by Ryland Walker Knight
—Not going to agree out loud
Spent last week in Vail, Colorado visiting family and generally getting zero alone time, either to read or to write, let alone movie time. However, I did manage to get my mom to watch A Christmas Tale. It took us about four sittings but we got through it all. Not sure the sharing accomplished what I wanted it to accomplish but we did wind up talking about me plenty afterwards. I don't really have much to say here about me (or that part of me), nor do I have much "critical" to offer on the subject of Desplechin that you can't read elsewhere on this blog. Some of this is bound to be projection, but it just seems like we've (A.D. and I have) got a pretty similar take on things and for that I feel grateful, flattered, confirmed and challenged, sometimes broken but even more often built up past myself towards the kind of posture with the world I always want: to want the world and to want to be in it. However, it was seeing home videos (and taking a gondola up the mountain) that really got things going upwards.
I often bristle when a camcorder's turned on me, but I also know the impulse to document, as evidenced by my Found Facts series. Readers of this blog have got to know my affinity for the documentary aspect of the image. But it's one thing to record your friend dancing with fire and then play with the images a month later; it's another altogether to see your mom 16 years in the past skiing with her sister and the two of them laughing their butts off (and, consequently, laughing your own butt off with the images). Put otherwise, you often lose the affective weight of time with most home videos. For instance, you can lose them. Or, you can watch them a week later and only a certain kind of joke (the immediate kind) hits. The power of seeing "Feb. 24, 1994" in ghost white over snow is easily bullseyed as nostalgia but there's something else at play besides a banal, wistful mnemonic moment: there's excitement. The video was hilarious, adorable. I was excited to see a different time, to see so much joy from that moment. But this is probably banal, too, and important only to me. Let me put my nostalgia and affection this way and then let's put it behind us for the time being: youth isn't (shouldn't be) restricted to the under-30 crowd.
To test your patience just a little more, I'd like to say that there are certain editing rhythms in home videos, too, that the videographer may not even realize when choosing when to hit that red button. The best running gag in the best twenty minutes of that '94 tape was seeing my mom come down hill after hill after my aunt and uncle (Dana and Guy)—who, as residents of a ski resort town, are obviously much better skiers than my mom—and hearing my mom, out of breath, say, "Guy, will you please shut that camera off?!" She says it at least eight times in those twenty minutes. Every time, "Guy, please will you turn that thing off!" Every time the question becomes less polite, more a demand, until it's a fatigued and frail (naked) little entreaty. And that section ends for good with her, ever harried and embarrassed, just able to get out, "Guy, will you—" before the screen goes blank black for a few minutes before more grainy images begin. I fell out of the couch.
There's something about that era and quality of video that degrades the world enough to create an aura. There's also the psychology involved in sitting in the same room as the subjects of the video, which involves a lot a sussing out of relationships and histories tacitly understood or not. Then, when you're confronted with yourself from another era, the whole arena shifts. Accounting for or grappling with a false mirror is kind of terrifying, though not completely if you allow yourself to see the value in that difference (see the leaps made in the interim). Yes: I saw a lot of myself on another tape, a tape labeled "Ry's 10th birthday party!" I started out embarrassed—at my high-pitched voice, at my clothes, at my chubby cheeks, etc.—but it was just as instructive as it was mortifying. In 1992, I was surprisingly devoid of neuroses. In 1992, I enjoyed the spotlight some. And, as it happens, that 1992 birthday party built to a magic show.
Magic's always appealed to me. Too clumsy to be any good at sleight of hand tricks, and too in love with mystery to let the surprise get spoiled by explanations, I still get a kick out of something I can often "out guess." Call it my openness, call it my generosity. Hell, call it my love of spectacle. I desire to be wowed. (Who doesn't?) As much as I yearn to and aim to believe in this world, I know I seek something else all too often. I rail against metaphysics, as some kind of inheritor or acolyte of Nietzsche's pledge of allegiance to immanence, but I also know that, like plenty, the metaphysical's magic is quite a magnet for my imagination. So, to see a magic show/trick is to tempt or tickle that fascination. I enjoy the "trick" element. And, this being a film blog primarily, though this viewing log isn't much of a viewing log, I'll use all that above to lead into how I think The Prestige, which I also watched in Vail, is a great film.
Now, all this lead-in is also set up for just how the film appeals to me. But I don't think I'm alone in my adoration for the apparent miracle, the making of something out of a nothing. The climax trick at my birthday was my getting cut in half. Except, of course, Magic Steve forgot his saws. Instead, he decided to slice me with ropes. That is, he lead me and 20 other people to believe that he'd get two ropes to cut through my middle after tying me in between them. I can see, now, how he staged the event to let me believe that—and I appreciate that showmanship—but I could also see the doubt in my face as much as the delight on the tape. It seemed to be a choice for me to just go with it and enjoy the catharsis. Earning that, of course, is a real art. Earning that while talking about how you are earning that is an even greater art. That's why I like the Nolan picture.
As I said in the Inception back and forth (I think there'll be a second part) from last week, The Prestige is almost a mea culpa. Nolan's almost tipping his hand, saying, here, take a look at how I play with you. It's also a proud thing, so self-assured of its skill. Most great showmen are proud. Which, of course, is the other dominant trope/topic in The Prestige: how pride eats souls. Nothing new, of course, but the lengths/depths these men go to in order to satisfy their pride is, yes, alarming. Stakes are raised and met and driven into tender places. They call this hubris, and it's often boring, but when it's tied to competition it gets interesting. Then there's Nolan's obsession with symmetry, with doubling things and people, and that's where we get into spoiler territory. Not that the big "surprise" of the film is that big of a surprise. It's the exact kind of "twist" as Shutter Island, in fact, that doesn't slap you awake but rather places a final jigsaw piece with class. As the film says, I enjoy being fooled a little bit. In a way, this is why I like the Desplechin films, too: they confirm just enough of me while leaving other parts up for analysis. What sets Desplechin apart from Nolan, however, isn't just his dialogue or his images but that he doesn't reduce things to that dialog or to one visual style. In fact, he's often (rightly) called a maximalist; he desires the world in all its capacity and sings such a song as loud and long as possible. Nolan, on the other hand, seems to take the "make order of chaos" maxim as an absolute. And any good philosopher, any good Christian, even, knows nothing's absolute. Except dying. That's an event you don't escape. But even that event's undecided, really, when you think empirically. I'd like to think there's wiggle room in a coffin for a reason.
—Sure hope I didn't bore ya!