The Pitfalls of Artistic Remembrance

Sudarshan Ramani

David Bowie as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, which features Lazarus in a key scene)

David Bowie as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ, which features Lazarus in a key scene)


Over the last few months, Projectorhead has struggled to keep up with the dead. The only obituaries we contributed was to commemorate Chantal Akerman (October 5, 2015) and Manoel de Oliveira (April 2, 2015). But 2015 has proven to be a year of a great thinning out: Setsuko Hara (September 2015), Maureen O’Hara (October 2015), Vilmos Zsigmond (January 1, 2016), David Bowie (January 10, 2016), Ettore Scola (January 19, 2016) and Jacques Rivette (January 29, 2016).

For some reasons, I could not individually write the obituaries of each individual, partly for practical reasons (lack of familiarity with their work), partly for personal reasons (a particularly embarrassing connection with one of the figures), and partly because I was tired, tired of having to miss out on the golden age when these artists were alive, at their best and am now left to vicariously mourn them out of hastily formed snippets.

As audiences of film-makers and artists, we form relationships with the works of certain film-makers, and we remember them with a series of memory associations.

1. The first film I watched of Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating),

2. Your favorite performance by Setsuko Hara (Takako in Tokyo Twilight, also my favorite Ozu),

3. Did you know David Bowie from his music or from his work as an actor? (I first knew him from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and The Hunger),

4. Most underrated performance by Maureen O’Hara (John Ford’s The Long Gray Line and Renoir’s This Land is Mine),

5.Have you seen many Ettore Scola movies (only one, A Special Day with Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, but I mean to see more, after all I only saw one Altman film at the time of his death).

Autograph of Mr. Zsigmond taken on a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy notebook

Autograph of Mr. Zsigmond taken on a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy notebook

6. Have you ever met any of these dead people or are you just vicariously mourning them through their work? I did meet Vilmos Zsigmond when he came to the Kodak Expo in Mumbai in 2011 and gave a lecture. I was in audience with my friend Abdul. After the conference, we approached him for his autograph. I embarrassed myself by praising his work on New York New York which he good-naturedly reminded me was shot by László Kovács, even as all the folks around me laughed out loud.

Several years ago, when Eric Rohmer perished (January 11, 2010), I made a remark commending a writer for having published his obituary for his newspaper in such a prompt fashion. I was impressed that the writer was able to commemorate the artist and articulate his entire career and encapsulate it in such a brief period of time. It was then that I became aware of how obituaries, at least obituaries for prominent public figures, are written. It’s common for newspaper writers to pre-write obituaries for famous figures, leaving aside a date and some paragraphs to fill in as and when things advance. This was shocking to me, even if I found out that this was a commonly known practice. At the time I was skeptical of this practice, today I’ve come around.

My ideal at the time was based on a mistaken assumption about François Truffaut’s film The Green Room. Truffaut himself plays the lead role of Julien Davenne, a writer of obituaries, a widower and a man alone who finally builds a temple of memory filled with photographs of his fallen friends. This is a dark, morbid and painful story of a man destroying himself by obsession with the dead. The air of morbidity that hangs around the film is further heightened by its accidental connections. At the end of the film, Truffaut’s character, Julien Davenne passes away in Nathalie Baye’s arms and she lights a candle at the cathedral of memory which he builds. This was made in 1978 and six years later, Truffaut would die of brain tumor, despite being the youngest born of the French New Wave. He would be followed by Jacques Demy who died of AIDS in 1990. This disease also claimed the life of Néstor Almendros, the cinematographer of many of Truffaut’s films (including The Green Room), who died in 1992.

Truffaut as Julienne Davenne

Truffaut as Julienne Davenne

Auteurism, originally used as a critical tool by Truffaut and his friends, has in the course of the last few decades become a self-correcting dogma. This dogma was that there are no accidents, that the artist’s work intuitively connects and bridges his life and his work. It doesn’t matter that Truffaut was healthy when he made The Green Room, it doesn’t matter that he made two other major films after that (The Last Metro, The Woman Next Door). It doesn’t matter that, rationally considered, the connections between the film and Truffaut’s final fate (and that of Almendros) is purely coincidental and something that only the reader can form, in retrospect.

One can still make case that via, The Green Room, Truffaut made a film about the obsessive nature of remembrance, a shrine of pictures and images with which one can build an altar of the dead (to quote the title of the original Henry James short story). You can do some research and find something to support your argument, by citing Truffaut’s biography (by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana) that the director was much distressed by the passing of Jean Renoir and the ill-health of Alfred Hitchcock in the 70s. Among Davenne’s altar are images of Jean Cocteau and André Bazin. The morbidity that hangs over The Green Room bears witness to Truffaut’s quote, taken out context, about film lovers being sick people.

