Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Cinema In Your Head

As time goes by, I find myself wishing for, longing for, a better memory of all the films I watch. (Does anybody else relate to this?)

When I was a kid, I barely remembered much more than plot and performances in a movie. As I got older, character psychology and complexity started to intrigue me, and my memory of a film expanded to encompass them. Later, the manner in which a film told its ‘story’ — the form of the film — emerged in importance. The formal details of a film now started to leap out and register in my mind and memory.

Over the years, I’ve steadily become aware of a film as being not something abstract or intangible but instead a collection of concrete, material details: shots and cuts; bodies, gestures and speech of the performers; movement; sound and music; color and light; décor; setting; compositions; duration; etc., not to mention absences such as offscreen space and events, and ellipses.

A film contains hundreds (thousands) of such details, and in the aftermath of watching a good film, I have a great desire to savor, hang on to, remember those scores of details that struck me, affected me. I may indeed remember some of them for a few hours, days, or weeks, but eventually the memory of those details, once seemingly indelible, will fade. And it is this continual disappearance that I find myself, now more than ever, regretting, fighting….

I’m reminded of something Adrian said, in the comments to this post on re-viewing films:

I want to rewatch [films] in order to commit them to memory, so I can 'run them in my mind' whenever I wish: this is for me the sweetest cinematic pleasure of all, I guess like learning a poem or how to play a piece of music ... I recently watched Alain Bergala on the DVD extras of the marvellous French edition of Cafe Lumiere: [his] ability to conjure every detail of a scene (right down to the lighting, the rhythm, the gestures, the framing, the movements ... ) is really impressive, and what I want to do. Finally, I think, it comes down to this, more than any technological support: the cinema in your head!

It’s this vivid “cinema in your head,” forever on stand-by and ready to roll at the flick of one’s thought, that I crave.

I think of this when I read Raymond Durgnat or Manny Farber. They have a vast, keen sense for those myriad material details of a film, and their writing often involves evoking, describing, citing, connecting, and constructing from such details.

And so, I wonder: What helps us build a better memory for films and their details? What helps construct a better “cinema in your head”? Are there certain tactical activities that can help?

Walter Benjamin has a blog-like essay called “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting.” In it, he details and establishes the importance of his (a book collector’s) activities in the tactical sphere. e.g., putting the collection in some systematic order; strategizing about acquiring books at auctions; getting to know, in intimate detail, the provenance of each book; collecting not just books but also book-related artifacts, etc.

If we could make a comparison between book collecting and the collecting and affixing of film-memories, one key tactical activity for me would probably be: hunting down and reading what others have written about a film or filmmaker. I recently watched The Magnificent Ambersons and Jeanne Dielman, and then read (respectively) V.F. Perkins’s BFI Classics monograph and Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s essay “Kitchen Without Kitsch.” Both films still burn in my head because of those pieces.

* * *

Your thoughts on the subject? I'd love to hear 'em....

* * *

Well, now that Cannes has concluded, let's round up a few links:

(1) David Hudson's invaluable index to all the films and their reviews.

(2) His post on the awards.

(3) Sandrine Marques's coverage (in French) at her Cannes blog, Contrechamps à Cannes, includes this interview clip of Abel Ferrara speaking about his first comedy ("We're not the Marx Brothers, you know what I'm sayin'?").

(4) Several posts by Dave Kehr.

(5) Anthony Kaufman.

(6) Robert Koehler at Film Journey.


-- David Bordwell compares Lubitsch's The Shop Around The Corner (1940) and the Nora Ephron remake, You've Got Mail (1998), to illustrate "“intensified continuity”—the editing style that comes to dominate American films after 1960 or thereabouts."

-- At A_Film_By: a discussion thread on Jia Zhang-ke and Chinese cinema.

-- A 1958 Truffaut article on literary adaptations, translated and posted at My Gleanings.

Illustration: "Au Hasard Balthazar" by the Canadian indie comics artist Seth.


Blogger Noel Tanti said...

there are some films that i remember in detail even though i have seen only once, and years ago, such as cronenberg's crash, for instance... i had seen it when it was released and that's it... however i find myself referring to specific scenes and pieces of dialogue as though i had just finished watching it for the umpteenth time...

this was a film that had struck the right cords in me at the right time...

when you watch a film and it feels like it is talking to you, just you, you build a rapport with it similar to meeting someone who leaves an impact... you'd remember the craziest of details because the context feels right and there is a landscape upon which to hang the small shards of diamonds that such a meeting generates...

May 29, 2007 8:37 AM  
Anonymous Riley said...

It's funny because I also want to preserve "the cinema in my head" with films I really love but for me this often means NOT seeing them again and NOT reading about them. There are films that I consider among my favorites that I have only seen once and don't remember the details of all that well but am afraid to see again because I want to preserve a certain affective response that lingers that might be spoiled by the reality of the film. There has been some excellent writing on film (Cavell, Schefer and Deleuze come to mind) based on misremembered details (some might call them factual errors). Jacques Ranciere has an interesting section in his Film Fables talking about an vivid image he remembers from Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night that, when he rewatches the film, turns out not to be there. He ultimately concludes that the image IS there because cinema isn't an art of visible evidence but rather cinema always involves extracting one fable from the body of another.

So on the one hand I feel like I understand your dream of total recall. But the pleasure of unpacking our libraries comes from the fact that it's impossible.

May 29, 2007 10:16 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Years ago I was moved by Umberto D. perhaps more than any other film I can think of. Yet I dread seeing it a second time: wouldn't its flaws become more apparent? I certainly don't want to find out.

May 29, 2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

Often, lately, I've wrestled with the question of whether or not I want to continue writing about film. I do it so seldom these days that I no longer really even consider myself a "film writer." But what keeps me from giving up on it completely is knowing that it's only through the writing process that I ever come close to putting "cinema in my head."

