The Persistence of Memory: Confronting Images and Threads

in 48th Toronto International Film Festival

by Elijah Baron

As Roger Ebert wrote in his Little Movie Glossary: “You go to enough different movies, you start to notice things.” Of course, he was talking about clichés, but it also happens that, as images, lines, themes and sometimes whole narrative threads carry over from one film to the next, their recurrence reveals something deeper. To me, the magic of film festivals has always been found in these echoes between seemingly unrelated works. From the chaos of a personal screening schedule, there eventually emerges a strange kind of order, a string of secret connections that tie a multitude of films into a single experience.

This year, TIFF gave me many such things to marvel at. One of them was sunsets – nearly every film I saw offered a similar view of the setting sun, linking the human experience of time and light across eras and continents. Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days – possibly his best narrative feature in decades – even made such a scene its climax, with the protagonist experiencing a large range of unspoken emotions that have much to do with the universal sensation of watching a day come to a close.

Similarly, the oversized suit made iconic by David Byrne – a more unlikely recurring symbol – continued its liberatingly nonsensical legacy by making several appearances on screen: not only was it given the IMAX treatment it deserves for the stellar restoration of Stop Making Sense (1984) – the screening made for a stunning fusion of cheers, past and present –, but it also featured prominently in Dream Scenario as an erotic fantasy which provides Nicolas Cage’s character with the means to regain control over his own life and dreams.

One connection, however, felt particularly urgent and stood out among all the others: the Spanish Close Your Eyes [Cerrar los ojos] and the Italian La Chimera, two overlooked Cannes entries, both in their own way touched upon the metaphysics of film as a tool for preserving and restoring human memory. In both films, a quest to find a missing person through cinematic recollections is likened to archeology – in Close Your Eyes, this is expressed literally, as a filmmaker digs through his archives to find an enigmatic piece of footage that holds the key to a decades-long mystery; in La Chimera, the third part of her trilogy on “the overlap between Italy’s past and present,” Alice Rohrwacher takes a more poetic, metaphorical approach, as a melancholic Orpheus-like scholar finds himself digging up old treasures in hopes of reuniting with his late lover in the spirit world.   

These ghost stories, which amplify their message by playing with different formats – digital, 16mm, Super 16, 35mm – are among the most moving and perceptive reflections on the medium of film in the modern age. At a time when studios casually pillage a whole century of intellectual property to capitalize on public nostalgia, it feels important to underscore the immaterial and immeasurable power and mystery essential to an art form that so easily falls prey to distortion and falsification.

Elijah Baron