Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses
This week, as I write, I am about to teach my final classes. Perhaps not final forever, but final for now — and the last in a stable, university job. At the young age of 55, I am going back to freelance writing and related filmic adventures.
Serge Daney once defined cinephilia as "the eternal return to a fundamental pleasure". A pleasure whose constitution is somewhat different for each culture, each generation and, finally, each individual. But whatever it is that forms the core of the cinephile passion for any of us, it is to that, apparently, we shall return.
Often, when I read about the best essayists and critics — such as Raymond Durgnat or Siegfried Kracauer — you sense the glee of their admiring exegetes in noting that, especially as the critic's life approached its ending, his or her explorations usually came full circle: right back to the founding moment of their pleasure. They return to the primal obsessions, to the spark that got them into the game in the first place — while cinema history strides on, obliviously, ahead. It's poetic, it's sentimental, but it's also a bit sad: as if the cinephile is doomed to travel backwards.
Instinctively, and for the pure bliss of it, I formulated my final semester of classes around particular films that were among the very first that I myself studied in detail, obsessively: Henry Hathaway's surrealist masterpiece Peter Ibbetson (1935), Hitchcock's perfect Notorious (1946), Cassavetes' sublime Gloria (1980). I still have some notes, drawings, scene breakdowns and shot lists I made when I was 18 or 20 on these films, and I used them in my classes of 2014 and 2015. I had the sense that I was all at once 'reopening the book' on these marvellously rich works, inquiring into the intimate hold they have on my psyche, and coming around to admit that, despite every trick of analysis, the deepest secrets of their greatness will always slip from my grasp.
Was I completing the circle? Or will the circle always, mercifully, be broken? In another final course, I concentrated on two particular filmmakers I love and exalt above almost all others: Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. Near the end of it, I re-watched the latter's Heaven Can Wait (1943) — and re-experienced a particular, electrifying moment that, at the age of 14 or 15, truly fused my cinephile soul into the shape it still bears today.
Heaven Can Wait is a film about time, lived time — the time that marches on, that ages, marked by the cycle of birthdays and anniversaries; and the time that doubles back, that echoes and remembers itself, thanks to those same, annual rituals. An infinitely melancholic and gorgeous movie. In a scene 96 minutes in, Henry (Don Ameche) reminisces with his wife, Martha (Gene Tierney), in the same room they encountered each other 25 years previously. And then they dance. As they sweep into the middle of an otherwise empty space, the camera — in a movement I would later realise is quite uncharacteristic of Lubitsch — rises to the ceiling to frame them, quite briefly, from afar. And during this move, Henry's voice tells us, on the soundtrack: "I didn't know it then, but this was our last anniversary. It was the last time we danced together. There were only a few more months left for Martha. And she made them the happiest of our lives".
The gap between image and sound, between vision and understanding, between the present moment of joy and the coming moment of bereavement: utterly devastating to this innocent, teenage cinephile! But also revelatory of a truly magical art: the art of ellipsis. Lubitsch transcends death by eliding it, leaping over it, tucking it inside the discrepancy between the dance we see and the voice we hear. It is in the ellipse that time escapes both its forward treadmill and its eternal return; in the ellipse that we can experience a rebirth.