Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Illustrative Film

I don't think it's too much a stretch that documentary studies - and documentary as a general community ideal - has been preoccupied with two questions: the problem of power (i.e. ethics) and the problem of truth. ...No Lies has found such a central place in the academic film canon because it so succinctly and slyly dramatizes these concerns. My only surprise is that it has taken a while for its reputation to grow: it's been taught at Temple University perennially, but I get the feeling that a renewed vogue for reflexive pseudodocumentaries (non-comedic mockumentaries) has given the film a new exposure.

The ethics and reality-effect critiques are front and center, but what interests me is another film theory problem: spectatorship. Of course there are more than two models of spectatorship, but there is one major split in theoretical understanding of narration. One line of film theory tends to think that the positioning of the viewer with the camera's gaze is the main determinant of meaning and even a film's politics. ...No Lies seems to draw from this theory, by suggesting what Peter referred to as the "rape" of the camera in the film, namely that documentary involves not only an unequal relation between maker and social actor but viewer and social actor. Voyeurs, we are all complicit in the grilling the main character receives from the cameraman.

Another line of theory stresses that the emotions, meaning, and politics of a film relies more on intangibles or nonmechanistic ways of communication. Nick Browne's reading of Stagecoach, for instance, argues that the viewer's sympathy is with the person looked at rather than the agency of looking, as spectatorship theory would have it. In ...No Lies, too, the emotional impact comes from our discomfort in seeing the protagonist treated the way she is. The tight framing, the emotions she registers, and the uninterrupted take all contribute to and draw upon conventions of discomfort.

The reflexivity of the film in fact relies on the gap between these two. If viewer-positioning of the camera did not matter at all, the film would have no thematic impact; it would be merely a personal drama rather than a theoretical commentary. If there was no way to subvert the normal viewer-positioning through emotional means, the critique would not be clear. We would merely be implicated in the camera's "rape," not aware of it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"O.K. babes, You're in the Movies"

The Evolution of a Performance

No Lies is that odd film that has almost as much going on outside the frame as it does inside it. And although this certainly makes Mr. Block’s film unique, especially for its time, it concerns me that focusing on the “trick” this film seems to pull off with the audience, takes attention away from discovering just how exceptional a performance this is by Shelby Leverington.

Because I am so absolutely obsessed with her performance, I feared having access to the rehearsal tapes might change my views on the work. It did in a way, but, oddly enough, for the better.

I found it very curious to see that the basic change in beats (to use an acting term), which sort of change with each room they enter, were established from at least the first filmed rehearsal. I guess that is not a big surprise; even the loosest improve still has to have some structure to follow. But, now I can appreciate how smooth and flowing Shelby and Alec followed each other (from room to room and emotion to emotion) all the while adhering to “the woman’s” motivation to get to her movie, despite the rough and rugged emotional terrain they travel through before she exits the door.

This flow and adherence to her character’s objective (simply to leave and go to the movie) is really what helps make …no lies seem real. In real life, isn’t it so true that these little things like keeping a date with friends, seems to be of so much more importance than finishing an insanely emotional and impacting conversation with someone, one that can literally change your very psyche. Shelby’s character HAS TO go to the movie. (As an almost related aside, one of my earliest memories of television is of Three’s Company. I couldn’t get past the fact that characters would come into the apartment and NOT close the door. It bothered me to no end and completely shattered my suspension of disbelief.)

In the first filmed rehearsal, she recounts the rape incident, at times, with something just short of delight, at one point calling herself an “exposed rape-ee” with a smile and a laugh. It’s really not until “the cameraman” asks point blank “It didn’t turn you on to be raped?” that she lets the joking go completely. Alec wouldn’t dare ask this question in the final version (although he comes close) because Shelby’s tone is not nearly as light at any moment in the final film. She makes light of things, but there is a deep pain present, even in these moments; her smiles are a defense mechanism then, a way that allows her to reveal this stuff with the camera on her. To me it is so interesting to see this actress get to that point, step by step.

