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Exhausting the Temporal


There was a letter a while ago in the Guardian newspaper responding to an article by Kazuo Ishiguro, an article where Ishiguro claimed that film wasn’t as successful as literature in depicting memory: “Any reasonably skilled novelist can evoke on the page the texture of memory, drawing the reader into the half-remembered, the blurred edges, the nervous nostalgia, the meandering associations across time and geography. In contrast, flashbacks on screen tend always to be clumsy beasts, announcing their arrival with unwanted fanfare and knocked-over furniture.” Asim Aftab thought Ishiguro should look at Love, a Karoly Makk film that concentrates on an absent son, a mother who thinks constantly about him, and the daughter-in-law who assuages his mother’s fears, fuels her fantasies and waits for him to be released from prison. The mother thinks he is doing well in the States, but he is nearby, in Hungary, incarcerated for perceived crimes against his own state.

As the film begins with a series of images that allude to memory but don’t quite focus it, so we can see the film’s use of flashback gives credence to the term: it doesn’t dramatize the past as we usually expect from films returning to prior events, it flashes the images before us, returning to indeterminate moments in time rather than returning to concrete reminiscence. Makk’s film came out in 1970, and would surely not have been unaware of the numerous experiments with time in films of the decade before it, films like Hiroshima, mon amour and Je t’aime je t’aime by Alain Resnais, Accident by Joseph Losey, Point Blank by John Boorman, and Petulia by Richard Lester. In such films, and especially Resnais’, the problem seems less with time as reminiscence, more with man (and woman) contained by time. If literature is very good at doing time as subjective experience, cinema can be better still at time that holds man within its immensity. In a novel a character can say they recall when they first met someone and then slip into reminiscence; the book can easily move between the past and the present as the narrator talks one moment of a journey he took years before where he remembers his foot covered in blisters, and with the following sentence talk about the difficulty he has walking now in his old age. Cinema often moves more cumbersomely through the temporal, and though flashbacks were very popular in thirties and forties films, they would usually signal the flashback clearly, and stay in the past for a considerable amount of time. Most of Double Indemnity takes place in a lengthy flashback, while even Citizen Kane uses a strong investigative device to allow us to access layers of time in Charles Foster Kane’s life.

But films into the sixties and beyond were more willing to make time troublesomely apparent, so that the past wasn’t clearly signposted as the past, but allusively elusive as we might have to work out where a scene fits in time based on a hairstyle, or on a detail that when first given to us will seem inexplicable. The moments we see from Nevers in Hiroshima, mon amour, or of Morocco in Nic Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing, are only later revealed to us in their dramatic entirety. What this meant for film form was of course that the films were seen as experiments in time, and subsequently pushing the medium, but maybe, taking into account Ishiguro and Aftab’s comments, film could grasp better than literature a different ontological problem with time. If literature was brilliant at subjective time, at making time belong to, and be revealed by, the character, cinema with its apparent greater sense of objectivity (who narrates a film; can we claim it possesses a narrator as literature does?) could better show time ‘independently’. In other words, when we have these moments in Hiroshima, mon amour and Bad Timing that aren’t from anybody’s point of view, they illustrate well our place within time, where literature gives us much more a sense of time within us. This was an important point for philosopher Gilles Deleuze in making sense of fellow philosopher Henri Bergson’s defining of duration. “Bergsonism has often been reduced to the following idea: duration is subjective, and constitutes our internal life. And it is true that Bergson had to express himself in this way, at least at the outset. But, increasingly, he came to say something quite different: the only subjectivity is time, non-chronological time grasped in its foundation, and it is we who are internal to time, not the other way round.”  (Cinema 2: The Time-Image)

