I. A friend who lived through the demise of the Soviet Union once described for me the profound appeal of Western films back in the 1980s. He said that an acquaintance of his sold his car to purchase a VCR and a few black market VHS tapes. “He put the VCR in the garage, where the car used to be,” he said, “and we watched movies all day. There were always many guys over to watch movies. We watched American movies.” While I already knew the answer, I asked anyway, “What kind of American movies?” He told me, “Science fiction. Alien. Star Wars. Other titles I forget, but always science fiction.” To imagine a garage full of Soviets rubbing their hands together for warmth while watching illegally recorded American films— this is unquestionably the truest experience of cinema. Even when cinema is not an actual violation of the law, it is yet something of a metaphysical coup d’état.
Hollywood has produced many films about itself, but almost no films about this coup. Americans are simply too unskilled in the matter of metaphysics to even attempt such a thing. A French man is needed. In 1983, Chris Marker released Sans Soleil, a quasi-documentary film which consists of a woman reading letters a friend (the fictitious Sandor Krasna) sends her while he travels the world. The footage in the film corresponds with the letters, which are largely devoted to time spent in Africa and Tokyo, although Iceland and San Francisco are also touched upon. The letters are not standard travelogues, but Sandor is always using what he sees at parades, temples, and museums to investigate time, memory, and iconography. In the opening moments of the film, Sandor writes, “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?” Memory is not a facsimile of the past; memory’s relation to the past is like a painted apple’s relation to an edible apple. A memory is a series of images, much like a film.
Sandsor is thus discontent with every pretext of realism. Realism is nothing more than an unwillingness to acknowledge the mystery of space, the power of time, and the need for images. Images are necessarily symbolic, and symbols are the only viable way to connect material and immaterial realities, created and uncreated being. For Chris Marker, then, film is not simply a novel 20th century artform, but the finest of all possible metaphors for existence itself. In one scene, Sandsor describes a friend, Hayao Yamaneko, who runs old news footage through a synthesizer and distorts the saturation, tone, and clarity. Yamaneko claims that electronically distorted images of the past are “less deceptive” than untreated images, for the distorted images are not a “compact form of… reality.” Rather, they are simply images, symbols, references to the past which willingly admit their dependence on the “inaccessible” realities which prompted them. The perfection of a symbol is the depth to which it can relate the material and immaterial worlds. In like manner, the perfection of a priest is the profundity with which he joins heaven and earth. The work of the image-maker, then, is harmonizing symbol and symbolized; the image-maker, or priest, or filmmaker reveals his communion with the past by properly veiling the past. The past is visible through the veil, and yet the veil simultaneously informs the viewer of his own distance from the veiled object. Yamaneko goes so far as to say that “electronic texture is the only one that can deal with sentiment, memory, and imagination.”
The classicist in me nearly revolts when I hear such an audacious claim. Can film truly claim preeminence over literature so far as sentiment, memory, and imagination are concerned?
However, Yamaneko is not claiming that the world could more easily do without books than films. Yamaneko is also not claiming that film is a superior art form to the novel, or that the greatest film will surpass the greatest book. A film has different metaphysical means and ends than a novel. As Walker Percy notes in Lost in the Cosmos, sculptors have stone and musicians have violas, but the writer brings forth his art ex nihilo. Words come right out of a man in the way that the Son proceeds from the Father. So far as process is concerned, Percy thus deems writing the most divine kind of creative work. If Yamaneko were to evaluate the “literary texture,” I suppose he would liken reading to Adam’s unfallen encounter with the Word-sustained, Word-revealing cosmos. There is an innocence to the written and read word which is absent from film, though. I could believe man would have written novels apart from sin. While films are not sinful, they strike me as uniquely religious, whereas words are simply divine.
While the film and the stage play share much in common, only the film is a series of images. The power of a play is its immediacy, vulnerability, mutability. A play is not a text, but a performance; the text of a play is no more the play itself than a screenplay is a film. A play is necessarily ephemeral. However, the fixedness of a film grants a dogmatic quality of which the play is bereft. A dramatic performance is a contingent reality, fixed to a certain location, which exists moment by moment. A play is not a series of images, but the anti-type to a series of images; the anti-type to an image is often referred to as “reality,” although reality as such is more the province of Cronos. The image is not Kairos, but is the conduit by which Cronos enters Kairos. The power of drama is that it occurs in reality; the power of cinema is priestly and connects what is in motion to what is beyond motion.
I write all this by way of analogy, for cinema is not religious per se, but the logic of film is a religious logic. The stage play is active, cataphatic, and draws upon what is before us. The mystery of film is in the emptiness, the distance between the frames. The illusion of movement emerges when the human mind supplies what is missing between one frame and the next; the movement is not part of the text, but generously offered by the viewer as a co-creator. Film is synergistic, depending on what is and what is not. If film were only what is, it would not be image. If film were only what is not, it would not exist. Just as God rushes to fill in the nothingness of our evil, and thus brings good ends from bad actions, so the human mind rushes to fill in the chasms between frames, or the spaces between notes in a symphony.
II. It is the fate of the historian to wish he lived in any era but his own. The historian does not find a certain bygone era preferable for the dress, politics or architecture, but because the bygone era is fixed, and therefore meaningful. The present is ontologically profligate, however, and continually fritters away the meaning of the past; the past is certain, but the present is untethered, and any present event may become something, but is likely to become nothing at all. I am not particularly greedy. I only wish it was 1983.
