If there is a single cinematic theme that has been lingering for me in the closing moments of 2017 it would be the theme of “remembering”, or the importance of “memory making”. It showed up in some surprising places and with surprising force, guiding an exploration of loss, grief, identity, self reflection, relationships and our need to belong. In one case it even looked at the power of nostalgia to shape the way we see our lives in a new way.
Here is a look back on an important part my personal cinematic journey this year, one that called me back to this practice of remembering the importance of memory making. And please be aware, all of the films discussed here will contain a degree of spoilers.
A GHOST STORY
One of two like minded ghost stories I saw this year (the other being Personal Shopper), this film managed to offer a poignant and poetic cinematic picture of the importance of remembering in the midst of loss. The fact that a single bed sheet with two holes cut out for eyes could challenge my perception of life and loss so profoundly is a testament to the power of the moving image.
At the forefront of A Ghost Story are two competing ideas: how hard it is to remember and how easy it is to forget. And the thing that binds these two ideas intimately together is the notion of time.
The film narrows in on the story of a young couple, aptly named C and M, but as the film progresses through the sudden loss of C, it is the house that carries their story forward, transformed through the sudden feeling of emptiness and connecting us at once backwards and forwards in time as it calls us to consider and to wrestle with the brooding silence. And on this same note, there might not be a better use of a single song to really capture a films tone than the one C composes on a piano in this film. Its presence, followed by its absence, is a gut wrenching realization of the power that silence has to truly shake our world.
In one particularly powerful scene we see another family in time sitting (and imposing their own noise) onto this house as they wrestle with the idea of legacy. To which one of the family members laments the fact that no matter how hard we try to do something or make a life that matters, all of this is eventually destroyed, forgotten. That C lingers in the background haunting this sentiment and giving a sense of timelessness to the house they embody is a truly captivating moment.
At one point M writes a note in the midst of all of the destruction of her life and sticks it in a wall. We never see what is written on this note, but it symbolizes her best effort to persist in the midst of the destruction, to remember the past that is now building her towards an uncertain future, and to take the necessary steps to move forward.
But what is especially fascinating about A Ghost Story, especially in this singular moment, is the way the film shifts our perspective from M to C. In Personal Shopper the ghost is allusive and mysterious, kept ambiguously absent from our sight. In contrast, the ghost in A Ghost Story is fully imagined and fully present. In this film it is not so much about M’s struggle to see C, as it is in Personal Shopper, but of C’s struggle to be seen by M, of his ghost coming to terms with what his presence, and his lack of presence, means to the world around him. It evokes this sense not of struggling with the unanswered questions, but of the importance of engaging with these questions of our struggle and of meaning in the first place. We never see what is written on this note, but what we do know is that this note allows C’s ghost to eventually move forward into the light, to pursue these important questions.
At one point in the film we are given a glimpse of a secondary ghost that lingers in the house next door. The ghost next door can’t remember who he or she is waiting for, and ultimately realizes in its eventual fading that whoever it is, they are not coming. In the end of film we are given a picture of a secondary C standing in house watching himself watching M. For C it is a point of remembering in a way the ghost next door could not. His memory of the past he left behind allows him to embrace the moments of his life, good and bad, that have allowed him to be seen, to be needed, a life that is brought together symbolically in this film through a song. For C, it is the idea of this song breaking through the silence, through the mess, that connects him back to M and the world she inhabits, ultimately leading him to this note which has been stuck in a wall and out of reach until the destruction of their home, their lives, becomes so vast and so final that it opens up a crack wide enough for him to reach it. And whatever this note says, whatever this note means to C, we know it is important. Important enough to allow him to finally move forward in the midst of his own lingering memories.
Similar to A Ghost Story, Personal Shopper is another fascinating exploration of what it means to remember in the midst of loss, grief and the destruction of our lives, using the presence of a ghost to propel its story. It just looks at it from a slightly different perspective with slightly different nuances, shifting our perspective from the ghost to the one who left behind struggling to see the ghost.
Stewart gives the performance of her career playing a young woman caught between her professional life on the outside (an assistant or personal shopper for a celebrity supermodel) and the despair she carries on the inside (the loss of her brother whom she shared a heart condition with). The way the film brings together these two realities makes them feel far less apart than they might first appear. The glamorous, dressed up lifestyle of Maureen’s career reveals a much less dressed up sense of sadness and weariness, providing a stark reminder of what lies underneath the masks we all tend to wear in our everyday lives. And we see this even more realized in a couple scenes where Stewarts character is literally left bare, not in a sexualized way but in a way that reveals the depth of her weariness.