"Process" is the key word there. When I first started Long Pauses, I would scribble extensive notes while watching every film. I'd mark particular scenes by their running time on the DVD and go back later to grab screen captures and to watch them again. Studying details like that helped them to stick, for sure. Sitting down later and struggling to write a thousand words helps, too. For me at least, it changes my motivation as a viewer, forcing me to be more attentive.

In the last few years I've gotten lazier in that regard, but I've gotten better at putting films in context. For example, watching 30 Godard films over a short span helped me to internalize aspects of his style.

I'm glad you found that Benjamin essay. I remember reading that for the first time on an airplane and getting into a really interesting conversation with the elderly woman sitting beside me who was curious about the book.

May 29, 2007 10:26 AM  
Blogger Ted Pigeon said...

To try to recall or "store" such moments of cinematic feeling in our minds is next to impossible. To me, this is cinema in a nutshell; forever cemented in our minds, yet always fleeting. Every element of a single moving image exists precisely to enable its existence, but is already out of existence by the time we process it in relation to the fluidity of the composition it creates. So, how we construct a memory of cinematic images and the elements contributing to them is central to both appreciating cinema and participating in its being.

Though I think you are is spot-on regarding this ever-increasing desire of recalling cinematic moments and that how a film tells a story is the story itself, Girish, I think the elements making up these images, while concrete and material, actually become abstract and intangible. They do so in their embodiment of both oral and written language, somehow always fading away but becoming permanent this process. A maddening duality of opposites, for sure, but this is cinema, as well as the individual and cultural experience with memory.

Focusing on the conrete and material details of the image is the one and only starting point of a knowing criticism of cinema. Visuality has no doubt assimilated elements of orality, literacy, and textuality into its being, but it becomes abstract and intangible in how its different elements interact in such a way that they individually exist differently in relation to one another due to their constant pushing up against each other, challenging each other, juxtaposing with each other, and so on. While formalistic details are the entry point into a responsible criticism, they cannot by themselves account for a lasting memory of cinema. If one can react to and understand what feelings and memories these material details create, only then can she or he comprehend how they do so.

Your lament of the imperfection and inevitable failure of cinematic memory is a direct reflection of the abstraction and intangible nature of cinema as created through the complex relations among its concrete elements. These relations create that abstract connection to memory. Therefore, how we perceive and interpret these relationships (and likewise our ability to understand and analyze them) is essential to both experiencing and remembering the transient permanence of moving images.

Great post, by the way, Girish. I actually posted much of this comment on my own blog.

May 29, 2007 11:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, Riley, Flickhead, Darren, Ted -- Thank you for your ideas!

Just a couple of more thoughts:

It's funny--Truth be told, I have always believed (and still believe) in the ephemerality and intangibility of the film experience. But for years, I took refuge in this belief, even often refusing to take note of the material details of the film, prizing, in a mystical fashion, only my affective response. But over the years, I've realized that the mystery and wonder of cinema is not destroyed, only enhanced by an awareness of these material details and how they function (consciously or unconsciously) to produce our affective responses. (I'm not saying here that all our affective responses can be linked in a one-to-one correspondence with these details, only that any critical attempt at coming to grips with a work of art should take hold of and use the audiovisual evidence on the screen.)

So, I guess I'm at a stage (personally) where some kind of synthesis of those two polarities (tangible and material vs. intangible and abstract) is starting to make the most sense to me....

May 29, 2007 12:10 PM  
Blogger dave said...

My memory for events, for the pieces of my life that I've lived through, is fragmentary. I attach myself to moments, replaying them to relive them. They differ from the moments of cinema, which can be replayed the same way each time, infinitely revisitable, the same yet each time unique. The cinema is memory as I'd prefer it to be, life as I'd prefer it to be - full of the possibility of living in a moment again.

May 29, 2007 12:15 PM  
Blogger Ted Pigeon said...

I agree, Girish, which was what I was after in my response. I think that sythesis of concrete details of how a film functions and tells its story and the transient moments they creation, i.e. abstraction, is the best approach to being a good critic and spectator of cinema.

May 29, 2007 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Riley said...

Girish, what you just added to the comments was very close to what I was thinking after I finished writing my last comment. I'd now want to amend Ranciere's idea that I mentioned above and say that cinema is about extracting a fable from the body of another fable AND visible evidence. But this is where it gets interesting--how do we put these two things into relation? I think that this precisely what Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema is all about.

In Laura Mulvey's famous essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" she makes the bold claim that to theorize about a movie we have to destroy the pleasure that the movie brought. I often come back to this claim because one wants to reject it, but it may not be so easy. If we analyze a scene closely and break it down into it component parts, or look at its cultural and political context or function, certain pleasures may be enhanced but they can be at the expense of others.

One final note: There are certain movies I love that I never want to see again and others that I like to watch over and over and I'd add a third and separate category of movies that make me want to analyze them and write about them. It would be interesting to think about which movies fall in which categories and why.

May 29, 2007 12:46 PM  
Blogger dave said...

For movies I really love - that is, those that mark me emotionally and deeply - I carve out a special place; I watch them only rarely, so as to keep the experience fresh and intense. I'll watch these movies only in very specific contexts, or when I feel a special need. I don't want to limit the emotional experience for a formal one, because I go to the movies to feel deeply. There's nothing in the universe so great as a person or film that can make you cry.

[Right now I have a burning desire to watch Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Read from that what you will.]

