To be a lover of film is to know what it is to be punched in the chest by something with no body, no shape, no corporeal entity at all.
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which I saw when I was seventeen, made me realize there is a terrible beauty retrievable from even humanity’s worst acts, that what we so often call heroism is in fact nationally baptized hedonism, and that moving pictures can carry a devastating power. I was dazed. I saw Lost in Translation half-way through a marriage that is now over, and recognized on screen the loneliness of being with someone who is neither bad nor bad to you, but simply doesn’t know you. It remained a reference point over the following months as I processed the disillusionment I felt in my marriage. L’avventura, Monica Vitti’s face full of vacant melancholy, and my endlessly oscillating interpretations of a simple hand gesture in the final scene. Synecdoche, New York continues to get into my head with each viewing, peeling back layers of the artistic temperament, the simultaneous impulses toward self-loathing and self-revelation, the terror of being known frothing in the face of the overwhelming need to be known, and all of them folding back over each other in the film’s chiastic and escalating complexity. The final scene of La Dolce Vita, when Marcello Mastroianni’s character turns away from the girl on the shore and walks back to the insanity of his life, the fevered early morning haze cushioning his downfall with chemical poetry. Upstream Color, and the surface-breathing panic of clinging to a lover when the world has bared its teeth at you. Nearly every Ingmar Bergman film I’ve watched, especially The Seventh Seal and the knight’s confession to Death: Why can I not kill God in me? Why does he go on living in this humiliating way?
Nicholas Rombes, English professor and film essayist, knows the feeling of being punched in the chest by the phantom blow of a film, and you could say that his new novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, is more than anything else about this experience. The title character has been more than struck by films; he has been struck down by them. They have captured his mind in such a way that they have snagged corners of his soul with it, and the rips have bled him till his exists within the setting of the novel with the flickering, disembodied certainty of the very celluloid figures that haunt him.
In Rombes’s novel, Laing is a retired rare film librarian whose claim to fame, before disappearing to a rundown hotel in the Wisconsin wilderness, was his destruction of the only existing prints of several films by academically adored directors like David Lynch and Michelangelo Antonioni (who directed the above-mentioned L’avventura). The films referenced in the book do not exist in our real world, but such is Rombes’s intuitive understanding of film and these directors that it’s very easy to imagine them seamlessly settling down into these filmmakers’ actual filmographies. The dialogue of the story takes place when a journalist, the novel’s narrator, is sent to interview Laing in his Wisconsin hotel room. The shabby hotel and the circumstances of the interview set the bleak, rural noir tone for the book, but the bulk of the novel’s text is Laing’s narration of the events in the films he destroyed.
These movies do not, as I said, exist in real life. But there is a way in which they do not even really exist in the novel, either. Certainly they don’t exist in any practical way in the book, as their immolation at the hands of Laing is the very reason Laing, and the movies, are of any interest to us. They can no longer be viewed. They exist, if at all, only in the memory of Laing and the imagination of the narrator who receives those memories. Laing’s memory, however, is unreliable. His narration of the events of the films he destroyed is often impossible, mixing in elements of his own life and the circumstances of his viewing of the films. There are times this borders on a sort of intellectual magical realism, the films Laing viewed leaping off the screen and pulling his reality back in with them.
Nicholas Rombes is a champion of the lost practice of misremembering films. He refers to it, in fact, as the gift of misremembering. With the arrival of home video in the 1980s, the ascendancy of DVDs in the late 1990s, the advent of streaming video services like Netflix in the 2000s, as well as Youtube (which gives us access to clips from so many films), it is now almost impossible to misremember a film. There was a time in Rombes’s memory when it was extremely difficult to be able to see a classic or rare film, and getting to do so was an event – a one-time event. That one viewing was what you had to work with in reacting to the film, and inevitably the movie would distort and morph in your memory as it did its work on you. While our modern ability to rewatch rare films easily is in many ways an advantage, it also largely strips us of the opportunity to wrestle with the memory of a film in our minds. Ironically perhaps, the ability to rewatch a movie makes us less able to really interact with it on an intellectual and spiritual level. Ten people who all watch the same movie one time will remember ten different movies a year later. If those ten people watch that movie ten times, they will remember the exact same movie. No work of co-creation has taken place between the filmmaker and the viewer. In an essay at Filmmaker Magazine in which he is writing about Nicholas Wending Refn’s polarizing Only God Forgives, Rombes has this to say about what we lose in being able to rewatch films:
“The curse of our times may be that it’s now impossible to forget. We find traces of ourselves everywhere, digital footprints that don’t erode with time. And the books and films and TV shows we loved hang around, it seems, forever, denying us the foggy pleasure of misremembering them. High-definition memory. The tyranny of the past, collapsing in and in and in on the present.”
