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By Adam Nayman
“I tend to break things,” says Brandy Burre early on in Actress, and Robert Greene’s film gives her plenty of opportunities to validate this claim. An aggressively stylized profile of a former ensemble player on The Wire who now lives with her husband and two young children in sleepy Beacon, New York, Actress places the idea of fractured or crumbling domesticity front and centre early on: while trying to organize a shelf in her son’s room, Brandy gets brained by a falling metal box and exclaims “Death!” as she regains her equilibrium. It’s a moment so thematically on the nose that it couldn’t possibly be spontaneous, and as such it’s emblematic of a film that doesn’t differentiate between its obviously contrived scenes and its simply authentic ones—and which also implies that doing so might not be possible anyway.
It’s no great feat of critical acuity to point out that Actress is a movie about performance. Acting is not only Brandy’s profession, it’s something that she does all the time, whether interacting with her restaurateur husband Tim, her children, or her neighbour Greene’s camera, which alternates between fetishizing her chores in luxurious slow motion and bobbing on the periphery while she begins the long, arduous process of restarting her moribund career. We’re so attuned to Brandy’s overt physical and vocal gamesmanship in every aspect of her life that the film starts to feel turned inside out—when she begins confessing things about her dissatisfaction with her marriage or, later, about a one-night stand, they could be acting exercises. Except that they aren’t.
So marriage is another of the things that Brandy breaks in Actress, and the process is extremely painful to watch, not least because of the tension between Greene’s initial project—a collaborative showcase with a woman he’s obviously fond of—and the basic decency he shows by trying to keep out of the way of the wreckage and not involving the children in the fray. What Brandy is also smashing here—for reasons that would seem to exceed her participation in the movie—are conventional expectations about what a woman in her late 30s is supposed to want from herself and from others, and the affirmative aspect of her brass-ring-chasing (which involves, among other things, going through DVDs of The Wire to put together a new sizzle reel) bumps up against the sense that she’s sacrificing the feelings and futures of her loved ones on the altar of self-interest.
Actress is an extremely carefully made movie, and Greene really picks his spots as far as big moments are concerned. In addition to the carefully poised hausfrau tableaux in the opening minutes (which are productively juxtaposed with such sticky quotidian images as fingers flicking food waste around the rim of a kitchen sink’s drain), Actress pivots on a truly startling close-up of its protagonist with her face looking recently pummelled—an off-screen event that’s left as ambiguous as any of the faked-it-so-real manoeuvres that take place in front of our eyes. The circumstances of Brandy’s injury are vague, but the polyvalence of this image in dramatic, thematic, and simply affective terms is a great accomplishment: in terms of “readability,” it’s a two-second shot that takes on the resonance of a disturbing, densely packed short story.
That Actress feels so shaped and sculpted is potentially a point of criticism, but as signifiers of “hybridity” in non-fiction filmmaking are being increasingly valorized instead of ghettoized, it also feels a bit like business as usual. (To wit: Actress showed at the Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” series, where it was surrounded and complemented by a set of wholly different yet similarly elastic films.) The most fascinating thing about Greene’s film isn’t the way it plays with convention or form, but rather its tacit suggestion that all documentaries engage in (and strive to disguise) similar tactics. Pace, say, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), by calling attention to its constructedness Actress gestures outwards rather than merely touting its aesthetic sleight of hand. It’s a testament to Greene’s skill that this movie about a woman who likes to break things holds together so smartly, but it’s equally true that it takes its cues from its subject in this regard: above all else, the film resonates as a portrait of a woman remaking herself in her own image.
Cinema Scope: Your last film, Fake It So Real (2012), was about independent professional wrestlers, and you recently wrote a piece for Sight & Sound talking about professional wrestling and documentary practice as similar disciplines. Wrestling and its relationship to reality seem to be important things for you, and I wonder whether you’d connect that at all to Actress.
Robert Greene: In terms of both films having aspects of performance in them, yes. I think one of the reasons I wrote that piece was to set up Fake It So Real for some viewers; for the five people who read the piece and then see the movie, that set-up will work with them. The connection between wrestling and documentary is that in both, the performer and the real person are both sort of unstable and flattened out at the same time. The realities of their lives are compressed with their acting. Wrestling performs that compression in a live setting, so I think there’s even more active thinking going on for everyone involved. That active thinking is how I think we should be watching and creating documentaries as well. There’s a moment in Fake It So Real where this wrestler is in his bedroom, it’s very intimate and he’s talking about all these problems in his life, and you realize he’s doing it as a kind of wrestling promo. He’s cutting a really good promo as he’s being interviewed, and there isn’t really a difference between himself and his character.
Scope: I know the scene, and of course he wouldn’t be giving the interview—or cutting the promo—if you weren’t there. Similarly in Actress, Brandy is playing to the camera because she knows it’s there and you’re behind it.
