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[Couple of spoilers ahead. Probably shouldn’t read this unless you’ve seen the movie.]

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David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) took the tone of Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and transplanted it to the situation facing married couples today. (Another critic agrees with this view here.) In the earlier film, a producer on the verge of losing his job kills a scriptwriter in a fit of rage. The film ends with that producer attaining the American Dream. With inconclusive evidence against him, and a younger and better looking wife, he pulls up to his new home (complete with flag on the lawn) just as another scriptwriter pitches a fictional film based on the story of his successful murder. The movie is a guaranteed blockbuster and a further boost to the producer’s career – the name of the script is “The Player”.

Gone Girl gives us the same cynicism and similarly unlikable characters, but unlike The Player, we see two characters (read: two perspectives) duped into their prearranged and difficult to navigate societal roles. The shock of the narrative is its utter lack of a mystery. The movie was sold to us as a story of a missing wife, whose husband is likely responsible, and this is what we see in the first act. The plot then jumps from the husband’s tale of confusion and anger, to the wife, Amy Dunne, on the run. She had staged her disappearance and inevitable death to get back at her apparently awful husband. However, when that plan backfires and it is shown that she’s no better a wife (perhaps even Evil), she returns to husband Nick and forces him to keep up the appearance that he did, in fact, miss her. We learned in the first act that Nick was rather optimistic about his lost wife – his relationship with a younger woman need no longer be inhibited by the sacred vows of matrimony.

In the middle of the film the story leaps back and forth between Nick and Amy as they battle each other from afar: the former pretends to miss his wife on talk shows in such a way that when she watches, she’ll know he’s full of shit; Amy plants clues for Nick to hint at her evil plans to destroy him. Whether he deserves this treatment is never clear and I really don’t think it matters. Similar to The Player and its use of allegory (murder) to show us the dark side of Hollywood, Gone Girl develops this cat-and-mouse game of two (somewhat) ordinary individuals who simply don’t know what to do about marriage.

The final act has husband and wife reunite. Here the film turns into the darkest comedy we’ve seen since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The necessity for Nick to feign desperation over his lost wife, acted out to keep the cops and media from thinking him responsible for her disappearance, combined with Amy’s confabulated story about her disappearance in order to safely return to her (more) comforting life with Nick, is deeply unsettling. It attempts to draw a likeness between this tale and the many couples whom we know (but not ourselves, surely). When Amy and Nick then declare in a TV interview that the next step, now that they’ve finally found each other, is to have a baby, we can’t help but cringe and think of the times in which either ourselves or our friends adopted a pet or got pregnant to cover up boredom and prolong the relationship.

The telos of marriage is supposed to be Good, but what novelist and scriptwriter Gillian Flynn tells us is that marriage is everything except Good and good. Or, more interestingly, marriage ain’t what it used to be. And this distance from traditional marriage, allegorized as it is in the film, will eventually end up being a good thing. Gone Girl, like Blue Valentine (2010), suggests we’re not quite there yet and neither gender knows what to do with these shifting roles, the increasing ease of divorce, and the imperative to endlessly enjoy ourselves. Is it a surprise that the catalyst for the crumbling relationship is Nick’s refusal to commit and participate in monogamy? (What does Nick Dunne like about college girls? He keeps getting older, but they stay the same age.) And are we surprised that when Amy acts as the breadwinner, the equal balance of control and freedom between husband and wife catastrophically misfires? Amy shows us that she wanted the same amount of control over her husband as men used to enjoy over their wives.

The film is neither misogynist nor feminist – such a discussion misses the point. Gone Girl is purely descriptive, albeit in an allegorical and satirical mode. Elif Batuman suggests something similar in a review for The New Yorker:

“Gone Girl” is as much about the near impossibility of being a good husband as it is about the anguish of being a good wife. The bat-shit preposterousness of the marital “accord” ultimately reached by Nick and Amy is an indictment of the state of marriage, and of heterosexual relations more broadly.

Although I agree the film is damning of marriage, I propose that rather than condemn the institution outright, the description of it in the film is more ambiguous; perhaps, not all marriage is bad, but we’re no longer sure how to have a successful one.

Forthcoming, brief article on Affleck’s and Pike’s physicality in the film…

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Video essay here: https://vimeo.com/107821650

Jean Rouch said that a camera functions like a confessional. In one sense, we’ve seen this in countless reality television programs from Survivor (2000-), to Big Brother (2000-), and constructed documentaries such as Coal House (2007). In these programs, the confessional closet grants performers the space to give a testimony or a recounting of events – the contestants or participants on reality TV provide an account of their day’s behaviours or feelings for entertainment purposes. These reflections on the day are most amusing when the scene shifts from a heated confrontation between or amongst participants to the confessional closet wherein one of the performers, in a rage, informs the audience that their fellow contestant was acting like [bleeped expletive].

In another sense, Rouch meant that the camera enables individuals to perform. We see this in films as diverse as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, lies and videotape (1989), Ulrich Seidl’s Jesus, You Know (2003), and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). These works – one fiction and two documentary – demonstrate that the camera is not merely for commonplace testimonies nor a medium which allows spectators to identify with performers’ emotions. The camera, while asking or commanding persons in front of the lens to perform, is also like a therapist.

