Not so long ago, a friend of mine was frustrated with the work he was doing in the world of corporate videos when he was offered a project that surprisingly stimulated him, leading to a change in direction that he believed may have led to new possibilities in the aesthetic, but with a troublesome ethical relationship with the image.
I had known Simon for ten years, through a post-graduate college course down in Kent, in film practice and towards an enduring friendship based on a shared interest in the sort of films he eventually wanted to make and that I wished to write about and show. Simon had attended the course keen to get into the industry; I wanted to learn more about the technical side of cinema after a degree in film theory, and before taking a PhD that led to the teaching job I now have in a college in Edinburgh, a job that allows me to write freely and teach in a more restricted fashion, yet where I get the opportunity to show clips from many of the films I admire.
Simon had been trying to find a way of making money while at the same time trying to make something he might be able to call art, and told me that he eventually found it in a moment while making a corporate video about a college near London. Where most of the corporate videos consisted of subjects he had no emotional or intellectual interest in, connection to or affection for, this film about students reminded him frequently of his own years as an undergraduate, studying at Stirling, and also his year in Kent. It was during the making of this film that he felt most keenly the creative need that he had not managed to express, and at the same time found in the project the means by which to open up this creative space. But was it ethical?
Simon was asking me this question nine months after he had finished shooting his film, unsure what to do with it. Sitting in the living room of my flat in Marchmont, he said the corporate video had been made, handed in and he had received payment, but there was also now this other film - one that he had put together out of the many hours of extant footage he had from the four months he had been filming the video in between other projects. Before this visit I hadn't seen Simon for a couple of years, though we had been in contact frequently by email and sometimes we would talk about his father's death: it was at his father's funeral that we had last met. He had always been close to his father perhaps because he had no opportunity to be close to his mother, who had died when Simon was three and Simon believed his father became close to him as a means of remaining close to the wife that passed away. His father never remarried and Simon was an only child. He said to me as we talked about the film that as he edited it, as he thought about moments that had passed that he had filmed and been able to fuss over in the editing, whether he was engaging in a very odd grieving process: that he was recapturing a filmic past aware that he couldn't recapture a living one. He showed me a few minutes of the footage on his laptop, and he was especially interested in a moment when two boys around twenty are standing in a queue and when we see it in standard time we see one of the boys noticing his girlfriend and going over to greet her. But in the slow-motion version what we see is the friend noticing the girlfriend and the girlfriend noticing the friend. For the briefest of moments that in the slowed down footage becomes unequivocal, we see yearning on their two faces.
We talked from around seven in the evening till half ten. My partner Samantha had a night class, said she would join the group for a drink afterwards, and leave Simon and me to talk. She had met Simon only once before at the funeral and thought it best we had a few hours to ourselves before she would say hello. When she did so the three of us talked for a while and I watched Simon observe Sam with a yearning that would seem to have nothing to do with desire but with a sense of his own isolation. We had talked about Simon's determination to find a girlfriend after his father's death: he joined a couple of dating sites and went on a dozen dates. But he hadn't had a relationship since university, a friend of my girlfriend at uni, and he would go into these dates, he admitted, with a need too great for the occasion to satisfy. He knew he needed to be light and funny, and managed instead to monologue and remonstrate: sometimes by the end of the evening he felt he had got into an argument rather than gone on a date. As he had watched Sam come in, take her jacket off, stretch out on the couch before jumping up again and saying she would make us all some tea, so I saw this woman with whom I had been living for the last eighteen months, and whom I'd been seeing for three years, with another set of eyes: eyes that reminded me how lucky I was and how unlucky Simon had been. Sam stayed with us for an hour before going off to bed. She had a conference to attend the next morning and needed to start at 830: diligently turning up an hour before it started to make sure everything was okay even if, while a member of the faculty, it was a conference put together by a couple of her colleagues. Though she trained as a jewellery designer she combined it with a degree in fine art, and it was in the latter capacity that she earned her keep and saw the jewellery as a hobby. I think she had been pleased to notice that Simon was still wearing the silver chain she gave him as a gift after the funeral.
