What Proust has to do with film, furniture and memory
Screenwriter Alex McCarron recounts the rush of memory that objects can trigger after personal family tragedies and discusses why film should be more willing to dig deep.
In Proust, the first instance of memoire involontaire occurs when the narrator of Swann’s Way, the first book in the larger work In Search of Lost Time, eats a piece of madeleine cake dipped in lime leaf tea. This particular taste leads him to suddenly, vividly experience a childhood memory that had been previously lost to his conscious mind. By lingering over the details of that memory, he uncovers other memories of similar intensity.
Many of the events remembered are ordinary, but eventually, after poring over the details of a childhood in which the beauty of flowers is so overwhelming the narrator has to view them through slatted fingers, Proust is able to unfold the wealth of his experience into a trenchant, satirical portrait of Parisian high society during the Belle Époque. My background is not literary, but cinematic, and I have to warn the reader that my interpretation and explanation of Proust’s concept of memoire involontaire comes from the the dilettante's perspective. I have to see concepts and life through the lens of filmmaking and history.
Film's own memoire involuntaire
In American film, Proust is used to label characters as carriers of a kind of intellectual corruption, a moral gout brought on by overindulgence in delicate prose. The name Proust is used in films like Gone Girl and Little Miss Sunshine to signal that certain characters just don’t get it something about life. Proust hate, like much of American anti-intellectualism, presents itself as a democratic ideal, a sort of promise to the audience that everything they need to live the good life emerges out of the darkness of their own hearts, ex nihilo, as dreams do from sleep.
I don’t dislike David Fincher—I enjoy that he’s able to make good work with the human action figure Ben Affleck. I want those films to exist, but at the same time American filmmakers should not feel superior for having missed all the cinematic possibilities Proust opens up, which can be seen in European films like Phillipe Garrel’s L’Enfant Secret, Carlos Sura’s Honeycomb, or most recently Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent.
American indies and old school auteurs like John Huston are able to bury literary references in their work, but only so long as they submit to the force of a narrative arc. If an idea presents itself as a hinderance to say a love story, the dramatic solution is to get rid of it, as we see in the “we need to save independently-minded women from communism” genre of films like Jet Pilot or Ninotchka or any rom-com about someone who isn’t living because they think too much. Everything you need to experience these films you’ve had with you since birth, and you leave the theater just as naked. This is often what enables international conversations in cinema, but in an era in which Hollywood strips its films of any ideas at all, including any of the inalienable rights and freedoms Americans both Left and Right have fought across our history to define, so they pass Russian and Chinese censors, we have to wonder if accessibility is really a moral criteria for honest filmmaking. We should ask why exactly American authors and auteurs have been told “show” but “don’t tell,” and how the loss of the latter has effected those of us who grew up in this culture.
We allow intelligence when it's funny, but that’s enough to say we celebrate smart people who make themselves ridiculous. Whit Stillman puts genuinely interesting and intelligent comments in his characters' mouths all the time, but often so we can feel embarrassed for them, so we can put lovers in relief in their silly and cruel social milieu. Taylor Nichols character in Stillman's Metropolitan is a semi-stammering, post-collegiate cocktail party intellectual; an incredibly humorous and charming character that should rightfully embarrass everyone who has ever played that role for themselves, it fits in very nicely within the clockwork of Beckettian dialogue Stillman has mastered, but this character and similar characters in The Last Days of Disco, separate thoughts, ideas, artwork, and literature from sex in a way that makes no sense to me.
Even in one of the more corybantic Truffaut comedies, Stolen Kisses, Jean-Paul Leaud spends a good part of the film reading and trying to get other people to read a book, Balzac’s Lilly of the Valley, a reading experience tied to the romantic and moral heart of the film, a fact we won’t really understand until we read that book ourselves. When Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig penned their homage to the French New Wave, Frances Ha, one of the most noticeable features of the movement was cut, which was the cyclone of film and literary references and discussions that so often put books in characters hands, aphorisms in their mouths, and reproductions of paintings on their walls. Francis tells us she reads good books, but can’t even say which ones. What’s cribbed in Frances Ha is what embarrassed Godard most about his early work in later years, which was how easily his joi de vivre could be separated from his intellectual or political concerns. The beautiful life of these people who are free to think, who celebrate quotes, stories, and memories, who protect them, and share them in Nouvelle Vague films, is no longer beautiful when you remove the ideas. You clip those character’s wings and the films rot from within with forgetfulness. What could be less cinematic?
Former MIT philosophy professor Terence Malick’s main influence, Martin Heidegger, once advised his students, “Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being [Sein].” The speech, given at the University of Freiburg in 1933, continues, “The Führer alone is the present and future German reality and its law.” There’re more to Heidegger than his nazism and plenty in his work to recommend, as Malick proves, cinematically, but the American indie filmmakers currently making work about bored children wandering around suburban forests at magic hour while emotional epiphany music plays from start to finish, in homage to Malick, should remember that there’s something missing from their beautiful world, and a very real danger that their work fits too comfortably within a culture that is so proudly, and resolutely unthinking, that it’s only truth is a good shot.
