What do we gain from a film festival? As I fly back home, what am I taking away? Memories we made together, yes, work we accomplished, yes, and from the films: is there something different we get out of seeing them the way we did? Something we would not have found at home? What films will stay with us? We can guess but not know for certain. What from those films is now part of us, if anything? I think there are more questions than I’m asking, and multiple answers to each, but during this year’s Berlinale I contemplated in a strictly personal way, “what happens to me at film festivals?” I’m moved a little bit here and there, I learn something occasionally, I recognize beauty I would have otherwise not seen, but what else?
I grew up an only child, and retreated into cinema at a young age, I think, as a means to connect with the world the only way I knew how. Movies do not serve only a single purpose in my life, but many. The one that strikes me now is how cinema acts as a sort of filter, as well as a mirror, and a safe forum in which to explore my thoughts. To put it broadly, the cinema is a place where I find things out. About the world, how to live in it, people, myself, each viewing experience varies in what I find in it. Sometimes I really “enter” a film, and sometimes I burrow deeply into my own thoughts. As a viewer, my own sensibility, philosophy and disposition affects how I interpret and use what I’m watching. There are times that for long spans of a screening I’m really mostly just thinking about myself, my life—but this does not place me outside of the film so much as alongside it. Films guide me, push me, and influence me. Films change me. In the past I have arrived at significant epiphanies as well as life decisions while watching a movie. My thoughts and feelings bounce off the screen, interacting and intermingling with images, worldviews, characters, colors, sounds, traumas, and triumphs. I have partly become who I am in the cinema. This year’s Berlinale will always remain in my memory as a time when I found out more than usual. Writing these correspondences with you, encountering these films, and sharing them with each other, has heightened this already present dynamic I have with movies. It’s meant quite a lot to me, and as both a friend and colleague I couldn’t have asked more from you over these past two weeks. And to think, our future holds more movies, more festivals, more of these interactions, both with our medium of choice and each other!
Here’s to the future!
P.S.: The traveling retrospective of Hou Hsiao-hsien is currently in Vancouver, where I live. Bad timing for me, as attending the Berlinale meant missing several of my favorite films that I could have seen in 35mm for the first time. Being the (perhaps obnoxiously) fanatical cinephile that I am, I insisted that Sophy, my girlfriend, an aspiring filmmaker who had yet to see any of Hou’s films, make a point of catching at least some of the program. I put particular emphasis on Flowers of Shanghai, as I thought it would be the most stunning on the big screen, and A Time to Live and a Time to Die, as it was the film of his I first saw on 35 that completely sucked me into his cinema. One morning during the Berlinale, I received a Facebook message (our preferred mode of contact) from Sophy, who had just caught the aforementioned films in a double bill. As a social media personal message, it was written somewhat casually, but I also found it moving, and in the spirit of our correspondences. If it began with “Dear Adam,” it would fit right in with our letter-style format we’ve been working with. I’ve decided to include the message below, before writing, if you’ll permit me, a second letter to include in this very post. I’ve stayed true to the way it was formatted over Facebook:
“I had a wonderful experience at the double bill. A Time to Live and a Time to Die was a visceral experience, very emotional. Some of the most impactful scenes about mourning that I can recall. The scene in particular that stood out, although maybe obvious, was the death of the father. Watching the reaction from oldest to youngest, seemingly going from extreme grief to confusion was really beautifully done. The younger they were, the less they seemed to understand death. At the intermission I ran into Mike, and Josh was there too! I had a little chat with Josh about schools, he reminded me of a few to look into. I was feeling a little bit drained so I got myself a black tea and a baggy of jelly bellies. I sat down right as Flowers began and could not take my eyes off the screen, what a rich piece of cinema. As I let the beautiful colors wash over me, I had an interesting experience of taking one jelly bean out at a time, not being able to see the flavor, popping it in my mouth and being surprised, while also being visually simulated. Then warms sips of tea and thoughts of you slipped in and out as I took in the film. I particularly enjoyed the fade in and fade out of each scene, always focusing on the light of the lamp as the first and last thing we see, bookended with black. I think yes, some research is required for greater understanding of the context but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Always wishing you were there.”
Being apart from you during this festival has not been easy. However, I always felt that you were with me, and the message you sent me above really made me feel as if you were tied to the experience. You’ve eagerly kept along with these correspondences, which means the world to me, and so it feels as if you’ve been along for the journey. And maybe, during this festival, but also before, you’ve arrived at a similar destination as I have. As you can read in the letter addressed to Danny above, I’ve been especially introspective lately, intensely pondering things, while at these movies, while away from you. At times it felt as if you were in the seat next to me, occasionally whispering observations or silly jokes into my ear—the way you did the first time we ever hung out, which was, of course, in a cinema, at a film we both held dear. All that was missing were the pretzel and peanut butter M&Ms from that night. We both wanted a snack for the movie, and one of us bought the pretzel ones, and the other the peanut butter, so that we could share them and try both—subsequently leading to what may be one of the ultimate movie-going treat combos. Perhaps it was all written that night onward. We were goners. We have not been together for a long time, but you and I both know our relationship has had very little to do with time, or rather has completely changed our perspective on how time operates. When you know, you know.
Movies will probably play a big role in my life, and yours, for years to come. But as these two letters point to, they’re not an end, but a means—some sort of metaphor or approximation for life’s journeys and discoveries that compliment the real thing, and help us navigate this world. We’ll see many films, and go on many journeys, and have countless discoveries in our lives, sure. But I think that going through them together is something very special, that you and I both value above all else.
So enough talk about movies, I’m writing you about our very future, which I can only see as one shared, and experienced, as partners in life and in love. How lucky I feel to have found in you a kindred spirit, a soul mate, someone I trust and cherish. The only future I wish for includes your voice whispering in the dark for years to come. I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.
Sophy Romvari, will you marry me?
If I’ve planned this right, I’m across from you as you read this. In any case, I await your answer with a full heart, and, I bet, watery eyes.
UPDATE: She said yes!