In all of this, what sets Personal Shopper apart is the way it leaves its ghost just out of reach. In the midst of Maureen’s sense of loss and the prevailing grief that deconstructs the slow destruction of her imagined world of playing dress up, we see her desperately seeking, longing for something to give her hope and healing. And so she begins to see glimpses of her brothers ghost haunting a world she doesn’t understand, and she begins to hope for the chance to reconnect with the loss of that memory, that reality, that person with which she continues to feel so intimately tied even in his absence.
On the other side of this is the presence of a possible dangerous stalker who is trying to infiltrate and upset the professional world she inhabits. As a viewer the film leaves us uncertain about the identity and the existence of either of these presences, allowing this to focus our attention on Maureen, who is left swimming in a mix of fear, sadness and desperation, wrestling with the films important questions. What gives us meaning? What is it that binds us to the people of our lives in a meaningful way? What does it mean to remember these people that allows this meaning to exist beyond their presence, beyond ourselves? And where do we find hope that this meaning can carry forward in the midst of all of the destruction in our world and our lives? How hard must we fight to stay connected to this sense of hope?
As an added piece, it is interesting to note the fact that her brother was a carpenter, a fact that allows the questions of this film to offer some concrete images in the midst of its own ambiguity, the sense that maybe, just maybe there are some answers to be found.
These are powerful questions that expand my understanding of what it means to remember in ways that can help motivate me to recognize what hope is and to hold on to it when things feel hopeless. And it challenges me to reclaim hope as more than a memory, but also an expectation? As the promise of new life that we are free to imagine in the midst of a life lost.
The film also allowed me to consider the power of its ambiguity, to recognize and embrace the struggle to hold on when these expectations are challenged. To recognize that we don’t, and won’t always have a firm grasp on these things, and to learn to be okay with that. The film doesn’t do the work answer these questions for us, nor does it suggest that the struggle of the ambiguity and the unanswered questions or the conviction that forms our expectation has power the other. It simply lets us sit in the tension, leaving room for us to ponder and to wrestle with these things along with Maureen.
BLADE RUNNER 2049
One of the great cinematic moments of 2017 also managed to bring me face to face with one of the most profound explorations of memory and what it means to remember this year.
As a sequel to the 1982 film, Blade Runner 2049 introduces us to a new Blade Runner (K, played by Ryan Gosling) who is created to hunt down the old generation of rogue replicants who are not complying with the larger Order ( the order for these human/android hybrids to be programmed to be slaves and workers for the benefit of society or, should they go rogue, ultimately be hunted down and destroyed). This job eventually leads him to discover an untold question about his own past, a question that forms the central concern of the films story going forward.
The discovery is a box buried under the tree that sits at the home of a replicant K was called to destroy, a box that we find out contains the bones of a baby, the remains of the miracle this rogue replicant references in his final breathe. And what adds to the mystery of this box is that it appears to be tied to a date K notices scratched into the trunk of the tree, a date that conjures up a forgotten memory in his own mind.
What concerns the story itself is the prospect of rogue replicants being able to procreate and the challenge that posits to maintaining the order. What concerns K specifically is how and why these dates are attached to his own memory and how that defines his place in the larger order. Memories are implanted artificially, but this memory seems strangely distant and real. And so K sets out to discover the truth about his memory, the truth of who he is, a journey that blurs the line between where human and android begins and ends.
As the questions of the film begin to get clearer, this idea of our memories becomes a powerful way of understanding our humanity. Caught at this intersection between human and android is this question of our memories, and at heart of being human is the genuine capacity to remember and to connect ourselves to these memories. What pushes this further is the connection of memory (and remembering) to recognizing the difference between being born or being created. In the world that K inhabits, to be born is a miracle, an action that pushes back on our ability and our need to control, while the other represents our mastery of this world, our need to control our place in this world. And what is important to this futuristic and dystopian reality is the question of what the world might look like in the absence of a miracle.
At the heart of this miracle, the thing that pushes back on our need to control, is our ability to remember. This is what is given to us in the miracle of a birth, both a memory and the ability to remember. Take these memories away and we are left with something wholly unrecognizable. something unable to give or receive meaning with intentionality. This is what a hologram named Joi comes to represent. When K goes on a journey to discover the truth about who he is, the memory that gives him meaning, he removes Joi from her memory base and transports her through a mobile emitter (which allows her to take shape outside of her memory base). The danger of this though is that if this emitter is destroyed all of Joi’s memories, and thus her ability to give meaning to K’s world, disappears for good. This is used to shed light on the possibility of K’s own humanity. If he is human it is the memory he is chasing that gives him meaning. And if he dies, it is the loss of these memories that challenges his humanity.
