There’s a moment toward the end of ‘Stories We Tell’, the Canadian actor Sarah Polley’s hybrid reconstruction-documentary-group therapy session, that I think may stay with me forever. At least I hope it will, so wise is its appreciation of the work of being human, the hope of moving beyond past failures and sorrow, and the invitation each of us receives to make a life as a participant in something much larger than ourselves. Call it the out-working of the redemption of humanity, call it being etched into the Panorama of Being, call it the pursuit of happiness – whatever it is, Sarah Polley’s dad knows what he’s talking about when he says ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy.’
An actor with distinguished theatrical form, Michael Polley had reached the beginning of his ninth decade when Sarah decided to make a film about their family experience. The less you know about that experience, or at least the way it would be headlined on TMZ or the Huffington Post’s less nuanced pages, the better. The beauty of ‘Stories We Tell’ was, for me, indivisible from the surprise value, the sense of genuine unfolding of narrative unpredictability. Most popular documentaries these days are better described as ‘crafted non-fiction’, by which I mean they aren’t really about the discovery of something new (last year’s Oscar-winning ‘Searching for Sugarman’ is a great example: a lovely, rhythmic movie with a heart, but whose makers seem to have known what the story would be before they recorded a single pixel). But there’s an incomparable excitement when watching a non fiction film in which the audience is able to trust the filmmaker’s own naïveté – what might be imperfectly called an ‘innocent gaze’, which captures something they didn’t expect, that wasn’t scripted, that arose only because two previously independent entities (in this case Sarah Polley the director engaging with her relatives as the subjects of a film in which she also plays a major role; rather than Sarah Polley the sister and daughter merely hanging out with her family) met on a film location and something new was born.
There are lots of these births in ‘Stories We Tell’ – the birth of relationships (between people who either didn’t know each other before, or only thought they did), the birth of trust (between Polley and the audience, in the first instance; between Polley and her subjects for the rest), and eventually the birth of redemption. Michael Polley says this memorable thing toward the end of the movie (it really forms the climax), a little red around the eyes, a little quieter than before, but with a perceptible inner smile. ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy’, says Michael, at the end of a long interview, intercut with home video footage, dramatic reenactment, and voices from the past. He says it as a riposte to those who believe that life is always spiraling downward, who assert that our inevitable deaths are merely the signifiers that everything is meaningless. ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy’ is his way of saying that even death is to be treated with amusement – it’s silly for us to think we could ever understand the mystery of our lives. The fact that he says it after being seen to have suffered great costs in his family life, and in the context of offering forgiveness to someone who hurt him a great deal, even to the extent of empathizing with the other party’s own pain, makes ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy’ the wisest piece of movie dialogue, and ‘Stories We Tell’ the best movie of the last year.