I just saw Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years at the Studio Skoop cinema, which will be the last film I watch in Ghent this year. I've spent February, 2015 writing this collection of essays about the social experience of movies. The itinerary began with Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the night I arrived. Tomorrow morning I return to Minnesota. This is the shape that chance has given to the project.
I reflect on Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) about to celebrate her forty-fifth wedding anniversary in 45 Years. She accidentally discovers, and then projects, travel slides (58:40) that her husband shot before they met, studying the woman he would have married had she not died while hiking in the mountains. Kate believes by the posture of this woman’s hands in one photo that she may have been pregnant when she died, a ghostly alternate history that never came to pass. She confronts the potentialities running parallel to the routines that she has accepted as life, which consequently seem less stable to her. The juxtaposition of two related points in the shuffle and fold of time creates a sensation of circularity. There is no objective past, present and future; they are merely categories that allow us to organize an illusion of order.
Perhaps Kate feels then like I did at The Force Awakens a month ago when Mark Hamill turned to the camera or as I feel now watching Super 8 footage of my friend Dave Herr turning toward me. Dave died six years ago at age 45 and I'm currently unearthing old visual materials to make a film about him, thinking about the beginning of our friendship and the passage of time. My father also died at 45. I wrote in another piece, “the movies of my father have become my memories of my father” and perhaps that same appropriation is now occurring with much of my recollection. I can’t distinguish anymore between what happened and what I've only seen secondhand.
Thoughts of Kate Mercer, Dave Herr and my father lead me back to Deckard in Blade Runner, scanning for clues in a photo with his computer. I reenter a room I know reflected in a mirror as seen on Deckard’s monitor within a movie that I first watched with my father on the Plaza Theater screen in 1982; I am lost in the hall of mirrors again. The replicant Rachael is a facsimile of a human being who doesn’t know that her memories are not really her own. Her self-awareness has been fabricated from stories and images that belong actually to her creator’s niece. She carries a parcel of photos from this other girl’s life to confirm to herself that she is Rachael. Perhaps my own sense of self and my memories of my primary relationships are comparable to Rachael’s in Blade Runner. Isn’t the security and continuity of my past supported by a similarly fragile collection of images, the millions of frames of film that have imprinted themselves upon my memory? Isn’t it possible that I am just another dream created by the movies I’ve seen, rather than the dreamer? The more thoroughly I investigate the images, the more difficult it becomes to determine if I am the projectionist, a member of the audience or an actor on the screen, hitting my marks and speaking the lines that have been written for me.
In these essays, I’ve been piecing the puzzle of my remembered life together, as I meditate on the movies that have impressed me most. I believe that these memories are original and mine; they are the evidence of my distinct individuality. I imagine that these stories, when assembled chronologically, comprise a memoir. In attempting to order a cohesive narrative of my experience, like Kate in 45 Years, I have found branching contingencies in the details rather than a straight-forward path.
Dave Herr and I met in our early twenties, formed a rock band, shot Super 8 animation experiments in his parents' barn, drove Kerouac-style to the Pacific Ocean and grew into middle-age together as mirrors for each other's strangeness. Ours was a natural love story. On January 4, 2009, Dave's girlfriend Kari called from a hospital, explaining that he had had a seizure and that doctors were currently performing an MRI of his head. The scan revealed a large tumor between the two hemispheres of his brain. When I heard the news I thought, “That sounds bad, but they’ll remove it and Dave will recover.” A biopsy of the tumor, however, determined that it was a glioblastoma multiforme. When I searched online, I learned with shock that glioblastoma multiforme translated essentially as death sentence; Dave would be statistically likely to live nine to fourteen months.
Sitting paralyzed in a chair for an entire afternoon, I grappled with this extraordinary news. I tried to recall any signs in his recent behavior that might have suggested a tumor had been growing in his head. Dave had always been unpredictable so it was difficult to judge whether he’d been acting strangely or not. I smiled remembering a night, many years before, when we had seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris at the University Film Society. Afterwards, we drove to a park and lay on the grass, discussing the unusual pacing of the film. The rocket journey to the space station wasn't depicted at all, while the car ride to the rocket launch lasts almost five minutes. In the middle of our conversation Dave suddenly interjected, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you. Guess what I did two days ago?” I shrugged my shoulders. “I went to Las Vegas, bought a plastic ring in a gumball machine for a quarter and married a woman I’d never met before!”
I travelled to Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks after Dave’s seizure, on the day of his first brain surgery. The Yellow Bird was screening in a program of short animation in 2009. I adapted this film from Jay Orff’s grim short story “Bear Paw,” in which a man accidentally shoots himself in 1917 in western North Dakota and is transported by horse drawn cart while he loses blood. Don Hertzfeldt’s I am So Proud of You, which seemed to be about a man recovering from a brain injury, played in the same program. The heaviness of that first screening left me completely exhausted. I wasn’t prepared to interact in any meaningful way at the festival and left early.
