Most of the time, a work of art–especially a dramatic work–is at pains to draw you into the story. In addition to the suspension of disbelief with regard to the story, there is a sort of suspension of the senses with regard to the technique, in which we enter into the world of the work of art on its own terms. The observer is not usually intended to focus on the technical means of producing the artistic effect, or the means by which the story is told. The tools used to create the work are not part of the work itself. Most of the time, these are means to an end. The viewer can of course be conscious of them, but they are still tools and techniques, and not the subject of the work of art.
Sometimes, however, an artist will employ a self-conscious or even self-referential display of these tools or techniques, intentionally drawing attention to the means of making the work, in order to convey a meta-message, or to enrich the storytelling in surprising and paradoxical ways. The medium of film has perhaps some of the greatest potential for showing the viewer the methods of its own production. But it is important to remember that the filmmaker, when showing you the “behind the scenes” footage as part of the main product, has made a conscious choice of what to reveal. Moving what should be behind the scenes in front of the camera does not make the product less scripted, more authentic, more real. No one is under the illusion that “reality” TV shows show us anything that isn’t scripted up front and then shaped in the editing room to form whatever narrative is desired. But should we not be just as skeptical about documentary films? And on the other side of the coin, are fictional films less true because they are made-up stories?
In three films as diverse of style and content as Orson Welles’s F for Fake, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up, and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, we see truth more clearly the more the artifice of the film is insisted upon. In each film, we are asked directly or implicitly, not to suspend our disbelief, but to frankly acknowledge the falseness on the surface of the film in order to approach something deeper and more true. These films ask the viewer to suspend his belief in what he is seeing, and question the very nature of storytelling on film, and by extension, in our lives. In each of these films, our senses tell us that we are being lied to, and we are not asked to deny it, but to accept the lie for what it is, and seek a paradoxical truth that is deeper.
The film within a film?
I have long suspected that Orson Welles may never have told a story without embellishment, ornamentation, or outright prevarication. In F for Fake, Welles’s unique 1974 film essay, the subject is in fact, lies and fakery of various sorts. In meditating on art forgery, magic, Welles’s own famous fake-news broadcast of War of the Worlds, and various related scenarios, Welles invites us to question the meaning of artistic truth in a fascinating way.
He himself is the narrator and effective protagonist of the film. Besides the personal anecdote from his radio days, there is footage of him narrating, performing street magic, and even having dinner with some of the forgers he discusses. But the remarkable thing about his essay is how he uses the language of film, particularly editing, to deceive the audience.
Welles had of course used the “film within a film” ever since the newsreel sequence of Citizen Kane. Here he, perhaps self consciously, echoes this technique in a number of ways. Primarily, he explores his themes of dishonesty through montages culled from stock footage and other documentary reports. But even more to the point, the theme of the film is illuminated not only through the construction of these smaller narrative structures, but by the film consciously displaying the technical means of achieving them. We are shown footage of Welles working on a moviola, ostensibly editing the very film we are viewing. Of course, this fakery only survives a moment’s reflection. A film cannot contain footage of its own creation. But by telling us lies, and particularly lies that expose the film techniques that were used to weave them, Welles invites us to question what we see in any film. And by repeatedly showing us the editing of the film we are watching, he is reminding us that we always see precisely what the filmmaker has allowed us to see.
Whose story are we seeing?
Close-up (1990) is in some ways a documentary, but if so, a wholly unique example. It can be thought of as a dramatic metaphor for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which whatever is observed is changed by the fact that it is observed and recorded. Documentaries are perhaps crudely considered to be “true stories,” non-fictional and factual accounts. But Kiarostami calls this into question through his film which weaves together the actual footage of a man’s trial for fraud, along with a dramatic recreation of the man’s crime, reenacted by the man himself, and those whom he sought to deceive! Kiarostami tells the bizarre story of Sabzian, a man who for a time convinced a wealthy family that he was the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and stayed at their home briefly, telling them that he was going to use the family and their home in a new film. When Kiarostami heard that Sabzian was to go to trial for this strange crime, he arranged to not only make a film of the story, but to even film the trial as it was in process.
The remarkable thing about this film is how Kiarostami puts the tools and devices of documentary filmmaking on display in such a way as to never allow the viewer to forget that the film is a construct of the filmmaker. He seems to be daring us to believe that this film is an absolutely true story, in the sense of objective, reported fact. How could it not be, when all the participants in the real-life drama have willingly agreed to participate in recreating the story in a filmed dramatization? Kiarostami seemingly makes a distinction between the “documentary” and “dramatized” portions of the film by using very different, visually distinct film stock. The courtroom scenes, in particular, are filmed in a grainy 16mm, while the recreations are in a sharper 35mm. But the distinction between which parts are ordered by Kiarostami’s storytelling vision, and which are merely recorded by his camera is not so neat as this. Consider that during the trial, Kiarostami himself is directing the not only the narrative through his questions, asked off-camera, but also seems to have a very real impact on the direction and the outcome of the trial itself.
