I’ve just come from the Studio Skoop cinema where I’ve seen Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” which will be the last film I watch in Ghent this year. I return tomorrow morning to St. Paul. I’ve dedicated a month in a rented apartment to writing this collection of essays about watching and making films and also, thematically, about the relationship between my memory and those experiences. I began with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on my first night and end with “45 Years” on the last. This is the shape that chance has given to the project.
Presently, the predominant image in my mind is of Charlotte Rampling’s character, Kate Mercer, on the eve of her forty-fifth wedding anniversary, projecting slides (58:40) of her husband’s life before they met, studying the woman whom he would have married had she not died hiking in the mountains, and discovering in the posture of this woman’s hands in one photo that she may have been pregnant when she died. We, the audience in Studio Skoop cinema hall number four, observe Kate as she views these pictures cast upon a sheet that hangs between us and her. We study the images with her, but in reverse on the backside of the sheet and within the frame of the movie screen. We see a ghostly, alternate history that never came to pass, the youth of the girl preserved in a photograph just as her body was frozen in ice. The images arrest the forward flow of a life and are the evidence that remains after the energies of the life they represent have vanished.
Kate considers the choices unmade, potentialities that challenge the certainty of the present, which consequently feels less stable to her. Her habitual grasp of directional time is weakened and she is thus sensitive to the possibilities running parallel to the routines that have been accepted as life. Through this unnerving shuffle and fold of time, a sense of fugitive, but familiar, circularity emerges. Kate feels perhaps much like I did watching “The Force Awakens” a month ago, seeing Mark Hamill turn to the camera. The juxtaposition of two related points in time produces a confusion. There is no objective past, present and future; they are merely categories that allow us to organize our sense of identity. Everything that we always assumed was ordered in a linear sequence occurs simultaneously. Unlike my reassuring return to childhood as I emerged into the light from “My Neighbor Totoro,” Kate’s revelation disturbs the order of what she thinks she knows.
This investigation of a photograph in “45 Years” naturally leads my thoughts back to Deckard in “Blade Runner” as he scans for clues in a picture. In my memory, I reenter one room and then another room reflected in a mirror as seen in the photograph on Deckard’s monitor within a movie that I first experienced projected upon a screen at the Plaza Theater in 1982. I picture Rachael, the replicant in the film, a representation of a human being who doesn’t know that her memories are not her own. Her sense of identity has been manufactured by means of 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 that she is Rachael. The photographs prove that she has a history, a physical analogue to the memories that have been implanted in her. They connect her to a past that she remembers. Rachael drops the photos in the scene in which Deckard disabuses her of this delusion and, as the camera lingers upon one picture that she assumed to be her mother and herself as a child, the image begins to move.
This surprising movement leads me to a memory of “La Jetee,” Chris Marker’s time-travel love story composed entirely of stills . . . except for the one moment of remembrance in which the woman’s face (19:50) begins to move. In cinema, movement is the illusion created by projecting individual photographs rapidly enough that the mind perceives undifferentiated flow. The constituent particle of the movies, and perhaps of consciousness, is the still frame, the fixed moment; flow occurs in the reflexive connection between the frames, in the subjectivity that we apply to bridge that interval.
In these essays, I’ve been piecing the puzzle of my remembered life together, as I meditate on movies that I’ve seen. I believe that these memories are original and mine; they are the evidence of my distinct individuality. I imagine that these essays, when compiled in an appropriate sequence, represent my unique memoir. But I wrote in an earlier essay, “the movies of my father have become my memories of my father” and perhaps the same appropriation is now occurring with much of my recollection. I can’t distinguish anymore between what ‘happened’ and what was just ‘seen’ secondhand. Perhaps my self-awareness is comparable to the replicant Rachael’s in “Blade Runner.” Isn’t the security and continuity of my past supported by a similarly fragile parcel of images that I carry with me, the millions of frames of film that have impressed themselves upon my memory? Is not my ‘individuality’ merely the stock narrative of my generation, of the accumulated influence of those frames? Isn’t it perhaps true that I am just another dream created by the movies I’ve seen, rather than the dreamer?
In these essays movies and memories have intermingled to create a cycle of influence and reaction, of travel forward and backwards in the blur of what we perceive as directional time. In recalling the films that I’ve seen during the past forty years I’m surprised by how much related and peripheral detail returns; distinct episodes in my life are connected in my memory to these screenings. In trying to create a cohesive narrative of my experience however, like Kate in “45 Years,” I find winding contingencies in the details rather than a straight-forward path.
Perhaps my generation has been more thoroughly colonized by the movies than our predecessors. I suspect though that “My Man Godfrey” had just as powerful an effect upon the dreams of my grandparents in 1936 as “Pillow Talk” did upon my parents’ dreams in 1959 and as “Planet of the Apes” did upon mine in the early 1970’s. The movies mirror and simultaneously shape our aspirations, penetrate and influence our dreams, and stand in for our memories of what we think has occurred and the multiple possibilities of what could have been instead. The more thoroughly you consider the flickering source of the images and the questionable presence of a premeditating will behind the projector, the more difficult it becomes to determine if you are the projectionist, a member of the audience or simply an actor upon the screen, hitting your marks and speaking the lines that have been written for you.