Mr. Block tells us that Shelby viewed something called The Rape Tape, which comprised of woman telling the stories of their victimizations, both by rapists and sometimes by the people that were supposed to help them following the rape. With these various details, she was able to develop a composite and apply it to her character. And through her training in “method” work, she was able to link herself to these details and find the emotional connection that made it so powerful and real and create, as Glenn said, “something harrowing we can't quite put our fingers on”. One of these details, which she implements in the filmed rehearsals, but not in the final version, is about her condition just following the rape, attempting to walk up the stairs and being “reduced to the physicality of an old woman, I couldn’t walk more than one step at a time”; a powerful image, and perhaps one that would have added more power to the final piece, but, for whatever reason, was left out.

The most interesting difference between the second taped rehearsal and the final film (which are much closer to each other than the first and second taped rehearsals), is the choice Leverington makes to tell most of her rape story from the bed rather than, in the filmed version, from the chair. The difference is, in my thinking, astronomical. The movement she makes to the bed seems deliberate and does not work in her character’s underling objective, which is to leave and go to the movie. If Shelby thought this movement to the bed was needed in order for the viewer to realize that her character was in a different “place” than when she was putting the makeup on, it is such a relief to see that all the reveal of change that is needed is accomplished, in the film version, simply by her turning around and looking directly at Alec (and us) for the first time in the film. It would be interesting to find out if this was an adjustment made by Mr. Block or if Leverington herself had the instinct to make that choice. I really feel like it would be a much less successful film if this seemingly tiny choice was different.

Glenn calls this performance a “master class of method acting”. Obviously I agree. But I would go even further to say that, just because its viewership is not on par with other great film works, it doesn’t mean that this performance shouldn’t be appreciated as one of the most successful ever put on film. Not simply because this woman happens to pull off something that seems real, and not even simply because she achieves a certain undeniable emotional power in this work, but because a phenomenal truth is reached. Marc asks “Is this the truth of simply never taking cinema verite for granted? Or, more radically, any notion of any single truth?” I can’t put my finger on it. But maybe the answer lies in what weepingsam said: “It retains its power even after you know all the facts - but it makes you think about what it means to talk about fiction telling the truth...” Or maybe it’s the voices of the unheard, speaking through Ms. Leverington; the composite - alive…forever.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

...no lies Rehearsal Tapes

Mitchell Block has given us the great privilege of access into the process of creating ...no lies. Here are two recordings of rehearsals, the first one held at the directors home and the second on the set of the film. Fascinating viewing for anyone interested in how this incredible performance was developed.

Rehearsal Tape 1

Rehearsal Tape 2

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Your Eyes Never Lie: Wells of Subtext in '...no lies'

As per Peter's advice, I read nothing about Mitchell W. Block's short film ...no lies before viewing it, and I too initially thought it was non-fiction.  I wonder how anyone going into this film cold would doubt its validity as real life? ...no lies creates such a strong, improvisational candor through its subject that the viewer feels as if they are witnessing something they shouldn't, watching as a woman delves into a dark place she swore never to visit again.  Waves of emotion rush forward through the eyes of the Woman (played by Shelby Leverington in a master-class of method acting), dancing with the camera back and forth as if looking for some sort of lifeline. Does she find it? A troubling question, and this push pull relationship makes ...no lies a fascinating experience.

At the beginning of ...no lies, the Cameraman films the The Woman preparing for a date, gazing at her in the mirror as she puts on makeup. The Woman's eyes focus on the task at hand, avoiding the gaze of the camera, even going so far as to say how uncomfortable the mechanism makes her feel. Then The Woman moves into her bedroom and the camera follows, as if calmly pestering her in the way a seasoned paparazzi would a tenured movie-starlet. She puts on earrings, tells of an uncomfortable meeting with her mother, and still avoids the camera, which films her via another larger mirror. When the woman tells the Cameraman about the rape, her tone stays the same, casually laughing and making light of the situation as if giving in to the pressure of the camera, possibly hoping it will now leave her alone. But of course, this confession only ups the ante, and the Cameraman keeps pushing the Woman into various stages of revelation and fear. During this progression, her eyes gradually begin to latch onto the camera, forcing the viewer to listen as the details of her experience unfold. By tracking the eyes of the Woman, we get a sense of the devastation deeply rooted inside. It's no surprise the film ends on a close-up of the her eyes, tracks of tears ruining the makeup on her face, imbedded seemingly forever. 