Love opens with a series of shots that we cannot easily credit to memory, even if we see an old woman lying in bed and getting up as if thinking of her past.  As a series of images are intercut with the credits, so we may wonder what status they have. These images include household objects like a clock, an image of a young man, and a shot of New York, but they are images presented as within time rather than within memory, and if Love seems to us an interesting film, it rests on this distinction. Consequently we might reformulate Ishiguro’s assumption that cinema isn’t as good at exploring memory as literature, by suggesting cinema is even better than literature at seeing time pass not within us but outside of us. Much of the film’s emotional heft comes from this sense of time, and though it is based on a story of the same name by Tibor Dery, the film focuses not on the point of view of the son as we find in the story, but more generally on the mother and daughter-in-law relationship as Makk utilises another of Dery’s stories as well. Here time passes presently and absently: the film concentrates on the last days of the mother- in-law (Lili Darvis) and then switches in the film’s later stages to the son’s release from prison, too late to see his mother alive, but also showing signs of aging himself. At one moment we see in the same shot a photo of his attractive younger self with the slightly broken figure that is now released, just as at the beginning of the film we see the mother struggling to get out of bed as she looks out the window. Makk would extend this question of the aging process caught by the cinematic and photographic processes by making a film many years later with the same actors now entering their own old age: A Long Weekend in Pest and Buda.

If in this instance film reveals time, it is literature which stills it: throughout her husband’s prison sentence, Luca (Mari Torocsik) writes letters suggesting that her husband Janos (Ivan Darvas) is a film director in New York, with evidence words on a page creating an easy lie for the mother who wants to hear of her son’s every move, and of his extravagant successes. In imaginary New York he is staying in the Waldorf hotel and enjoying the luxuries available in the capitalist US, all the while he is actually holed up in a prison cell for political activities against the Communist state. If we’ve suggested that literature is better than film at subjective thought, then this is matched by the film’s use of letters that gives plenty scope for the mother’s fantasizing. Luca’s purpose is to assuage the mother’s worries by generating instead elaborate fantasies about his success in the States. Literature here, in the form of letters, creates a liminal creativity: it is a space generated by the daughter-in-law in the letters she writes, and received by the mother as she gets to imagine a world to which the written images allude. This is writing as deliberate false-consciousness, and it makes sense that reviewers would compare the film to the later Goodbye, Lenin!, where the mother is also bed-ridden after a heart attack that left her in a coma. She is an ardent Socialist and the shock of realising that the Berlin Wall has come down would be too much for her fragile heart, and so her son protects her from the realities of the collapse of Communism by editing old TV shows, wearing the attire he would wear before the collapse in his mother’s presence, and feed her food out of old tins that are no longer available in the supermarkets. In Goodbye, Lenin! the film utilises numerous props to keep the mum in the Communist past, while in Love the point is to give the mother the impression her son has escaped from Communism altogether.

But, more importantly, Love separates film from literature, as in this instance it proposes a truth through the images that the letters deny. Again we might think of Alain Resnais and other directors of the Left Bank, whether it happens to be Resnais’ use of voice over in Last Year at Marienbad where the scene described verbally is not matched by what we see on screen, making us wonder whether the character’s memory is faulty, or the images false, or Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia, with three different voice-overs showing us the same images, and musing how easy it is to generate different versions of events by imposing different texts upon them.  In such examples the gap between word and image is exposed, and Love seems part of this distrustful relationship with the word. However, this needn’t be because literature is the enemy, more that filmmakers like Resnais, Marker, Godard and writer-turned-filmmaker Marguerite Duras, for example, no longer could take for granted the welding of word and image. Wasn’t it about time cinema investigated what separated film from literature, rather than assuming they were inevitable bedfellows? Makk’s film is part of this distrust, but also part of a different approach to time from that of literature.

What the film does is place literally false consciousness into the mind of the mother through Luka’s letters, and then reveals a ‘true’ consciousness through the film’s images. There are thoughts passing through the mother’s mind, but the film makes us wonder about the disconnection between the stories she reads about in the letters and the images Makk shows us accompanying them. This is not so much to indicate film’s superiority over the written word; more to allow film to become a medium that deals with time differently from literature. Even the flashbacks to the mother’s reminiscences are as we’ve proposed flashed rather than shown, momentarily appearing on screen but not left to linger. When Luca questions her mother-in-law about incidents from the mother-in-law’s past, Luca asks her to remember when the family were all living in one room and the film cuts momentarily to an image of a door with a five on it, and just afterwards when Janos’s brother is mentioned, it cuts to several shots of the son dying during the war, to a shot of him peaking through the sheets as a child. In the space of several seconds the film has covered around thirty five years: moving from the present to two pasts. From a certain point of view this might seem clumsy, with the film imitating heavily literature’s ability to move so smoothly through different time frames, but from another perspective this is film’s genius, to place memory not in the character’s head but the character within a broader temporality. When moments afterwards Luca asks about the mother-in-law’s beauty, the film shows us a shot of a hat before showing what we might assume is the mother-in-law many years earlier. But the point seems less to pinpoint a personal recollection but instead to locate a moment in time as opposed to a memory. From this angle many of the films of the sixties that were experimenting with time were doing so not to mimic literature, but to show how it could diverge from it to generate new observations on temporal dislocation.