I have seen more classic, rare, and international films than the vast majority of people in my life. That said, I only got really serious about my film education (and aware, simultaneously, of my personal resonance with films) less than a decade ago, so many of the great films I’ve seen I have seen exactly once. I decided a while ago I would devote a decade or two to catching up, to consuming en masse, to laying a foundation. Then I would go back. I have seen many beloved films multiple times, to be sure, but some films I would call dear to my heart I have seen only once. Undoubtedly I badly misremember them. And yet sometimes I find these are more at work in my mind than those I remember with near perfect accuracy.
I have a confession to make. I hesitate to make it, because to admit it while retaining the right to talk about these movies goes so against modern practice that it badly stings my pride. But here goes. The Seventh Seal and L’avventura, both of which I mentioned above as movies that have stunned me, wormed their way into my mind and stayed there ever since, lingering like a fog and provoking my imagination, two movies I hold as absolute favorites, both of which I own, own on nice, shiny Criterion discs – both of them? – I have seen exactly once as of this writing.
I feel like I just took off most of my clothing in front of the class. I feel like I was just forced to admit I’ve never actually heard of the underground band you just mentioned at the party, the one whose name I nodded in response to knowingly, the one whose first album I agreed was probably their best. I feel like I just surrendered my right to speak intelligently about these movies. I have seen L’avventura and The Seventh Seal only once.
But I dare you to argue about these films with me. I dare you. I will talk at great length about them. I will go on. There will be pontification; there will be brooding. You can have your exact, minute memory of camera angles and shot sequences and plot points (such as they are in Antonioni’s film. The lack of a coherent direction to the lives of those characters is half the point. The non-existence of a plot to guide them is the plot, on some level.). I will, for the short time till I watch them again (it has been years since the original viewing, and I will rewatch them both soon), hold onto what I have held onto in the years since those singular viewings.
I saw The Seventh Seal when the faith of my childhood was disintegrating around me. The knight’s trial shellshocked me with recognition. His willingness to believe mocked by his inability to do so. God haunting his mind even as he desired to shed that God like a skin grown too small. The majority certainty there is no God and, therefore, no eternal damnation, and the creaturely fear of the consequences if he is wrong. The existential dread that accompanies this no-man’s-land of half belief before there is no belief. Everyone who sets out on the road to religious devotion knows there is trial and cost involved; no one tells you the same is required on the way back, that the halls of faith have but one doorway that is both entrance and exit, and outside it is a gauntlet that must be fought through in either direction. When Max von Sydow’s knight is confessing to Death, wringing out his soul and drenching the floor in his fear and frustration like so much sweat, I quake to remember.
And I do remember. I will confess I have watched that scene online since my original viewing, but I could more or less recite the entire thing without that. It is terrifying, and it is true, and it is no longer what I experience, thank the god I don’t believe in most of the time.