Throughout ...no lies, Block uses multiple long takes to situate the performance in a familiar reality, forcing the viewer to assume some sort of realism is being represented. But the impact comes from how Leverington's eyes avoid this relationship between form and function, deconstructing the idea that everything the camera sees is undeniable and tangible. Her eyes create a performance outside of the film's scope, something that reaches far beyond that apartment, into a subtext that tells a disturbing truth about our own expectation, something harrowing we can't quite put our fingers on.  

- Thanks to Peter and Mr. Block for allowing us to discuss this film.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Ask me no questions..."

(an interview with Mitchell W. Block)

Mitchell W. Block's short bio on his blog (found HERE) doesn't mention the work that brings him to the Film of the Month Club, "...no lies". He's had a long successful career as a Distributor and Producer of hundreds of films and is the President of Direct Cinema Limited. But don't think he's forgotten about his film school gem.

I reached Mr. Block, via telephone, in his Santa Monica office.

Peter Rinaldi: What was your reaction when you heard that I wanted "…no lies" to be the film of the month?

Mitchell W. Block: I thought it was a great idea. It was perfect timing because I’ve been trying to find ways to put my films up so people could see them.

What was your reaction when it got into the National Film Registry?

Well, it had been up before, so I was pleased when it finally made it past the bureaucracy.

When in the course of this film’s life did it start to be used as a public service tool?


Did you ever expect that to happen?

No. Because I was, like most film students, in a program, like virtually all programs, which never talks about how a film is used, or how films make money. You make films without regard to audience or market. When the film came out, a number of very smart film distributors said “This is a classroom film that can be used for training.”

That’s really ironic considering, and I don’t want to make any assumptions here, but I am assuming you made it with the intention to kind of throw the audience off once they realize it was not real.



No, I had to make a movie to get an MFA. And I only had seven weeks of prep time. So, I’d been a producer for a long time and if you think about it, the easiest kind of picture to make is a film with one location, two actors and so on. So the form was very much the function of being just a smart producer and the content was trying to figure out what I could do with the form. So it’s like all my pictures, where I work backwards, because my brain works that way.

Surely you must’ve realized, after the film is made, that what you have here is something that people might take to be not so much fiction, as, perhaps, a moment caught on film that was real. That really wasn’t the goal? To cultivate these performances to make them appear, for lack of a better word, “real”?

Well, they are real. I mean, the performance, everything about it, is real.

Well, (laughs) this could turn into an interesting discussion, but what I am trying to say is that, yes, she may have been playing “herself”, but the situation certainly wasn’t real.

Well that’s the joy of making a fictional movie. You create something on the screen that, because of the form, people read as real, when in fact it is fiction shot to make it look like it is vérité.

What was the reaction when it first screened? When it played at someplace like the Flaherty Film Seminar, where everyone expects a documentary, was there controversy?

Well there generally is controversy because people get pissed off at “the cameraman” for treating a woman like that. That’s inappropriate. And people get pissed off when they find that they were fooled.

So they are pissed off at the cameraman and then, when they realize there is a “filmmaker”, they are then pissed off at you.


I read that Shelby Leverington watched rape victim tapes to get some back-story material to work with, but what kind of work was done to help her get into the place she needed to get into to sustain this performance through these long takes?