May 29, 2007 1:03 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Girish, like yourself I trust and rely on the aesthetics of the ephemeral because--truth be known--it is fleeting beauty I treasure more than any other form of beauty. It is always what we are just about to lose that seems to illuminate what is within our grasp. Language, as Darren has intimated, is precisely that grasp, albeit a hopeless endeavor when it comes to writing about film because, first, a film is different each time you see it and, secondly, words change in meaning as your biography allows.

I first wrote about film like Anais Nin wrote about films. They were diary entries. They were experiences that helped shape my self-understanding. Often in those early journal entries it is specifically details that rise to the surface. Sometimes these entries read nearly as poems because it is a list of the images that resonated with me. I don't long so much to recapture details as I am painfully aware that details escape me. It's all contingent on so much. Whether you're alert or sleepy. Whether you're happy or your sad. Like any good LSD experience, set and setting are everything.

This last year I've been using writing about film as a fulcrum to provide focus and purpose. Critical overviews intrigue me the most because I like writing about writing. Quotesmithery has always been a fascination of mine. I like to see how people cull out details to give shape to their response to a film.

But like Darren, I'm already beginning to feel like it's time to write about something else. So I've already made inroads into securing credentials to cover theatre, music, books. Essentially it's the words I like.

There's a sequence in Zabou Breitman's L'Homme de sa vie which stunned me somewhat. The film monitors a relationship between a straight man Frederic and his gay neighbor Hugo. Frederic visits Hugo who is (what else?) an interior designer and is inspired by an element in Hugo's home. Hugo has painted words on the walls with two letters that are absent. The two letters he has painted onto the window so that as the sun slants through and shifts during the course of the day, the shadows of those letters travels around the walls and fills in--only momentarily, quite ephemerally--the words on the walls.

I loved that. It is the best we can do. It all comes down to a shifting of light afterall.

May 29, 2007 1:09 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Is there any substitute in memorizing films for just seeing them over and over again? In theaters - on video - chopped up - backwards: like most things, I guess, it's repetition, and learning the structures of the film....

For me, none of this ever interferes with my enjoyment fo the film, or its ability to move me. It deepens it. I don't think you can exhaust as great work of art - the more you know, the closer you study it, the more you find that amazes you. That's what I find, anyway. Though one thing I think is important for films - to know them, you have to watch them as films: preferably in a move theater, but at least, uninterrupted, start to finish, at least some of the time. I can analyze films on video, but to really see a film, I have to see it in a theater. I think one reason for this is that Time is one of the (if not THE) prime materials of film. Everything films do, they do in time.

May 29, 2007 10:12 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I personally do not want films to take on a life of their own in my mind. I want to document their lives as they exist outside of my mind. In my opinion, accurate description (which is really hard!) is nine-tenths of the service that a good critic renders to a reader.

If one sees a lot of films, I think one has to remember selectively. I can usually remember quite a lot about the films that I saw before I became a film buff, even though I saw them 35 or more years ago: back then every film was an event, and I had lots of time to process it. But when I started seeing hundreds of films a year, more than half of them were completely forgotten after six months, and only a handful attracted very much of my psychic energy. Forgetting is probably the price we pay for breadth of experience.

I do notice that, very often, I can't remember a thing about a film until I find an index, some pathway that helps me make the film specific again. Maybe we sometimes remember films but have forgotten where we put them.

I'm a big advocate of the value of taking detailed notes, mostly because I want to prevent films from morphing within my mind. These days, even when I'm not writing about a film, I try to commit a paragraph or two about it to my journal, preferably when I'm riding home in the subway.

Still, there's probably no substitute for loving a film and seeing it often....

May 29, 2007 11:05 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

What's the best way to eat a Krispy Kreme? Does one start from one end and nibble all around the side, working one's way inwards, or does one simply eat typewriter style, wearing down the pastry till the whole is gone?

Does one eat as many as one wants, to revel in the taste of the pastries day after day? Or does one make the eating a special occasion, say once a month or even once a year to keep the taste special in one's mind?

And what of consistency? One may order the same doughnut every day (frankly, only the glazed ones are worth eating; the rest I leave on the shelf, unnoticed). Is it really the same taste, after every eating? Or are there variations in the formula and cooking that one can detect, either from daily consumption or from revisiting the pastry year after year? Does circumstance come into this--the heat or cold of the day, the mood in which one eats the doughnut? Does licking one's lips to catch the crumbs of cracked sugar sticking there constitute an integral part of the experience? Or is ignoring such incidentals no matter how tempting the keener pleasure?

Sorry, what were we talking about again?

May 30, 2007 12:31 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Noel, these are tough questions and ones I'm not prepared to answer, but I can suggest that you try to get them when the "fresh donuts" sign is still lit.

May 30, 2007 10:25 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave, Ted, Riley, Michael, Weeping Sam, Dan, Noel, Tuwa -- Thank you, all!

All these different and interesting perspectives and ideas...thank you so much for taking the time.

To add a couple of thoughts:

-- Dan said: "I'm a big advocate of the value of taking detailed notes, mostly because I want to prevent films from morphing within my mind. These days, even when I'm not writing about a film, I try to commit a paragraph or two about it to my journal, preferably when I'm riding home in the subway."

I wish I had the discipline to do this on a consistent basis; I only do it sporadically, often only when I've seen a film that I plan to write about or if I think I won't get a chance to see it again for a while. (e.g. I made detailed notes on de Toth's Ramrod recently for this latter reason.)

-- The circumstances in which I see a film make a big difference in my remembering it. It's a big reason why I wished I lived in a large city and saw films in the theater on a regular basis. When all is said and done, seeing films on the small screen just doesn't imprint the films on my memory with the same force....

-- Also, I try to avoid firing up a film at home after say 9 pm. I might still feel wide awake, but my powers of concentration have started to wind down and I tend to forget the details pretty quickly.

