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.


weepingsam said...

It's interesting that, since you didn't call it a documentary when you announced it, my first reaction was to associate it with films like David Holzman's Diary or Coming Apart - fiction in the form of documentary... But when she started talking about the rape, I began to wonder - is that right? is this part of the fiction or did she just interrupt their little improvisation with something different? It's an interesting effect. I think - especially watching it again - that they are aiming at something like that: the way it starts with her putting on makeup, getting dressed, like the beginning of a performance, then - she launches into the performance... Though, again, the performance seems more "natural" than the introduction - they drop the self-conscious cinema references, things like that... It's as if she drops the character she is supposed to be playing to speak as herself - and I admit, looking back on it, the artistry of how they create that effect is pretty impressive as well. (I noticed just now the way the camera frames her in a close up just before she reveals the rape - in the mirror, actually - a detail that seems completely natural, in the flow of the film, but is very artful in fact...)

All that does feed into all the questions about the ontology of cinema the film raises. It shows the artistry involved in creating something that hides its artifice; it also raises other questions - one is, why would the story she tells seem less powerful or moving if it was written and acted and directed than if it were genuinely caught on the fly? Or, where are the lines between documentary and fiction? what if they were reenacting a real scene, with the real people? (Something you get in quite a few later documentaries, like Kiarostami's Close Up, or Zhang Yuan's Sons.) 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...

Peter Rinaldi said...

You might've just hit on the "secret" here -

Everyone performs for the camera in some way when it is on them. An actor does it in a very calculated, professional way. Someone comfortable in front of a camera will also "perform" when it is on and they will present a version of themselves that they choose to present for whatever reasons. And everyone else "performs" in a way that is out of embarrassment or discomfort of some kind; this might manifest as an attempt to seem unaffected.

Like you say, the brilliance of Shelby Leverington's work and Block's construction of this piece is that, in the beginning there is a performance of a performance (someone pretending to be someone pretending to unaffected by the camera long enough to put her makeup on) then there is a dropping of that "second" performance when the rape begins to be discussed. And because it is "dropped" so delicately and convincingly, just like someone letting their true guard down, we don't expect there to be any performance left, and we take what remains to be "real".

like you say "it's as if she drops the character she is supposed to be playing to speak as herself" but the greatness of this work, of course, is that this "her" is the second layer of her performance.