, but the simple presence of the camera never lies. Set a camera up on a tripod and you will get unadorned, unbiased reality. You'll get at something real. The moment you start "thinking" (i.e. preparing, deciding, performing, shaping) you've started to lie. You're dealing in fantasy. You might as well be Walt Disney.
You usually get this from people in their twenties--from guys more often than not. Guys have less pressure exerted on them to view things from different points of view, and can easily start to believe that what they see is what everyone else does, rather than their own perspectives, that what they see is what is happening, as opposed to one facet of what is happening, a facet with which they unconsciously identify and therefore have zeroed in on. Typically these guys have very little sense of history and how the camera starts to distort by the mere fact of its presence. They don't know much about Vietnam and how it was presented to the viewing public. Their awareness doesn't even stretch back as far as Desert Storm. Bush might have been a liar but the news presented fact. They don't examine the content too much. They would probably insist that what is false about network television news, for instance, is its insistence on salacious presentation. They don't go deeper than that, into the editorial aspects of reportage--where the camera is pointed, what gets in, what's left out, juxtaposition, point of view.
These filmmakers are just documenting their lives and the lives of their friends, their argument goes. They're just telling the truth. They're stripping film of all the pretense and fraudulence it's accrued for decades now. That might be true, if they and their friends lived their lives in front of cameras. This stuff is so obvious, when you start looking at it and breaking it down. To avoid breaking it down is a bigger lie than any science fiction film or Hollywood melodrama. It's more manipulative, and lazy.
Walk it through. So you set up a camera and you record people. There's no script. Maybe there's a few lines of theoretical description which place these people in a certain scenario, a real life setting with real life circumstances:
"Tom and Allie visit a soul food restaurant, where they discuss their relationship."
Presumably, you hand-wrote this description because to use a typewriter shows forethought. It means that you planned something, which makes you dishonest. To think is to overthink. To plan is to assault reality and have your way with it.
Because you don't view Tom and Allie as actors, they're using their real names. They aren't told where they're going. That way, you can count on realism from their reactions. They will be realistically confused and their attempts not to acknowledge the camera will be real. Do you instruct the people at the restaurant not to look at the camera--or is this something they simply understand not to do? Do Tom and Allie look at the camera, addressing its presence as casually as they would in a documentary? You've told them nothing--are they on the same page with you? Do they know you're all making a movie which is not a movie?
Are you recording with a boom or off the camera? Where does the camera get set up? What's the backdrop for this ostensible slice of life? Don't think that these issues don't matter simply because you refuse to acknowledge them. That's not being very honest with yourself.
In post, are you adding the sound of crickets to hide some of the imperfections and inconsistencies of the dialogue tracks? Color correction? How are you editing? I'm just trying to break this down. Reality--according to these filmmakers--doesn't get edited. So how is this approached on your film? How do you edit reality? Isn't that contradictory? To approach the issue is to make decisions. Those decisions are hidden within the look and fabric of the film. You can pretend not to see them but you can't deny their existence.
You appear in this film yourself, as a character who is just being himself, even though that self doesn't acknowledge being filmed or directing or prompting. You edit yourself, and title the film, and give it some kind of structure. The same way you arranged those allegedly random lines of description on a page which set the creative agenda for this project, you give your film some kind of shape. How do you decide which take to use? If all takes are reality, and you want to get at what's real, what's to decide? Why more than one take in the first place, given that whatever happens in front of your camera is inevitably real?
Say the actors are people you didn't know before this all started. Did you cast them? How did you avoid making those decisions feel like decisions? Was one person more real than the others--less like an actor? How did they decide not to decide what to wear? Why didn't they just wear what they were born in? Clothes are to the person what lights, music, and props are to a film.
You see how this starts to sound. It's silly to think that by adhering to some pristine avoidance of traditional filmmaking givens (lighting, music, characterization, screenplay, etc.) you are arriving at something more pure, more authentic, more honest, less...filmic? But I've been hearing this from filmmakers for years now, and it sounds as stupid coming from them as it did coming out the mouths of writers, politicians and other liars in slightly different contexts.
I have some suggestions. You can trust them because they come right off the top of my head! It's like Turrets--they're flying right out of my mouth. When someone with Turrets calls you an asshole, it must be true--you really are an asshole--because there's no preparation there.
First, embrace the fact that you have a point of view. Embrace the reality that to film anything is to isolate it in fantasy. Fess up to the fact that conveying a point of view is a manipulation to some degree, and that to pretend otherwise is miles more deceitful than any outright propaganda. Get over it.
Next: if you don't like film, stop making films. The experience of watching one has nothing to do with reality. People who want to avoid fantasy do not go to movies. They abstain from them the way a recovering addict avoids the corner his former coke dealer haunts. People who like movies generally understand that something happens in a theater or in front of a screen which isn't about reality but alchemy.
You think reporting reality is possible? Watch the news: that's not reality either. It's put together the same way you make "films". Like you the news pretends to have no point of view. Like you, it pretends not to frame.
If you want to show me something approaching the "real" you, and you insist on documenting it, film yourself on the toilet. You know that look on a dog's face when he's taking a dump--that primal, awkward abjection? That's closer to real than hipsters slumming in a crowded restaurant. Your idea of reality is a camera focused intently on you; everything else is background, but one person's background is another's front and center. I'm not trying to confuse you. I'm not trying to create Escher patterns which will run circles of your mind. This is reality. Reality is pretty trippy. It's all over the place. Pointing your camera in one perhaps random area of a bigger picture is like showing someone the corner of a Dali painting.
Finally, if what you want is to document the lives of the people you know, put the camera away and watch your friends. We're all acting, all the time. Don't believe me? Read Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman:
"Goffman treated this book as a kind of report in which he frames out the theatrical performance that applies to face-to-face interactions. He believed that when an individual comes in contact with other people, that individual will attempt to control or guide the impression that others might make of him by changing or fixing his or her setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person that the individual is interacting with is trying to form and obtain information about the individual. Goffman also believed that all participants in social interactions are engaged in certain practices to avoid being embarrassed or embarrassing others. This led to Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis. Goffman saw a connection between the kinds of acts that people put on in their daily life and theatrical performances." (from Wikipedia)