But this still of course has little to do with the film itself and more to do with what I project on to it, more to do with my, desire, to identify with Truffaut and his film, and let’s be honest, his life which with the hindsight of death becomes a canvas to project oneself on. One can’t truly live Truffaut’s life but by watching his movies, we can somehow project ourselves into the “state of mind” in which Truffaut made the film and somehow revive him, preserve him through his art and by the act of writing, wear his skin like a new coat: an anthropomorphized version of Bazin’s “Mummy complex” his description of “pseudo-realism”.

David Bowie, who released his final album, Black Star, two days before his death and recorded it under the knowledge of his demise, was typically self-reflexive about the audience’s desire to grasp and hold on to the artist’s career in the wake of his death. The desire to seize memory and give it shape. As his song “Lazarus” goes: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.”

17 is Baudelaire, 18 is Bunuel, 23 is Keaton, 26 is William Blake, 27 is Rimbaud, 36 is Isaac Newton and those are only the ones I can name

The ones I know: 17: Baudelaire, 18: Bunuel, 23: Keaton, 26: William Blake, 27: Rimbaud, 36: Isaac Newton 

Jim Jarmusch’s magnificent Only Lovers Left Alive also seizes from Truffaut, the idea of a memory wall of images constructed as an altar to the past. Jarmusch’s film is more successful than Truffaut because his characters are honest. They are vampires, blood suckers drawing from life and art to prolong and enrich their immortal existence as Adam and Eve. They have met the likes of Mark Twain, Buster Keaton, Nicholas Ray, Charles Darwin and Christopher Marlowe.

Fundamentally auteurism is about the ability of viewers to form connections between the artist’s work and life, to create a romantic biography based on their memories and relationships with the director’s works. It ends up becoming a series of lists with which film you saw first, which film you like best, the underrated, the overrated, the film-you-changed-your-mind-about, the film-you-now-consider-dated.

But ultimately, each film is an act of living, an act of giving. Art is about life, it’s not about making an altar to the dead, it’s about taking spirit from their work and finding a way to make it useful to your life. As Truffaut himself finally said of the film (with which he was not satisfied entirely, and indeed seems far less personal and confessional than the surface conditions would lead you to assume): “The Green Room is not a fable, not a psychological picture. The moral is: One must deal with the living! This man has neglected life. Here we have a breakdown of the idea of survival.”

Each film made by the French New Wave, both the films made in the 60s, the early 80s, the films made in the 21st Century are works engaged with reality, with the world around them. The likes of Marker, Varda, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais and Godard continued to make great films well into the 21st Century. They remained as experimental and intense in their final years as they did in their youth. Rohmer’s final films (L’Anglaise et le duc, Triple Agent, Les Amours d’Astrée et de la Céladon) were among his most political films, among the richest and most ambiguous films made in the 21st Century. Claude Chabrol’s prophetic films (Merci pour le Chocolat, The Comedy of Power, A Girl Cut in Two) are among the most viciously satirical portrays of contemporary Europe. Agnès Varda made Vagabond, Kung Fu Master, The Gleaners and I and The Beach of Agnès. Resnais made daring and often hilarious series of musicals and filmed theatre (Coeurs, Vous n’avez rien encore vu, Life of Riley). Godard in the 21st Century with such films as Notre musique, Filme Socialisme and Adieu au langage remains the most radical of all film-makers, and especially in the wake of the last film, is now the greatest living artist, of any medium, in the world, the only one in contemporary life who can be placed alongside Picasso, Schoenberg, Joyce and Proust.

Jacques Rivette was for many years the most obscure of the French New Wave even if, as Truffaut noted, he was, “The most fanatic of our band of fanatics.” Rivette was the most determined, idealistic and uncompromising of the French New Wave, likened by Claire Denis in her documentary on Rivette to that of the French Revolutionary Louis Antoine de Saint-Just.