The back-story was something she used to help create that character, which is really a pastiche of her. I mean she’s really that character, who had not been raped, and, being very much a trained New York actor, could draw upon her Method approach to pull that performance together. The other thing is that Shelby and Alec (Cameraman) were very good friends and remain so to this day. So we have the benefit of that relationship already being there, which is almost like a boy/girl relationship between them, which is the idea of the film-- this guy that has a girl “friend”, which is not necessarily a date, and he has this camera and he has to do a cinematography assignment and he sets up the equipment in her place and she says she’s going out with friends to see a movie, “I’ll let you shoot me.” He says “Okay, I only have one magazine, one load, ten minutes, so just let me film you getting ready”, etc.

There is a fine line between a good film with great performances (that no one actually processes as having been an actual moment that was captured in reality) and a film like this that most people, having no preconceptions, would, due to the level of performances, process as being a “real” moment captured in reality. For this reason, this performance, to me, is something beyond just exceptional. She reaches a truth that people find a hard time processing.

We’re looking at an actress who came out of method acting in New York. Her whole approach was to be the character, to be real. So Shelby simply succeeded in creating this 15 1/2 minute character that people read as real. And you have to just say “What a good piece of work”. And it was done in multiple takes, just like a movie. So there’s no magic, it’s just being professional.

You relayed the story of the police captain that asked you for the name of the police officer who interviewed the woman in the film because he believed it to have actually occurred. When you see a reaction to the film taken that far—

That’s not a surprise. People used to contact Robert Young for medical advice. I think the audience reacts to any program and believes there is a transformation of the actor into that character. And that’s not at all surprising.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"...I'll tell you no lies"

(an introduction, and the story of my own introduction, to ...no lies)

My name is Peter Rinaldi, I am a filmmaker from New York City. I also have a film blog called SIN-E-FILE at The Boutros Boutros Follies.

(If you are about to read this having NOT seen the film
...no lies
, I would advise you do so before reading further. Watch it below.)

In 1972, Mitchell W. Block was working as the Line Producer on Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. This left him little time to complete a full-scale film of his own, which was required to get his MFA from NYU. As he writes in The Truth about NO LIES, he thought he “should do a work that would be ‘easy’ to make. Limited locations, interior practical location, a short shoot, few actors, low shooting ratio, no period costumes, no score, etc. Keep it really simple.” The result is sort of a cinematic miracle.

In the spring of 1995 I was in a similar situation. I was a film student at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I had just completed my third year project, a film that seemed to polarize the class and faculty. Having had little money and not enough sufficient time to devote to a full scale production, I conceived an idea that involved basically a woman against a wall.

I showed it to my boss at the time, documentary filmmaker George Nierenberg. When it was over he didn’t have a lot to say about it, instead he starts to scan his towering piles of VHS tapes in his living room. “You have to see this documentary”, he tells me. “Documentary” is what he calls it. He doesn’t tell me anything more.

...no lies was over, I was so shaken by it that I hadn’t noticed the credits. George and I started talking about it. When it became apparent to him that I hadn’t seen the end credits, he told me what they said(the woman played by Shelby Leverington, etc.) and I didn’t believe him. He replayed the tape. Okay, “The filmmaker put that there so as not to embarrass the woman”, I concocted. There was no way this was acted. I couldn’t believe it. Once I watched it again, knowing now that this was, indeed, a performance, I was blown away.

Is it really necessary to go through the process of thinking you are seeing a moment captured on film that occurred in reality, and then, at the end, realize that it was manufactured like most films? How much does this play in its potential appreciation? This can be a point of discussion, but, regardless, it is how I experienced it, so it is, in turn, how I presented it to people when I showed it, on a VHS tape copied from George's.

I showed it to everyone in my life. “I have a documentary to show you. It is only 15 minutes.” I don’t remember all of the reactions but once in a while, it knocked someone out. What was it about this film that impacted us?

Alec Hirschfeld (L) Shelby Leverington (Center) and Mitchell Block during NO LIES shoot

When the Film of the Month Club started, I dreamed of being able to present ...no lies, but I knew that it wouldn’t be worth it if we didn’t get Mitchell Block involved. I reached out to him and he graciously granted my request to put the film online so it would be available to us and he agreed to an interview.

