Cineaste: “Film About a Father Who”

Film About a Father Who (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue
Spring 2021

Produced, written and directed by Lynne Sachs; cinematography by Lynne Sachs, Ira Sachs Sr., and Ira Sachs Jr.; edited by Rebecca Shapass; music by Stephen Vitiello; sound collages by Kevin. T. Allen; featuring Ira Sachs Sr., Lynne Sachs, Dana Sachs, Ira Sachs Jr., Diane Sachs, and Rose Sachs. Color, 74 min. A Cinema Guild release.

As the British say about buses, you wait ages for an experimental film about an aging patriarch by his daughter, then two come along at once.

In October 2020, Netflix dropped Dick Johnson Is Dead, wherein long-time documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson confronted her retired father’s dementia and mortality by staging elaborate tableaux of his imagined death, involving angels, heaven, funeral services, and missiles falling from the sky. By continually casting her father in these fantasy scenarios, Johnson hoped to postpone his real and inevitable death—and, by the end of the film at least, had succeeded in doing so.

Three months later, Lynne Sachs’s Film About a Father Who was also released virtually. It too centers on a charismatic older man in physical and mental decline. Kirsten Johnson is the co-parent of twins with Lynne’s filmmaker brother Ira, so presumably Lynne knew all about Dick Johnson Is Dead when she was making her own work. Still, it still must have been a little galling to see her three-and-a-half-decades-long project eclipsed by a film that was not only released on the world’s biggest moving image distribution service, but also widely featured and reviewed in the press, culminating in a place on many best film of the year lists, such as Sight & Sound’s, where it ranked number six.

View fullsize

Filmmaker Lynne Sachs with her father Ira Sachs Sr., the subject of her documentary.

View fullsize

Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead, about her father, appeared a few weeks before Sachs’s film (Kirsten Johnson with Dick Johnson).

That said, even had Film About a Father Who been released first, or without Dick Johnson Is Dead as competition, it would not necessarily have attained that film’s visibility or reach. This is partly due to Sachs’s career-long assertion of creative independence and her reluctance to court major studios or platforms like Netflix as so many of her peers have. Sachs is one of those awkward filmmakers with one foot in the art world, where many of her films are screened and even generated (through grants, residencies, fellowships, and the like), and the other in the documentary or essay film world. In practical terms, this means that she has a foot in neither; the art world doesn’t recognize her as a moving image artist (she is not represented by a commercial gallery, the sine qua non for institutional recognition), and her documentaries and essay films don’t conform to the rigid formulae demanded by studios and networks. As a result, Sachs’s exemplary body of work over thirty years has been largely ignored—as far as I am aware, she is yet to receive a feature, interview, or full-length review from any of the major English-language film periodicals. Compare this to the widespread coverage granted the fiction films of her brother Ira, who has engaged with both mainstream distribution and the star system (one movie even stars a former James Bond!). The price for Lynne Sachs’s preciously guarded independence has been critical invisibility. We must try harder.

But the film also resists mainstream co-option by its refusal to offer simplistic characterization or narrative. Dick Johnson is a model of probity, as a professional (he worked as a clinical psychiatrist), husband, and father; a religious man, his path never deviated from accepted norms of middle-class respectability. Ira Sachs Sr. is a sketchier figure, and as a result, Film About a Father Who is a sketchier film. Dick Johnson may feature in various fantasy scenarios, but he remains the same, recognizable person, physically and morally. Ira Sr.’s elusive identities are first signaled by his sundry business cards—he worked as a “hippie” entrepreneur, buying up unpromising tracts of land in remote areas and developing them—as if he were some sort of undercover agent. His latter-day presence as a beaming, seemingly vacant good ol’ boy is supplemented by footage from half a century’s worth of home movies in diverse formats (mostly shot by Lynne and both Iras), interviews past and present with Ira Sr. and his family, photographs, letters, and even vintage commercials.

The documentary or essay film is often compared to a detective story, with an investigator uncovering or sifting through evidence, parsing essential information from a mass of raw data, before arriving at a singular truth and resolution. Film About a Father Who is an antidetective story—the more we discover about Ira Sr., the less we know. A better metaphor for his narrative might be an endless Russian doll, or a defective onion—layers of skin are peeled away to reveal only more layers, although the peeler still ends up in tears.  

This ambiguity and indeterminacy is indicated by Sachs’s title—Film About a Father Who. “A” father, not “my father,” not All About My Father or something. “A father” distances the subject from the film in the manner of a fairy tale or myth, appropriate for a man who wanders in and out of assorted lives with little thought for the havoc he wreaks. “Who”—a father “who” did what? “Who” is Ira Sachs Sr.? The “who” may also reference the popular BBC/NBC television series Who Do You Think You Are? This genealogy format is structured around a subject–detective’s search through the archives and historical sites in order to construct their family tree. These subjects may find out more than they wanted to, but the format—question, quest, revelation, affirmation—never changes. Film About a Father Who shares similar themes and motifs, but its outcome couldn’t be more different.

The film’s conceptual and narrative structures are introduced by two sequences that, at first, seem uncharacteristically labored and literal, but resonate powerfully as the film develops. In the opening sequence, before any voice-over contextualizes what we see, an old man sits having his hair cut by a woman who is eventually revealed as the man’s daughter, and the film’s director Lynne Sachs. The hairdresser’s attempts to unravel the sitter’s matted hair mirrors the work the filmmaker will have to do on the clotted narrative strands of Ira Sr.’s life story. This sexually potent, Jewish alpha-male winces as his hair is manipulated, perhaps reminding us of the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah, the emasculation of a virile hero by his treacherous lover. In its quiet, patient, loving, intimate way, Film About a Father Who is a work of emasculation and betrayal, a feminist critique of patriarchal structures embedded in the family as rigorous as anything by Yvonne Rainer, whose 1974 classic Film About a Woman Who inspired Sachs’s title.  