-- I know this sounds a bit hokey but I find that spending 2 minutes casually 'running through' the film (scenes, key moments) in my head the following morning makes a big difference for me in 'rescuing' details or moments that might otherwise slip away quietly in the absence of that voluntary recall step.

Inspired by all this discussion, I picked up a pocket diary on my breakfast rounds this morning and will try to make some notes after each film. And I'll begin tonight with Black Book!

May 30, 2007 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

This is an interesting question, Girish, and I love the connection to Benjamin, who is one of my favorite philosopher-critics. Like you, my memory of most films is inflected by when and where I saw it, to the point that I can often remember the exact screen and often the exact seat where I was sitting when I saw certain films. Of course, this is changing somewhat now that I live in a much smaller city.

I think it also helps me to remember movies when I *write* about them, hence my attempt to write reflections about every film I saw in theaters (to write about every film I saw on video was too big a task). Reading good writing about certain movies helps (Devin Orgeron's recent Cinema Journal article on Wes Anderson is the best recent example for me).

And obviously, teaching certain films or even certain shots within those films can help immensely.

May 30, 2007 12:11 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Girish - a few years ago, I saw Pialat's Le Garcu at the Walter Reade, and realized afterward that I was fuzzy on some of the structure. A few years earlier, a friend had sent me an unsubtitled tape of the movie, which I'd never watched. So I put the tape on fast forward when I got home. It was great! Next time you see a powerful, complicated movie, try watching it on fast forward a half-hour later - it really consolidates the viewing experience, and takes almost no time.

One other angle on the subject occurs to me: we remember things better when we have language to describe them. And developing language to describe cinematic form is not easy: there's no primer, no system. Hopefully at the end of a lifetime of seeing lots of movies, we'll have more language, and therefore more memory of what we've seen. But by that time the neurons will be dying....

May 30, 2007 12:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Chuck ~ Thanks for the tip on the Cinema Journal article; I will look it up. The last few weeks I've been digging into old Cinema Journal archives and printing/filing stuff away. And I need to search your own archives for your Benjamin-related posts...

Dan ~ That's a brilliant idea. Fast-forwarding of course is also accomplished on DVD away from the home DVD setup, on a laptop or computer, making it even more easy and convenient...

I started out with some hang-ups that now appear to me a bit odd. I would often not want to remember a film too well because I wanted the thrill of surprise, a 'reactivation of frissons', when I returned to it...

About developing a language, this is where one realizes how important it is to continually keep reading about cinema. One cannot develop a language simply on one's own, and especially because there is no primer, no system, one has to pick up bits and pieces as one goes along, and figure out how to put them together for one's own purposes. The day I lose interest in reading about cinema, I suspect, will be the day I lose interest in cinema itself.

May 30, 2007 2:00 PM  
Blogger Bob Turnbull said...

Great post girish...I relate completely to what you are saying. I find that much of it is because I want to soak up so much of what's out there (the more you dive in the deeper the film waters get) that I don't rewatch or "savour" as many films as I might. I've had the same issue with music - when I was a teenager, I knew certain albums back to front. I could indeed replay them in my head (including all the pops and scratches from the vinyl). I don't get that as much anymore because instead of re-listening (or re-viewing) things as much, I listen and watch a wider set because I'm interested in not only a greater variety of styles, but the approaches, techniques and history of these art forms.

I find that if the film is engaging enough and has points to ponder afterwards (even if I didn't like it overly much), it has a much stronger chance of staying with me longer. Just thinking about it immediately after viewing for a bit or running part of it through your memory the next morning will just drive it in deeper. Or if it generates enough curiosity to make me look into its background (I just watched "Under The Roofs Of Paris" and though it didn't really grab me, I was curious about some of its techniques as it was an early sound picture - I think the additional reading is going to make it stick in my mind longer). Unfortunately a film like La Bete Humaine (which I know I liked while watching it) has slipped almost entirely from my memory...At least I know I want to revisit it though.

May 30, 2007 4:46 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Bob, you make an interesting connection with music there. I'm a compulsive repeat listener. I usually like to take apart the elements in an arrangement. There's an entire post's worth of discussion (or more) in there...

Dan, I like your new Artifice or Fantasy post. Lots to chew on....I look forward to part 2.

Matthew of Art of Memory and Shahn of Six Martinis have just created a new blog called Dipsomania: "Being A Study Of Alcohol As Seen In The Fine Arts." (Lots of framegrabs....)

May 30, 2007 5:06 PM  
Blogger Piper said...

It's true, I remember "things" of a movie and usually the memory is better than the scene when I go back. And other times, I have forgotten a scene or the strength of a scene and it's such a joy to go back and remember it again.

But I do find I have a pretty good memory of things and often use them as analogies for what's currently going on in real life. I often find myself saying "that's just like in this movie or that movie when they did this or that." It probably bugs a lot of people, but it helps me remember movies which is what I ultimately want to do.

May 30, 2007 5:18 PM  
Blogger Paul Doherty said...

Girish: This past December I went to a screening of "It's A Wonderful Life" on the giant screen at our lovely Landmark Theater and took in images that never register during my two dozen or so viewings on T.V. I also find that some films like "2001" , my favorite that gives me different things to think about after each viewing.

May 30, 2007 7:23 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, great topic for a post. I, too, have became more aware of the concrete details of a film, and I've noticed how my own awareness evolves. For example, I used to be dutifully aware of a film's narrative, but I've now more cognizant of visual style -- and I find that the moments of a film that stay with me are specific shots; say, for example, a smooth tracking shot in a Demy or a Resnais film or a close-up in a Bergman film. Certain shots impress me partly for pure aesthetic reasons (i.e., they're particularly beautiful or formally interesting), but also for emotional ones -- primarily when the shot is meant to establish a state of mind, an experience, a feeling. On rare occasions, it's the ephemeral, fleeting nature of a shot that makes it special, but I usually find that revisiting these moments and becoming more aware of them only enhances (to use your term) my awareness of them. There are shots in some of Godard's films that I never tire of seeing. And I re-watch them not only to commit them to memory, but also to understand them better.