In our interview, which I will post later in the month, I tried to find out from him if he intended to trick the audience from the beginning or did he realize, after it was made, that he had a fiction that looked impeccably like fact. After all, there is nothing in the film that leads the audience to the understanding that what they are about to see is real. Block doesn’t outright lie, like other fake documentarians do, by presenting written or spoken documentary style, fact-like information (like Peter Greenaway’s
The Falls). Even so much as a date at the beginning would imply non-fiction. Some, however, might consider the title to be the written info that puts the viewer in the mind-frame of “fact”. So, can Block really be called a trickster simply because of the title? What is even leading us to believe that Block’s intention is to fool the audience at all?

...no lies played at the 1974 Flaherty Seminar, a place where people generally expect to see a documentary. It caused controversy and discussion on what “real” is in film and the emotions wrapped around such notions. If Block didn’t conceive the film as a trick, it certainly was one now. As George Nierenberg and others have theorized, there are three “rapes” that occur with ...no lies; the offscreen rape of the woman, then the figurative one inflicted on her by the “cameraman”, then we, the audience are taken advantage of by Mitchell Block. I would take this a step further and say that Block can’t do the act alone. In my case, Nierenberg himself helped in the violation by calling it a documentary, the Flathery Seminar too. Perhaps if you simply found this film somewhere and watched it, you wouldn’t feel like it was trying to trick you into thinking it was real...or would you? Wouldn't you just think, if you appreciated it, that the actors were just doing their jobs well?

Let’s forget for a moment about Mitchell Block’s “trick”. This film is (and is about) a performance. Shelby Leverington. Once this performance was made know to me as such, it became, in my mind, one of the greatest I had ever seen on film. Nuanced and complexly structured so as not to appear so, I can write (and just might) a moment by moment analysis of it. Its success does not rest simply on the fact that people think it is not a performance; its authenticity runs much deeper than that. She manages to haul her character through varying emotional terrains with no sign that the “vehicle” is on pre-laid tracks, and in such a limited amount of time. Mitchell Block is also planning on giving us the added honor of viewing the “Rehearsal Tapes”. Would it be weird if I said I am thinking about NOT viewing them? I don’t think it's right. Like reading a first draft of a masterpiece; rewarding on one hand, and forever damaging on the other. As a filmmaker, I am tremendously interested in the work it takes to get to something this successful. But as a viewer, in this case, I'm obsessed with this performance, not with the process.

Last year, No Lies was accepted into the National Registry, an honor bestowed on only a handful of films from each year. Here’s what the press release said:

Done in faux cinéma vérité style, Mitchell Block’s 16-minute New York University student film begins on a note of insouciant amateurism and then convincingly moves into darker, deeper waters. Opening with a scene of a girl getting ready for a date, the camera-wielding protagonist adroitly orchestrates a mood shift from goofiness to raw pain as an interviewer tears down the girl’s emotional defenses after being raped. One of the first films to deal with the way rape victims are treated when they seek professional help for sexual assault, "No Lies" still possesses a searing resonance and has been widely viewed by nurses, therapists and police officers.

Yes, the film has had a life as a tool to train police officers and others to better assist rape victims. Block has marketed the film for such public service use since its release. A police captain actually asked Block for the name of the officer who interviewed the woman in the film. To reprimand him in some way? We can assume, I suppose. Did he not see the credits? What about the pretty obvious cut? The looped bit of dialogue? Maybe there is a mysterious quality in their performances that reached something that, even if they gave a bow at the end, some would not waver in swallowing as some kind of truth. Mystically, Ms. Leverington speaks a truth for victims that can't speak, or have been hushed. Is this the "fact" that we want to believe?

Indeed, in many ways this film is a lie, but can you think of a film that has this much truth? That is, I think, what makes great film art. And
...no lies, to me, is just that. And I'm excited to know what you think.

...no lies, verite and feminism

Many thanks to Peter for introducing me to this film and for doing the work in making it available to us. It is a great little film, I think, and I'll glad I got the chance to see it and try to think it through. This may not make total sense if you don't recognize some references, but it's the only way I could really describe my reaction.