When Deleuze says in his passages on Resnais in Cinema 2: The Time- Image that in Hiroshima mon amour there are memories of the world, this astutely captures what cinema could do with duration as he notes more generally that Resnais’ work does not have a fixed point upon which to locate the singularity of memory.  What does Deleuze mean by this, and does it help us to understand the problem of memory in Love? When the philosopher says, “the first point of novelty in Resnais is the disappearance of the centre or fixed point. Death does not fix an actual present, so numerous are the dead who haunt the sheets of past” as Resnais investigates the death camps (Night and Fog), Hiroshima (Hiroshima, mon amour) and the Algerian conflict (Muriel), this is memory dislocated. Where Deleuze sees Orson Welles possessing this fixed point, Resnais eschews it and subsequently the work loses its ready coordinates. Where in Citizen Kane the past is located through the fixed point of Kane’s death, and in The Lady from Shanghai, by the noir voice-over, Resnais destroys the fixed point through various elements, including the gap between sound and image, and the general deaths that have no singular point of investigation.

Love is a modern film from this point of view, with Makk dislocating the fixed point at the very beginning. The first image is of a man and a woman (whom we’ll later discover are Janos and Luca) followed by images from a book, and of a hat, and a clock, before we first see the mother-in-law beginning to get out of bed.  If the film wanted a fixed point it could have started with the grandmother in bed, and made it clear to us that the images were those from her own memory, but instead the film proposes we should not think of the images as reminiscences of a subjective mind, but images instead within being but beyond a ready self. As Deleuze says, “Memory is not in us; it is we who move in a Being-memory, a world-memory.” (Cinema 2:The Time-Image) In such an approach flashback isn’t locatable but dislocatable, and so these images we see at the very beginning of the film of two fretted faces might make sense by the end of Love, but they aren’t immediately locatable within it. This is neither a memory nor is it a narrative tease: it doesn’t come from someone’s perspective nor does it suggest an event that the viewer knows they will have to work with as a narrative puzzle later on; evident for example when a shot of a knife with blood on it will make us wonder whose knife it happens to be, and we wait for all to be narratively revealed. Both would be examples of flashbacks with strong fixed points.

Writers like Ishiguru would have to acknowledge this dimension to film and this Bergsonian problem of time being beyond us rather than within us before deciding film is not very good at memory. When Deleuze and David Bordwell (Narration in the Fiction Film) both invoke Jean-Paul Sartre’s comments on the frequentative as a device borrowed from literature and applied to film in Citizen Kane, we can see how this can lead to stale montage, with a series of events that in a novel would be described as maybe no more than “Over the summer they fell in love”, but in film becomes a series of images strung together with a musical accompaniment. A succinct, commonplace remark in literature becomes a cliché in film, easily mocked in a movie montage like the falling love sequence in Naked Gun. Here cinema often finds the easiest solution in adopting literature to film, but, when the problem lies beyond fixed points, cinema can generate an indeterminate complexity that is the opposite of cliché, and turns the ease of the image into the complexity of thought. In other words if film, with a montage sequence of a couple falling in love, takes what it needs from literature to simplify it still further, film can equally take from literature what will make it more complex. The frequentative no longer becomes a series of images closely linked to a cinematic statement like “a couple fall in love”, but is closer to a statement like “what is love”?, and the film can thus arrange the material to open up the question to its furthest point. Those opening two shots of the couple looking pensive are the film’s outer reaches, the depth of its question. It is not a fixed point, as we would find in a cross-cutting montage sequence so often utilised in romantic comedies where we know that the parallel editing alludes to the future coupledom of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, but an indeterminate one as we wonder who these people are and what the looks signify. We will of course never find out quite what the look means even though we will of course find out who these people are, but it concerns the question of love without in any way providing an answer, just as at the end of the film, when the husband and wife are now once again together after he is released from prison, he says: “will you stay with me all night” and she says “yes, every night…as long as I live.”

