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On Not Seeing Movies

Cinephilia is about collecting experiences (or the memories of them). I haven’t been seeing many movies lately and it’s been killing me.

I haven’t been seeing many movies lately and it’s been killing me; I feel like my mind’s shrunk into a leathery, walnut-sized nub. The 99% of the population who don’t spend hours every day watching movies often look askance at people like me; they seem to think that I’ve been wasting my time, while they, who spend those same hours shopping for napkin rings, cleaning their shower-tile grout, or—even worse—writing poetry, seem to think that their own cogitations are more spiritually uplifting. But recently I remembered just how creative watching movies can be when I re-read Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library”, in which the noted bibliophile wrote about a book collector’s relationship with his possessions. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many similarities between book collecting and cinephilia, but the differences do remind me why I’ve been feeling the need to revisit some of my old favorite forgotten films.

Benjamin was interested in the relationship between a human being and a physical object, hence about capitalism and ownership, but he doesn’t say much about the collector’s experience with the ideas or stories that animate his books. When he talks about Balzac’s Le peau de chagrin, he doesn’t discuss the philosophical relationship between epistemology and the will to power, but instead recounts his “most exciting experience at an auction,” the almost Spielbergian thrill he felt when he outbid the famous Munich collector Baron von Simolin for an 1838 edition of the novel.

Cinephilia—as opposed to DVD collecting—is, on the other hand, quite different: I don’t collect objects and I don’t own any movies. You can watch three hundred movies a year (all in the theater on 35mm, of course) and you will never own anything except, perhaps, an ungainly pile of torn ticket stubs. Cinephilia is instead about collecting experiences, or maybe just the memories of those experiences. But since my memories fade and re-imagine themselves, perhaps I’m really only herding together a menagerie of illusions. I don’t have a relationship with objects, but a relationship with the ephemerality of the aesthetic experience. In this sense, book collecting—being materialistic in both the economic and the corporeal sense—seems rather mundane, whereas burnishing one’s attachment to the inherent ephemerality of art strikes me as more in tune with what a wiser century might have called “the sublime.”

Moviegoing, in this sense, reminds me of the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which the OED defines as “a sense of pathos arising from intense awareness of the impermanence of earthly things.” In Japan, this particular sensitivity manifests itself most traditionally in the cherry blossom. For eleven months of the year, the cherry tree just hangs out with its mottled gray bark near the bank of a creek or stream or some tidal basin, but then, for a few weeks every April, it blazes with bright pink pillowy flowers like a child’s crazed dream of candied cotton bursting from its tired agglomeration of green leaves. These flowers inevitably wither and die and litter the street, and their inevitable passing is supposed to be just as beautiful as their sudden exultation. But this is only because in nature death and finality are not the same thing; because of nature’s cyclicality, death is always bound up, instead, with the promise of a new beginning.

Photo by Rebecca Bullene.

But since I’m interested in aesthetics rather than in nature, I don’t have this same promise of a cyclical return. Instead, I have to will the forgotten experience back by dragging my ass to the theater again and again, unlike Benjamin’s book collectors. I doubt that many ardent novel lovers have ever read Middlemarch more than twice, but I know lots of people who’ve seen Vertigo at least a dozen times. I thus have an uneasy relationship with the idea of closure. Benjamin says that when a collector acquires a book—as he did at that orgasmic moment with that rare Balzac edition—he can achieve the “final thrill” of closing the “magic circle.” But I can never close this circle. Once the credits begin to roll, the movie begins to slip away. That’s why I feel conflicted: part of me wants to accept, like the Buddha, the inherent impermanence of all phenomena, but another part of me needs to reject this ephemerality in the strongest terms.

This need to cycle back to the forgotten experience may, in fact, be connected to the very quintessence of creativity. That is, because the experience of art, unlike nature, may never come back again, the act of watching a movie for the second or third or twentieth time carries with it the special thrill of willfully re-animating the dead. When the lights dim and the credits of one of my favorite movies flare across the big screen, I’m not just sitting there passively; I am instead, like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, with spastic hair and manic, lightning-fueled delirious eyes, reviving the spirit of life from dead matter, and thus, toying with the very nature of divinity.

But once hooked by this kind of revivalist cinephilia, it’s no longer absolutely necessary for me to consciously will this active form of re-birth. My subconscious is, in fact, doing this all the time. Because my mind is afraid, at every moment, that the aesthetic experience may never be revived, it defends itself against the threat of death by continually reworking the movie on its own to keep it breathing in the realm of the imagination, if not in actuality. The farther away from the movie I get the further my imagination begins to unfurl. Sometimes I suspect that my mind has been working without my knowledge—even as the film is still playing—to reconstruct the movie out of whole cloth so that I’m always revisiting not just the aesthetic experience itself, but also my creative reconstructions, memories that I will necessarily kill every time I revisit the film, memories which, unlike those cherry trees, I know will never breathe again.

So, if you’re a movie buff like me and you stop, like me, going to the movies for some stupid reason—like trying to write some stupid book or, even more tragically for some of my friends, trying to take care of some adorable little monster-children1—you begin to lose touch with your own sense of pathos that arises from the intense awareness of the impermanence of earthly things. But more importantly, you begin to lose the ability to engage in the recursive, imaginative recreation of the aesthetic experience itself, which is itself an ephemeral experience.