The average man would, I wager, rather read today’s newspaper than yesterday’s newspaper. He would rather read today’s paper than last Tuesday’s newspaper. He would likely prefer today’s paper to the paper from the same date last year. However, as the date gets further and further back, eventually the man crosses a line wherein the prospect of the older newspaper is more intriguing. The present paper is speculation, as is yesterday’s paper, but far back enough, the past becomes correct or incorrect, right or wrong, prophesy or blasphemy. No man may live his life as though it is a story; a life becomes a story only in the past, when it can be viewed with a narrator’s eye. In the present, we are all nothing more than characters blindly feeling for our way. Story is an act of remembrance, or, as Thomas Wolfe states in the preface to Look Homeward, Angel, “Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose.” At the point the past is sufficiently far away that it can be selected, understood, arranged, and charged with purpose, the past is fiction. Wolfe intentionally blurs the distinction between history and fiction when he writes that “all serious work in fiction is autobiographical — that, for instance, a more autobiographical work than Gulliver’s Travels cannot easily be imagined.”
My want, as an historian, is not to return to 1983 naïve of the future, but to personally return to the year by myself and to walk around in a world wherein Wolfe’s selection, understanding, arrangement, and charge may take place in the present. This is, I grant, something of an ontological impossibility. The common name for the desire to return to a world wherein the present may be so known is “nostalgia.”
Having been born in 1981, 1983 is a little familiar to me. I know the year from the inside, and have a few very faint memories of it (one tragic, one inconsequential). The 1980s are otherwise fascinating to me, not for the ascendant styles of the era, but for the fact that this was the last decade Western man had some semblance of propriety before the internet drove him mad. Nostalgia is a sickness for home, though home is both time and place, and few proverbs from the twentieth century have been so ubiquitously and unquestioningly vetted as L.P. Hartley’s, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The more unstable the world, the more we should expect homesickness to be rooted in a want for time, not location. The vaporousness of the present is an ontological exile from the past; we all come from a place which had meaning, and the further we get from the past, the more certain its meaning and the more vacuous the present.
Many men yearn for the days of their youth, then, not because the world was objectively better twenty-five years ago, but because the world is subjectively better twenty-five years ago. A man’s youth makes sense because it is fixed, interpretable. His children will someday yearn to return to the present he is desperate to escape. If he is fair-minded, he will grant such yearning is only right.
A yearning for the past is not based on an ingratitude for the present, and neither does nostalgia transgress Solomon’s command to “not ask why the former days were better” than the present. Solomon’s prohibition of prying into the past comes in Ecclesiastes, in the midst of a series of warnings against trying to gain an advantage over the world. The man who is prohibited from seeking out the reason “the former days were better” is seeking pleasure and material gain. On the contrary, the prophets regularly ask Israel to repent of her sins after reminding the people of how good life was when Yahweh was trusted. The prophets demand Israel recognize why the former days were better, not for material gain, but for spiritual gain. Repentance is the sane, honest remembrance of the goodness of life prior to sin. Nostalgia does not trespass upon true religion, but is simply the secular posture of a religious spirit. Nostalgia is the resting position of a soul which cannot permanently sustain the intellectual labors of piety.
III. At a later point in a man’s life he despairs of contemporary art, no matter how beautiful, for it strikes him as tawdry and unbecoming to search out meaning in new things. New things are, after all, exhausting to love. In “The Impossibility of Secular Society,” Remi Brague suggests that, after a certain age, even new human beings are exhausting to love. Brague suggests the century imposes limits on a man’s affections, for four generations is the limit of our direct interaction with others. At the point a man becomes a father, his own grandfather is not long for this world. At the point a man has a grandson, his own father is not long for this world. We care about human beings beyond the century (fifty years back and fifty years forward, or else forty years back and sixty years forward) only in an abstract way, for we can only indirectly benefit those beyond our four generation limit. We care deeply about fathers and grandfathers, but few men have sentimental attachments to their great-great-grandfathers. Were a man to learn that his great-great-great-grandmother was murdered, he might not have any emotional reaction whatsoever. In the slow dissolution of a man’s interest in the contemporary world, the things of his youth become ever more iconic, tranquil, tame, and taming. As a fondness for the past, nostalgia begins the death pangs that presage a man’s return to God in death.
As I near my 40s, the most fundamental question I ask when my wife and I are deciding what movie to watch on an evening is not “Drama or Comedy?” Neither do I first ask, “New movie or old movie?” Rather, the first pebble we drop down the well of our souls is, “Something we have seen before or something new?” This is the metaphysical coup of film. The occasions when I want something new are always attended by flightier moods, not a spirit of adventure. When I have my gravity, when my faculties are strong, I want something I’ve seen a thousand times. The number of films I watch for the first time dwindles every year. The number of films I am watching for the twentieth, even thirtieth time rises. Before I travel for conferences in the Summer, I watch Lost In Translation and Sans Soleil. When Autumn comes, I watch Never Let Me Go and Gattaca. In the month of December, I revisit the entire Wes Anderson oeuvre. In the deep part of Winter, The Remains of the Day. In the Summer, The Fifth Element and Some Like It Hot.
I may live long enough to see the complete and personal codification of an annual film viewing cycle, much like the Church calendar commemorates a particular saint on each day of the year. This would be, so far as I am concerned, the apotheosis of the art form.
Note: This piece originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of FORMA.