Simon and I talked for another hour as I asked him what he planned to do with the film he felt he couldn't quite ethically make. He said he supposed it wasn't that he couldn't make it; more that he couldn't show it. This is where the ethics lay. But make it he must, he said, adding that he had already made it: already shot the footage that he would now have to shape into a narrative for his own ends, even if he might never show it to anyone. I asked if he would at least show it to me. Perhaps he replied in a tone I expected him to offer as a joke, but that contained within it a seriousness I would only comprehend when I did eventually see the film. I told him the futon in the study had been opened up for him; there were sheets and a duvet on it, and a towel too. I hoped he would sleep well.
Simon stayed with us for four days, from Thursday night through to Monday morning, and during this period I talked to Simon perhaps more than ever, but looking back on his visit I realised that we hardly discussed anything personal at all. We engaged chiefly in discussions about film, and when with Sam opened up our semi-theoretical film discussions to incorporate other art forms. Sam may have studied jewellery, but she was no less interested in painting and sculpture, as the three of us went on the Saturday to an exhibition at Inverleith House, in the Botanic gardens and, on the Sunday, to another in the Modern art gallery. I didn't have many expectations from the Inverleith House exhibition: we didn't even check to see what was on but Sam insisted that we should go through the gardens and pop into the house which she always liked visiting for the building itself. It was indeed a house, a narrow entrance leading to a wide hall with stone stairs that lead to the upper floors, and it made Simon remark that it was now so rare to see stairs used in cinema as they so often would be utilised in classic Hollywood. Sam was more interested in the view: she loved looking out onto the garden and through the sash windows. It made her feel like she was in a 19th century novel, and imagined various Jane Austen figures talking picnics on the lawn. As she offered this observation looking out the window, Simon asked her if she liked all of Jane Austen's books. She said he had only read Pride and Prejudice, and found Darcy fascinating. The rest of his Austen knowledge came from films. Like his knowledge of staircases, she joked. It was the only time I could have said there was a moment of complicity between them, and I suspect I recall it now because of the film Simon made. What I remembered more vividly during the visit was a film by Tony Conrad called The Flicker, a sixteen-minute work that played up stroboscopic effects and carried an initial warning that the film could cause physical epileptic seizures.
Afterwards, walking through Stockbridge, up Dundas street, up past the Mound and through the Meadows, we talked intermittently about the film in the context of Simon's work. By this stage we were on our own: Sam had joined us at the Botanics after cycling down, and would join us for dinner after visiting a friend in Stockbridge. We discussed the film mainly from an ethical point of view, perhaps oddly since it was one of the most famous of structural/materialist films. Simon wondered what right a filmmaker had to traumatise a viewer in the viewing experience, and thought about the many ways in which filmmakers had done so. What was their justification; was it for entertainment or enlightenment? Was cinema an art form where it wasn't easy to separate one from the other? I asked him what he hoped his own film might achieve, since he thought it may be ethically troublesome. He supposed a shock of recognition, quite different he reckoned from a shock, and perhaps this was for him the difference between entertainment and enlightenment. A shock was an empty surprise, a shock of recognition a full one.
On the way home we stopped for a drink at the Jolly Judge, a compact bar down an alley off the Royal Mile. Simon believed he would never get bored of Edinburgh were he living in the city; there were always different routes and paths, alleys that would rarely be dead ends but new openings - short cuts to places you knew well and that seemed new because of this new found path. As we drank a swift half pint I mentioned a famous comment by Faulkner: the past isn't dead, it isn't even past. Sometimes we watch a film I said and we recognise an aspect of our own past in the experience and we are perhaps appalled by the way a son treats a mother, a husband treats a wife, or brothers treat each other and realise that our own behaviour had not been so very different, and thus forces upon an acknowledgement of our actions after the event and through a story that is not strictly our own. He looked at me oddly as I said this, adding that he thought this might be part of the problem with the film he was working on: it wasn't only the issue of the people he had been filming. It also concerned a broader sense of ethics and responsibility that he found himself exploring and which made him feel somehow that he was involved in what he could only call the tension of art. He then felt into silence for a minute, and I looked in the direction of the bar and at the barmaid for little more than a second. I was reminded of the slow-motion footage Simon had filmed and how clear it was that the young woman was looking at her boyfriend's friend as the frames were slowed down. If Sam had seen that look then she might have suspected my attraction towards the person behind the bar, but it would have been sensed but nothing more. Yet I knew if that second had been recorded I could not have denied the pleasure I gained from looking at this woman. Any other glance across afterwards seemed secondary to that initial look, and I was reminded of an ex-girlfriend who once said that she knew instantly whether a man was attracted to her by the instantaneous of his response, a reaction so quick that he might not even have realized he offered it, but that she knew that she had received it.