For Proust, noticing a small difference in the function of memory made possible one the major works of literature in the 20th century. Living with such a simple idea in our daily lives can be no less revolutionary. For me, cinema has always been a matter of my real life drama, which I have always seen reflected back to me on the screen no matter what film I was watching. For me, culture has been as vital a component of the healthful functioning of my personality as dreams. With that in mind I would like to write about my own experience with an idea, memoire involontaire, which is not isolated to my life with film and literature, but has played a major role in the work of claiming some of the worst experiences of my life.
Mom’s own memoire involontaire
Personal tragedy recently forced my mother to move out of the house that had been my family’s home for 15 years. At first, moving her felt like displacing a large tree whose roots were made of grey plastic consumer goods, toys for dogs and children and overspecialized kitchen utensils. There was an inevitable organic pain to the process, but the tragedy remained abstract; we had to fit someone’s life into a series of boxes, and, at the end of the day, loss had a weight; square inches, but the real drama was localized in a person. Logistical concerns were a distraction from the emotional ones. Once she moved into her current house, though, I began to think about that drama differently. I felt immediately at home in that house, and the reason was that it was filled with a constellation of furniture that had stood for home across 30 years and five different houses: the fifth attempt at a sunroom with wicker couch and rocking chair was the eternal familial sunroom, the fifth dining room with the same table and hutch, a Platonic dining room—and all of their horizontal surfaces now overloaded with pictures, dishes, ornaments, books, statuettes that had stuck to them as evidence of an evolving but anchored idea of family life. Her ideal house had shrunk, but memoire involontaire had distilled.
But among the items that made the transition from the old house to this one is a desk from my sister’s room that, when she sat behind it, brought back her debilitating childhood acid reflux, that occasionally necessitated trips to the hospital, which disappeared when she left for college and began her life in the relatively low stress environment of New York City.
Part of the difficulty of living with your family is that they have the power to challenge you in an instant to make sense of a whole lifetime of experience. All the moral inconsistencies, unfulfilled potentials, debts, and promises that you haven’t written into your own story are suddenly presented to you when you see your family, your greatest storehouse of involuntary memory, as a story you do not yet possess. At the same time, the rush of memory and experience they return to you gives you all the strength of personality, freedom of thought, and felicity of humor and imagination you only have around the people you love. The same dynamic is true of spaces.
One of the most famous memoire involontairists, Walter Benjamin, died because he couldn’t resolve to flee Paris even as he remarked on the Nazis’ approach in his final essays. His dialectical heterosexual life partner, Theodore Adorno, who did escape Germany for America, understood why, describing intellectuals in exile as somehow inviolably mutilated. Displacing these men was like displacing trees whose roots were large personal libraries, Parisian arcades and boulevards, German universities and concerts halls. The home I formed within the Bedouin vagaries of middle-class American life is something so much smaller, but also more durable and adaptable. My emotional concerns are definitely logistical, and my mother’s willingness to carry this furniture around on her back for 30 odd years is the only reason the word “home” means anything at all.
Dad's own memoir involuntaire
My father had the opposite impulse. After he committed suicide, we learned that the diploma in his office had fine print at the bottom stating that it was a copy, and thus illegitimate. He got rid of the original at some point across his own seven moves and three marriages. His third wife got him the new one. I think this is also why he asked for pictures of his children for his last few birthdays and holidays. After he died, we collected a few things that he always had: a binder of my older sister’s writing, a pair of cufflinks my mother gave him, but toward the end of his life he was a man who starved for objects that contained his history. At the time I only noticed obliquely that, when he was trying to refill his life with evidence of happiness, he thought first of his children and his life as a father.
I’ve often felt like, when reading a book, you don’t really live in the story until you make it all the way through to the final period. Likewise, the pictures my mother had taken of my father took on a different meaning after there was a final period in his story. Those pictures implied a person I never knew, experiences I never had, but the image of him in me pulled those experiences toward itself and claimed them for its own—but only as image. The sentences I could write for him would always be fragments.
Looking over those pictures, I was struck by how often he posed for my mother’s camera. There’s a particularly ridiculous and endearing series of my father in a suit radiating Reagan-ite acumen in an unfinished house. My mother framed these with the private competence of a lawyer who, in her family life, would incidentally let on how much she knew about art. I put it right below a print by Bauhaus weaver Gunta Stölzl, and both women have plenty to say to each other about the Penelope work of artistic and functional abstraction.
My own memoire involuntaire
Another picture is my father as a giant crouching over a house in the center of a model train set he built for us in the home my mother moved into after their divorce. Another is of my sister attached to his torso on a swing like a happy little monkey - and him beaming, showing a kind of physical affection that’s rare among fathers on a playground. In these pictures, my parents relate to each other like two actors: one turns her back to the audience so the other has to walk back toward the scenery, upstaging her. When he delivers his lines, he has her eyes to give them to, rather than the darkness of the crowd. This is the principle by which people in love take great pictures of each other. My position on the stage relative to him was never as deliberate, and it makes it harder to give my memories of him that kind of life. If he was far away before, now he’s so small he’s taken on the potency of a seed. I treasure that isolated point, that glows like a star in the picture I have of him, because I have to hope it can return a piece of my life I lost with his. That’s not just an immediate emotional truth, but the solace I find in an idea.