In addition, one other detail in films that I've become more cognizant of are actors' facial expressions -- the way they work in concert with a shot to establish a thought or feeling or experience. And so I will sometimes go back through a film and then cue up a specific moment just to rewatch an actor or actress -- doing this helps me not only appreciate the craft of acting, but it also helps me appreciate the film itself, because even a single expression is one of the many details that does into making a good film.

May 31, 2007 1:04 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Tuwa: " I can suggest that you try to get them when the "fresh donuts" sign is still lit"

Oh yeah. Freshness counts, definitely. And special circumstances--going to Winston-Salem where the donuts originated and tasting the pastries at their source, it's a once-in-a-lifetime event (even if the recipe for a yeast-raised donut did orginally come from New Orleans--which gives rise to the question: do we consider this particular donut in front of us, or do we remember that it was bought from an original Orleans recipe?).

But when a trip to Winston Salem is not possible, or the "fresh donuts" sign is sadly off, I can recommend an alternative: heat the pastries in a microwave for eight seconds per ring, and you'll have a reasonable fascimilie of a fresh-baked product.

Now, whether to take this product as 'fresh-baked' or a reasonable working fascimilie thereof, that's a whole other debate (you might want to drag quantum mechanics into this).

May 31, 2007 3:50 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Piper, Paul, Michael & Noel.

A couple of links:
-- Thom at Film of the Year asks for suggestions for films made in 1938.
-- Via Jim Tata: At Slate, a bunch of writers reveal their favorite fonts.

I ended my two longtime font marriages, first to Courier, then to Times New Roman, a few years ago; my eyes had become exhausted from them. I ran around with Comic for a year or two but it didn't last--too frivolous. In my middle age, I've settled into a long and monogamous relationship with Verdana. A lot of people find Arial attractive but it's never turned my head, not sure why. Once in a blue moon, after I've had a drink or two, Lucida begins to appeal, but it's with Verdana I will spend out the rest of my days, happily ever after, I suspect....

May 31, 2007 6:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Jean-Claude Brialy has died. He was 74.

May 31, 2007 9:27 AM  
Blogger jason sperb said...

Hi Girish,

Great topic. Might I also recommend Victor Burgin's The Remembered Film (2006)? Its a very poetic discussion of how fragments of films--isolated sounds, single images--replace any substantive recollection of narrative context or plot, as time passes and memories intensify.


May 31, 2007 10:03 AM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

Whenever I'm distressed about how intangible my memory of films often becomes - a blur of moods, colors and tones, punctuated by the occasional detail - I recall this interview that Paul Thomas Anderson and Lars Von Trier did for Black Book Magazine. An excerpt:

PTA: Do you remember movies well? I never remember movies well, but I can remember the ones I love, and which meant something to me. I remember Breaking the Waves--I was in the middle of editing Boogie Nights, and I was by myself and it was a Sunday night, and when I saw it, it was really like the clouds opening up--suddenly the sun started to shine, as gray as that movie was. But I don't remember details of that movie.

LVT: That is because what you like and what I like in a film is not a whole. We look at films differently than most people, and that's why we don't remember the whole thing properly.

So maybe I'm not remembering films properly...but at least I'm in good company! That said, I've been making an effort to better recall, to revisit, to remember.

May 31, 2007 11:06 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

Chuck wrote: "Like you, my memory of most films is inflected by when and where I saw it, to the point that I can often remember the exact screen and often the exact seat where I was sitting when I saw certain films."

Isn't that interesting? I've seen more than a hundred films during my three trips to TIFF, but I could tell you almost precisely where I sat for every one of them. I suppose this is a good reminder that we look at every film from a specific perspective. We sit in a room and watch light reflected off of a two-dimensional object, so our experience is necessarily affected by our particular point of view.

There's probably a theoretical point to be made there, but I'm not bright enough to make it. ;)

May 31, 2007 12:04 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I think that one thing that I find hard to deal with is how inconsistent my memory is, with a capacity to remember an extraordinary level of detail about what seemed an inconsequential film, but then stranding me when it comes to recalling the details of a film which my notes indicate I found to be an impressive achievement.

There are several sequences, for instance, in Bertrand Blier's Mon homme, that I can re-play mentally with no effort, despite seeing the film just once in 1996 (and finding it to be one of his lesser efforts, those sequences apart), whereas I find it hard to remember exactly why I think I love Destry Rides Again, which I've seen more often and more recently.

Like others, I also have a sometimes alarming ability to recall the exact circumstances in which I've seen most films, even when the film itself has faded. In my case, the distinction between "fixing" a film seen on the big or the small screen doesn't seem to be very great: some of the films I remember best - with a striking degree of accuracy when I've seen them again - were seen on the small screen when I was much younger. One of my most memorable viewing experiences of all was a video viewing of Michael Mann's Manhunter with my brother on a bad old TV; when I saw the film again, I was anticipating specific shots, music sequences and so forth despite those conditions!

Taking consistent notes on films again, which re-started when I began trying to be systematic about my own "movie diary" has really helped, though, to fix at least a higher percentage of detail; recently, after my wife despaired of all my mismatched notes, I invested in a "proper" notebook again!

May 31, 2007 12:33 PM  
Blogger Pacze Moj said...

Ten Tactics for Better Remembering:

1. looking for/at posters and/or DVD/VHS covers.

2. situating a film in its filmmaker's chronology, usually by looking them up on the IMDB.

3. attaching memories of a film to other memories: "I watched Robocop when I got fired fom my fifth job" type-of-thing.

4. taking a still from a film I've just watched and making it my computer wallpaper, until I watch another.

5. simply writing about the film, whether in notes, a review, a blog post, or other.

6. thinking about the film before you fall asleep.

7. not watching too many films you want to remember in a row; or, interspersing Bergman with Bay.

8. (as you've already said) reading about the film, in books, articles.

9. do a blog search, sort by date, on films right after you watch them.

10. using do-it-yourself trailers: maybe a day, or a few hours, before watching a film, watch a 2-3-4 minute excerpt from it. the opening scene works well, too, and won't "spoil" anything. anticipation aids memory?

May 31, 2007 2:34 PM  
Blogger Bob Turnbull said...


Keep your eye out for a documentary called "Helvetica". It was shown at Hot Docs this year and was a great mix of history, modern societal changes and amusing interviews. Had some great shots of Helvetica usage in city scenes as well. I wrote about it briefly here.

On the way out of our screening I heard someone say "I wish every non-designer I know could be forced to watch this."

May 31, 2007 2:49 PM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

I often find it very hard to put anything meaningful into words about films I have seen and loved. Consequently, I (sort of) document these films instead by making lots of screen captures. Sometimes this process tells me things about a film that I never realized while seeing it in the form of "moving pictures".

May 31, 2007 4:14 PM  
Blogger Damian said...

I'm somewhat unusual in this area of remembering movies because actually I've always been blssed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with an abnormal--almost freakish--memory for these kind of things. It certainly helps me in trying to memorize my lines (and other people's lines too) whenever I'm acting in a play. It also aids me in recalling, in vivid detail, various films that I've seen multiple times.

When I was in elementary school I used to watch Back to the Future so often that I eventually had the entire thing committed to memory. Every shot, every cut, every musical note, every bit of dialogue, every pause in the dialogue, etc. Sometimes when I'd be on long school field trips, sitting in a car or a bus, and my friends would get bored, they'd turn to me and say "Do Back to the Future, Damian," and I would. I'd mimic all the voices, make all the sound effects with my mouth, hum the "score" and just generally make an ass of myself. I didn't have a lot of other talents (besides drawing and I certainly was no athlete), so it was the only way I thought I could endear myself to others. You know those guys who do travel the country doing one-man shows of Star Wars or Hamlet on stage? I was a travelling one-man Back to the Future show.

The really sad part is that I can still do it. :(

May 31, 2007 8:15 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I used to whistle the entire score of Godfather 2, myself.

Watching the chronological version was fascinating--like seeing a well-remembered, well loved woman dressed in jeans, or in a dress you'd never seen before. Not that I thought it improved the two films any.

May 31, 2007 8:27 PM  
Blogger cineboy said...

When I was an undergrad all the guys could quote extensively from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I don't think that's what you are talking about.

I don't know exactly what I think about remembering films in detail, to the extent of "playing back" scenes, etc., from the film in my head. I am not quite sure what value I would place on that ability. But I do regret, or am frustrated, with my loss of memory. Forgetting films is really no different from forgetting past experiences of any kind, and I think my mind is going.

[Side note: when, as a boy sitting in church, I would "play back" songs from my favorite albums and time myself. I knew exactly how long the songs were to the second – say 3 minutes and 42 seconds - and I would see how well I remembered the songs and see how close I could get to the correct time. Needless to say, playing back those songs while in church helped me "manage" my youth.]

Philosophical interlude:
Films are like streams that one enters, and one never enters the same film twice. Certainly, films are objects apart from ourselves in one sense, but films are also the result of that objectiveness and our experience of that objectiveness. In other words, a film's existence is the object and myself (who I am at the moment) in combination.

If I play back a film in my head, am I playing back the objective film, my subjective experience of a past viewing, or a present subjective experience of an imagined object remembered subjectively?

Anyhow, sometimes I just like to sit and hum to myself.

June 01, 2007 2:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Jason, David, Darren, Gareth, Pacze, Bob, Michael, Damian, Noel, Tucker -- Merci, mes cine-amis. So many points to ponder...

Just a couple of thoughts:

Darren said: "Isn't that interesting? I've seen more than a hundred films during my three trips to TIFF, but I could tell you almost precisely where I sat for every one of them."

I share this same odd experience. I vividly remember where I sat and in which theater I saw each of the 35 or so films at my first TIFF in '99. In general, I have a very strong memory of all films seen at TIFF.

For me, I suspect it has something to do with the specialness of the occasion (TIFF is the one week of the year I look forward to the most, plan ahead for, etc), and also, all of one's worldly cares are put aside for that week when we truly eat, breathe and live only movies. It's an intense immersion for a week, morning to night. Perhaps the impact is also enhanced for me because the rest of the year, I'm forced to watch most of my films on the small screen.

On another note, I really resonate with this comment that Dan made the other day: "I personally do not want films to take on a life of their own in my mind. I want to document their lives as they exist outside of my mind. In my opinion, accurate description (which is really hard!) is nine-tenths of the service that a good critic renders to a reader."

True, our memories are imperfect and unreliable and colored by a complex of variables, but despite that, I think what I wish to do is minimize those distortions (when once I used to mystically, perhaps even narcissistically, prize those distortions as a function of the certain time and place in my life when I encountered the film).

Now I want to remember films in as much detail and as accurately as I possibly can....

June 01, 2007 6:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- David Bordwell has some useful tips on podcasts about movies (like Elvis Mitchell's show).
-- Jason Sperb, at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope, has a post on the Kolker-edited book on Kubrick.
-- Media theorist Sean Cubitt's blog has a post on Thierry Kuntzel. (via Chuck.)

