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by Harlan Kennedy


Truth and untruth.  Real life and reel life.  Actuality has always been a moving target in the movies, but nevermore than at this year’s Venice Film Festival.  We looked into the heart of reality and discovered it was being bypassed:  here, there, everywhere.  Not for malign reasons but to sound and probe the very fault-lines of the seeming true and seeming real – in an age when those fault-lines are proliferating – filmmakers flocked towards this theme.

Where does the truth lie?  When and where do lies, perhaps, tell the truth?  It almost seemed the year to invent a new prize.  Never mind the Golden Lion –

“The 2008 Golden Lying award goes to…”  Roar of  crowd;  stamp of  feet; advance to stage of winning director.  And  presentation of the bauble – perhaps a gilded lily, or a lipsticked pig, or the figurine of some chronic fibber from myth or history – to the creator of the Venice Festival’s best film about mendacity.

The camera never lies, they say. But what about the people in front of it? In the age of reality entertainment on TV, when we live with the question of whether it is reality (or indeed entertainment), the moving-picture culture is moving in as never before on the riddles of truth. There are spoofs of BIG BROTHER-style shows (LIVE!). There are faux documentaries. There are big-budget Hollywood comedies about actors making a big-budget war film ‘for real’ (TROPIC THUNDER). And at Venice there was a diptych of out-of-competition movies, accidental but epiphanic, that illustrated opposite perspectives on the problem of duplicity in the media. Put simply, one film gets everything right. The other gets everything, interestingly and paradigmatically, wrong.

A little masterpiece called JAY, from the Philippines, bit down on showbiz ‘reality’ more mordantly than any movie I have seen. On the same day Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian master of TASTE OF CHERRY, premiered his reality movie SHIRIN: a 92-minute exercise in audiovisual eavesdropping in which we watch the facial reactions – closeup after closeup after closeup – of 114 women watching an imaginary movie, one full of sentiment and emotion, based on the 12th century Persian epic poem ‘Shirin’.

Where to begin? Should we start with the impudent assertion that the Philippine director Francis Xavier Pasion, making his first feature, has understood everything that Kiarostami, that revered master who got a career Golden Lion this year, has failed to understand?

SHIRIN would be a fascinating experiment if the audience was an authentic one, in an authentic theatre, unconscious of having its responses filmed. But Kiarostami blows it by employing actresses – famous Iranian actresses and a single French one (Juliette Binoche) – to play the ‘unaware’ movie gogglers. Instead of being ambushed in spontaneity, caught for real in a force-field of unguarded emotions by a hidden camera, a hundred-plus professional make-believers design each moment of their adventitious oohs and aahs and sighs and gasps.

Now it could be that this is Kiarostami’s riposte to reality TV. Perhaps he is saying, “We all act when we pretend not to, especially when we know or suspect a camera is on us.” Ergo, why not get actors to do the job anyway?

Answer: because it is uninteresting. Actors are valuable for what they give us after signing, with each project, an unwritten pact understood by both the performer and the spectator. We know they are pretending. They know we know they are pretending. With that agreed, we accept their counterfeit emotions as designer-real and are happy to surrender to the power of those emotions if powerfully simulated.

What we don’t buy is any suggestion that actors can be caught unawares, or can be a convincing or compelling impersonator or surrogate – except in comedy or mockumentary (SPINAL TAP, TV’s THE OFFICE) – for the helpless Everyman or even the helpless celebrity caught in flagrante verismo.

So let’s look at JAY. This begins as a reality TV show or its likeness. We seem to be watching one of those news magazines in which reporters are sent out to capture grief, joy, anger or despair “as it happens.” A mother watching a newscast with her family learns that her schoolteacher son has been brutally killed in an apparent gay sex crime. Their outpouring of tears and anguish is witnessed by the camera. We are viewing it, with voice-over commentary, as if part of the completed TV package. For ten or so minutes the film runs like an unmediated, sonorous news item, much like the ‘March of Time’ sequence early in CITIZEN KANE.

Then, with a sudden break in rhythm and chronology, we rewind to the ‘real’ reality – or for the film the one-step-back fiction – of the day the young newshound, Jay, and his cameraman stepped from their van and entered the lives of the family about to be struck by tragedy. Jay, who has the same name as the murdered son (or soon tells the family he does), herds the mother and kids in front of the telly, having planned with his TV station the exact timing of the newsbreak of the son’s killing. He records them watching in horror. He gets his cameraman to scoop it all up: the shock, weeping, hysteria, even the delayed realisation of, and bursting anger at, the news team’s voyeur cruelty.

But Team Jay stays on to pursue and expand its story. Telling the mum and kids he not only has the same name as their son but bats for the same team – he’s gay! – Jay sinks a shaft deep into their suckerdom. With a vague but fulfillable pledge to find the dead boy’s killer, helped by the tsunami of publicity the family’s cooperation will enable, he persuades them to spill every truth about their ex-son. The skeletons duly tumble from the closet, from the porno mags in the boy’s own closet – “Can we break open this lock?” wheedles Jay 2 in his best simpering manner – to the name and contact number of the dead boy’s last-known boyfriend. The boyfriend arrives, summoned by telly fame, and Jay 2 soon starts flirting with him serio-jokily while siphoning his, the boyfriend’s, secrets about the murdered lover. 

Meanwhile every re-enactment of emotional crisis that the TV show needs is provided by Mama. “Let’s do it once more,” coaxes Jay after she has twice opened the floodgates of her tear-ducts, and banshee’d her cries and moans, over her boy’s coffin. We come to realise that, more vividly and believably than in Pasolini’s THEOREM, where Terence Stamp’s seduction of each member of a family seemed just that – part of a theorem – Jay really is schmoozing quasi-sexually these casualties of grief who are becoming coquettes and conquests of media duplicity.

Francis Xavier Pasion’s film establishes another truth, or uncovers another wisdom.  As soon as a camera is trained on someone, anywhere in the world, he or she starts telling a story. The act of filming or taping inaugurates a narrative. The person in front of the camera is conscious, even to a small degree, of impacting the potential viewer’s emotions or intelligence, so he/she starts shaping the arc of those responses.

That is why JAY is a profound study of shallowness, while Iran’s SHIRIN is a shallow study of profundity. Do we believe that the professional actresses herded by Kiarostami in front of his camera to make their pretence of unguarded emotion, before a pretend movie, are spinning their own web of storytelling? Are they bringing that lack of cognition, as magical and instinctive as a spider working its filigree, that a real audience would bring? Of course not. Each actress is spinning the story of her wonderful acting. Deaf to the sphere-music of the collective unknowable, of that well of emotional togetherness into which a real film would sink a real audience, each actress merely mimes her particular page(s) of the mute script, which in turn is her particular page in the unfolding of her acting career.

JAY uses actors too. It is not a documentary but a film about documentary – and the lies with which documentary sometimes manufactures ‘truth.’ But as writer and director, and as a former TV scenarist with a background in soap opera (!), Pasion understands the processes of manipulation and mendacity. He also understands the ways these can lead to a kind of mad El Dorado of make-believe.

The family in JAY really does invent anew its emotional history, or so enhances that history that it becomes something high-definition and radiant, something more communicable to the viewing cosmos. They take the shapeless debris of grief and, with Jay’s help, form it into a narrative, a pop tragic epic. None of this mitigates the lies and bad faith of the TV crew. (Though perhaps the capture of the killer, promised and kept, goes some way to doing so). What it does create is a movie in which reality TV and its mysteries prove a zodiac larger than we thought, its interlocking orbits of fiction and reality subtler than we expected, and certainly at times funnier, and even, in a frightening way, more beautiful.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved