Jun 12, 2023
When and how does film approach the soul?
I watched True Stories the other day. Great film. Audio like I have never experienced — but that should come as no surprise being David Byrne’s (Talking Heads) brainchild. The composition of each frame is sharp, witty, calculated and impressive, again, the product of someone who studied to be a visual artist. Colours are calculated, dialogue too, and the themes — oh, the themes. Right up my alley. A witty, humanizing, almost academic study of American culture. A reflection on how we convince ourselves of absurd logic based on values created in insulated cultures. All things I want to explore in my work. Truly, a film that checks all the boxes for me. It should be the perfect film. So why is it 4.5 stars on my Letterboxd? Why can’t I allow David Byrne into my sacred ring of cherished filmmakers? Why can’t the pretentious film student in me call this work “cinema?”These questions have bothered me through all three times watching the film. And my mind begins to race with proposals. The one that sounds best to me at times but still unsatisfying is that “I’m too busy expecting it to be my movie, instead of surrendering to anothers’ vision.” Fair. I am very guilty of doing that in the past. But still, I am not completely satisfied with that answer.There’s a feeling missing when I watch True Stories that comes tenfold with my favourite films. Total awe. Surrender. A complete trust in a filmmaker’s hands. What I was looking for and only minutley found in True Stories — to put it in completely nonfrivolous terms — was a revelation of the soul.And isn’t that just it. The difference between “movie” and “cinema.” The difference between “telling” and “showing.” The experience that doesn’t just present aesthetics, spectacle or witty ideas. The experience that you walk away from feeling you have witnessed something substantial. Lighter, with the optimism of discovery, or perhaps in a dreamlike haze of questions. Whatever, the budget, scope or content of the film, the result is the same. One is spiritually elevated through witnessing mastery of the respective form. So where did True Stories go wrong for me? I considered another one of my favourite films: Robert Altman’s Nashville. Not only is it similar to True Stories in that its a cast of characters story set in a Texas town that ends in a big stage show. At its core, it is also a witty, humanizng almost academic study on American culture. Only this film will leave you with your heart in your hands. I remember feeling as if I was staggering after the film, reaching out to talk to anyone I could about what I just witnessed. The film sat with me for weeks and still haunts me. Now admittedly, the content of the story has a more serious subject matter that is dealt with, but, it still remains a satire at its core. Now, at the point of making Nashville, Altman had countless hours of TV/film directing experience under his belt. Byrne, while extremely well versed in other art forms, had only previously directed a few music videos. What I believe we witness in Altman’s work is someone who knows, respects and is specific in their relationship to the camera. Altman was a student of the filmic discipline, Byrne, I think through sheer lack of hours and perhaps obsession with film, was simply not. While True Stories moves, alive with ideas, it does not consider the camera’s need to be cohesive and purposeful throughout the whole film. Byrne considers the camera scene to scene, and “chapter” to “chapter,” but does not consider the visual flow from beginning to end. Alternatively, Altman was extremely specific, he had a preoccupation with realism in genre and pursued it with purpose. He heavily considered the act of looking in his work, using our social relationship with genre and experiences of reality against us. When watching True stories, however, one can’t help but feel Byrne used the camera as a means to capture some cool ideas he placed in front of it.When film works it is when the camera is an organism. Breathing in the space and carrying you on a seamless journey of looking. The camera — though often is seen this way — is not simply a tool to portray story, set, cool angles, composition etc. It requires a consideration of purpose and relation to the human experience. The camera is the audiences’ eye, and it is specifically in the act of looking that one is connected to their soul. If any spiritual experience is wanted to be had through this connection it must be done in the hands of one who understands films power/purpose. It is crucial a filmmaker understands that we are a visual species who derive great meaning from not just imagery but our unconscious contract with witnessing. It requires no budget to excericse care and consideration. This experience can be achieved at any budget level or means of production. Film is an extremely fertile art form, and we are just scratching the surface of what can be achieved. Too often do we forfeit the liberation of the camera and meditation on the power of looking to cool ideas, straight exposition, or witty non-cohesive thoughts.I still love True Stories, and maybe one day I will sit down with it and witness something I never thought was there. In the meantime, it will have to remain banging on the windows of my cottage of “cinema.” For now, I just can’t seem to trust the movie enough to let it in and converse with my soul.