Rivette’s Cameo in Haut/Bas/Fragile

Rivette’s Cameo in Haut/Bas/Fragile

What I remember most from Rivette’s films are love and fear. Love, the joy of friendship, as in Celine and Julie Go Boating where Juliette Berto (La chinoise, Weekend) and Dominique Labourier (Le petit théâtre de Jean Renoir). Fear, the silences, the paranoia, and the dread of Paris nous appartient, the sense of gaping void behind the surfaces of society. There is no movie that better captures the meaning of conspiracy theory better than Rivette’s film, the paranoia, the endless waiting that something exists behind the surface and yet in the end we find nothing, we see nothing and we become nothing, as indeed happens in the case of the disappearance of Giani Esposito’s theatre director Gerard Lenz. This film was shot over three years, with funding come as and when it materialized, some of the night scenes were shot using streetlamp as available light, or so I read somewhere and can’t verify at present. The images of the characters walking across the street, under the lamps prefigure Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Yes in cinephilic terms I can see the references to Tourneur’s Cat People and Val Lewton-Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim, I love occult paranoia a great deal myself, but the alienation in Paris nous appartient is different.

I’ve noticed from the few Rivette films I’ve seen (I haven’t seen Out 1 and L’amour fou on account of their sheer unavailability), that Rivette likes friends but hates groups. He likes it when fewer people interact with each other on first name basis but large groups tend to bring paranoia, fear, distrust. This is present in Paris nous appartient and it contrasts heavily with Celine and Julie Go Boating and also Haut/Bas/Fragile where we have fewer characters, some of the same occult weirdness but it’s joyful, it’s playful, it’s magical, there’s a mix of tones her.

The movie of his which I love the most was his second to last film, Ne touchez pas la hache, an obsessive and destructive passion nurtured and burned in the bosom of Balzac’s society. The period detail, the fevered performances (Guillaume Depardieu, who would die in 2009) and the sense of desolation in the film is incredible. This film was one of Rivette’s rare commercial successes (as was La Belle noiseuse, another Balzac adaptation) and it’s filled with life, with daring and excitement. This was also the last film he made before he was stricken with Alzheimer’s. His final film, Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du pic Saint-Loup) was reduced to becoming his shortest feature at 84 mins because he struggled to remember scenes and images he had shot. One can argue, given what we know of Alzheimer’s that, Ne touchez pas la hache was his true final film but that is falling into auteurist fallacy again.

Rivette, in his later years came against the theory, describing it as a myth, “There is no auteur in films … a film is something which preexists in its own right. It is only interesting if you have this feeling that the film preexists and that you are trying to reach it, to discover it, taking precautions to avoid spoiling it or deforming it.” Rivette worked heavily in improvisations in his later films and he regarded his actors as collaborators. His first two features (Paris nous appartient and La religieuse) were heavily scripted but in the obscure L’amour fou (which with the DVD release of Out 1 has finally become Rivette’s most obscure feature) he changed styles and shifted to improvisations. Narrative would periodically appear, but mostly in poetic terms of the occult, the Sun and Moon Goddess in the baffling Duelle and Noroît. The former film, shot in Paris, somehow transforms it into a fantasy world, an alternate universe of film noir dread and waste. Noroît is a more enjoyable film, The Revenger’s Tragedy mixed with Jacques Tourneur’s Anne of the Indies, but it’s still weird and alienating.

Obviously there’s more to that. Just like there’s more to the French New Wave then a bunch of obituary dates and first and last films. Rivette would have undoubtedly made more films had his memory not failed him, his final feature would have been longer and since it was released in 2009, his final 7 years would perhaps have featured another Rivette film or two, in the tradition of Resnais, Chabrol and Rohmer who made films till the very end. The films of Rivette are a labyrinth in which we can lose ourselves, a labyrinth people by some of the greatest actors and performers in film history. To lose oneself in the abyss of Rivette’s films, the depths of loneliness, solitude and fear, is to find a companion to confront our own lives and enrich it.

Art is in many cases a realm of dead masters who we are always behind on. This is far truer of us today in the 21st Century than it was for earlier generations. We have far more books to read, far more music and far more movies to catch up to and be accustomed to then the artists of an earlier pre-Internet generation, who were more or less cordoned to the distribution channels that existed in their neighborhood, depending on publishers to send books and vinyls to local stores, songs and movies featured on radio and TV. Today, the world is an oyster and the rate of information absorption is at times overwhelming and bewildering.

The challenges of memory, to preserve and share the achievements of masters like Rivette and the other great artists who died in this past year is to remind oneself of the speed of life, to paraphrase David Bowie’s title for an instrumental song in his album Low. Life is constantly at move, its richness and mysteries are intoxicatingly greater than our ability to comprehend it.

Rather than seeing the death of the likes of Rivette, Akerman, Oliveira, Scola, Setsuko Hara and Maureen O’Hara as an end to contemplate with the loftiness of Olympian despair, we should be grateful that it falls on our generation to give meaning and continuity to their achievement.

This is a daunting responsibility and a remarkable privilege.