It’s Only Afterwards

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Penelope’s Heart, by Paula Overbay

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you’re telling it, to yourself or to someone else.

–Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

This is spoken as a voice-over at the beginning of Sarah Polley‘s new film, Stories We Tell. This part documentary/part artful exploration of how to tell a story is a stylistic tour de force. It is also one more example of Polley’s steely commitment to truth speaking, but a truth speaking that doesn’t flail or decimate as it burrows into our core. The deft hand of her film making, evidenced in her earlier projects including Away From Her and Take This Waltz, is becoming even more nuanced and sophisticated. Polley holds the delicate tension between what is authentic and the essential theatricity that is a film. She runs a grounding wire down deep and keeps her storytelling from losing its footing. I don’t know of another film that demonstrates this level of respect for the complexity and layered nature of a family secret. See the movie. I would love to hear what you think.

This quote by Margaret Atwood is also provocative on other levels. There is this now we are in and then there is the story that evolves about this moment that is constructed by our future selves. Similarly, visual art emerges from us in its own way, sourced and nurtured by who knows what. How differently we see a body of work when we look back on it years later, when its etymology and evolutionary lineage have been exposed and are easier for us to trace.

Yesterday my artist friend Paula Overbay showed me several works from her collection of art that she had purchased or traded for many years ago. Looking at many of those pieces now we both smiled to see the subtle suggestions and elements that ended up appearing in her own work many years later. They were there, in various stages of exposure and definition, presaged in pieces made by the hands of others. “I was drawn to these years ago, and I had no idea at the time that this was where my work would eventually end up,” she said. In the words of Margaret Atwood, “It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all.”

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Buzz, by Paula Overbay

(Both images courtesy of Paula Overbay)

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2 comments

  1. Vibeke’s avatar

    The visual memory of our subconscious mind works in wondrous ways

  2. Altoon’s avatar

    I look forward to seeing Sarah Polley’s new film when it becomes available on Netflix. I saw Away from Her and thought it very beautiful and sensitive.

    An interesting take on stories and memory comes from Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet: “Today, if I write it down, it’s because I remember it. The autumn I have is the autumn I have lost.”

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