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PICTURES OF LOSS: Introduction

Features
by Peter Tonguette
November 21, 2011 1:24 PM
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David Niven and Kim Hunter star in "A Matter of Life and Death"


EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read part 1 of the series, Pictures of Loss: Hereafter, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here.  If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don't Leave, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here.---- Matt Zoller Seitz

Ever since I began writing professionally about film, my father nearly always read what I wrote. Yet it was only recently that it hit me: Before he died in January of 2010, the last article he read by me concerned the death of a parent, and most of the films I have thought to write about since then concern losses like my own.

"In My Father's Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles" was published by Chris Welles Feder in October 2009.


My article was about a new memoir by Orson Welles’s eldest daughter, Chris, whom I interviewed for the occasion. If I made a point to emphasize how much of her book had to do with a daughter missing her father—I referred to its “preoccupation with filial matters” and “sometimes sorrowful tone”—perhaps it was because Welles, who was a distracted, often incommunicado father, died at seventy.

Seventy: an age I considered not at all elderly.

Seventy: only two years younger than my father was when I wrote (and he read) my article.

Yet as I reread it now, so much about it rings so hollow. When I wrote it, I didn’t know the first thing about losing a parent, as Chris Welles did, as Orson Welles did. (By the time he was a teenager, both of his parents had died.) “Filial matters”? A fancy phrase, but little more.

I wish I could go back and rewrite my article. I wish I could go back and re-ask my questions of Chris. Of course, what I really wish is that I could return to my former state of ignorance. That would mean that my father was here again and, as before, I could only guess at what losing him would feel like.

As my father read my article about Chris Welles, I am certain that he did not for one moment place himself in the shoes of the lost parent, any more than I did the bereaved child. My father’s death was sudden and unexpected. Yet for this to have been the last thing of mine that he read is an inescapable irony. I’ve come to think of it as my unknowing goodbye to him. Yes, my words were written in innocence of my subject, and yes, they seem dreadfully stilted to me now.

But aren’t goodbyes always innocent, always stilted?

After my father died, my interest in movies—and in writing about them, too—went on vacation. For a long time, I thought it was a permanent vacation. Gradually, though, I found myself drawn back to movies, but they were always movies about grief and I always happened upon them by accident. Like the accident of my being in the middle of writing a book about a filmmaker (James Bridges) who made a lot of movies about the sorrow of losing a loved one. Or like the accident of being in a room when a movie about the living trying to communicate with the dead (Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter) was playing on television.

Were these things really accidents? There was the time I went to a screening of Bergman’s Persona and a trailer for Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death preceded the feature attraction. The trailer introduced the film by way of excerpting the astonishing opening scene: As RAF pilot David Niven is hurtling toward his death, he falls in love with Kim Hunter, the American radio operator communicating with him in his final minutes. I had not thought about A Matter of Life and Death in years and years, and I had not gone to Persona to think about matters of life and death. But for the next 90 minutes, as Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson were talking in Swedish, I could think of nothing but it, about the indomitability of love and the utter waste of death.

The poet Meghan O’Rourke, author of the extraordinary memoir The Long Goodbye (which I will return to throughout the pieces in this series), has talked about finding more solace in literature than in self-help books after her mother died. She said she experienced a “shock of recognition” when she re-read Hamlet and it dawned on her that the play was really about a young person in mourning, not unlike herself. Eventually, I, too, found it helpful to ponder my feelings through a work of fiction, to experience the anguish and loneliness of loss vicariously, through characters on a movie screen or television set.

I think of William Blake, who wrote:

“Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?”

And James Baldwin, who said:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

Or in my case: But then you see.

One afternoon in the summer I was seventeen, I was in a restaurant with my parents and younger brother. We were not celebrating any particular occasion and the meal itself was completely unmemorable. But I’ve never forgotten what I saw. Directly across from me, not visible to anyone else, was a middle-aged woman sitting in a booth by herself. As she tentatively nursed a Coca-Cola, a song was playing on the radio. I couldn’t possibly say what it was, but it was not unlike, say, the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” It had that same poignant feeling to it. As the woman sat there, her eyes downcast, she began mouthing the sad words of the sad song. She didn’t appear to be mentally ill or disturbed in any way. Something had simply gone wrong for her. How was I to know? Who was I to guess?

It was like the scene in Magnolia (a movie I don’t care for) when the characters sing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up,” except that it actually affected me.

I remember feeling such great pity for her that it spoiled the rest of my day. I feel less sorry for the woman than I used to it is because I am now in her shoes, looking to pop culture to give voice to my pain, and I wouldn’t want people to think I’m feeling sorry for myself.

Meghan O’Rourke begins her memoir with an epigraph from a novel by Iris Murdoch called An Accidental Man: “The bereaved cannot communicate with the unbereaved.” Perhaps, going forward, I am only able to communicate with bereaved movies. I no longer love films only for their graceful direction or witty dialogue, for their mise-en-scene or montage. For a film to reach me, it must speak to my loss, as the films examined in this series do. Hereafter. The Darjeeling Limited. Running on Empty. Men Don’t Leave. A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries. There are so many others. I found that I needed them at a time when I thought I was beyond needing movies.

I was wrong.

For Alexandra Asher Sears, who read and encouraged.

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

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