June 01, 2007 7:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Good news: Andy Horbal's new blog, Mirror/Stage, launches July 1.

June 01, 2007 9:37 AM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Did I miss a memo on switching blogs or something? I just noticed that Michael S. of CultureSpace changed blogs last month too. Hmm...maybe it is time to retire the old site and resurface under a different identity. :-/

June 01, 2007 10:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello--Speaking of, I also experimented (sub rosa!) with starting a new blog a couple of months ago, a blog in French with short film-related posts to help me with my learning the language. I retired it when I realized I didn't have time for it. But yeah, I think quite a few people are doing it. (Also see: The Shamus, formerly That Little Round-Headed Boy.)

June 01, 2007 11:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

James Quandt has articles on 12:08 East of Bucharest and Hong Sang-Soo in the new issue of Artforum. His pieces are not, alas, online but here's David Hudson with a post on what is...

June 01, 2007 11:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Just wondering: Any serious admirers/endorsers of The 40-Year-Old Virgin out there? I have not seen the film (actually, full disclosure, I bailed after about 40 mins but it was at a party and we'd had a few). I'm a big fan of The Larry Sanders Show, which Judd Apatow worked on. And Knocked Up seems to be getting some good reviews, so I'm curious about both the movies....

June 01, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I recommend renting The Black Dahlia first before looking at 40 Year Old Virgin, msyelf.

June 01, 2007 2:19 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'm a huge admirer of The 40 Year Old Virgin--for me, Apatow is even better at catching the common language of 20-somethings (or 40-something virgins) than Bujalski, and is funnier too. The completely absurd ending, uplifting and endearing enough, is a bit of a let-down, since Apatow's great ability seems to be able to put absurd situations into completely realistic (or believable) contexts, but even so, it's one of my very favorite American movies of the past decade (though the others include the IMAX Polar Express).

June 01, 2007 2:25 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Ha, yeah, I started that new blog, thinking I'd have a whole slew of new inspiration, and now I'm not entirely sure what to do with it. :) But once I have a little more time in just a few weeks, I'll probably get back to blogging, either in one place or another.

Girish -- I enjoyed The 40-Year-Old Virgin (saw it in the theater with friends), though I would probably only endorse it as a fun diversion. A lot of crude sex humor (which isn't everyone's thing), but the film's got some wit, and the nice thing about it is that there's a real sweetness to it once the story sort of winds through near the end (and the film caps off with a very funny sequence). So consider this a soft sell on the film, but I enjoyed it enough to make me very curious about Knocked Up -- Aptow seems good at characterizing somewhat disaffected, but nevertheless redeemable, individuals.

June 01, 2007 2:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David & Michael--You've piqued my curiosity; I will definitely watch The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And David, I think the IMAX Polar Express was on Dave Kehr's list of best films of the year, I'm pretty sure....

Geez, Noel, I still haven't seen the De Palma for no bloody reason besides! To the top of the queue it goes...

June 01, 2007 2:56 PM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

It's interesting to see that so many people are disappointed in their inability to exactly remember the films they've seen. A few years ago I decided to make an effort to become a better watcher of films, and better rememberer of films too (because I considered these two goals to be closely related). Many of the techniques I used have been mentioned here--I heartily endorse Dan Sallitt's suggestion of watching a film you want to remember on fast-forward in particular.

As a result of this effort I am today a much better remember of films (and a much better watcher of them) than I used to be. But friends, there is a price. My girlfriend will be happy to confirm that my memory of things in general is much, much worse than it used to be, and I can't help thinking this isn't a coincidence!

June 01, 2007 4:23 PM  
Blogger cineboy said...

Andy, from my own personal experience, when it comes to one's memory (in general) and one's relationship with one's wife (or girlfriend), one might as well look for any excuse one can find, and then get good at humbly acquiescing. Just don't say you forgot some important date or event or promise you made because your head is so full of movies.

June 01, 2007 5:30 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Girish, I was a bit hesitant about seeing The 40-Year-Old Virgin but am quite glad I did. It's amusing and sweet, as stated above, and I'd agree that the ending was absurd but I wouldn't call it a let down (more deliberately, provocatively subjective).

June 01, 2007 11:01 PM  
Blogger Damian said...

I think that The 40-Year-Old Virgin is one of the funniest, sweetest, most vulgar and most truthful films of the last 4-5 years. I was reluctant to see it for a very long time, but ended up really, REALLY liking it when I finally did. However, catching it for the second time on cable the other night reminded me that there is a lot more going on in that movie than in a typical Hollywood comedy. I was actually thinking of writing a blog about it here in the next week, but I figured I should see Knocked Up first since it looks like it is going to be strong in all of the areas that The 40-Year-Old Virgin is. I highly recommend it, girish.

June 02, 2007 4:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy, Tucker, Tuwa & Damian--Hey thanks, guys!

June 02, 2007 6:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The new issue of Bookforum has "Best Adaptation" picks by various people. Here's J. Hoberman's:

ABISMOS DE PASIÓN (Luis Buñuel, 1954) Transposing Wuthering Heights to a Mexican hacienda, pushing mediocre actors and melodramatic montage to the max, Buñuel produced a great, great Surrealist film.

CLASS RELATIONS (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1984) The ascetic duo’s grindingly literal-minded version of Kafka’s Amerika really does defamiliarize the whole notion of the Kafkaesque.

KAPITAL (Sergei Eisenstein, late ’20s) Marx’s magnum opus isn’t a novel (though it’s been compared to Dickens), but then, Eisenstein never realized his adaptation. It’s the idea.

MARS ATTACKS! (Tim Burton, 1996) Does subliterary count? This is surely the best movie ever made from a series of bubblegum cards.