This moment that ends the film is moving but not touching, and we dichotomize two words often used interchangeably to try and explain the difference between the personal and the impersonal dimension of time adopted by film. In the romantic comedy we’ve invoked, the films often play off the contingent with the predestined, with the viewer feeling at the same time it is inevitable that the couple will get together but not at all certain they will do so. The romantic comedy is often seen as the most predictable of genres, but it still needs, presumably, the possibility that the couple will not get together to generate the tear-inducing. Rather like at a sports event where the victor’s family cries tears of relief, the romantic comedy induces in the viewer the touching emotion of a hardening of the present: the sense that much is at stake, but only in the given moment. When at the end of You’ve Got Mail, Hanks and Ryan finally get together, it isn’t moving, it is touching, because the film hasn’t searched out a value within a question, but an answer within an assumption. Of course these two people should get together and stop creating unnecessary obstacles that keep them apart, and we might feel like we would at the end of a sporting event where we are relieved it is all over. There is no sense that it is all over when we are moved, because the sense of an ending is less important than the texture of the question. At the end of You’ve Got Mail we are not musing over what is love, but happy that the couple have managed to eradicate the various obstructions they’ve put in their way. The film hardens into the present moment, but it doesn’t open up into a bigger question than it can readily answer.  If we feel Love belongs to the type of cinema Deleuze sees Hiroshima, mon amour exemplifying, then it resides in a variation of a memory of world but not at all inconsistent with it. Love is a feeling within us but also something beyond us, and thus a value as readily as an emotion. If many a romantic comedy pursues the emotion over the value, and occasionally a film keeps in balance the feeling with the value whatever the optimism or pessimism of the outcome (Casablanca, It Happened One Night and The Shop Around the Corner perhaps), then Love wants to ask what is this thing that is both feeling and value, and how does one find an angle that explores it more as the latter than the former, thus leaving us moved much more than we are touched.

The film’s closing few minutes capture beautifully this sense of value, evident in an ostensibly unusual insert (alluded to earlier) where we see a younger Janos in a photograph. After he asks his wife whether she will spend the night with him and she replies ‘yes’, there is a cutaway with a picture of the younger Janos looking adamant and much more assured than the drawn figure whom we watch now being washed by his wife. As he asks whether she will sleep with him, the film shows in close-up her hand caressing his arm, an image of vulnerability matched moments before by a shot that takes place outside the order of the images. As we watch him lying on the bed without a shirt and his wife preparing the basin of water she will use to wash him, so the film cuts to a moment presumably minutes earlier – where he is wearing a white shirt. In this achronological shot he looks beseeching and broken, a man in need of the assuagement he will receive moments later, even if this shot is inserted into the assuaging moment. The last few minutes where the couple are reunited, and after Janos has missed his mother’s death, seek not the triumphal emotion that can lead to us feeling touched, but troubled by the nature of the question just as Janos is being assured by his wife. It is not at all that she is merely saying what he wants to hear, more that she must offer the lines with the heavy heart of the emotionally exhausted: here she is looking after the son so soon after the mother-in-law has passed away.

“The body is never in the present, it contains the before and after, tiredness and waiting.” (Cinema 2: The Time-Image) This is Deleuze’s formula for fine cinema taken from Godard: “That is what cinema is, the present never exists there, except in bad films.” It is the very refusal of the present, the hardening of the present that makes the closing moments in Love so full of a tenderness much greater than its resolution. Any relief we might feel at a couple reuniting seems weak next to the sadness inherent in a scene that carries within it a time anticipating the future (“will you stay with me all night?”), and the desolation of the recent past (his time in prison, his mother’s death). This contains the irretrievability of time: his mother he will never see again, and prison which has robbed him of his youth as he announces that he is now old. The film cannot recover from the temporal exhaustion of the events, and can only find the means by which to illustrate the breadth of time and the values therein. It gives the film not only a heart but more especially a soul, a soul as a dimension that incorporates much more than the ‘present’ of bad films. Ishiguro, as Aftab proposes, should indeed take a look at Love.


©Tony McKibbin