Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Film and Memory

I spent part of today listening to Martin Scorsese's National Humanities lecture "Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,"  It was an absolute tour de force and it reminded me, of course, of Proust. Partly that is because he was exploring the roots of cinema and discussing the work of Melies, the Lumiere Brothers, and Muybridge, among others at least one of whom is implicated in some of Proust's imagery in the early part of the book.  I have a strong, almost pathological, tendency to see Proust's issues everywhere but Scorsese's talk really is quite Proustian, both in its subject matter and in the way he approached it as a performance piece.  For one thing he combines autobiography and sensual memories of film (its sight, sound, smells, and social setting) with his analysis and for another he sees film itself as an instance of the centrality of the struggle to remember, to represent, to convey meaning to others which is at the heart of our human existence.  

I'll have more to say about Scorsese's beautiful talk after I get my hands on a written copy but I do want to recommend it and to point especially to the passages where he discusses the problem of representing, through directorial artifice, a particular viewpoint. What is exciting to Scorsese, to hear him tell it, is the history of the idea of the transformation of a still image into a meaningful story.  He begins with the cave paintings of Lascaux and moves on to the first films linking still photographs together.  He argues that the real art comes in cutting the flow of an event--of selecting it, framing it, leaving out what is extraneous, and then cutting between angles or scenes or even events in such a way as to leave a true picture not of what "really happened" but of a representation, an idea, of something important that exists in the mind of the director.  

But underlying the idea of a particular viewpoint is Scorsese's Proustian understanding that even that viewpoint--the movie, the image, is eventually subject to a kind of incorporation into the viewer--that it doesn't exist outside of its position in the mind and eye of the viewer.  He says (paraphrasing since I only heard this on the radio) that the people in one of the earliest films are dressed in the style of their period, they are enacting the present because they were filmed at the time but they are simultaneously an historical artifact, acting out (for us) something from the past.  Of course that happens to every film over time as it becomes a period piece, as what is important in it becomes not that it was faithful to the concerns of its day but as it becomes a representation to us of our shared past--perhaps the only access we have to our shared past.

And this is, in its way, what Proust is getting at in one of those tedious apparent digressions in the first 50 pages.  He appears to be merely setting the scene, describing the people in the Narrator's life in Combray, the people who came and went in the family house during the summers which were important to the Narrator because the little world of Combray was the entire world of a little boy.  But in giving his description of the visitor, young M. Swann, he ends up exploring the very nature not only of memory but of the apprehension and understanding of "the other" or, indeed, any other person.  You might think that we "know" a person as we know any other object--that we can see what they are about in exactly the same way we think we see a photograph and recognize its subject. But the Narrator says--not really. Just as I think Scorsese would say "not really" about how we think we "know" what a film is showing us about a past event.

Do people really exist at all, outside of our memories and our understandings of them? The Narrator says: no.  We "do not constitute a material whole" which is "identical for everyone" and which can be "turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will."  Rather we--and the people that the Narrator encounters, have a "social personality" which "is a creation of the thoughts of other people."  Proust goes so far as to challenge the idea that the very person that we meet in the street is really there, in any sense, outside of our notions of who it is we are meeting.  He says that even the seemingly simple act of "seeing someone we know" is "to some extent an intellectual process."  Really we encounter almost a cartoon like hollow shape and "we pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him."  We "compose" (as in a piece of music or of writing) this person first of all "in our minds" and then impose him on the person we encounter.  We are so convinced of the rightness of our understanding that "those notions...come to fill out...completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose," to "blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice" that it is as if the physical person were no more than "a transparent envelope" into which we have poured our ideas of the person and which we regard favorably, as the person we know, because we are really regarding our own composition through the envelope.

Swann is both one of main protagonists of the novel, and also the main exemplar of the distance between the real person and the social person for the Narrator encounters Swann as a family friend with one set of attributes, but as he grows up and encounters Swann socially discovers an entirely different Swann.  The first Swann, the "family" Swann, is "constructed" by the family and for the family. This construction leaves out, because of "ignorance" a "whole host of details of [Swann's] life in the world of fashion." (20)  These things, known to Swann's other friends, "caused other people, when they met him to see all the graces enthroned in his face and stopping at the line of his aquiline nose as at a natural frontier."    For the Narrator's family this Swann doesn't exist, instead they fill up his face as if it were a blank space "divested of all glamour, vacant and roomy as an untenanted house" and they "plant in the depths of these undervalued eyes, a lingering residuum, vague but not unpleasing--half-memory and half-oblivion--of idle hours spent together after our weekly dinners, round the card table or in the garden, during our companionable country life."