L’avventura is a mood; it is a color, colors, though the film is black and white. The entire thing, similar to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, connotes the smoky, drowsy reverb of dawn when you’ve been awake all night. The characters in the film live perpetually in that haze, never really awake to their own lives. They move from one diversion to another, optimistically injecting each minor experience as a stimulant but only ever succeeding at further anesthetizing themselves. A woman disappears. Her best friend watches the sunrise, and also has an affair with her still-missing friend’s boyfriend. The movie stops caring about the missing girl and focuses on what remains; namely, Monica Vitti’s face. Her face always remains. It is haunted, vacant, impossibly lovely, sharp, bored, apathetic, seductive, more hopeful than she dares let on even to herself. The final scene, after her boyfriend who was her missing friend’s boyfriend yesterday has slept with another woman, is one of the most perfectly balanced ambiguities in cinema, as I remember it. He is weeping for what he has done and what he fears he has lost, and his head is in his hands. Vitti’s character is behind him. She reaches out a hand, pauses, then places it on his shoulder. And I have no idea what it means, though I have spent so many hours since that original viewing thinking about it.
Is it forgiveness? Is that touch an act of conscious redemption, a laying on of hands, an absolution for his sins; an absolution, now that she’s been shocked awake by a personal hurt, for her own sins, for the fact she, not her missing friend, is even in the position to grant it in the first place?
Or is it concession? Is it a further sedation, a turning away from this possible awakening and from all possible awakenings and accepting this is the pattern of a life so lived, there is nothing more and nothing better, nothing else deserved, a surrender to numbness.
Is that simple hand on his shaking shoulder an act of life or an act of living death? Is it the first conscious decision her soul has made in many years, her self relearning to walk, or is it acquiescence to the life-long coma her soul has been slipping toward for years. Is she becoming a child or becoming her parents, parents whose money has given her great privilege and nothing else? I don’t know, and I don’t want to. I will watch it again, but I don’t want this resolved, and I don’t think viewing it again will grant something the first viewing did not. I want to rewatch it. But I don’t need to to talk about it, to think on it, to be laid out by it as Roberto Acestes Laing was laid out by these films that were too true to be allowed to exist and had to be burned in a metal drum behind a building for their very honesty.
“If they did – tell the truth about life – who would want to watch them? They’d have to be destroyed, because who can look at truth and survive, or at least survive all in one piece? Mentally. It’d be like looking directly at the sun, or reading a curse whose words would choke you to death, so yes, to answer the question I’m surprised you haven’t asked yet, I, a lover of cinema, destroyed the films – in nothing more than a shitty little garbage can, which is funny considering the can had no idea that its insides were being burned and scalded by the likes of Lynch and Antonioni and Deren and Jodorowsky – destroyed them back behind the library of that land-grant university surrounded by the Amish and cow pastures. I’d watched them, all right, and seen something in them that should never be seen, and I’m not talking about a real-life killing on camera or a dangerous, evil idea convincingly expressed by an otherwise sympathetic character or anything like that. What I mean is that there was something there, in between the frames, something that wasn’t quite an image and wasn’t quite a sound. It was both and neither of those thing at the same time. In other words, an impossibility, and impossibility that, because it expressed or represented a new way of being, had to be destroyed. An extreme, undiluted truth, that’s what I’m talking about.” – Laing on page 69
Laing misremembers these films in the telling of them, but it could hardly be argued that this makes his memories of them untrue. On the contrary, his memory of a given film he has misremembered is likely far more real than that of another viewer who remembers the film with perfect accuracy but has been untouched by it. I have to assume the title character was named in homage to the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing, who put forth the controversial belief that a patient’s feelings and thoughts, however “false” they might be when compared with objective reality, are accurate descriptions of reality as they have experienced it, rather than being mere symptoms of a mental illness. From a coldly objective perspective, R. A. Laing is wrong about what he remembers. But from the subjective position of a man wrestling in his own head with his own existential and ontological questions, looking for meaning, love, grace, truth, a shield to hold truth at bay, and a dozen other things, what he remembers is absolutely true. It is real because it is what he remembers. It is what he has lived, and lived with.
For those of us who know what it is to be punched in the chest by a film, or any work of art, the exact details of the work are less important than what the work has done to us. We might misremember it. But what we remember is none the less true. The details we misremember are not truths that have been lost, but truths that have changed upon entering our minds. I expect to find The Seventh Seal and L’avventura different from how I remember them when I watch them again; I also expect to be just a bit disappointed by the corrections. At least, until enough time has passed that the details once again blur and change to again become, in my own mind, true.
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is available now at Greenville Public Library.