The film answers some these questions in its powerful conclusion, but it leaves others unanswered allowing me to wrestle with the kind of ambiguity that Personal Shopper evoked even while trusting in the message of A Ghost Story, the truth that these are important questions to be asking. Where Blade Runner adds to the picture is by offering something a bit more concrete about what this journey looks like out in the world. The film left me as a viewer to ponder where we are given and afforded meaning in our own lives and what those memories are that infuse my own life with a sense of meaning with purpose in intentional ways, even as I also feel obligated to impose these same questions out into the world around me as well. Blade Runner challenged me to consider the things that are able to fade away without any lasting meaning, and pushed me to hold a little bit more tightly to the stuff that is worth building our memories around.
I have written elsewhere about Coco’s powerful message surrounding the importance of remembering in a life full of loss, and the joy that this practice of remembering, this practice of creating memories together, can infuse into our sense of being, our sense of meaning not only as an individual, but as a family.
What is worth noting again though is the way this film uses memory to expand our perception of where we find meaning in this world.
A Ghost Story asked the question of us personally and looked at it from the lens of our own journey in this life, calling us to consider the importance of spending time asking the bigger questions of what gives this life meaning, especially as it connects us to others. Personal Shopper looked at these questions from the perspective of struggling with life’s ambiguity in the midst of all these questions, calling us to consider the ways in which our memories are tied to our relationships and the impact and ability of these relationships to bind us to the memories that give life meaning, even when we can’t see it in the present. Blade Runner 2049 pushed these questions even further for me, asking what it is that sets these relationships, this sense of the miracle we call a meaningful life, apart from the world we are desperate to control in the midst of all its ambiguity, apart from the world we look to create when given meaning feels allusive. And in all of this Blade Runner stood as a poignant reminder that it is relationship that gives this world meaning and it is our memories that connect us to these relationships.
I noted in my review of Coco that one of the central things I wrestled with in that film was the way it connects these relationships that give us meaning directly to the idea of family, and particular to Coco, the mutli-generational family households that are familiar to Mexican culture. The film expands the importance of remembering, or celebrating our memories of others, into the grand tapestry of our bloodlines and our generational ties. It is a good challenge to the exclusivity we tend to find sometimes in our ideas of the North American household that sometimes tends to separate us from our connection to the people in our past that have helped shape our family name. At the same time though it caused me to wonder if the film was not being inclusive enough. As the father of an adopted child, it seemed to me that family, as a primary expression of these relationships that give us meaning in this world, must have a more expansive reach for us to be able to participate.
With this in mind, if Coco pushed this concept of memory and remembering further for me in this cinematic jouney, it is towards a greater consideration of some of the poetry that I found in Blade Runner 2049’s final images. Coco helped me to see that in the bigger picture of these important questions, questions of meaning and relationship and memory, is the presence of the walls we create to hold and encase the memories we deem important. In A Ghost Story this becomes a literal home. In Personal Shopper this was a shared heart. These are defined places. But Blade Runner 2049 considered what it might look like to break down these walls, to consider the ways in which who we are reaches beyond the question of bloodlines or technological advancement, the two worlds that K finds himself caught inbetween. Blade Runner challenges our tendency to narrow our perception of just how far this sense of meaning can reach, and imagines what it might be like to extend this sense of meaning into a world that we don’t entirely understand or relate to. We tend to narrow our sense of meaning to the places we can control, to the confines of our personal space, and this in turn sets the stage for how we are able to see and respond to the world that exists around us.
And so the act of remembering, and miracle of memory that infuse this world in Blade Runner 2049 with meaning is intimately connected to learning how to see beyond these walls that we create for ourselves. It is connected to our ability to see our life in the world as meaningful and to give life into the world in a way that gives others meaning regardless of their story, regardless of where they are coming from.
In Coco we sense glimpses of just how wide and colourful the world really is in the expansive picture it creates of the Land of the Dead. But we only ever get glimpses of how far our memories, our ability to relate to the world around us, can actually reach if we were to see beyond the confines of our walls. Only a passive mention of what this sense of meaning, might look like if it were extended outwards, as it is imagined in Blade Runner 2049 and again in the story of Coco, beyond our bloodlines, beyond our family name and into the world at large. This is where K is able to find his given meaning, and it is where we find Coco, however briefly, extending this meaning outwards as well in the midst of his search for his father.
If there was a single film this year that managed to bring together all of these aspects of remembering and meaning and memory it was Cars 3. It managed to recognize our relationship to the places that define us- our homes, our culture, while pushing us to see the world that exists around us, expanding our understanding of this world through the experiences and memories we make when we step out of our places of comfort. Cars 3 uses the passage of time as a means of bringing together our past and the distance that time creates, and the experiences we gain on this outward journey as we move forward.