But that very quiet, patience, love, and intimacy is part of the sequence too—for Lynne Sachs at least, Ira Sr. is a man worth spending time with, not least because he was not always there. The profusion of home movies in Film About a Father Who is misleading, as it occludes the unfilmed gaps when Ira Sr. was not present, when he left his first wife Diane (mother of Lynne, Ira, and their writer sibling Dana) for a trail of other women, including at least one other wife and numerous children. The media-savvy Sachs family—if nothing else, the film can be watched as a history of communications technology, as succeeding generations of cameras, televisions, video formats, and mobile phones appear as part of the familial mise en scène—shoot hungrily today because there may not be anything to shoot tomorrow. The fact that Ira Sr.’s other families were not as technologically adept as the Sachs’s mean that these parts of his life are not visually represented, their documentation dependent on hearsay, rumor, speculation, and oral histories that are occasionally, understandably, embittered. Such camera-free environments may have been part of the appeal of these other lives for a showman who is happy to perform for the camera but shrinks when it tries to peer behind the mask of bonhomie.

In the second key sequence, the now middle-aged Lynne, Ira Jr., and Dana sit on a bed like children, discussing their parents. They differentiate their characters in terms of grammar and punctuation: 

Ira: Mom was providing an example that was much more linear. 

Dana: And stable. There were no question marks when you were in [Mom’s] house, and with Dad’s, there was all question marks. You didn’t know what could happen.

Lynne:  With Mom there was a sense of…I was obsessed with grammar [as a child]. Grammar was worth understanding because once you had grammar you had total transparency. And Mom understood the grammar of…

Dana: In Dad’s life there was no grammar. There was no punctuation—

Lynne: There was no grammar…

Dana: Well, there was punctuation…

Lynne: Exclamation marks!

Dana: And question marks!

Lynne: Exclamation marks and questions marks. With Mom…periods and commas…and the comma gave you a sense, you knew where things went. The thing was, you had the commas and the pause and they were exquisite. They were just right, and you felt affirmed.

Dana: Well, she was steady, and she would keep things in discrete pieces. Life was very…you knew where the boundaries were, and his was always opening up into something. Like a colon opens onto something else—

If the first sequence signifies Lynne’s attempt to unravel the multiple strands of her father’s life, the film proper is an attempt to find a new grammatical form for the unsettlingly open, nonlinear, exploratory, unstructured, opaque, irregular, boundaryless narrative of Ira Sachs Sr., one that could not be contained by conventional film grammar.

This grammar is structured by its subject’s and the film’s relation to time. The classic detective story is defined by time—a crime has been committed that disrupts the flow of time; the detective establishes a chronology of events that restores it. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson tries to stop the flow of time altogether, resulting in a deliberately static, repetitive work—the longer I keep things the same, the longer Dad will stay alive. Film About a Father Who, by contrast, can’t stop time. As edited by artist Rebecca Shapass, it is a vertigo of time, a criss-crossing of past, present, and future, producing a hall of mirrors wherein present-day Ira Sr. confronts his former selves, the time-traveling Father Who as Doctor Who. He never stands still, and neither does the film, resulting in a work as mercurial and fugitive as life itself, resistant to harmonious closure.

Sachs’s focus on her own family is typical of a certain strand of American avant-garde filmmaking—think of Jonas Mekas’s diaries, Stan Brakhage’s processed home movies, or Stephen Dwoskin’s ghostly portraits of long-deceased family members. In an interview with Reverse Shot, the house magazine of New York’s Museum of the Moving Image—which hosted a virtual retrospective of her work in January—Sachs discusses other experimental films about difficult fathers by Su Friedrich (Sink or Swim, 1990) and Alan Berliner (Nobody’s Business [1996]—Berliner is credited as an artistic advisor on Film About a Father Who). The joys and travails of family life are a recurrent subject in Sachs’s work—as it is, indeed, of Ira Jr.’s, with his films’ weak or difficult husbands and fathers. In particular, Lynne has confronted her own parenthood with portrait films of her children, such as a series that captures her daughter Maya at various ages (Photograph of Wind, 2001; Same Stream Twice, 2012; and Maya at 24, 2021), that anticipates in reverse many of the procedures of Film About a Father Who.

Film About a Father Who could have been a monumental film, a “summa” of a life’s work (Sachs will be sixty this year) as well as a multilayered portrait of a complex man. Such finality and thematic bombast is anathema to Sachs, however. This is a film, after all, as interested in the ritual of an old woman putting on a pair of stockings as it is in the great themes of Family, Identity, Time, or American Masculinity. Sachs’s aesthetic has always been defined by the fleeting and provisional, by the rejection of a saleable authorial style, and by formal and philosophical “lightness,” what the French praise as légèreté, the ability to find forms that critically distance subject matter that is emotionally volatile, even traumatic, with wit, illumination, empathy, and nimble intelligence. To call Film About a Father Who Sachs’s “best” or “breakthrough” film would be to miss the point. Like her great predecessors Jonas Mekas and Chris Marker, each work by Sachs—whether it is a film, a poem, a performance, or a Web installation—is a fragment of a larger body of work that is simply “the work.” One hopes that someday Sachs’s achievement will be recognized as the major contribution to modern American cinema it is. 

Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.

Copyright © 2021 by Cineaste Magazine 

Cineaste, Vol. XLVI, No. 2