As I asked Simon (who had bought the first round) if he would like another drink, and as he said a half would be more than enough, so I ventured across this small space and gained the attention of this woman whose accent suggested she was Eastern European and whose skin tone indicated she might have been Middle Eastern. She was lightly built and moved nimbly behind a compact bar and as I watched her pour a half pint from the tap and grab a bottle of local beer for me, I could see that if I were being filmed my look wouldn't have any of the surprise of that initial gaze. I might have been observing her carefully, but it would have been that first glance which had registered my desire, just as Simon had caught the young woman's presumably first moment of attraction towards the boy in the film. She smiled at me as I supposed she would have smiled at any other customer, but what I saw in her look was more my feeling than hers as I returned to my seat, with Simon aware it seemed of nothing more than that drinks had been bought.
Over the next few months I would sometimes go into the pub hoping to find the barmaid working there. I would go in around 530 after writing, answering emails or marking essays in the office and read till around 7 before going home. It was a mild detour as I would walk from my office near the bottom of the Royal Mile and walk all the way up the road to the close that the pub was situated in, have a drink, back track a few hundred yards and along the Bridges, through the Meadows and arrive home. It was as though the infidelity I would feel was oddly geographical: that had I stopped off at a pub more directly on my way home I wouldn't have had the sense I wasn't being entirely fair to Sam. After all, during those months nothing happened with the barmaid, whose name I would in time find out was Joanna, whose country of origin was Poland, and whose boyfriend's name was Pavel. She was in her late-twenties, had finished a Master's in Romantic Literature, and would continue with a PhD if and when she could find funding. She was paying off one debt already; she didn't want another one. She told me this over various evenings, and in conversations that would last no longer than a few minutes when the pub was quiet and she looked like she wanted to idle away some time with a customer she might not have conversed with in any other context.
I didn't at all fall in love with Joanna and I could say more easily a year later, and quite recently, what I seemed to be looking for from her, though even to say her would be to give a credence to the person that might more accurately be used to describe a scenario. I would feel the need to walk home indirectly, to stop off, get a drink and read books that had nothing to do with the courses I was teaching, the research I was working on. Yet during this time I wasn't having an affair with Joanna I did somehow feel that I was cheating on Sam. I would look forward to sitting in the pub more than the pleasure of joining Sam for dinner, and indeed sometime she wouldn't be there. She attended conferences regularly, and would sometimes linger in the cities she visited for longer than the conference demanded.
Yet it was one Sunday afternoon, down in Stockbridge when I saw Sam wandering around the market in the company of another man. This would have been around four months after I had started visiting the pub off the High Street, and about eight months after Simon's visit and as I watched them from inside a cafe across the street it occurred to me that this was probably the friend she had visited that afternoon when Simon and I continued back across to the flat all those months before. When they left the market I exited the cafe, following them to their destination. Sam was wearing a new coat she had briefly twirled in front of me months before, after buying it, and I had looked up and said it suited her: it would draw the attention of any man. It was a red Tilda coat, she said bought from a shop on Georges Street for three hundred pounds. A bargain she believed, and said buying nice items made her feel more like a woman. I hadn't thought much about this at the time, but seeing her wearing it walking with another man I thought about what else she was wearing that would have made her feel more like a woman: what underwear had she worn for the occasion, for the assignation? As I followed them they showed each other no outwards sign of physical affection and turned into a street off Raeburn place. It was where Simon and I had left her eight months earlier, and perhaps I saw on Simon's face that day, in that moment, an expression I would like to return to, to freeze-frame it and see what it might have revealed.