First of all, even though I came to ...no lies with no prior knowledge, I could not watch it "pure"; this is because I had already encountered this approach before in the great feminist work Daughter Rite (Michelle Citron, 1978). It certainly seems that Citron was influenced by Block, although I'm not sure if Citron would have seen it (I'm guessing she might have, since she was writing criticism for Jump Cut before becoming a director). Citron's film is about 50 minutes, and features a number of verite-style situations involving two sisters. The most powerful moment occurs when one of the sisters describes being raped by one of her mother's boyfriends when she was a young girl. However, at the end, we are informed that we had been witnessing not a documentary but rather a fictional construct.

The reasons why Citron chooses to do this are very much contextual. Feminist filmmaking in the 1970s begins through the use of cinema verite, talking heads documentaries that allow women to speak in their own words about their own experiences. However, this was quickly challenged by feminists who wanted to break with this idea that cinema verite realism could produce an objective truth. The call was for a documentary practice that joined with a cinematic materialism – a concern with the form of cinema’s signifying practices – and a political materialism – a concern with the concrete social practices that underpin ideology. Citron’s film can be seen as an example of this kind of feminist approach to the documentary. Her problem was trying to make a film about relations between women in the family without producing a simple cinema verite confessional or a fictional portrait of a representative family. Citron’s strategy is to reconstruct and juxtapose different forms: cinema verite, soap opera melodrama, home movies and journals. Citron thus problematizes identification itself – its false and easy notions of truth. Citron replaces more conventional and unitary REPRESENTATION OF with multiple, overlapping and contradictory RELATIONS TO: a polyphony of female voices in relation to the issue of mothers and daughters within patriarchy. Thus if the film is feminist, it is also post-structuralist to some degree, although certainly not to the degree of a Derrida or a Foucault: there is still a feminist foundation.

Likewise, I thought about Block's film within its context. The other film that came immediately to mind was Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary (1968), one of the first extended questionings of verite and the notion of cinematic truth. But Block is up to something more, I think, something quite radical in its view of cinema and reality. That he chooses to use the subject matter of rape is not at all surprising and not without precedent in modernist explorations of cinema. Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad (1961), as Lynn Higgins has convincingly argued, is very much about the seduction/ rape as a metaphor about the elusive nature of storytelling and fiction. Block uses rape here at least partly because as a crime it hinges on who is telling the truth. Or, so we think. As Peter points, there is more than one rape here: he mentions the camerman's rape of her and the director's rape of us. But, I think more important is the rape by the police, especially the man asking her for details of the crime. And here's where I would qualify the statement about Block "raping" the audience: I think if this wasn't fiction, if I was in fact "real" or we were made to think it was, it would be more of a rape, especially of the woman we see filmed. At that point, wouldn't we be victimizing her just as the policeman, wanting to hear the sordid sexual details of her ordeal?

I would consider ..no lies a work in dialogue with feminism, or at least useful for feminist appropriation, but not really feminist itself. I think this is because there is no real foundation here. I would draw an analogy with feminist like Judith Butler drawing on Foucault. Citron drew on Block's film to make a more complex feminist film than the tradition before it, but still stayed in that tradition. ...no lies seems to me a more open work, but also one that feels bleaker, more despairing, almost verging on the nihilistic. What perhaps mitigates this is the amazing performance Peter mentions. But even so, as Peter says: "Mystically, Ms. Leverington speaks a truth for victims that can't speak, or have been hushed. Is this the 'fact' that we want to believe?" This seems to speak to a pessimism around truth that is the dominant mood of the work, very different in this respect from something like Daughter Rite, which for all its deconstructing of verite never questions the women's stories and situations (hence its feminist foundation). Nevetheless, Peter also states that it is a film that contains "so much truth". Is this the truth of simply never taking cinema verite for granted? Or, more radically, any notion of any single truth?

Monday, June 8, 2009

...no lies

Film of the Month for June.
...no lies
a film by Mitchell W. Block