Greene: Well, what’s similar between the wrestler and Brandy is that both of them conceive their lives around those cameras, and around cameras mattering to them. Anyone who’s on a stage in some way conceives of a camera when they’re there. Even a bartender does that. When he’s at work, he’s performing—he’s performing his job. Documentaries can get in trouble when there isn’t that recognition by the people in them; it makes the films feel sort of off. So in Fake It So Real, it’s true that he wouldn’t be doing that promo without me there, but it was still very easy for him to imagine that sort of thing, and to use words to help himself get over—for me, for the viewer, and for himself. I think that Brandy thinks that way too.
Scope: There’s this idea that all acts of altruism and sacrifice are undertaken with the awareness that we’re being watched somehow; it’s one of the major underpinnings of many religions, for example.
Greene: I’ve read theories that all we’re ever trying to do when we do anything is to understand other people—to be inside or figure out what’s going on inside other peoples’ heads. A documentary means putting a camera in the middle of that exchange. Brandy has this amazing thing that she said at a Q&A once, which is that when someone puts a camera on you, you have to decide who you are. The camera interrupts the natural stream between two people.
Scope: Brandy definitely seems to enjoy or maybe even need the camera. A lot of reviewers have commented on how self-involved she is, and that seems like a big part of the film’s subject.
Greene: It’s interesting because as a mother…well, when you have kids that chance to be full of yourself gets stripped away. You can’t be full of yourself. It’s impossible. There is now this tension between wanting to care about only yourself and this baby, which will die if you don’t take care of it. It’s evolutionary: we can’t be self-involved. So at the beginning of the movie, the fact that she’s done all these things, that she’s got this house, that the kids are comfortable and things seem good, that’s a sign that she hasn’t been selfish. But one of the things I was attracted to was filming someone who was trying to be more selfish within the framework of being a parent, or within a marriage. I think that she did the right thing, even if it’s messy how we see her getting from A to B to C. Realizing that she isn’t just a housewife, that she needs other things—that she needs someone to bend her over the couch, or nights getting drunk in the city, or a stage for her art—she needs to pursue it, she’s going to be miserable and she isn’t going to be any good for anyone if she doesn’t. She’s an actress, and there is an element of self-centredness to every actor. I’m protective of her as a friend, but I think the movie is honest about how conceited she can be. At the same time, making a movie about an actor who doesn’t have makeup on, who at one point has this cold sore on her mouth—she’s so ripped open by that, she’s not protected by all those normal apparatuses of acting.
Scope: I think that strand of the film reaches its logical conclusion in that late shot of her with her face all bandaged and bruised, which is just so startling and confrontational.
Greene: The film is non-fiction, so that really happened to her face. You wrote something about the movie on Twitter that I liked, which is that “you can feel the movie thinking.” That moment is where I figured out how to take this real event that happened to Brandy and frame it so the viewer has no idea what’s actually happened at all. Your reaction depends on what sort of place you’re in when you watch the film. I’m interested in the effects movies have on people, whether it’s boredom or skepticism. That might be the critic part of my brain. In that moment I like that I think it’s possible for someone to assume that it’s just a bad filmmaking moment, that I put her in these bandages or something to make a point.
Scope: You talk about the critic part of your brain, and there’s no question that Actress is a conceptual work, but how does that sort of stuff bump up against the practicalities of just making the movie—of shooting it day after day while everyone’s life is going on in the background?
Greene: The reason why I think this film works is that the process and the ideas were really closely related all the way through. I had an idea early on to film Brandy putting her son Henry’s jacket on him over and over again. I filmed this thing twice where she’s getting the kids up in the morning, shooting for the hour or hour-and-a-half that it takes them to eat and dress and everything before school, and while I was doing that I had her stop now and then and announce the different ways she was going to play it: “Now I’m going to be a sexually frustrated housewife,” or whatever. Each time she would alter her behaviour slightly. That was a conceptual thing, for sure, and it didn’t end up in the movie because that sort of stuff was coming through anyway. We were always being guided by the concept. And so it could have easily died as an experiment based on how things played out in Brandy’s life.
Scope: You could say that the experimental stuff is more effective because of what we can see going on underneath it; that all of Brandy’s role-playing for you is happening at the same time that her marriage is sort of crumbling around her.
Greene: Yeah, that’s just sort of a nice way of asking the standard question, which is: If your main character gets cancer, that’s good for the movie, right? I would say that my collaboration with Brandy would have yielded something interesting no matter what had happened. I was always fascinated by a mother in her late thirties dealing with baggage about aging, about trying to be youthful…the fact that her life fell apart sort of builds on that and transforms it, for sure. You know the movie Catfish (2010)…I hate it, but it’s amazing when you see the joy of the faces of the guys in it, when they realize they’re going to make all this money off of their movie…it makes me want to puke, but I totally understand it.
Scope: There is a common trope in popular culture— think of Black Swan (2010), if you have to—that actresses have a harder time than their male counterparts in distinguishing between reality and fantasy: that there is more psychological slippage, that acting is a kind of concealed form of hysteria.
