New York

Deans Keppel

The Kitchen

In both substance and structure Deans Keppel’s “Phoenix: Portrait of the Keppel Family” is reminiscent of the almost embarrassingly revealing documentary An American Family, the 1973 PBS series that made the Loud family as familiar as the Carringtons or the Bunkers, though far less reassuring. Her remarkable hour-long tape, shot between 1979 and 1983, examines her own family from the distancing perspective of documentary production. In interviews and candid footage, mostly taken around the family’s Richmond, Va., home, she examines each of the other members of the family, and their interactions. Her father is an apparently inactive real estate salesman who now does much of the housework and takes a lot of naps. He’s a Southern gentleman, unfazed by the sudden question from Keppel, off camera, as to who should have won the Civil War; the answer, of course, is the South. Keppel’s mother is a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, and (so Keppel tells us) feels a considerable resentment toward her husband for not helping her out in earlier years—though we see no direct evidence of this. Twins, a brother and sister 31 years old, are both still living at home. Another son, who declares that he wants to be a "big success,” is a street performer in Boston. The youngest son is a student at a military school.

Theres dramatic action to the narrative, too. In the course of the tape the family goes through a number of crises. The male twin tries to decide whether or not to marry his pregnant girlfriend; when he does, he moves out, but he and his wife and child still spend a lot of time around the family home, where he keeps a shop. His twin sister, meanwhile, is proposed to by successive boyfriends, but each time she gets engaged she falls in love with someone else. Yet theres a sense of incompleteness about the narrative of Phoenix, stemming from Keppel’s failure to resolve the central question of the narrator’s position in relation to the story.

In film and video the camera, and the style of the production in general, serve as reflections of and surrogates for the narrator. The technologically slick production values of Hollywood films establish the general values of industrial culture as “the narrator”; standard documentary technique is designed to reassure the audience of the disinterested nature of the people recording the scene, a feeling that is further strengthened by having any commentary delivered by an authoritative, idealized (usually male) figure. Yet in Phoenix Keppel herself—the oldest child in the family—is very much a participant in the scenes she records. We repeatedly hear her off camera, either responding politely to someone in the shot, or else playing a central role in the events that she depicts. Taking an active role like this was certainly the right thing for Keppel to do as a member of the family, but in doing so she violates the threadbare but still potent convention that the maker of a documentary should remain unseen and (at least explicitly) unheard.

The problem with Phoenix is not that Keppel violates this taboo, but that she doesn’t do so more thoroughly. We never really find out where she stands within the family, and so there seems to be an empty space at the center of the work. Keppel does appear on camera a couple of times when explanation is needed about the other members of the family. What she says in these direct statements, though, is so obviously scripted, and her telling so rehearsed and unspontaneous, that they become simply another form of hiding. Keppel’s openness extends to her family but not to herself. She’s willing for us to consider the problems of her family, and in fact will help us do so. But she never really opens herself up to the camera, and to us, in the same way.

This flaw points to the essential dilemma of documentaries. The closer the videomaker gets to her subject, the less she is able to maintain the distance necessary to convince the audience that she is even attempting to present her subject in its full complexity. Phoenix is an ambitious work, all the more remarkable for the fact that it was shot in half-inch black and white tape, using the amateur equipment of home video. But despite the work’s astute depiction of a middle-class family in crisis, the emotional equations among the people it presents never quite add up.

Charles Hagen