Sam had told me she was at a conference in London and perhaps she had been, arriving home a day earlier than she claimed, and staying the night at her lover's apartment. How often had she done this in recent months, perhaps believing that a couple of hours in the afternoon once or twice a week wasn't intimate enough and that a ruse needed to be deployed? She would have of course been cheating on me by sleeping with another man a couple of times a week but perhaps not lying. I tried to recall what she had said that day when she left Simon and me, that she was visiting a friend. She would only have had to lie if I had questioned her further, and I never did. But then I never really asked her many questions about the conferences she would be attending. I would ask her when she would be home; I wouldn't ask her for how long she was staying in London, Bristol, Dublin, Berlin or wherever else she happened to be, but only when she would be returning to the flat. This perhaps reflected my indifference to her life if it didn't directly concern my own, and so I shouldn't have been surprised that she had found another man. Maybe the surprise lay more in why she hadn't left me. We were not married; we had no children. I had often thought of living elsewhere; she wanted to remain in Edinburgh and near her mother, father and brother. She loved leaving the city and loved returning to it she would often say. It gave her a sense of security, she said, and I would sometimes wonder if in saying this she believed that I didn't. And yet I recalled the evening when she came from the night class and seeing in Simon's face a look that made me feel lucky,
The next evening Sam returned as though directly from her London trip and I noticed how easy it was for me to ask a few questions without Sam feeling obliged to lie. I asked her how her trip went; if the journey was comfortable, if she met some interesting people and if her talk went well. She said she would be home on Monday evening and there she was. I think what I found most disturbing was the recklessness of her actions; that she would return early and stay in Stockbridge rather than stay in London and bring her lover with her. Edinburgh is a compact city: she could easily have been spotted by friends and perhaps had been; she had been spotted by me. I wondered if this was the first time that she had returned early from a conference and soon she would tell me that she was leaving, but over the next few days she said nothing, and neither did I. I still went several evenings a week to the pub, and yet the pleasure of the occasion had faded: I would see in Joanna dyed hair that was frizzy at the ends, a carpet stickier than I remembered, a couple of regulars at the bar sadder than I might previously have thought.
Over the next couple of months Sam and I seemed to agree to share the apartment without at all sharing anything other than dinner and a bed. I didn't touch her and she didn't touch me. We both seemed to be making decisions that concerned the other person but couldn't be shared with them, awaiting a decisive moment. What was I waiting for? I might have thought it was for Sam's confession, for the moment when she would break down and tell me she had been living her life as lie for months, perhaps a year, and she could do it no longer. Perhaps I thought if I were to accuse her she would deny it, or admit it and get angry with me, and that I wanted her contriteness not her fury. But I would think now that I was waiting for was a moment which could reveal an aspect of my own personality that had curiously been hidden from me, something only art of some kind can reveal.
It was about three months after first seeing Sam with another man that I decided to visit Simon in London. I could see when I suggested it there was relief on Sam's face, and I presumed it was there because I would be out of the city and she could enjoy in my absence the place fully with another man, but I think she was also happy that I was willing to get away at all. I would rarely go to conferences and the previous summer when Sam had suggested we get away for a proper holiday, saying a friend had offered her a holiday cottage in a small village in Languedoc-Roussillon, I had said I wasn't in the mood.
I didn't ask if she wanted to come to London; I now assumed she knew that I knew she was having an affair: the problem was neither of us knew how to talk about it, as though the intimacy we built up over a small number of years was no longer intimacy at all. It was the habits we formed that pushed out the contingent thoughts and feelings we once shared: habits that formed us as a couple and weakened the private selves we had shared with each other. I still had a private self and no doubt she did too, but not one the other was privy to possess. But then to whom had my private self been addressing? It could be found I suppose in the bar off the Royal Mile, a couple of hours several times a week as I would sit drinking a pint of stout, reading a novel and looking across at Joanna. I had been content with these moments of freedom, but seeing Sam practice it with someone on the other side of town meant that I could no longer believe that I was secreting time away for myself since she was doing it so much more completely. The few occasions I returned to the bar I was no longer projecting onto Joanna; my thoughts would keep returning to Sam, a few past memories of our own, and the image of Sam walking around the market with a stranger.