In an interview present on the Criterion DVD of the film, Kiarostami discussed how the recreated portions were scripted by working through the very different memories that Sabzian and the family members had of the events. So what we see, is really an amalgam, a compromise perhaps, but ultimately, a retelling in the voice of the filmmaker. Even on the evidence of the film itself, though, he does not let us forget that we are seeing, in one sense, a “fake” version of the story. At least once a boom mic can be carelessly (?) spotted in a reenactment scene. Or consider the scene in which the driver of the taxi stays outside of the family home and kicks the can down the street. This has been much discussed in terms of possible symbolism, but I see it as a bridging scene between the two narrative styles. Kiarostami is apparently capturing some unimportant incident, as if he just happened to film a taxi driver biding his time and kicking a can. Meaningless, perhaps, in terms of narrative, but an important bit of film grammar. If he was recording the original Taxi driver at the time of the original events, this might be worthy to record just because it was what actually happened naturally, despite its apparent insignificance. But rather, Kiarostami is recording an insignificant incident that he made up, as if it were being reported in a documentary style.
The blending of the two aspects comes full circle in the final sequence of the film. In a staged meeting which is filmed from across a street, guerrilla style, Sabzian is joined and embraced by the man he had impersonated, his hero Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami has not only given artificial drama to this meeting by hiding out of sight from Sabzian, but also takes advantage of some mic problems that occur with the mic Makhmalbaf is wearing. Although the recording began to cut out, Kiarostami enhanced it with some voice over dialog explaining the problems. He was then free to cut out whatever we did not hear which did not enhance the emotional impact of the moment he was ostensibly recording in an objective fashion.
So again, the tools of the film are laid bare for the viewer in such a way as to elicit and examination of the surface narrative. What is “real” and what is “fake?” Is that which is “fake” therefore “untrue?” As Kiarostami said in another interview, “We put a series of lies together to reach a higher truth.”
Ceci n’est pas un bateau.
Anderson’s 2004 farcical drama, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, is pure fiction, but it shares a perhaps unexpected commonality of theme with both F for Fake and Close-up. The title character is a Cousteau-like figure who makes documentary nature films alongside the eccentric crew of his ship, the Belafonte. Excepts from these films are shown at intervals throughout The Life Aquatic. Anderson takes great pains to suspend the viewer’s belief, by making these absurd vignettes as fake as possible. Practically every creature in the film is not only fictional, but very obviously created by claymation.
In fact, everything in the movie goes out of the way to draw attention to the way it is fake, artificial. Klaus’s German accent is fake, even the David Bowie songs are fake. Anderson’s directing style is also incredibly showy, drawing attention to the role of the camera through the use of 90-degree panning moves (as opposed to cuts to reverse angle) and ostentatious staging. This is never more the case than the scene where Steve Zissou introduces his boat by holding a model in front of a scrim, which is lifted to reveal a massive cross-section set of the Belafonte. This is in no way implied to be a in-film set of Team Zissou, but rather is a moment where the movie’s Fourth Wall is broken, seemingly with no motive other than to let the audience in on the gag of how some of the film was made. Much of the film was shot on location at sea on a real boat, so consciously revealing the way that a cutaway set was also used is a deliberate call for suspension of belief.
This brings us to consider how unbelievable the story is as well. It never becomes clear whether Steve Zissou is really Ned’s father or not, for example. How is Jeff Goldblum’s character still walking at the end of this film? An audience member in the film at one point calls the veracity of Steve’s documentaries into question, prompting us as viewers to do the same as well. We can’t believe anything we see, but since that is actually true of all fiction, Anderson seems to be saying, why not acknowledge that up front and not worry about trying to pretend otherwise. Perhaps there is another way to get at the truth. So through all this artificiality we see people with real emotions dealing with real life situations. When Ned is laid to rest, or when the reporter is calling her deadbeat boss/boyfriend, we feel the real pain of this situation. How do we as people deal with the messiness of “real life”? We view it through the colored lenses of art and science, tools that may distort one aspect of reality in order to make another more clear. The artifice put on display here, far from being unreal, or untrue, is more true in what it reveals something other than realism.
In a real sense, each of these films are about the subject of films. Of course, that is the subject of an incredible number of other movies as well. Perhaps it is not surprising that such a self-aware meta-theme should be so prevelant in a medium that came of age in the 20th century, the era of postmodernism. These films are among the few to take the language of films and make it both subject and means, attempting to see the lens at the same time we see through it. But we can’t really do that. It’s an impossibility, and claims to be able to are a series of lies. But the series of lies is in search of a higher truth, and they aren’t really lies if we are told not to believe them, are they?