Storytelling and Self

Claude Lanzmann in his biography “The Patagonian Hare” includes his thoughts about film-making. Two of his quotes (my translation and emphasis) coincide with my current “editing mode”:

“I worked on (...) newspaper articles the same way,
I work now on my films.
I wanted thoroughly examine the issue,
take myself out of the picture,
enter into the reasons and impulses,
lies and silences of those
whom I want to present or whom I ask questions.
All needed for reaching
a state of hallucinatory
and precise hypersensitivity,
which for me is a model for the imagination.
Only such approach allows me to uncover, reveal the truth
and, if needed, make those I speak about alive and present.
Anyway, this is the law I obey.
I consider myself a seer
and strongly advocate to all
who write about cinema
that they include the term “seer”
into their writing techniques.”

- Claude Lanzmann

To take oneself out of the process so that the subject or the theme comes through is a noble but a very tough order. I keep struggling with my own off screen knowledge, biases, over or under sensitivity. My brilliant editor keeps saying “let the material speak by itself, don’t let your ideas mess it up, allow it reveal itself in its own way.” Sounds great but how to really see and hear without influencing with our own apparatus of perception that which is being perceived? How to represent reality in such a way that it won’t end up being a series of subjective perceptions? Is it possible? Of course the concept of “storytelling” implies “a storyteller”, hence subjectivity is at the very core of the process. A story won’t happen by itself. And yet more often than not the less of a storyteller the better.

“Editing is a long, serious, delicate and subtle operation.
Many a time I felt totally blocked,
as one is during a mountain climbing
during which one can’t find a proper passage
that would allow to climb higher.
Usually one such passage exists.
Not two but only one that is any good.”
- Claude Lanzmann

That’s also true, and yet it brings about the same tension between “the storytelling self” and “the reality being told”. In order to move through the story there has to be an entity to make necessary steps. Yet, the moment a proper step has been made the self should forget itself in order to be open, pure, receptive, hearing and listening to that which is outside (of the perceiving self.)

Otherwise, there is only deaf ears madness.

On the other hand “Shoah” is so effective because it is emotionally lived through, because we feel the emotions of the storyteller, because one person took the challenge to take himself out of the (normal to that point) way of relating to the subject. So perhaps the real compromise in this dilemma of how much of a storyteller should be in a story (aside of course from a first person narrative) is not how to balance the presence of a storytelling self and the events/things/people/themes described but the quality of that self who should not be present in the story. Another words in “who is telling the story” the crucial is not “who” but “who is not”.

And so in this bizarre conclusion it turns out that the quality of the storytelling self relies on the ability of the self to be not! Only a few are talented enough to do so. Strangely, since their work is the most effective, they are the most recognized.


Tokyo everywhere?

Yasujiro Ozu and Kôgo Noda, the writers of "Tokyo story"

Nobody disputes that "Tokyo story" is a masterpiece yet a quick run through the internet brings in surprising reasons.

For example a Guardian reviewer writes “The film condemns no one”. Hmmm ... during the screening I had a feeling of a relentless, brutal and furious accusation constantly pouring from the screen. Granted, all done in a restrained, elegant and measured way, which just increased the power of this quiet yet terrifying howl over our smallness, stupidity and wasted chances. So, it seems that contrary to the quoted line, the film condemns everybody. Even the gentle visitors are guilty. Guilty of being too complacent to their children, of playing the game, of allowing the quiet evil of coldness and indifference to spread with its small, banal, everyday steps.

“There are too many people in Tokyo” means all dwellers are bad or are bad because there are too many of them. But there are not “them”. It’s “us” that we should beware. Tokyo is everywhere. Incidentally, I buckle over giving one of my beloved cities such a bad rap. But we all know what Ozu means: in “Tokyo story” it’s not important that it happens in Tokyo, it is important that it is “a story” which happens everywhere.

Almost every writing about this film brings in the aesthetics, the framing, the camera level and such as the key elements. Surely there are there, but that’s just the skin deep formal “clothing”, which feels totally secondary. What jumps out the strongest are the characters, the timings as well as the overall structure of the story. (That's why the reported remake of the film makes perfect sense.)

“Tokyo story” is terrifying because of the gentleness of most of its characters. Their smiles and under-spoken reactions telegraph hidden cries of their souls. The situations extend just a bit longer than needed but not too long to call attention to their slight elongation. It is a teasing approach. The story arc leads from the banal through the tragic to the everyday. This hurts.

Regardless of why “The Tokyo Story” works, it is also fun to poke “behind the scenes”. The reported 43 bottles of sake consumed over the 103 days of writing of the script intrigue. Were they drinking to get stimulated? Perhaps they were just numbing themselves since the story opens access to a very painful spiritual human nerve, the nerve almost impossible to handle while being sober.

While the above could make a good story, it isn’t extraordinary in its excess but rather in its restrain. In a wonderful clip Shizu Noda, recalling the writing practices of Yasujiro Ozu and Kôgo Noda, says it usually took them 100 bottles of sake to write a script. Perhaps sensing the importance of this particular story they decided to stay sober on this one. Well sort of sober.


Harry Potter and the movies

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling
director: David Yates

The audience was mostly full of twenty-something girls. All eagerly awaiting the screening. The opening shot - the extreme close up of the eyes was strong but also suspicious. Something about it was too much, too fast, too eager and too cheap. “Oh boy, somebody is going to treat me as if I was an idiot”, somebody sighed next to me. As the story was unfolding there were occasional giggles and some smart-ass remarks, yet all got quiet fast. The screen took charge over the hormones, the nervousness of energy, the tiredness and wiggling of the bodies. All of us became subjected to the shiny beets dangling in front of our eyes, moving “24 frames per second” (or whatever visual trick this posh digitally equipped movie theater offered). A few times the audience even laughed at a few lame jokes.

Additional and clearly unintentional laughs the audience awarded to some particularly clumsy staging. Those laughs spoke plenty: we go to the movies to be visually hypnotize, mesmerize and spellbound by succession of sounds and images. The faster, the slicker and the more intriguing the elements the better, however once the human behavior on screen rings false - we are merciless.

I was shocked by the lifelessness of the young characters. They mostly behaved (with the exception of Ron Weasly) as if totally surprised that they are not in a proper vampire movie or something. Somehow all the charm of the first installments of the series was gone. I understand that final confrontation with the evil Lord Vordemort is a serious matter but the movie wasted plenty of time for idle sitting around anyway.

After the screening the audience was borderline disappointed. “I wasn’t floored”, “It was OK, but I can’t wait for the second part”, “The book was better” - were mostly the comments I overheard. Afterwards I spoke to a ten year old, a huge fan of Harry Potter. When I said “but the film was so sad, wasn’t it”, his face for a second clouded - for this short moment he allowed the reality of the film to surface, but then it quickly passed. I suspect that for him the fun of the film was not in its execution but in the subject matter, in the young character of Harry Potter, in the wonderful initial world created by J.K. Rowling. Besides, what's the film's reality? Perhaps our yearnings that we bring into a movie theater are way more important than the skills with which stories flicker on the screen.

In "Deathly Hallows 1" shrewd marketing and our collective eagerness to carry on with magic, innocence and charm triumphed over quality. We can pretty sure envision the second part. It will be laud, fast, furious and victorious. In the human department it most likely is going to be so-so. (There is no reason to change anything or anybody since the formula brings in buckets of cash anyway.) And guess what? We are all going to be there. Glued to flickering images. With sweaty hands and glittering eyes. Gasping at the shinny screen.

Do we love Harry Potter series despite its steady turn to morose and grim, or because of it? Let’s hope the turn does not announce some upcoming collective shadow.