I arrived in London and had insisted that Simon needn't meet me at the station: I would find my own way to his flat only half a mile from King's Cross. I told him I would be at his for eight, though my train arrived at six, and I walked a few hundred yards towards Camden and stopped off at a cafe. I asked when they closed. They said eight, and so I ordered a decaf coffee and took out a novel I had started in the train. I seemed somehow to need a moment to myself and replicate the pleasure I would feel sitting reading in the pub in Edinburgh. But I had been reading for only fifteen minutes when I couldn't help but listen in to a conversation at a nearby table. The man was in his thirties and the woman looked a little younger and they were clearly breaking up. As I heard him say that he wanted to try again, so she said that they had tried that already and it hadn't worked. Why would it work this time? He said maybe they should move in together; she said that she didn't even want to see his face anymore, as I worked out that thus far their relationship had been an open one: or at least he had acted as if happened to be so. She asked him how he would have felt if he had seen her out with someone else. There she had been hanging out with friends talking about the man she had been seeing for three months, and who did she see come into the bar with another woman but him. Luckily she hadn't shown her friends any photos and so she was saved from a certain type of humiliation - but humiliation it was nevertheless. He insisted that was more than a month ago; hadn't they agreed to be faithful to each other since? Then who was the woman she had seen him with the other night, she whispered, but in a tone that indicated, in a different environment, it would have been a yell. I followed the conversation as if it were a film, seeing in it aspects of the emotions that Sam and I were not expressing, and wondered if these two people could express themselves so readily because they knew each other hardly at all. It occurred to me then that they probably wouldn't break up; that they would argue for a further thirty minutes and would then exit the cafe and go back to his place or hers, and have sex. There was still passion and tension there; with Sam and me it would have been sorrow. We wouldn't make love after we had talked. She would cry and I would hug her, and she would feel guilty and say we should try and make it work, well aware that there was little to keep us there except an accumulation of memories that would make pulling apart so difficult. Each of us would bring up past memories but not as recriminations; instead as though mourning what had long since passed. This couple had yet to formulate memories, I sensed. That moment in the bar when she saw him with another woman was nothing more than an incident; it hadn't yet hardened into the unequivocal past.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I arrived at Simon's flat. I recalled when I was last there it seemed gloomy and dusty, untidy and neglected. This time it was bright and fresh. It was a mid-summer's evening and the light came through the kitchen dining area and the sunflower yellow painted walls, the floorboards that had been recently re-varnished and the plants hanging from baskets suggested a tenant in a rather different frame of mind from my previous visit. I commented on the good feeling I had coming in, and Simon said it was as though the film had rejuvenated his spirits: that something in the material had a spirit that the other work he had been involved in over recent years just didn't have. He said that he had managed to turn the many hours of footage he had accumulated into a ninety-minute film, though what type of film it was he couldn't quite say. I said I would watch it and maybe tell him what I thought it might be, but he looked at me with a bashful expression that I initially took to be the shyness of someone used to making things for others who had at last made something for himself. But now I would be inclined to see the expression differently.
He proposed we go out for something to eat nearby and that afterwards we could come back to the flat and I could watch the film on my own when he would go to bed. He had been up at six filming a corporate video for a bank in Canary Wharf, and needed to be up early the next day. Over dinner Simon said he had never understood how people could only make money and came across a passage somewhere about the philosopher Diogenes and the credo 'change the currency'. Various people had different perspectives on what exactly was meant by this, but one modern philosopher mused over it being a sort of political call to change the way we think of cash. Making the video with people who made nothing but money, made Simon see how clearly, though he hadn't been making much of it over the years, the priority on pursuing it, even if it meant no more than paying off his mortgage, going for dinner occasionally, and always having enough for a few pints with friends, it had been diminishing his spirit. Working with people all that week who would get up very early in the morning and often go to bed late into the night, he could see that the currency didn't just rule their life; it was their life. They seemed to have no existence outside of it and would sometimes speak of retiring early as a religiously stoical person would invoke the afterlife: one can't expect much from this one. Yet even this afterlife would not change the currency. The three or four people he talked to at lunch about this would invoke a luxury afterlife, a very comfortable early retirement. They would speak of converted farmhouses in the south of France with their own wine cellar; a flat in Paris where they would have access to some of the world's best restaurants, to living in California, next to and perhaps befriending some Hollywood stars. What Simon knew was that changing the currency for him had meant turning inward, to start making films that would speak of a longing for a life beyond money, but a life perhaps also beyond other things like conventional morality, the social good, the politically purposeful.
Though he knew he would continue making documentaries like the one he had recently completed, he had no interest in making eco-docs that would comment on the planet's crisis of resources, or financial docs showing up the financial industry's control of government finances. No, he wanted to make films that would speak for him and perhaps, troublesomely, personally speak to others. He named some documentarists whose work I knew well, mainly French, one British, another German, and said that was what he was aiming to do. As we talked I recalled one of these films that drew analogies between a woman getting over a love affair and the suicides in Okonawa during WWII, where locals preferred to take their own lives rather than being captured by the Americans. At one moment the documentarist shows footage of a woman who turns to face the camera as she jumps off a cliff: the viewer implicated in her demise. In another film the same director offers a slow-motion shot of a woman looking at the camera, breaking the fourth wall and turning the viewer somehow into the viewed. It is that sense of implication he was interested in, Simon said. To change the currency in as many manifestations as he could manage. To make consciousness more than money: to make people confront things.