Cameras and therapists are alike in their silent and non-judgmental nature, a nature which allows performers to divulge their secrets, desires, and confessions. The technology is silent, thereby providing an uninterrupted time and space for performers to bring their psyches to language and to work out a problem for themselves. The added benefit of being recorded is that it demands an individual to perform not just everyday life, but reflect on the fact that in speaking and acting for the camera, everyday life is a performance.

In Sex, lies and videotape, Graham’s camera is a substitute for sexual intimacy. Unable to get or sustain an erection, Graham videotapes women revealing their most intimate sexual encounters, desires, and preferences. In his session with Cynthia, a woman who had already been characterized as sexually adventurous, Graham’s questions about her first sexual experience sparks not just her visual and aural memory of that initial encounter, but moves her bodily as well. She eventually removes her clothes and, in a later scene, Cynthia reveals that she had touched herself. As to why she did so, she tells her sister, “I wanted to. I wanted him to see me,” a sentiment Catherine Breillat’s female protagonist would echo in Anatomy of Hell (2004).

The passive gaze of Graham’s camera allows Cynthia to perform in three interlinked ways: for Graham, for his camera, and for herself (in full knowledge that both man and camera are observing her – Walter Benjamin had said, “… the audience takes the position of the camera,” and it is possible if not likely that the performer is aware of this during her own performance). Yet, to state that Cynthia wanted Graham to see her where she is unwatchable, to invoke Breillat’s phrase, misses the mark. It would be more accurate to say that she wanted to see herself, although not referring to the final cut of the tape. Cynthia wanted to imagine herself performing as herself, and this is why we see the most intimate part of the recording session from the camera’s grainy perspective. This is Cynthia’s virtual perspective of her performance.

Jesus, You Know features a number of performers reciting their prayers. They each present their respective interpersonal problems, ask Jesus for advice, and through two or more sessions in front Jesus and Seidl’s camera, the individuals have minor and major revelations about their (love) lives. While Sex, lies and videotape is a thoroughly fictional film, Jesus, You Know is a documentary feature. These are real individuals with what we assume to be real problems – the veracity of this is shown by cutting to domestic scenes between protagonists and their friends and lovers. Yet the truthfulness of verbalized prayers is called into question by Seidl’s form and the structure of the film. First, he does not attempt to mask the performances of his actors: they are shown walking into churches, taking their seats in pews, acting out everyday tasks, wavering between a gaze at a crucified Jesus somewhere behind the camera and at the camera itself, and the tableau-aesthetic of each scene clearly marks its staginess. The participants bring their performance to the camera and Seidl has positioned the performers in aesthetically appealing ways. Seidl’s style counters the anti-aesthetic imperatives and discourses of sobriety that the documentary genre has historically commanded.

Second, we suspect that while some of the performances were prepared in advanced, the individuals’ lives are also shown to develop into their own narrative from the centrifugal force of their prayers. The move from prepared speech to tears or revelation exhibits the power of the camera. At least one woman, for example, begins with an emotional discussion about her cheating husband and ends a later session – and the film – with an optimistic speech that rivals the best scripted fiction film has to offer. Independent, en route to a meaningful life apart from marriage, and content with mortality, this woman’s story formed a narrative that concluded with a happy ending. The camera-therapist was perhaps a key part in her story’s resolution.

As Herzog makes clear in his commentary, Grizzly Man offers the most interesting case for documentary performance because the performer, Timothy Treadwell, more or less performs solely for himself. Hours and hours of footage was shot, first-hand, by Treadwell. He acts as director, writer, performer, and cinematographer in each scene. Towards the conclusion of the film, Treadwell presents himself as three different performers within the same scene. He begins as the level-headed director of the film, shifts to his onscreen persona, then in a surprising move explodes into a series of expletives against the United States government – this is followed by a return to the kind, onscreen persona to wrap up the segment. The question is where we locate a “real” Treadwell, i.e., one we would recognize off-screen. But this is a cliche psychological problem. There is no authentic self, but the many selves captured by recording technology. The camera, in this instance, offers Treadwell not just one but three ways to perform himself, and each performance is no less authentic than the other.

Benjamin wrote that unlike the theatre-actor, in which a performer is required to act out a whole scene and story, the film-actor is fragmented into shots that are often shot non-chronologically. Real individuals are far from the perfected whole person on the stage; rather, similar to the film-actor, our life is comprised of pieces and put together by those viewing us. Thus the camera, used in these three films as a kind of therapist whom enables us to speak freely with the self-reflexivity to contemplate the words and sentences we utter, demonstrates that being filmed is a positive experience. These films suggest that the camera-therapist functions in three specific ways: it allows the performer(s) to act out several identities or problems at once, in sequence or out of sequence; to assemble personal test performances; and discover the senses in which performance is a part of everyday life. To help us live with our symptoms, cope with our problems, fix our broken relationships, or call up pleasures from our childhood, such things we must perform – and the camera helps to turn us back on ourselves and confront whatever confessions we reveal.