Reviews of new essay collection & old film
Run Towards the Danger
by Sarah Polley
This being Art/Life, I will begin with my one, brief Sarah Polley story. One dark evening in the late 1990s, I crossed paths with Polley on Bloor Street near Brunswick Avenue. I was walking east, and she was huddled with some friends. I passed them, caught her in the corner of my eye, and remarked to myself: “That’s Sarah Polley!” She was probably, at the date of that encounter, not yet 20, though she already seemed everywhere.
In the fall of 1995, I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, when Polley participated in the storming of the provincial legislature. She was at the front of the crowd, right up against the big front doors, and lost teeth in the melee. This story is not included in her new collection of essays, Run Towards the Danger. The title comes from advice given to her by a concussion specialist, and Polley frames this as something new. It is a new kind of concussion advice, sure, but … is it not also a mantra for her life? Do we not imagine Polley storming here, storming there, ever a passionate, fearless advocate and character? The 1995 event might indicate yes, but this book includes much material to cause us to reconsider what we thought we knew.
Run Towards the Danger is not a memoir or an autobiography, Polley tells us up front. What we have, instead, are six essays arranged in a logical, not time-linear, sequence. She writes:
These stories don’t add up to a portrait of a life, or even a snapshot of one. They are about the transformative power of an ever-expanding relationship to memory. Telling them is a form of running towards the danger.
There’s that phrase again. Let’s get after it. Polley had a severe concussion. She followed all of the best medical advice she could get, a lot of it contradictory, and it sort of worked, until it didn’t. Then she found Sidney Crosby’s doctor in Pittsburgh, who ended three-and-a-half years of brain injury suffering.
In order for my brain to recover from a traumatic injury, I had to retrain it to strength by charging towards the very activities that triggered my symptoms. This was a paradigm shift for me—to greet and welcome the things I had previously avoided. As I recovered from my concussion, “run towards the danger” become a kind of incantation for me in relation to the rest of my life. I began to hear it as a challenge to take on the project of addressing and questioning my own narratives.
The project she writes of, is this book. Of course, that last sentence also well describes her film Stories We Tell (2012). The project of addressing and questioning narratives is a persistent interest of hers, and what a benefit to us it is, because the work it produces is remarkable. I reviewed Stories We Tell on my blog years ago, and I’ll re-post that review below. I’ve recently recommended it to my step-daughter because Polley’s mother died of cancer and my step-daughter’s mother died of cancer, and part of Stories We Tell is about searching for what is lost, what never was, and what might have been.
This book, in fact, is a kind of sequel to the film. In the book, Polley says her father didn’t like how he had been depicted as a hero in the film. In the book, he is portrayed in much darker light. In the book, Polley says her father criticized the film, saying she depicted her mother only in terms of the men in her life, whereas she had done many other brilliant things. In the book, Polley writes about her mother in significant detail, especially when she is writing about becoming a mother herself, when the loss of her mother hit her with renewed strength.
I cried several times while reading this book. Truth. Polley’s grappling with her childhood is profound and deeply moving. “Exceptionally brave,” are the words the come to mind. It’s difficult to even summarize, so let’s start with a general statement of fact. Polley was a child star of TV and movies. As she notes, many—probably even most—child stars go on to have difficult, challenging lives. Polley, I would say, has had a difficult and challenging life, yet she displays a pervasive strength and awesome power to face her dragons.
It is difficult not to cite as an example her character in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Spunky, fearless, powerful, nine years old. Except Polley’s devastating essay, “Mad Genius,” about the experience of making that film ought to reframe viewers takeaways and memories of “Baron” for all time. At various points in the book I wanted to scream: “For fuck’s sakes, will somebody not protect this child?!” Some people do, some women, some men. Robin Williams and Eric Idle get gold stars. Her own parents are, frequently and repeatedly, negligent.
Still, in running towards the danger in these essays, Polley proves she is not broken. Far from it. She has demonstrated a fearless power. She writes in a plain, direct style and with a truth-seeking nuclear mission. She writes of a horrific sexual encounter with Jian Ghomeshi, she leaves no doubt that Terry Gilliam ran a dangerous film set, she calls out the producers of Road to Avonlea for putting her back to work only a week after her mother died and writing dialogue for her about grief that messed up her feeling of loss of her mother for years. She had major back surgery as a teenager and had a very weird and hard experience as “Alice” at the Stratford Festival immediately before going under the knife. She takes no shit from anyone, yet remains balanced and generous. Go, Sarah, go. Holy, and thank you.
Sarah Polley, you have become a giant.
See also: The New Yorker interview with SP (March 13, 2022).
February 1, 2014
“Stories We Tell,” film by Sarah Polley (2012)
I watched Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” tonight. Figured out how to download the thing from the NFB website.
Well, I have a couple of different responses.
A straight up film critique … Good film. Worth seeing. Compelling. Engaging. Worthy of repeat viewing, I suspect. Complicated, but straightforward. Simple, but complex.