VINYL (Andy Warhol, 1965) I think it’s fantastic that the Factory paid Anthony Burgess for the rights to make A Clockwork Orange and then produced this fabulously desultory version, which features Gerard Malanga doing the watusi and provided Edie Sedgwick her film debut.

June 02, 2007 6:43 AM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hi, everybody. Oh, how I would love to be able to replay, with accuracy, entire movies in my head. Unfortunately, I have never had a particularly keen facility for recalling so much as a few lines of dialogue or even good jokes in films. But although I'm better at recalling specific images or sequences, even that facility gets shoved further to the back of the drawer as I get older and my brain either gets filled up with more and more important information AND day-to-day minutiae, or it simply proceeds along its inexorable path toward fading away.

It's one of the reasons why I'm so happy to be able to access films on DVD when I'm writing about them (although obviously digital access is no substitute for the big screen, it more often than not has to suffice), and it's also one of the MANY reasons I remain in awe of great film critics and writers like Kael, Farber, Durgnat, et al, who had only the keenness of their perceptions and sharpness of their memory to rely on when writing about films.

(This also reminds me of a question I would have loved to ask each of them-- how soon after seeing a film woud anyone of them typically write about it? Without that DVD cushion to fall back on, I would have to leave the theater and immediatey find a Starbucks or a public library in which to commence feverish scribbling.)

Andy, I'll have to try your fast-forwarding suggestion sometime. It appeals to that small fraction of me that still wants to learn how to speed-read.

And, Girish, so sorry I've been absent for so long. I've been reading, believe me, but not as interactively as I would like. However, I'm looking forward to rectifying that! I will say, though, that I concur with the thumbs-up for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Lots of good stuff in there, including a very sharp comic performance by Elizabeth Banks as a memorably nymphomaniacal lovely that figures into Carell's adventures, resulting in much good-natured guffawing. Nobody talks much about her in regard to this movie, but she's very good, and has been equally quick-witted and fetching in the surprisingly worthwhile Mark Wahlberg sports bio Invincible and, most especially, in the retro-splatter sci-fi comedy Slither.

June 02, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi Dennis, it's nice to hear from you. I'm sorry I haven't been able to participate in the SLIFR Forums but I have been reading and following all your posts. Thanks for your thoughts, and it's always a pleasure to see/hear from you...!

June 02, 2007 2:27 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

No one else seems to have taken up the font challenge, but I say - Palatino! it's readable on the screen and looks good printed - though when I am printing something for real, I usually switch to one of the Times varieties... I have, in fact, used Palatino almost from the beginning (which would mean, the first Mac I used)... over the years, I have abandoned most of the typographical tricks I used to play with - real em dashes! frequent italics! attempts to justification! These days, it's black text on white, and as much straight text as I can muster, in everything....

June 02, 2007 10:03 PM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

I also would like to remember films more accurately, and maybe that’s why I’m blogging, so I can note down what I saw before I forget it. Sometimes I suspect if I suffer from amnesia or not, including in the following cases:

1.In 2004, I bought a ticket to see WEST BEYROUTH (1998, Ziad Doueiri) in a film festival, and after seeing the film for 5 minutes, I realized I had seen this film before from cable TV, but had forgotten my seeing it, or else I wouldn’t have bought the ticket then. It’s a good film, but not the one I intend to see again.

2. I saw 24 Thai short films in one day in July last year. I had no time to write down anything while seeing them. I had enough time only for writing down my grades for each film. But the next day when I tried to blog about them, I could remember only 23 films. There’s one film, THE LAST DAY, which I couldn’t remember what it was about. I had written A+ for this film the day before, but I forgot the film completely the day after. I feel very upset about it. My memory for one short film can be completely erased in one night. It’s very upsetting because it’s the film I gave A+ to, and I still can’t remember anything about it now. I also can’t find any description of this film by other people.

3.I saw VALERIE FLAKE (1999, John Putch) in 2003, and in 2005 I intended to write an article on it for a Thai book. I intended to write about a scene in which Valerie Flake’s father-in-law was sitting in a car, looking at Valerie outside the car, but decided not to talk to her. But before I started writing, I watched this film again on video, and found that there is no such scene in this film. There is only a scene in which Valerie was sitting in a car looking outside at her father-and- mother-in-law, but decided not to talk to them. My memory of this scene is the reverse or the opposite of the real scene.

I think “film distorted by viewer’s mind” is a very interesting topic, and I hope there is some research about it. I think some films have the power to touch the viewer’s imagination, fantasy, secret desire, longing, past experience, memory, and subconscious, and thus by touching them, the film becomes mingled with them and distorted by them.

This topic reminds me of what Jean-Claude Carriere wrote in the book THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF FILM (1994, Random House). If I don’t remember it wrongly, he wrote that many people claimed they had seen the monster baby in ROSEMARY’S BABY, though there is no image of that baby in the movie. This film made a lot of audience see what was not there. Many female viewers also claimed that they had seen a baby, or heard a baby’s crying in the last scene of BELLE DE JOUR, though there is no baby or baby’s crying in that scene. There is only a sound of a cat. Carriere suspected that BELLE DE JOUR might have aroused some secret desire of female viewers and that’s the reason why this film was distorted by viewer’s mind.

June 02, 2007 11:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Weeping Sam, my man--you've come through on the font challenge!

Palatino, eh? I can't say I've had the pleasure of the acquaintance. I'll be sure to spend some time with it. I'm a relatively recent Mac convert (a year or so), and haven't sampled too many Mac fonts...

CelineJulie, I've also realized that blogging can be a good way to help affix film-memories. Although sometimes I'll revisit old posts from a couple of years ago, and I have no memory of what I'm talking about!

June 03, 2007 9:46 AM  
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