Does one film to forget? Or is a film made to create an archive, a catalogue of souvenirs? What is the relationship between cinema and memory? When I think about cinema, I am referring mainly to experimental cinema, video, and film by visual artists. There are various connections between memory and cinema. Is memory already constituted or does it constitute itself through the use of or with images? It is common knowledge that memory does not refer or limit itself to images; rather, it convokes and exerts itself in accordance with all of our senses. In this article, however, I will limit myself to the relationship that cinema entertains with souvenir, memory, and therefore with the faculty of recycling audiovisual phenomena and the way in which we intercept this material. Some will argue that cinema is the ideal instrument to gather images in large quantities (now supplanted by video), and to restore moments, locations and behaviors linked to a given period. In this case, the thought process is close to documentary film, whether personal or militant in spirit. And, sometimes an ethnographical or sociological alibi that is more or less intentional will slip in between. Still others contend that the medium favors the irruption of an amateur’s cinema, a cinema devoid of quality, a cinema that finds statement in the setting up of filmed diaries.
Whatever form they adopt, these modes of statement maintain a privileged relationship with the manifestation and the constitution of memory, and the film projecting it bears the trace in the restitution process. In this case, we refer mostly to the notion of an intimate memory, whether or not it relates to family issues. Others insist such works refer to an identity quest that requires the use of a personal cinema, where autobiography and filmed diary merge. If one moves away from these paths, different kinds of relations establish themselves between cinema and memory. They become intense when it comes to building a specific, cinematographic experience necessitating the vision of the film to be produced. In this case, one is faced with a cinema that deals more with its constituents. I would like to call to mind these different attitudes by choosing to cover freely these various territories of cinema. This course is a passage from one window to the next, like clicking through a series of PC windows.
Consider the revelation experienced by Jonas Mekas when he discovered the United States would ground him and constitute the pedestal from which he would be able to say that he, in fact, remembers. This experience is present in Mekas’ film Lost Lost Lost (1943-76) and is emblematic of the way in which an acquired memory, unveiled by and through cinema, is discovered.
Such an aperture in time creates a familiar space, and is often employed in filmed diaries. An individual experience that can sometimes successfully be shared, this space occurs in Mekas’ work through the device of an “I remember” that neither Joe Brainard nor Georges Perec would refute. In this case, the act of filming favors the emergence of memory and spurs one, the pertinence or eviction of which becoming apparent during the editing process. Indeed, a filmmaker makes films by gathering miles of footage. Then he proceeds with the selection process of the material, a process without which no memory that is efficient is possible, as there is always the possibility of discarding and essentially forgetting.
One forgets in order to be able to remember. Sometimes I make filmed diaries that allow me to have memories, as if their realities depended on the fact that they are representations.
Just as films are made about families, a diary becomes a pretext for commentary; rare are those filmed diaries that are silent (however this argument can be immediately refuted when one thinks of the first diaries by Hiroyuki Oki or Andrez Nores). To name but a few, Jonas Mekas, Boris Lehman, and Joseph Morder sacrifice everything to “keep quiet.” The viewer is transported back into a past that is no longer relevant or that attempts a linearity that often goes against the flow, as if cinema was able to organize the chaotic impetuosity of memories. This organizational procedure, beyond the editing of sequences, is accomplished through discourse and appears to regulate the fluctuations of sensation that are conveyed through the use of blur, over and under exposures, and abrupt camera movements. Translated into images, the experience therefore can be collectively shared, and is easier to comprehend.
From this point, we ask, is this type of sharing, which plays the game of regulated understanding and participation, pulling these films into coherence or, indeed, the “coherence of the past,” as stated by Guy Debord? This is the coherence that a number of experimental filmmakers have questioned in their desire to abolish form and conventions of classical cinema. As if for the majority, theirs was a question of “destroying the memory in art,” or “ruining conventions of communication.”
“Voice-off” is used in a similar fashion in certain films by Hoang Tan Nguyen: Pirated (2000) and The Calling (2001). The technique structures the multiplicity of documents that were used to create the film. When Nguyen relates his experience about “boat people” and how his family was rescued by German sailors, he merges sequences taken from Hollywood films with ones from Querelle (Fassbinder, 1982) and then adds filmed or found sequences taken in Vietnam. In this way, discourse and the spoken word give meaning by gathering the many layers of sensation; the multiplicity of sources enable the emergence of subjectivity at any given moment. The narrative becomes the means by which to organize diversity as well as open spaces from where the camera can twirl around. Indeed, the pauses and the silences in the narrative open the party to new visual shores. Mekas relies on blurry images that are a result of shots taken in haste, whereas Nguyen uses sliding effects and superimposed sequences taken from various sources.
Nguyen’s collection of images distinguishes itself from the filmed diaries in which the accumulation of material is restricted generally to the sphere of the intimate, even though it comes into contact with political or social events (as is the case with Gregg Bordowitz and Marlon Riggs). Nguyen recycles images in a great number of moments: private sequences, as well as undetermined or galvanized ones that in some cases have become clichés. By means of this transfer, new spheres of memory are articulated that conjugate and juxtapose a subjectivity to all incoming images. This process of recycling images and therefore their distribution according to individual fluxes, operates through phenomena of condensation. Such concretion then restitutes the processes of memorization, purporting that many residual noises attach themselves to memory. We realize there is no such thing as a smooth and polished memory, except in the case of (psycho)analytic grids.
(Translation by Nathalie Angles)