This is going to be about film criticism, I promise. But I have to begin where I have to begin. That is: with a homework assignment I got when I was 9 years old. As soon as the teacher tells the class that we have to write about the most important day of our lives, I’m elated. I know what the most important day of my life is, and I enjoy these writing exercises very much. I wish I could present you here what I wrote that day. But this particular piece of paper disappeared, with many others, somewhere around 1999 – after my parents got divorced and my father disposed of the boxes stored in our garage. So you’ll have to do (as I have had to do) with my own retelling of the events.
The most important day of my life was a beach excursion. I’m little: three, perhaps four years old. I travel in the car’s back seat, surrounded by all the beach appliances: bags and towels, sand buckets and shovels, my pink plastic elephant, and the umbrella – it stretches diagonally, from the floor to the top of the window; its cloth flutters red, white, and blue. At the beach, we meet other family members. I sit on top of a towel, playing with my toys. After much waiting, my mother and my aunt take me to the water. It’s hot; there are lots of people in the water. In those days the beach stretched out several metres before the water covered someone of my age (today, the same kid could barely walk a few steps without drowning).
My mother takes one of my hands, my aunt the other. I jump and laugh, fall several times, get tired. Suddenly, in the midst of my excitement, I realise that my mother’s hand has slipped out. I feel the other hand slip out, too. I turn toward my aunt, and she’s not there. I search for both of them but, with all these tall people in my way, I can see nothing. I say to myself that it’s OK, I’ll just walk back straight to our spot in the sand. I’ll be guided by the colours of our umbrella: red, white, and blue. But, after dodging the bathers in my way, I catch a glimpse of the shore, and horror takes hold of me: there are hundreds and hundreds of umbrellas, mere geometrical shapes arranged in confusing combinations of the same colours: red, white, blue; but also yellow and green.
My eyes fill with tears as I walk toward the coast. For what seems to me an eternal time, I walk and cry. As I walk and cry, my little feet splatter sand on the towels of people who don’t seem to notice me. They don’t see me, or don’t care. I’m forgotten, invisible, abandoned. But I keep walking and crying. Eventually, a man and his son approach me. I can’t speak; I choke in my own tears. But they understand. And they are very sweet: they say they’ll help me find my parents. One takes my right hand, the other the left, and we walk together. And we do find my parents who had not abandoned me – who were, in fact, desperately searching for me. And that’s the happy ending of what, at the age of nine, I nominated the most important day in my life.
I read my composition aloud in class that day and, let me tell you, it was a highlight. What did the other children write about? Well, it shocked me then and it still shocks me now: their last birthday party, the wedding of elder siblings or cousins, their communion. I can’t believe that so many kids wrote about their communion! Imagine: the day in which, after months of weekly, stultifying catechism, you are stuffed in a white dress and surrounded by people you will see again only at funerals, all in order to eat a wafer from the hand of a priest! Seriously?
But not me! At that early age, I already had something that was mine. I had a trauma. You may think: and what’s so original about having a trauma? But that’s the thing: it is, precisely, original. For, at nine, I did not know either the word trauma or its definition. But I had been lost; and I remained lost, somehow. And that day of 1990 in which I read my story to thirty zombies dressed in infants’ clothes is still one of my proudest childhood memories.
Have I clung (perhaps excessively) to that memory? Yes, I have. But who can blame me? For at nine, I did not know how to play. I obeyed and memorised every word of every lesson. I spent the lunch breaks walking the schoolyard: from the statue of Saint Joseph to the Statue of Saint Mary, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I watched the other children play. I could not play. I could not speak. I did not dare. I was alone.
Later, I’ve returned to that beach many nights (that’s why this gesture moves me). As a matter of fact, I still return to that beach, for I think it holds the key (what key? You see: I’m an idiot) of a split with the world that I can’t overcome. And, sometimes, I discover, in that beach, things I had not yet properly seen.
To see, you see, takes time. And haven’t I focused too much on the hands of my mother and my aunt slipping out, while forgetting too often the outstretched hands of the man and his son?
Just to be clear: I still do resent my father for disposing of that piece of paper, my birth certificate. But, today, I think that the value of this story is in the fact that it’s re-written, and in how it’s re-written. I believe that the fate of this story is to always be re-written, in order to discover what was always there.
Because there’s no doubt that when I say I remember, I mean: I re-assemble, I re-assess, and I invest it with everything that came after. But there’s no doubt, either, that if I remember at all, it is because that day left an imprint – an imprint that, at nine, I tried to capture in writing. And, if today I remember what I wrote then, it is not because I have memorised it word for word, but because its unfolding means something to me.
One needs not to bring anything from the outside, just stay close to the images: to their content, but also to their perspectives, textures, styles; to their particular ways of appearing, of pressing upon us. And one has to pay attention to the steps, the junctures, the shifts, because it’s in these in-betweens that sense is made.
First, the image of a three-coloured umbrella in the car: “it stretches diagonally from the floor to the top of the window; its cloth flutters red, white, and blue”.
Second, a mental image, because when I decide that “I’ll be guided by the colours of our umbrella”, I must have had an image in my head: not an image of my umbrella standing alone in the beach (I’m naive, yet not that simple), but an image of an identifiable umbrella amongst others.
Third, the splash of colour that engulfs me: the same five colours (“red, white, blue; but also yellow and green”), multiplied, scattered everywhere, devouring everything.
And isn’t that plunge – in which the umbrella is no more, and I is no more, and everywhere is colour – brutal enough a shift to overwhelm forever, to upset a whole life?
But, what about film criticism? No, I haven’t forgotten: “I know of few expressions more beautiful than Jean Louis Schefer’s in L’homme ordinaire du cinéma when he speaks of ‘the films that have watched our childhood’. It’s one thing to learn to watch movies ‘professionally’ – only to verify that movies watch us less and less – but it is another to live with those movies that watched us grow up and saw us – prematurely hostage to our coming biographies – already entangled in the snare of our history.” (Serge Daney, Postcards From the Cinema, 2007).