Monday, November 08, 2010

DOC NYC ’10: Discoveries of a Marionette

Bjarte Mørner Tveit has some home movies to show and some sea stories to tell. They are not really his, but his grandfather’s. For years, the luxury liner captain was a towering figure to his grandson. However, when Captain Alf Mørner gave his film school dropout grandson a box of super-8 film from his exotic ports-of-call, it began a process of understanding that culminated with Tveit’s debut feature documentary, Discoveries of a Marionette (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the inaugural DOC NYC at the IFC Center.

True to Nordic stereotypes, the old Captain was not much of talker, rarely dispensing wisdom to his intimidated grandson. He was a robust gent, who seemed to enjoy life and the company of adults. Yet, with mortality approaching, he bestowed the box of tapes on Tveit and consented to a series of on-camera interviews. Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter, leaving Tveit to piece together Mørner’s narrative on his own.

Indeed, Mørner led an eventful life, having set mines for German war vessels as part of the Norwegian resistance during WWII. Strangely though, Tveit steps on his lead, quickly dispensing with what sounds like the most dramatic period of Mørner’s life. Instead, he focuses on Mørner the sea captain, most likely since this was how his family best knew him.

Though Tveit and closely collaborating producer-cinematographer Tortstein Grude often spruce up the 8mm footage with some clever animated effects, subtly bolstered by Arne Hovda’s ambient score, there is no getting around the fact that Marionette largely consists of somebody else’s grainy old home movies. Clearly, Tveit had no editorial distance from his subject, concentrating on the Mørner of family lore. Of course, that does not mean a heck of a lot to most viewers. As a result, many will be frustrated when Marionette ignores many obvious areas of inquiry. For instance, we only see pictures from a cruise Mørner put into Castro-era Cuba in passing. If the former freedom fighter had any misgivings about touring the island gulag, Tveit declined to explore them on film.

It seems safe to say Mørner was a flawed but heroic individual. While Tveit might believe he came to know his grandfather better through making the film, it is doubtful audiences will feel the same after watching it. They will definitely have an acute sense of Tveit’s insecurities though. While at times interesting, Marionette is just far too self-absorbed. It screens again tomorrow (11/9) at the IFC Center, as part of DOC NYC’s Viewfinders competition track.