I went to see Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm today. I enjoyed it, but what final impression it shall have made on me, I cannot yet say. I have a terrible memory for films. Consider a movie I might have seen a week or two ago: if I had to narrate its story at gunpoint, I’d have my brains blown out. The specific details of a plot leave my short term memory and evaporate. It barely seems to matter whether I enjoyed the film or found it dull at the time – it fractures and dissipates in my recollection just the same. I’ve tried to think of any other aspect of my life where an intensely involving aesthetic activity can leave so little of its detail ingrained in conscious memory. There is only one, and that is when I dream.
Like many people, I don’t usually remember my dreams. When I do recall one, it is just as I slide awake, when I seem to have a yearning to grapple its memory, as if I am about to lose something precious, as though I am compelled to play with the fading textures and other-worldy emotional modes, to linger on the darkening images and wonder at their construction from the brickabrack of my mind. As I gain consciousness, slowly but surely, that peculiarly poignant brook along the border between sleep and consciousness evaporates. Just as surely dissipates my memory of a film after the credits roll.
What remains in my consciousness for any film, then, is just what remains of any dream. Not the story, the narrative, but fractured images, scenes and the emotional seasoning. Most films, like most dreams, leave precious few of these vivid shards. The best films, like the most significant dreams, leave the greatest number of discrete scenes, shimmering in my mind, recalled like an impressionist painting, or perhaps cubist: the clinical sequence will have dissipated, but telling details and a roped-off pervading atmosphere will remain, potent and heady, each shard overlaid on the other to provide the only notion of the totality of recalled experience for that dreamy film or filmy dream.
I cannot, therefore, know whether a film has been “good” in my terms until well after I’ve seen it. If it passes through my system, like glucose syrup or a gulp of water, then it remains fundamentally unaffecting beyond the immediate pep or distraction it provides, and has failed me in some deeply mimetic way. If, days, weeks and months hence, I find the film has left a residue in my consciousness, then it has worked its benign infection, and I consider it personally worthy.
Films that I find deeply involving and enjoyable at the time of viewing can disappoint me later with their scant imprint. Trivial and silly films can surprise me just as much when an embedded splinter of the film suddenly stings without warning, months later. The collection of film shards that hangs in my internal gallery is an eclectic one: the fractured images that glitter, the morsels of emotional intensity, the distilled mise en scene pervades like a heady incense. Visitors to my confused gallery will note the throbbing nostalgia for a past that was not mine as it wafts its way through from Radio Days. Down the hall, encounter the pit-of-the-stomach delight as the synchronised denouement in Fight Club slews past. The mindboggling industrial hell of the chicks on the conveyor belt in Baraka can haunt at a moment’s notice. The Hudsucker Proxy peppers the gallery with vignettes, from the expertly crafted innocence to the monumental clockface so crucial to the film’s conclusion. The tender ambiguity of “Stay Awake” in Mary Poppins echoes the hall with a baleful intensity (the first film I ever saw – my mother tells me that when the lights came up in the house, I burst into tears).
If my mind holds a collection of such impressionistic and expressionist shards from the affective cinema, then one film alone has its own museum wing. That film is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I cannot think of a movie that has left within me a greater number of images, tropes, scenes, colours, tones, cut-class motifs and enveloping ambiguities. Never mind the film’s grandiose set-pieces, which are all there, but things like the comically grating sound of the telephones, the little office-cubicle in the Department of Records, the leering drunk over the model city, the glass-brick subways, the Stalinist architecture and the thousands of individual moments of brilliance cascade themselves to me eternally. Amidst the tumult is Michael Kamen’s score, whose shattering resonance has not, for me, been equalled in any sound track. Kamen transforms the silly little ditty behind the film’s title into something quite Mahlerian in its heroic tragedy. Almost a complete record of it resides in some deep basement of my mind’s sound archive.
Appropriately for a film that so centrally deals with the ambivalent power of imagination over mundane or painful reality, it lies like no other in my mind as the vivid dream of a film that it is. Unlike a normal dream that evaporates in the morning sun, though, its images can be replenished and its emotional stock can be re-seasoned with the insertion of a DVD.