When home is where the film-maker's art is

Michel Gondry and Lou Reed are the latest directors to use their families as movie material. Why not, says Kaleem Aftab, when they are such a rich source of drama?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

For an actor who has always shied away from the spotlight, James Franco is in danger of becoming ubiquitous. In the next two months, he has two films out, as well as a collection of short stories. He's nominated in one major awards ceremony and will host another. If you miss him on the cover of the US edition of GQ, who proclaim him "Man of the Year", you can catch him suited-and-booted as the new face of Gucci. All of which seems strange for a 32-year-old actor who shrank from Hollywood after the extreme exposure of playing Peter Parker's pal Harry in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy.

Sometimes the best stories are right on our doorstep. For his latest film, The Thorn in the Heart, the maverick French director Michel Gondry has turned the camera on his own family. Making movies about your nearest and dearest is the latest vogue in documentaries; even the musician Lou Reed has got in on the act with his directorial debut, Red Shirley.

In the opening scene of The Thorn in the Heart, Gondry invites us to a family dinner, where his Aunt Suzette is recounting a joke involving sauerkraut. She's laughing so hard that it's difficult to get the whys and wherefores of the tale but her family, including Gondry, laugh along politely. They've clearly heard it thousands of times before and are too polite to say.

The director, known for his too-cool-for-school music videos as well as eclectic, high-concept movies such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, reveals a far more mundane and everyday sensibility in this latest work. The film follows his Aunt Suzette on a journey to revisit all the schools that she worked in before her retirement 20 years ago. It's a tranquil journey by any standards, but the former schoolteacher speaks eloquently on French history, particularly the Algerian conflict, and there are old family arguments, particularly with Suzette's son and primary sparring partner, Jean-Yves, whom she describes as the "thorn in my heart".

Their antagonism stems from the guilt Suzette associates with the death of her husband; the story goes that she did not phone her son straight away to tell him about his father's death, leading to a lifetime of resentment on Jean-Yves's part. The journey through rural France has a low-key atmosphere, the lack of drama seemingly Gondry's way of demonstrating that he's from an ordinary French family. The down side of this approach is that at times it leaves one wondering why anyone outside those supremely interested in the work of Gondry would want to watch such a mundane affair.

No doubt psychiatrists will have a field day trying to dissect what the image of his family says about the director . Fans of the French film-maker are likely to be more pleased with the aesthetics. Gondry displays his usual panache for easy-on-the-eye images, in particular the grainy, oversaturated home movies and a scene in which children are made to look like they're wearing invisible clothing as a Charlotte Gainsbourg track plays over the soundtrack.

For his directorial debut, Lou Reed rejects the idea of movie-making as psychotherapy. "I didn't want to psychoanalyse Shirley and get into a deep thing about myself," he says. "All I wanted to do was to get her on film."

So for his first foray into directing, the one-time Velvet Underground singer has focused on his 100-year-old cousin, who emigrated from Poland to New York when she was 19. The resulting half-hour short, titled Red Shirley, revolves around interviews with his cousin, interspersing photographs from her past throughout.

Reed, much more than Gondry, is looking to tell a historical tale about Jewish emigration to New York, the growth of the city through the 20th century and the plight of the workers. Tales of family strife are kept to a minimum and Reed's role in the tale is more curious onlooker than central figure.

In both of these films, there is an inherent assumption that the family tales are interesting because the person telling the story is famous. It helps too if both the protagonist and the family figure are famous, as in My Father Is 100 Years Old, Isabella Rossellini's film about her father Roberto, which was directed by Guy Maddin. The 17-minute film is a nostalgic, abstract piece that captures the spirit of her father's films while also being a pastiche of cinema's lost golden age. Likewise, Deconstructing Dad by Stan Warnow takes a look at the music of the director's father, the composer, bandleader and pioneer Raymond Scott, and pontificates on the impact his obsessive work ethic had on the father-son relationship.

Yet often the best examples of these films are those told by unknown personalities. The Beirut-born film-maker Mahmoud Kaabour has been winning festival prizes for his Grandma, a Thousand Times. The magical realist documentary focuses on the 83-year-old matriarch who is struggling to cope with the sense that her life has already run its course and the fear of what the afterlife may or may not hold.

Similarly, Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, a 2003 film about growing up with a schizophrenic mother, was one of the most striking documentaries of the past decade. Texas born, Caouette's mother was a former child model whose life changed when she fell off a roof and was paralysed. She was administered with electroshock treatment, which, it is argued, triggered her schizophrenia.

The footage Caouette uses to tell the story is a bewildering mix of snapshots, Super-8 home videos, early short films and video diaries.

The increase in the technological means by which we can record our daily lives has been a boon to film-makers. After all, it's easy to make a film about your family when all you have to do is point your mobile phone at them. And since family drama has been at the heart of fiction since storytelling began, it's no surprise that film-makers have used such advances to turn the cameras on themselves.

Inspired by Tarnation, HBO recently produced the film Unlisted: a Story of Schizophrenia, about the director Delaney Ruston's attempt to deal with her strained relationship with her schizophrenic father. But family tales don't necessarily have to take the form of straight documentaries. Tiny Furniture, recently released in America, has been winning rave reviews. The director Lena Dunham also stars in the lead role, which is modelled closely on her own life. It tells the tale of a recent college graduate who returns home after graduating while she figures out what to do with her life, much to the consternation of her mother. The sense that art is imitating life is enhanced by the fact that the film was shot in her family's loft in lower Manhattan and that her on-screen mother is played by her real-life artist mother, Laurie Simmons.

In a similar blurring of reality and fiction, No Place to Go, the German director Oskar Roehler's biopic based on his own mother, the writer Gisela Elsner, used actors and gave the heroine a fictional name. Meanwhile, Spike Lee's Crooklyn, based on his experiences growing up in Brooklyn, does little to hide its basis in reality.

In 1974, Martin Scorsese made Italianamerican, a hilarious documentary in which his parents are filmed seated on a plastic-covered couch in their apartment on Elizabeth Street. Once again, the family dinner is central to proceedings as Scorsese's parents break bread with the film crew while recounting tales of buying Christmas trees and their kids stealing meals from fruit carts. What's so intriguing about this film, made around the time the director was gaining fame with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, is how much the attitudes and worries of his parents are mirrored in the director's own fictional work.

Of course, one of the advantages of using family members in one's film is that it makes it easier for audiences to relate to the movie and its characters. Michael Moore is a great exponent of this, continually incorporating his father into his stories as an example of an everyday American. In Roger and Me, Moore described how being the middle-class son of a General Motors employee led him to grow up in Flint, Michigan, while in Sicko he used his folks to highlight the holes in the United States healthcare system.

Moore's success at the box office has seen many other documentary-makers follow suit, most notably Morgan Spurlock. In Super Size Me, for all its railing against McDonald's, the film's main interest lies in the director's rapidly changing relationship with his vegetarian girlfriend.

'The Thorn in the Heart' is out now