My capsule review of The Arbor (opening at the Roxie this Friday) was tucked in the back of this week’s Guardian, but don’t take that for a lack of interest. The film vividly registers the difficulty of recounting the past and should be seen by anyone with a passing interest in documentary form. Here is my blurb again, appended with a few words from Peter Guralnick’s Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians which well understand director Clio Barnard’s tangle with the interview problem.
An audaciously conceived and genuinely haunting chronicle of a family, The Arbor reinvents two of the most debased forms of nonfiction film: the venerating portrait of an artist who died young and the voyeuristic confession of abuse. The locus here is the short, bottle-strewn life of Andrea Dunbar, a brilliant playwright whose work distilled the manners and speech of the West Yorkshire housing projects. The Arbor effectively stages some of this work in a park near the same apartments, but the project’s focus is Dunbar’s shambling private life and its devastating effect on friends, lovers, and daughters. Our emotions are strained by their collective fury and grief, but never cheated. Curiously, Clio Barnard accomplishes this by being up front in her manipulations. After collecting interviews with the key players, she cast actors to lip sync the answers — that is, the voices are documentary while the images are staged, an uncanny effect that becomes even more so when Barnard stitches together responses to narrate a single event. The technique is eerie and literally disembodying. In the same way that one affected by trauma may experience a separation from his or her self, so the image of the actor speaking comes unglued from the “real” voice — and so too is there a crucial hesitation in our assigning authenticity to a single, undivided subject. There are shades of Greek tragedy in The Arbor‘s patient, distanced unfolding of its characters’ fates. The speakers are imagined as a chorus, and though the drama is offscreen, long since buried, the pain still lives.
“Oh, the tape recorder in some cases has been an inhibiting presence—which is why I rely for the most part on taking notes, a far meeker form of intrusion for some reason. And it has sometimes been quite a feat just getting to the people with whom an interview has been set up (fame, as may perhaps be deduced from the Merle Haggard story, sometimes does strange things to people, and certainly erects barriers that were never there before)…Some people tell you no more than they want to, most a great deal more than they mean to. The problem in fact comes more in sifting through the sprawling mass of opinion and background information to create a portrait; the challenge lies in respecting the spirit, or the naiveté, with which certain confidences were volunteered, in learning to make the determination (never easy) as to whether inclusion of a particular detail furthers the portrait or simply provides a headline that would throw the whole picture out of focus. You learn quickly that anyone you interview, anyone in real life, really, could be portrayed in exactly the opposite manner with exactly the same information…In this case the interview acts as a distorting lens, causing all attention to focus so exclusively on the subject that revelations are perhaps in order, things sum themselves up neatly in a way that denies the casual sprawl of real life.”