Swann's "corporeal envelope" has been "so well lined with this residuum" that the family's "own Special Swann" had become "to my family a complete and living creature" regardless of the fact that he is, in fact, entirely made up and not quite faithful to the real Swann.  For the Narrator the two Swann's are two different people and "even now I have the feeling of leaving someone I know for another quite different person when, going back in memory, I pass from the Swann whom I knew later and more intimately to this early Swann."  The two Swanns are connected to each other almost incidentally, as if they are both acquaintances of the Narrator.  He can visit both, certainly-- but one only in memory.  And he must take his leave of the old Swann when he encounters the new Swann.  Rather than enriching his understanding of the new Swann he seems to feel that he must abandon the old.  I don't know whether we can say that this is true. I mean: obviously the Narrator/Proust sees that the two are the same person but as a writer he seems to hew to the notion that there are two (or more) people inside most of the characters and often his Narrator seems puzzled as to the motivations and histories of people with whom he seems to be quite familiar.

What does this have to do with Scorsese? Well, as I said I have to go back and read the talk as well as see the whole thing but he talks about film as being "shards of memory" [ETA: this is wrong. I just saw the speech and I believe his phrase is "pieces of memory," but I like shards better.] composed by the film maker and you can hear in his talk (and see it, I suppose, when one views it on the computer) the importance of abandoning the merely literal for a creation, a bricolage, composed of images, cuts, shifts in viewpoint, tricks of light and sound, sleight of hand and magic, changes in tempo and hundreds of other now new, now conventional, ways of representing a person or a scene.  At the end of this section of the book (if any section can be said to have an end, hell the guy could barely bring his sentences to an end) the Narrator has this to say about his own memories of the Young Swann:

"...when, going back in memory, I pass from the Swann whom I knew later and more intimately to this early Swann--this early Swann in whom I can distinguish the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact is less like his successor than he is like the other people I knew at that time, as though one's life were a picture gallery in which all the portraits of any one period had a marked family likeness, a similar tonality--this early Swann abounding in leisure, fragrant with the scent of the great chestnut-tree, of baskets of raspberries and of a sprig of tarragon. (1)" (p21)  

 For me this passage is typically Proustian--he can't even describe a single person without resorting to locating that person in a certain time, a set of smells and images, of foods and relationships.  But you can also see it as typically cinematographic [ETA: In fact Scorsese does exactly the same thing in his description of going to the movies with his family in a description which figuratively walks the auditor to Scorsese's speech through the doors of the cinema with his family, on to the magnificent carpet, past the popcorn, through the doors and then, directing our attention backwards, away from the screen, we watch with Scorsese as he turns and sees the flickering light from the tiny window of the projection room.]  We can see that he is talking about a portrait gallery which seems the opposite of cinema since the pictures don't move but as Scorsese points out Muybridge's work illuminated motion through a series of still photographs taken one right after the other, each freezing the subject at a different point in time. In addition Proust's approach to the idea of the portrait gallery is one in which the portraits all look alike either because they are all of members of one family, or because being painted close in time they share a "similar tonality" --because everyone dressed alike during a given period? because the painter was the same painter? Because the style of representation was conventional? He doesn't say specifically but all of these might be what he means and this reminds me, again, of Scorsese's point that the film occupies, represents, and recreates both a past moment and a present moment (as we view it in the present and our experience of it is immediate).

Perhaps this is the source of my little love affair with Proust--because I read Proust at a psychologically important moment in my life, in isolation, in an utterly unfamiliar world--by kerosene lantern and by candle light, sometimes singing my hair as my own grandmother did when I let the candle on my chest get too close to my bangs.  Like Proust I read late at night and used books to combat homesickness and that feeling of being helpless as an invalid in a land where I could only imperfectly make myself understood.  Like Proust I felt myself to be eternally a "traveller" waiting for the inhabitants of a strange household to rise and begin the day and my choices of how I would spend my days were limited by strange customs and rules.  But underneath that similarity is still another--that both Proust and I were children in France. For him the "scent of the chestnut-tree [and] of baskets of raspberries and...tarragon."  For me? The scent of the oysters and seafood heaped up on the crushed ice in front of the restaurants, the wheeze of the special scent of French Trucks as they lumber by, cigarettes and coconut macaroons--these all whip me back to being 8 years old again and a stranger on the streets of Paris.


  1. You really ought to be writing novels, aimai.
    And that last paragraph proves it.

    'Write it, and they will buy...'
    Well, I WILL, at least.

    I'm first generation American, my parent's families being from Ukraine and Russia, so I don't have memories of oysters, or coconut macaroons.
    Plenty of cabbage, though - and, cigarettes.
    Oh, and vodka, of course. Lots and lots of vodka!

  2. I like reading your BORING writing, aimai. Heh.

  3. Not enough racy cursing, to my mind. But I really appreciate the support.

  4. I found a video version of the talk and a short after-talk. It was extremely worthwhile.

  5. We skipped the after interview but I would like to see it. I have been thinking a lot about one thing Scorcese said during the talk which is that the cinema enabled his inarticulate family to say things (about what they saw) and perhaps exprience things together that were inarticulate in a way that just being together could never do. That has been so true for my experience of family life, too--videos, movies and now tv shows like Buffy, Mad Men, Sopranos, Battlestar Gallactica allow you to discuss things that wouldn't come up if you were just reading about them--as I read Proust now--by yourself.