In August of 2009, Hilde and I wheeled Dave into a courtyard at the care facility where his life was currently winding down after eight months of continuous hospitalization. He was wholly incommunicative by this time, his personality consumed by multiple brain surgeries and consequent infection, so I positioned him facing a tree and sat behind him. I wondered if he saw the tree blowing in the wind; I wondered if he still understood what summer was and if the idea of summer created other associations. I saw nothing in his behavior to indicate that he was aware of his surroundings at all. I walked away from Dave toward the tree and turned back to look at him. My friend was diminishing and disappearing. I thought of The Incredible Shrinking Man, which Dave had loved for its scale-confounding sets and for the existential reckoning at the end of the film. I hoped that he was reaching an acceptance similar to that of the protagonist Scott:
But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. I still exist!
Dave died in October, 2009. I planned to make a film about our friendship but, as had also been the case with Bike Race, I waited five years to gain emotional distance from the events. Research began in the basement that had been Dave’s studio. As I started to scroll through the files on his computer, it occurred to me that the memory on these drives was more than a technical metaphor; this digital archive was a manifest extension of his memory. Dave had cataloged his arcane interests in named folders: 18th century biologist Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations, design drawings by sculptor Naum Gabo, 1950’s robot toys, Arkansas State Prison head shots from 1915, architectural drawings from early 1970’s utopian community design. I also found Dave’s personal art projects. As I opened the many Photoshop and Illustrator files, I noted that he had saved all of his work with the original layers intact. He had unintentionally given me the opportunity to reanimate his designs with motion, importing his files into After Effects and improvising with them as raw material. By virtue of his preserved hard drive memory, I could collaborate with Dave one last time.
I chose to start by editing the Super 8 footage we shot in his family’s barn in the late 1980’s during our first enthusiastic period of experimentation. I borrowed a hand-cranked viewer and took inventory of the Super 8 reels that I had stored in my studio. After years of working solely with software, handling physical film again felt awkward. My fingers were uncoordinated threading the tiny strips of film on the viewer’s sprockets, then cutting and taping the edited clips. But as I continued, watching dozens of fifty-foot film reels and re-entering the frame of my youthful interests, the pleasure of working with celluloid returned; handling the material again felt reassuring, a kind of time travel appropriate to the themes of the project.
I assembled all of the animation tests that we’d made with comic seriousness in our white lab jackets: stop-motion, paint on glass, sand on glass, pixilation, clay and painting on film. And I also found the one quasi-narrative project that we’d started to make, but never finished . . . The Sparrow’s Flight. Mimicking the Brothers Quay in both subject matter and attitude, we had felt that we needed an obscure literary source as the basis for our black and white experimental film. I remembered the Venerable Bede’s “Parable of the Sparrow” from a medieval history class that I’d taken at Lawrence University. This text seemed suitably esoteric, so we chose it as our starting point:
A sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the banqueting hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.
Using the original footage that we shot in 1988, I edited a version of the movie we might have finished at twenty-five. I then built the documentary about Dave outward from this restoration with layers of his own materials: Kurt Schwitters-inspired collages, surreal figurines that he’d improvised by chopping thrift store toys into pieces and reconfiguring them, poster designs and logos for imaginary institutions. Collage was Dave’s primary aesthetic mode and thus it seemed logical to assemble my portrait of him as a collage of his own wide-ranging, creative output. The portrait of Dave, The Sparrow’s Flight, developed organically around our earlier project, also named The Sparrow’s Flight, a documentary mise en abyme reflecting upon its own ambiguous location in time.
And this is when the Kate Mercer revelation of my story occurs. In the late 1980's, Dave and I occasionally ventured together through the city to document abandoned industrial sites, each of us shooting with our own Super 8 cameras. One afternoon late in 2014, as I hand-cranked footage that I had shot of Dave walking through tall grass in June of 1988, I wondered, “Where are the reels of film that Dave shot?” At the end of this particular segment Dave rotated slowly toward me with his camera, shooting me as I shot him. I rushed across town to Dave and Kari's house and started unpacking boxes, searching for the distinctive blue plastic containers of processed Super 8 film. Hours passed as I emptied box after box. I spent an entire afternoon looking and found nothing. I concluded, “He probably threw them out at some point when he was moving.” Just as I was conceding defeat, I glanced into one last small box that I thought I’d probably already searched. I saw the blue reels.
Back home with the box, I watched Dave’s reels on the viewer. He had built misshapen plastic lenses for his camera and much of the footage was distorted and illegible. He also had been fond of shooting from a moving bicycle at night. Amidst the general darkness, blurred lights and nonrepresentational deformations, a tracking shot across the tops of long grass stalks suddenly appeared. With excitement I cranked further, the landscape rotated and I appeared in the frame in my mid-twenties, aiming my camera at Dave; the puzzle pieces fell ineluctably into place as they did for Kate Mercer in 45 Years, though in this case with joy. I had restored these two points in space and time to their original relationship, to the brief overlap of perspectives that had occurred on a summer’s day almost thirty years previously. A sense of power filled me that transcended the mere satisfaction of research well done. I had isolated a speck of permanence, momentarily halting the loss of the passing present moment, liberating Dave and I briefly from the march of the clock and the calendar. Time was merely an illusion and I was on my circular adventure again with Dave, regarding him regarding me regarding him, returning to where I had once stood and seeing the frame of possibilities anew.