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Things Remembered, Things Forgotten


March 2008


HEREíS ONE FOR the art historians: in Monet's "A Bar at the Folies Bergere", on which side of the barmaid does the mirror reflection of the man staring at her appear? I know the painting well enough. I visualize the girl facing us, the mirror behind, an image — but which side? I can only guess, hoping for the best of a fifty-fifty shot.


This little memory conundrum is given in Clive Jamesí Cultural Amnesia, sub-titled, Memories From History and the Arts (2007) and from an essay on the poet Eugenio Montales. Mr. Jamesí point in this, as well as in his other essays on notable figures in literature, poetry and history, is to underscore the vagaries of memory — sometimes accidental, sometimes willful, often through misunderstanding. Of the latter he cites how our cultural recollection of the actress Marion Davies, once a talented and successful comedienne in film, is now largely drawn from her surrogate character in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane", where she is depicted as a colorless, inept singer.


The oddities of filmic memory are more thoroughly explored by Stanley Cavell in his 1979, The World Viewed. A film essayist, he admits to errors made in his recall of films, convinced at the time of writing that they were as he remembered them. In a symbolic analysis of the hunting party scene in Renoirís ìRules of the Gameî, he gave particular significance to the rifle carried by Schumacher, the gamekeeper. It was a neat analysis marred only by the fact that Schumacher carried no rifle. Thatís not so bad, though; I've seen this film ten or more times over the years of teaching film history and the only specific visual memory I can call up of the hunting scene is the death throes of the rabbit.


Mr. Cavell suggests that, at least for him, memory of films is overlaid with memories of one's own life as a film goer, ignoring (forgetting) those parts of a film for which no personal connections have been made, or seem in mind somehow incomplete. Remembered parts may even be altered to improve upon them to insure they will remain fixed in memory. If Schumacher held no rifle, well, he should have. We all know that Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca" said "Play it, Sam", not adding "again" as we like to remember it. But it does sound better — rather sadly romantic that way.


Woody Allen's "Manhattan" is another film I've seen frequently, yet on each viewing I am startled to see that it's in black and white. I remember with fair clarity most of the scenes and they come to mind only in color. Why can I recall "Manhattan" only in color? I imagine, because, I simply want it that way, the way it looks in other of Allen's Manhattan films, Manhattan in its colorful best in "Everyone Says I love You". I will confess, however, that it really never appeared that way while I lived there.


When he was much in fashion I had read, along with my students, the works of Marshall McLuhan. In another of Allen's films there is a scene in which Allen waits in a movie queue. Behind him a man pedantically lectures a young woman on McLuhanís theories. Allen leads the fellow off to one side where stands the real McLuhan who tells him he is completely misinformed. And that is quite all, save for "the medium is the message", that I can remember of McLuhan and his ideas. The scene is caught in memory, yet I can't say for sure in which of Allen's films it occurred — maybe "Crimes and Misdemeanors" but I wouldn't bet on it.


My memories of my childhood are in black and white as were the films and newsreels of that period. Color doesn't enter my remembrances until it became commonplace in film and later television. Dreaming, on the other hand, remain stubbornly in black and white with but an occasional splash of color. It does seem that as film goers, as maybe in life, what is forgotten and what is remembered is a highly selective process, never the same for everyone. Who hasnít experienced the viewing of a film once seen in the past only to learn to their surprise how much has been forgotten, passages wiped clean as if they had gone out to lunch at that particular segment? There is, perhaps, some advantage to this for those with sizable collections of old film cassettes, for they can be re-run as first-time viewing. You may have to wait a bit longer for you and your DVD's to age.


Clive James' essay on Eugenio Montales includes one of Montales' aphorisms (Mr., James has a special fondness for insightful aphorisms):

                       "True culture is what remains in

                        a man when he has forgotten

                        everything he has learned."


Not having learned as much as Mr. James or Mr. Montales, I figure Iíve got a head start at possessing true culture. .


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