dir. Robert Greene, 2014, USA
genre: self-reflexive portrait documentary
available on iTunes or via Cinema Guild on-demand
(DVD release presumably forthcoming)
I saw Actress only after reading director Robert Greene's manifesto about the "renaissance in documentary culture" which has seen "collapsing walls between fiction, nonfiction and art cinema." After his pronouncements and the many critical accolades (Bilge Ebiri calls it one of the best documentaries he's ever seen), I have to say I came to the film with higher expectations. Yes, I noticed the self-reflexive commentary on documentary performance in this portrait of Wire actress Brandy Burre; Burre is indeed a remarkably self-confident and camera-aware documentary subject. The value of Actress is that asks the spectator to evaluate the effect of this kind of self-consciousness on documentary, pitched somewhere between dramaturgy and Erving Goffman's performance-of-self. The tight framing of the climactic interviews additionally makes the emotion feel self-consicous. What I did not get an ontological unsettling of what documentary and fiction do (from Ebiri: "the entire film is dancing on this knife’s edge of real and make-believe"), or a sense of revolutionary documentary form. Other portrait docs create a "melodrama" out of real stories and problems, and others have moments of self-reflexivity. Perhaps that's just a matter of raised expectations or even of seeing on video rather than theatrically. Actress is a good documentary but not nearly one of the best I've ever seen.
One thing I did really appreciate in the film is Greene's eye both in filming and editing. There is one scene in which Burre's ex-partner, Tim, removes holiday lights after a Christmas party. It is a simple series of shots, but so simply captures the emotional tenor of their relationship through visual means. And while the slow-motion shots felt like filler to me, there are other, equally lovely video shots of the town and the landscape which give an emotional punctuation to Burre's story. As for the film's pace and structure, there is a wonderful sense of conflict that develops out of the mundanity of Burre's daily life. Greene does a good job of capturing just a sense of tedium which forms the status quo of the film's exposition, and it makes the identity and relationship crisis of the second half of the film that much more pronounced.
Finally, I valued in Actress what I might value in any character-driven documentary: the way Burre's story touches on bigger issues of work-life balance, of women's self-identity in a patriarchal culture, and of the sexism of theatrical and television casting. To take the issue of age-bound casting, this is something we all might have a knowledge of, but Actress shows the human toll on the women actors whose livelihood is made more difficult than men's.