Like one path winding through a woods, storytelling reveals reality, and obscures it at the same time.
“Listen to Me Marlon,” the well-reviewed documentary about Marlon Brando “in his own words” culled from hundreds of hours of audio tapes he recorded of himself, is a rumination through the actor’s biography on authenticity, acting, storytelling, and truth. My wife and I saw it in Berkeley this weekend, and I would recommend it.
Brando is the actor who has influenced me most, even compelling me at one point in my adolescence to consider acting myself. Watching the film walk through his major roles, I realized how many hours of my life I’d spent, re-watching On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather and even The Wild One and Guys and Dolls and his Caesar, his eyebrows’ tilt and rounded shoulder flickering silver on the screen, performing the pathos, the pain, and the animal prowl I seethed in as a young man.
I’d read five or six biographies of the man, but all when younger, and none put together all these disparate parts of his life– his apprenticeship with Stella Adler and association with the Actor’s Studio, his flirtations and family tragedies, the island in Tahiti, the political statements and alignment with indigenous peoples and Black Panthers, the on-set misbehavior and career self-sabotage and disdain of celebrity, the psychology– nothing had put it all together so well. And the fillmmakers, it seems director Stevan Riley most prominently, deftly wove together bits of Brando’s own voice, sometimes a daydream, sometimes a mouthful of scorn, sometimes a melancholic reflection, along with newsreel and footage, to tell the man’s life with a convincing sense that here were the contradictions and hypocrisies, yet here was a coherent whole.
It was fascinating. My wife found it intriguing, and she didn’t know much about Brando. Meanwhile, I knew nearly every fact and detail, could predict how bits would play out and pay off later when they were introduced as part of his life, and yet still found the storytelling surprising and moving.
Of course, knowing all these various, separate facts about his life, and having gathered them in the haphazard fashion I did, I could maybe more readily smell the bit of fabrication, the bit of a creative reconstruction that the movie was. Details left out, or introduced in sequences that made certain ugliness less ugly, certain fuzzy facts appear more transparent but suggestion or juxtaposition.
But that just reminded me that stories clarify, crystallize, cut through the fog and to the heart– but almost inevitably, some texture is lost in the clarity, some vitality swept away with the fog, some jaggedness smoothed over in the momentum of stories. Brando himself seems to ponder this in relation to his own acting, the truth and lie of acting. He seemed keenly aware, articulately so, of the lie that acting was, the lie that engaged deeply felt truths the way a Method actor does, but a kind of truthiness. He was aware of himself and the Hollywood system he rebelled against as lies, and spent his life inhabiting it and fleeing it at the same time. The way the movie tells it, he achieves a peace with that lie, a reconciliation with the possibility that the little bit of falsity and flight of escape that a movie can provide, the being transported when clouded by depression, that it was beautiful, worthwhile, something significant for him to be part of.
Indeed, the documentary itself is a nice harmonization that renders Brando’s life with much of the nobility that made me admire it when I was young, and now quite a bit as an older person, slightly wizened, wondering a little bit myself the worth of devoting life to stories/lies and reality/truth, and of course, questioning that simplistic dichotomy at every turn. Brando isn’t nakedly romanticized, I think, and he comes across as complicated, unresolved, and sometimes insidious. But mostly, heroic for the vast life he lived. And of course, that’s both truth and a fabrication.