Was this Simon warning me before the event? Simon retired shortly after we returned to the flat and after handing me the DVD that I put into his DVD player below the 50 inch television he had bought the previous year and that he said he had almost every night since watched or re-watched a film on: including the documentaries from the French filmmakers, the German director and the British one too. Now it was going to be another British filmmaker who the DVD player would invite into its system.
The film opened with a series of fixed images that I recognized as Simon's father's house and I assumed had been filmed immediately after the funeral gathering at his dad's place. It then cut to a scene of students streaming into a college as we hear in voice-over the narrator saying that sometimes the present invokes the past, brings it back to us in a coincidence of feeling some might call deja vu, but that is often more canny than that. The film then cut to an observational scene shot in one take and that runs for around five minutes. The footage is shot from in front of a teacher who we never see as he discusses some principles of engineering. The students look to varying degrees interested or bored. The next shot is of the same length and shows a well-known hairdresser coming into a classroom and, using powerpoint, explains to the students some of the newest cuts. There are clips for about forty minutes of various classes, all in single long takes, and then about fifteen minutes of much shorter scenes all shot in the canteen, followed by another forty minutes of scenes showing the same classes in the first half but from a different few minutes of that class. In between each section, there was a voice-over that we assume is someone's thoughts from the next observational sequence. For example, before the hairdressing section, we hear someone saying that they want to become a top hairdresser, that they want the cuts they offer to make it on to magazine covers, to cut the hair of stars. Another person talks about the bridges they want to build, the technology they want to help advance. In the middle of the film, in the canteen section a series of moments are freeze-framed as I noticed that these freeze framed characters are those I had seen in the first section of the film, and who would show up again in the third section but it would seem on another day, with the students seated differently. If before, and again later, we have their thoughts anticipating the scene, in the middle of this one we have their glances revealed in a moment all the more naked when viewed in conjunction with the voice-overs, even if we cannot quite be sure whose voice matches whose slow-motion moment. There is also a pre-credit voice-over and a post-credit voice, about a minute long each. In it, the narrator says that he is making a film about others' lives and finds his own in it. The time and the place may have changed, but the situations do not: there will be others in his place now, hoping no less than he would have; suffering too on occasion. At the end of the film, he suggests that a death can return us to memory and remove us from life, but making a film for him returned him to life and allowed him to alleviate memory: to place it somewhere other than in his mind.
After the film, I was left more than a bit perplexed, and so there it was after midnight and after going into the kitchen area and making a strong, black tea, I promptly sat down and watched it again. What fascinated me most was a moment in the film where we see the footage that Simon had originally shown me of two male friends and one of the friend's girlfriends. In the film, I noticed that in the first section the three of them were in the same classroom for communications, and were seen again later in the film but while earlier the boyfriend and girlfriend were sitting together and the friend elsewhere, in the second section the places had been reversed. The ex-boyfriend was in the classroom but not next to the girl, who was sitting next to what the viewer might assume is the new boyfriend. I could see why Simon saw ethical problems in his film. These were not actors playing a role, but subjects filmed over a period of some months, and there we were seeing their emotional lives exposed. This had also been a corporate video about a college that he had now edited into an observational and at the same time personal documentary. I wasn't sure what the legal requirement were if someone had signed a release form to appear in a video about their college that then is also released as a film about their personal life. Yet what was most discomforting in the film concerned a problem that could not be a question of the legal system, but instead the question of my friendship with Simon. I suspected while watching it that Simon was also commenting on a moment from our own time at college some years earlier, and where he might have supposed that I stole someone from him.
