Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunless

We like to let our Netflix rentals age and cure on top of the entertainment center at least 3 weeks before cracking them open and popping them in the space age machine that allows us to view them. Something about the Central Valley air that really brings out the color. So it was with perhaps my artsy fartsiest rental to date: the Chris Marker double feature of Le Jetee and Sans Soleil.

Here's how it usually goes down with the Netflix: I rent one for the kids, one for the whole family and one art-house flick. We'll burn through the first two in one day while the third will sit curing, as mentioned, unwatched. Like meat on a stick, I'll occasionally pick up the disc, turn it over to read the description, then place it back down.

So yeah, everyone and his fucking annoying college sophmore cousin knows that Le Jette is the movie that Terry Gilliam based 12 Monkeys on. I'd seen it inadvertently years ago on HBO at my parents' house. It's as arresting as I remember, with that one scene of the woman looking up still startling.

I'd never seen Sans Soleil. It's documentary-style footage with a scripted voice-over. The premise is of a woman reading letters from a peripatetic cameraman, mostly ruminations about memory, identity, and the fleeting, amorphous nature thereof.

I was struck by the thought that ceremony is merely an attempt to remember, to grab a piece of time as it rushes by and stake it to the ground and force it to listen and acknowledge you before if wriggles free and continues to mow us all down. That identity is the collection of our memories and that trying to hold on, not to a past event, but just to the subtly morphing MEMORY of a past event, is a slippery business. It's a greased pig; a wriggling, bleating 3-year old who doesn't want to get into his carseat.

There's a scene in the movie of a Japanese ceremony (there are many in the film), I can't remember (ha!) what the occasion was, but during part of the ceremony, the local kids grab big wooden sticks and dance around a figure banging the sticks on the ground. The narrator says he tried to find out the significance of this act, and all anyone could say is that it kept the moles away. That's when Erika (my wife) said that it doesn't really matter what it means, they just probably invented something to keep the kids busy. And she's exactly right. This ceremony, celebrating, enobling the mundane, it's purpose is not to make sense of anything, but to mark the passing of time with the stamp of the people performing the ceremony. And the kids banging sticks, they could be doing anything, the point is to get them involved, to inculcate the importance of remembering together in order to form and pass on their collective memory, their identity, their culture. Culture is simply collective memory.

At the start of the movie, the narrator says something about having been around the world four times and now only the mundane is interesting to him. I've only been out of the country twice and it's always been the mundane that interests me. How do people spend the vast majority of their lives? How do they imbue it with meaning, how do they mark it? How do they remember?

The ceremonies Marker films are all provincial, small, particularly the Japanese ones. Ceremonies about cats, a ceremony where broken dolls are burned in a funeral pyre in order to save their souls. Ceremonies to enoble and mark and remember the mundane.

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