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Video Review

Band of Brothers
(videotape — approx. 1 hour)
By Ray Gray
Ray Gray Productions
Reviewed by Alan Irvine

In Band of Brothers, videographer and storyteller Ray Gray gives us a glimpse into a unique gathering of storytellers — seven Philadelphia storytellers (all men) who gather once a year for a day of fellowship, food, and a traditional sauna. The film, which unfolds in chronological order, opens by introducing us to the group’s tradition of this annual sauna and how it got started, introducing as well, the owner of the sauna (which is situated outside Philadelphia in a nice, wooded retreat area.) Then we see the storytellers arrive, greet each other, and relax while the sauna is prepared. There is a brief glimpse of the main event of the day, then off to a local restaurant for the dinner that traditionally brings the day to a close. The film ends with the leaving taking after dinner. And along the way, the men do, of course, tell a number of stories.

While the look into the camaraderie among these tellers is rewarding, I suspect it is the chance to hear the stories that storytellers tell amongst themselves that will appeal to most viewers. Fortunately, Gray focuses on the stories just as much as on the storytellers. We get to hear each man at least once over the course of the day, with a variety of styles and types of stories. The stories unfold in much the same way they would in a well organized performance. As the men first gather and enjoy some snacks, their conversation begins to spark jokes and humorous folktales from around the world, and one man’s tale reminds someone else of a story with similar plot or theme. As the day goes on, and everyone gets more relaxed, the stories shift, with more personal stories coming into the mix. The tone is still light, but a bit more intimate, as the men share tales of their past mishaps and concerns. By the end of the film, however, we move into very intimate, very personal tales. Most of dinner is taken up with one teller, Bill Mettler,’s tale of grappling with the depths of utter despair and desperation and of how that struggle pushed him on to the path to becoming a storyteller. That story also highlights one of the themes of the film, the exploration of the issues storytellers, at least male storytellers, sometimes face in their lives. By the end of the film, we have not only enjoyed a day of stories, but feel as if we have come to know these men.

Yet that flow from light-hearted to intimate (or, to use Elizabeth Ellis’s classifications, from Ha-Ha to Ah/Amen) sometimes feels a little too convienient. Sometimes I could not help but wonder how much was spontaneous and how much planned ahead of time. Bill’s final story in particular sometimes felt a bit too theatrical to be coming out spontaneously over dinner. The camera is obviously part of this day, indeed, Gray is one of the group, so how much did its presence shape the day? In a couple of places, the editting of the day is obvious. When the men are relaxing in the outer room of the sauna, waiting for it to heat up, there is one sequence where one man is wearing a sweater, then, in the next shot he is not wearing it, then he is again, then he is not. It is not a major problem, especially since he is listening to, not telling, the story at that point, but it did call attention to the fact that the scene had been edited together, and did start me wondering if the story being told had actually unfolded the way it seemed to, or even if Gray had filmed it a couple of times, and edited the final version together from different takes. But, I must emphasize that this is a relatively minor flaw. It caused a moment or two of confusion, nothing more.

[When I posed these questions to Gray, he responded that the day was not staged. He did request that two of the men tell a specific story during the day, Bill Mettler's final story being one of them, but the rest were spontaneous. Further, he explained that they only filmed the day as it happened, without any staging or redoing.]

In the end, I found the film intriguing, both for the stories and the storytellers. However, my view may be a little biased, since I know all but one of the men featured in the film — some just in passing, some rather well. Finding out about our friends and acquaintances is always fascinating. So, to balance that out, I asked a friend of mine who is an avid story listener, but not a teller, and who does not know any of the men involved, to view the tape. While she found the experience interesting, she also found it ultimately unfulfilling. As we talked through her reactions, one thing she remarked on is that it did not seem to her that any of the tellers were actually listening to one another, but were instead simply awaiting their turn to tell, something which had not occurred to me at all. As we tried to figure out why her perceptions so differed from mine, we thought that perhaps it was from the nature of the film and the editing. Since the focus of the film is on the telling of stories, the reactions from the listeners, the discussions that may have followed each piece were editted out. Knowing the men, and having spent time telling stories to fellow storytellers, I simply assumed those things happened off-screen, but my friend, whose experiences are primarily of being in an audience, could not assume anything about what she did not see. My friend also did not find the experience of watching a video nearly as interesting or engaging as watching a story in person. She missed the intimacy, the sense of connection with the teller that is so much part of storytelling. All of which suggests that your perception and enjoyment of the film may vary greatly depending on your point-of-view, whether that is of a storyteller or storylistener.

—posted in April, 2003


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