And the way it does this is by conjuring up a brilliant use of nostalgia, recreating images of a national icon (Route 66) that once existed to connect a Country to a common identity, while contrasting this with a world that continues to move forward, with a ferocious sense of velocity and destructive force, in a way that seems to be constantly threatening to disconnect us from this sense of identity. And it is in this place of tension that it calls us to both remember and to live anew.
But as all of these other films have done, it also reminds me that living in this way is never easy. And more often than not this journey has way of causing me to question, where do any of us fit in all of this uncertainty. What makes this journey called life meaningful when the past seems so fleeting the future so uncertain. In Cars 3, pieces of the puzzle are found in remembering the past. There is a deftly realized sequence that brings Cars 3 back full circle to where we started in the first film, recognizing that the ghosts in this film is the faded track, the familiar old stomping ground. Other pieces are found in the choices we make in the present. For as much as the past feels distant, there is opportunity in seeing what is right in front of us, which in Cars 3 is the opportunity to give into a young life in the same way that someone once gave into the life of the main character so many years ago.
And the final pieces are found in our consideration of an uncertain future. We can’t know the impact of our choices today, but the more we see the world the more opportunity there is to give it meaning that comes from outside of our control, outside of ourselves.
And so it becomes a constant wrestling, a juggling act. The effort to hold onto the stuff thats important while also making room for the world that calls us forward. And Cars 3 reminds me that when we feel lost in this world, i this life, when the forces of threaten to push back in our uncertainty, when the stuff that steals our memory feels too strong to resist, the most important place to keep looking is towards the relationships that sit in our path, past present and future. This is where we find the opportunity not just to see how meaning there really is in this world, but how much more meaning we can find in our ever widening experience of this world should we embrace it. A story about cars thus becomes a story of what it means to be human, to exist in a shared story of a common grace brought together across time and across experience. A story of life in the midst of loss, faith in the midst of shattered dreams, and of building anew along the wreckage and destruction that time often leaves in its wake.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
And where there is new life there is also the opportunity to connect this sense of meaning to perhaps the most important question of all. The question that shapes the longing we find in Personal Shopper. The question that shapes the undercurrents of the lingering and undefined spiritual longing in A Ghost Story. The question that permeates the lingering philosophical consideration that meaningful relationship and pictures of humanity reaches beyond bloodlines in Blade Runner 2049. The question that pushes through the culturally bound expressions of family in Coco.
This is the question of meaning. Given meaning and created meaning. Meaning that comes from outside of ourselves or meaning that we try to control. As one character in the rather wonderful midlife crisis film Brad’s Status laments, “You’re 50 years old and you still think the world was made for you?” It echoes at a crossroads of humanist reckoning and spiritual longing. And in a film like Downsizing, where these two things could have been seen as irreconcilable, they are afforded an opportunity to come together in an unexpected way, a way that is able to shape our practice of memory making in a profound sense, a way that forces us to look outside of ourselves not just to a world looking to survive, but to a world looking for meaning, for a reason to live. As A Ghost Story first reminded me, these are important questions to keep asking.
This is the meaning that we see breathing through the incredibly realized spirituality of remembering and forgetting in Your Name, or the pastoral pondering that motivates The Pursuit of Silence as a life of constant self and spiritual reflection (remembering), or the culturally defined faith that gives direction to a Past Life. Or the way that the religious history, and remembering this history, brings together faith, family, culture and world in Keep Quiet.
Perhaps most poignant for me though was the way that Star Wars: The Last Jedi recognized the importance of a spiritual force permeating our experiences, our memory making, in a way that gives it worth outside of ourselves, through the givenness of an other. This force is what binds us to our places of identity, which in TLJ comes in the form of recognizing the markers of our faded and forgotten and hidden past, and facing the tension that exists between our places of belonging, pushing ourselves to see beyond blood ties and being open to discover a universal given worth, one that breathes outside of the exclusivity of these walls and bound by a common humanity and a common struggle.
In all of this I have found important sentiment for examining my own life. As I look to reconcile this practice of remembering and memory making in my own life I find myself wrestling with these same ideas of created and given meaning/worth. And I have pondered the role that my own life plays in giving meaning into relationships and into the world. And what these cinematic moments have taught me the most is the opportunity my faith affords me in accepting meaning, accepting worth and then giving it freely outwards without exclusivity, not bound by walls.
Hopefully this is something that can shape 2018 moving forward.