Greene: Brandy basically says all that in the movie. She says, “I have to figure out how much I talk about my real life, all this stuff is happening, but it’s good because actresses are supposed to be crazy.” It’s like for her, maybe being insane enough to have an affair and lose her husband and her house will help her because it fits some stereotype out there about actresses. She was the “young woman” on The Wire, and she had a moment of recognition in her 20s where she realized that she felt used and exploited for that. She moves away from all that, she has children, and then—she said all this in stuff I filmed but didn’t use—she finds that maybe she liked the first thing. Maybe she liked being the sexy B-movie sort of girl. Maybe it would give her more freedom to play that role. The scene where she talked about that didn’t work for the movie, but I think that vibe is still in there, everywhere. Brandy is acutely aware of how every time we see her in a heightened emotional state it plays into people’s ideas of “how women are,” and how they act and all that.
I hope people will see that there is something feminist in this film, and that the movie loves its subject, but there are also images in it that are close to the other side of that line. The thinness of that line of perception is worth exploring. Very much so. In the scene you talked about where we see she’s been injured, I know that there are people in the audience who see it and think “The bitch deserved it.” It’s so fucked up. When Tim saw the film, the first thing he said about that shot, as a joke, was “I didn’t do it!” And that’s what some people think, that it’s fucking okay to hit women if they’re acting crazy. I told Brandy when we were shooting it that some people were going to think that she deserved it. And so she has this look on her face like “Bring it on, bitches.” I love that.
Scope: It’s made even more bracing by how you film her sitting there gathering her children to her side, maternally but also defiantly, in light of some of the decisions she’s made to put her family’s unity in jeopardy.
Greene: I’ve had one good idea in my life, and that was to shoot that scene that way.
Scope: You mentioned her husband Tim just now. How involved has he been in the film since you finished shooting it?
Greene: He watched a cut. I didn’t have anyone sign a release form until after they watched it, so that they didn’t feel trapped. He watched it and said that he hated it and that he also loved it. He went to film school, and I think the reason the movie exists in the end is not because of me and my ideas or Brandy and her desire to change her life, but the fact that Tim went to film school and so didn’t feel like destroying the hard drives in my basement. He likes movies and he could appreciate this one. He told me he wanted there to be a scene of him at work: he thought it would help the movie, so he participated in it even after he watched it. I don’t think he hates me. I think he still considers me a friend. He’s a guy who doesn’t talk about things, which is who he appears to be in the movie, too. He really likes the poster for the movie, the style of it…he likes that Brandy looks crazy in the movie and that he looks pretty good. But he could also just punch me in the mouth one day and I wouldn’t be surprised. He could have told me that the movie couldn’t exist and it would have been okay. Actually no, it wouldn’t have been okay. I would have begged and pleaded with him to sign a release form.
Scope: The movie is called Actress, which sort of makes him a supporting actor in the story, but he’s an important character for sure.
Greene: Tim’s tendency to withdraw was heightened by the camera. So his heightened withdrawal from things heightens Brandy’s sense of drama—and that gives you a sense of their relationship pretty quickly. There are things that are obscured about what’s going on with them, because she’s way out in front. Brandy says that stuff about Tim having this idea of himself as a breadwinner, and the thing is it’s not just an idea: he has a job and he works really hard and he pays for things. In the end, the movie is a series of subjectivities, multiple layers of subjectivities smashed together. But Tim and I agreed that having a scene where he talked about his thoughts wouldn’t really help things. Now he just doesn’t want to talk about it; it’s too big and scary to talk about. People in Beacon are starting to see it and tell him it’s a good movie, that he looks good, so it’s super-complicated.
Scope: You’ve talked about being friends with Brandy and how that friendship led you to make the movie, but you don’t put yourself onscreen at all. How essential is that sort of self-effacement to your practice, and how does it line up with your other ideas about documentary filmmaking?
Greene: J. Hoberman wrote this stupid, annoying piece about Frederick Wiseman one time where he said “Let’s just mint him as an icon and move on.” He was annoyed at the idea that Wiseman somehow isn’t present in his work, and Wiseman doesn’t help by saying things to that same effect. But it was infuriating to me because as a viewer, I’m always aware of Wiseman and his camera as being in the room. We have to get used to that and think of it always. It’s always part of the narrative. Films foreground that in subtle ways. It was unnecessary for me to be a character. In the scene where Brandy is confessing about her affair, the camera is moving; it’s subtle, but we know that there’s another person in the room. So I’m there. There’s a whole bunch of ways to make movies, and the way I want to do it is to put all the things that we’re supposed to be hiding out there. I hate when people say editing is supposed to be invisible. Like, take all these things—the camera being present, the act of making a documentary, the fact you’re only using exteriors when the light is nice—and make them part of the movie. Don’t hide them. The act of making a documentary is an insane thing sometimes, so let’s use that fact.