On a basic level, it’s a story of the human comedy. Her father turns out not to be her father. She finds this out when she’s in her late-twenties. She is, in fact, the product of an affair. But other people sort of knew. Her family joked around the dinner table about how she didn’t look like her father. But this was after her mother died of cancer when Sarah was 11. The week of her birthday, in fact.
Not much is made of this in the movie. Very suspicious to my mind. As documentary maker, Polley asks if her mother knew she was dying. A couple people say yes; her father says no. He recounts a story of her mother stripping the paint off a table about a month before she died. If she knew she was dying, why would she do that?
I can tell you Kate insisted that my mother not give away tickets to a Yo Yo Ma concert we had been scheduled to use in the final week of May 2012 because, as she insisted, “I’m going.” In fact, she was days away from death. Which, I insist, she “knew.”
Actions don’t always imply knowledge. Okay?
I wanted to know a lot more about Polley’s mother’s cancer. I wanted to know a lot more about the final months of her life. Her biological father makes a compelling case in the movie about the passionate intensity of their affair … and the “truth” that only he can tell. But he was not there to support her as she died.
Oh, and now I’m moving away from the film and into speculation … and my own personal circumstance. But, really, that seems to be what Polley would prefer this movie to be about. Not her paternal lineage, but the stories we tell. All of us.
Or as she wrote on an NFB blog:
Personal documentaries have always made me a bit squeamish. I’ve seen some brilliant ones, but they often push the boundaries of narcissism and can feel more like a form of therapy than actual filmmaking. (Though I could listen to anyone’s therapy session and be entertained, I think.)
I found I could lose myself in the words of the people closest to me. I can feel and hear and see their histories, and I wanted to get lost, immerse myself in those words, and be a detective in my own life and family.
Strangely, I felt the voice most missing from this film was Polley’s. She curates the voices of others. She doesn’t let any single voice dominate. But she also mutes her own. Even as she excavates the past, she manages to remain ambiguous.
The film begins with a quotation from Margaret Atwood that I would like to refute. The quotation is from Alias Grace and it says something like when events are happening, they’re not a story; they’re just confusion. Events only become a story when you knit the past together into a singular line.
I think this is crap.
As her biological father tells Polley, essentially, he knew what was happening. He met this woman, he loved her, she loved him, they had a passionate engagement over a number of years, but she also had a husband and kids (and she had previously lost custody of two other kids in a previous marriage) … so though she knew and he knew that this daughter was theirs, he enabled her to pretend it was the offspring of her husband. Then 11 years later she died of cancer.
There’s no confusion there. There’s a known reality and a straight line.
The confusion only exists for those who don’t know … or who aren’t willing to admit … reality.
“Reality is not a problem,” as a wise friend told me long ago.
That said, it is a brave project that Sarah took on, though I don’t like her comment on narcissism or therapy vs. “actual” filmmaking. Her film, for instance, would have been better if it had peeled back more layers of her own emotions during the process of the film. The film, in fact, was (and I don’t say this lightly) actually a barrier to her own introspection.
Because while I found the film compelling, I found the character of “Sarah” false. In interviews, such as the one on “Q”, she talks about what she left out during the editing process (or she talks about the fact that she left stuff out … which is normal and inevitable and her right … but also the right of the critic to ask, did she leave the right stuff out?).
Years ago, I interviewed Rosemary Sullivan about her biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen (1995)—and also reviewed her biography of Elizabeth Smart (1991)—and then spoke to a friend of mine who was writing a biography of another Canlit icon. Interesting what you put in and leave out, I said. My friend got quite agitated. Lots of pressure from lots of different people to say lots of different things.
The stories we tell.
Not sure Sarah Polley managed to say anything unique, but she made a good film. (Clearly, she has other stories she didn’t tell. Perhaps a sequel: “Stories We Leave on the Cutting Room Floor.”)
Instead of quoting Atwood, I wish she had instead reached back to Faulkner on the past not being past.
And, yes, her mother, Diane, reminded me a lot of Kate. The life of the party. Her life can’t be remembered without first remembering her laugh. Her purse a jumble of confusion. Even, let’s be fair, her exuberance to create situations which in turn lead to other situations which lead to other situations which pull in everyone in a network of co-dependence … but also mutual support and fun.
Polley’s father understood this dynamic much better than her biological father. But it’s lovely, lovely how both elderly men express compassion for each other 30 years after the main event (Sarah’s conception). Her father even says he is glad that he got to raise her, even if he didn’t provide the sperm. Okay not exactly what he said. He said he feels sorry for the other guy, who is the father, but who didn’t get to be her father. He also says he had five close years with Sarah, the youngest of the family. Diane died when Sarah was 11, and Sarah quit school at 15 and … well, became a famous actress and now film maker.
Parenting a child after the death of her mother. I wonder what that’s like. Wait, oh, right. I know all about that. And it’s quite clear. Not a confusion. Not really. Not a problem.
The problem is all of that other stuff, the stuff that’s gone. The life that’s lost. The dark miasma of the past.