And this is why making a movie—or writing a book or an essay—is so much less fulfilling, artistically, than watching a movie. Benjamin famously said that “of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.” This is precisely why the Godards and Truffauts and Bogdanoviches and Tarantinos have gone on to become filmmakers, but it’s also why the non-filmmaking movie buff’s experience with the art form may be an inherently more creative experience than it is for them. To make a movie is to accept closure as an essential aspect of the artistic enterprise. At some point, you finish the final edit—you choose that utterly bodacious font for your title sequence or you finally lay down those Alan Parsons Project samples beneath your climactic time travel-bank robbery scene—and you release the movie to the world. But to achieve closure, one must necessarily bring a halt to the cycle of artistic creation.

Maybe Orson Welles alone among all filmmakers understood that to finish a movie is to embrace death. So many of his biographers criticize him for his inability to complete anything, but they just don’t get it: by keeping these movies unfinished he was nurturing the dream of the cyclical regeneration of the aesthetic experience. That’s why the Munich Film Archive’s collection of fragments from his Moby Dick that he shot at home in 1971 may be one of the greatest movies ever made. Sitting before the camera, reading aloud from his own radically re-imagined version of the novel’s 132nd chapter (“The Symphony”) in his ponderous, Bible-atmospheric baritone2 as a thrift-shop simulacrum of ocean-reflecting lights dappled his face, perhaps only in that exact moment in the entire history of the cinema had one person understood the manifold possibilities inherent in artistic incompletion.

I’ve been working on this essay in dribs and drabs over the last few weekends just as spring hit and all the trees began to bloom, unable to figure out how I wanted to finish it. In Brooklyn, the season began with the Callery pears and their clusters of white petals, then the Kwanzan cherry trees with their vibrant, voluminous cloud-like puffs of hot pink. But now, the Callery pears and the cherry trees have already shed their flowers and the horse chestnuts that line the park near my building are blooming with their pyramidal white clusters dabbed with splotches of yellow and pink. But next month these flowers too will die just as the rose bushes all around town begin to bloom.

I’ve been going to the movies again lately. I saw Terence Malick’s The New World at Brooklyn's BAMcinématek a couple weekends ago for the first time in ten years. I’d forgotten most of it—Powhatan’s great tattooed chin and towering headdresses, the oysters the size of men’s hands, the flaming arrows that arced across the night sky towards the thatched roofs of Jamestown, the starving wart-faced cockney urchins, Christian Bale’s sibilant mumbling, and the conflicted nostalgia that Malick evokes with his nonlinear editing in the final sequences as Pocahontas—now Rebecca Rolfe—chases her son in and out of the topiary of a royal English garden.

And, as I thought about the movie later sitting out on my stoop, the Callery pear across the street already bare, while the pea-sized white petals on the Schubert chokecherry in front of me were just beginning to bloom, I wondered if Malick had, in fact, as I remembered, cross-cut between Pocahontas and her son playing in the garden and her own memories of wandering as a child through the swamps and forests of Tidewater Virginia accompanied by the surging and roiling ocean-depth orchestrations of Wagner’s overture to Das Rheingold, or whether I had misremembered the scenes of youthful Pocahontas in the woods. It might be another ten years before I see the movie again, but over the next decade, somewhere in the trenches of my mind, this final sequence, part fact and part fiction, will continue to play out, continually reinventing itself, its actual existence and its daydreamed doppelganger sinking over and beneath each other like great tectonic plates to bring forth a volcanic refashioning of the new world, just as Malick had done, except in a way that will never, thank God, ever come to an end.
 

Notes

1. Let the record show that I am actually quite fond of every single one of my friends’ children – especially after they’ve been put to bed.

2. Check this out: “Tied up, twisted, eyes like coals still glowing in the ashes of a ruin, Ahab lifts up to the clearness of the morn his splintered helmet of a brow. This glad, this happy air, this winsome sky at last seems almost to dissolve the canker-wrinkle beating in his heart. The cruel, step-mother world now throws affectionate arms around that stubborn neck.” Then check out Melville’s Chapter 132. It bears only the remotest relationship to the original. Just one more bit of evidence that Orson Welles, willing to take on Herman Melville at his own game, was the greatest. Of all time!

you begin to lose touch with your own sense of pathos that arises from the intense awareness of the impermanence of earthly things. – haha, definitely not. take a job in a hospital. i amazed myself at how grateful, while utterly aware of the transience of things, i’ve become for the beauty i see, since i started working on the thin elusive threshold between life and death.
Nice essay. Regarding the “ungainly pile of torn ticket stubs”, the cineaste/cinephile Tomislav Gotovac crafted ready-made art out of them.
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So now – how about the willful decision to not see the movie again, to let the flow of memory twist the mental images, to let it furl and unfurl according to its own logic, not the logic of Malick’s editing – but your own mental editing? Just you and the image…
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That was beautiful. I saved this to read it again maybe 10 years from now.
“….a relationship with the ephemerality of the aesthetic experience” Ah !
Very nice essay. You’re right that Benjamin’s book obsession is not like cinephilia. But reading poems can be. And certainly listening to music certainly is.

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