It was during the post-graduate course we were doing in Kent and Simon and I would often spend time with a young woman from Germany who was also doing the programme. She had a boyfriend back home but we never met him, and in time I suppose both of us saw her as single - or rather Simon was obviously attracted to her but too shy of emotion or respectful of her relationship status to ask her out on a date. I was neither shy nor respectful and waited until a moment when she was irritated with her boyfriend for not coming over and visiting (she was staying for Christmas and New Year), and receptive enough to accept a keen man's advances. I was that keen man, and after some persuasion Barbara agreed to see a film with me. I walked her back to her flat without any need for persuasion (she said she never felt safe in London at night), and managed to cajole her into a kiss on her doorstep. She didn't invite me into the flat shes hared with two others, but I thought I had at least entered into her heart. Just as she was closing the door behind her, there was a look on her face that I would now think was anguished desire, as though she knew she now liked me but wasn't sure if she still liked herself. I would have known I was destroying a relationship that might have been able to work itself out without my intrusion, and would have known too that Simon was attracted. Barbara and I started seeing each other a week later, and from early December through till the following August, we were a couple. I recall at the time Simon's anger over the situation was couched chiefly within the context of the boyfriend's feelings, though I recalled that I managed to convince myself that this was Simon's resentment coming through - that he had been too slow at announcing his feelings while I had offered mine at the appropriate time. I would have thought then that I was just much more attentive to Barbara's needs, but retrospectively I suppose I was just attentive to my own. After the course finished, Barbara and I broke up, she went back to Germany, and started seeing again her ex, but though she still had feelings for him she couldn't quite respect herself, and he in turn couldn't quite forget what had happened.
I saw her when I was in Berlin for a conference five years ago. I had no sense she had any feeling at all for me, except perhaps those of anger, as if I had changed her personality for the worse rather than for the better. As we sat drinking in a wine bar that served only organic wines and beers, she said that every relationship she had been in since she had cheated on her partner. She had never done that before seeing me, and it was as if afterwards it had become a facet of her personality. She didn't blame me, she insisted, but wondered what would have happened if she had resisted that kiss on the steps of her flat.
All these thoughts were instigated by Simon's film and I didn't think this was completely accidental. The closing line of the film was: "sometimes we are friends for life with those who haven't always been friends with us, and perhaps we remain their friends waiting for the apology, or perhaps we remain their friends until we can work out why we shouldn't be." The line accompanied ten brief shots, including the one where the girl is sitting with the first boy and the moment where she is sitting with the boy who looked at her that Simon had caught in slow-motion. It was possible Simon hadn't made the film with me in mind, but the coincides were strong and were strong enough for me to read into the film my own past with Simon. Maybe it wasn't intentional, but would that make it worse: that it was his subconscious that had chosen this topic and shaped it round a past event that he could hardly recall. I found that improbable: he had worked on this film for many months, his voice-over indicated that buried in it was the subject of friendship, and I now think that the ethical problem he said he had with the film concerned how I might respond to it. Is this why he left me to watch it on my own? Yet would I have offered this interpretation of the film had I not seen Sam months earlier in Stockbridge with another man? This was the moment it would seem when the question of infidelity first announced itself to me vulnerably; and had I watched Simon's film a few months before, even if I had started seeing Joanna, it might not have made me see the film the way I was seeing it now. After all, why would Simon devote so much time to making a film so that he could tell me that our friendship was valueless? And yet maybe the closing line had nothing to do with me.
I didn't sleep easily that night, and as I lay half awake and half asleep in the spare room that Simon used as his editing suite, so I heard him get up, make some tea and toast downstairs as I listened to the sound of the kettle and the release of the toaster, and wondered if I would still be there when he got back that evening. It was as if through this film, whatever the intentions happened to be in its making, I couldn't continue seeing my friendship with Simon the same way. It wasn't that I wouldn't have thought what I did in seeing Barbara had no impact on him. It was just that I had imposed upon it a stronger sense of judgement that insisted Simon was in no position to judge what I did. But many feelings are not within the jurisdiction of a legal system, I suppose, and the films that are invoked in us by art are a little like those we need to facilitate concerning the people around us. It may be too much to say that Simon's film is a work of art, though it is a very different creature from the corporate videos he had been making for years but it seemed to register in me a response that I could call asethetic. My response was deep but also ambiguous: I knew what I had extracted from it but couldn't say with any certainty this is what it chose to convey. That night when Simon returned, I cooked up some food I had bought that afternoon in a nearby market and we talked about his film. I didn't mention Barbara or our college days and we discussed, instead, the intricacies of the film as he was pleased I noticed certain repetitions. By the end of the evening I felt our friendship remained, had even deepened, and to talk about what I perceived to have been in the film would have been of no value at all. When he asked for suggestions, I offered only one: that he should also show it to Sam.
© Tony McKibbin