On the most primal level, there are two ever-present exclamations when I watch movies to write about them or when I take photos. “Does that look good?” and, “Boy, does that look good!”
There are key considerations you can make about composition after the fact of witness or capture: framing, depth of field, the golden mean, I mean, let’s write a book. Or at least a review, drawn from vivid if imperfect descriptions long-handed in the dark.
I have a strong memory of imagery of movies I’ve seen, from childhood—drive-in, tossed by tornado—from college—four or five a day in a four-seat screening room the size of a modest closet—and in my twenties—dollar houses and the Loop’s magnificent fleapits—all the way to today, dreaming still, streaming lots.
But I only recently found out about a condition that some people have that denies them any sort of visual memory. How strange!
That’s not me, no. I’m differently beleaguered and besieged. I don’t have the fantastical visual imagination under the cover of dark and night and dream that allows daylight efflorescences of world-building visual artists.
But I’ve had a realization in recent years that strikes me as strange, not being an architect or an artist who draws scenes, that not only are many of my recollections (and some dreams) usually in static frames like photographs I might compose, they’re without people and are vividly detailed recollections of spaces I’ve been, from that hamlet in Kentucky to a hotel in Hong Kong or Marrakech, from a 1950s bordello-styled steakhouse in Winnipeg to the 1930s Chicago tavern the Rainbo Club.
More distracting still is how my mind wanders through those selfsame locales of memory: I could have flashes of my grandmother’s last house after the first two she inadvertently burned to the ground, followed by a movie palace in Thessaloniki, followed by the office I made in the apartment I lived in before the apartment I lived in for twenty years, and while my conscious mind is on other tasks—I could be walking down the street or going to the refrigerator or shopping for fresh raspberries or making plans looking out the window of a car—these images tick past as a continuing stream. Not a few or dozens, but a flow. A tickety-tock cascade of the stately and the rickety, and almost always a place I once was, once, a dozen or a hundred times.
I remember faces and events, too, and even recurrent dreams, I can sit down and imagine my own fictional stories, and I recall details from particular scenes in so many movies, not just the grandiose work of Bernardo Bertolucci and Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s “The Conformist” (1970) or the spaces and negative spaces of architectural hands Michelangelo Antonioni and Nick Ray, or the fulsome filigree of movies by Wong Kar-wai, with and without antic cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
But spaces, spaces in time, spaces at times. How different is this kind of memory from that of the other people in the screening room, in a worldwide audience? I should’ve been a production designer, a fine artist of the frozen moment. The photographs I take—studiously sticking to the immediate and the impulsive, the fraction of a second chosen in a fraction of a second—have pretty much the same framing as the memories. So there’s some consistency to how my mind has trained itself from a life of looking and a diet of images.
I remember friends and lovers and moments of ecstasy and/or mortification, too. That’s no problem. But the default is an incessant capture of place and space and an emptied-out moment. Memory like the brightest neutron bomb. Rarely are these tableaux vivant.
Google’s Street View, when you speed through streets and alleys, has the jerky velocity of the machinations of video games, and that has its own ghostly tapping at memory: experiences in Lantau and Hong Kong twenty years ago aren’t refreshed because entire landscapes are built upon and wholly effaced; a street in Buenos Aires next to Jorge Luis Borges’ childhood home stops like there’s an invisible wall in front of you on the computer screen. That’s even more of a hallucination against hard-earned recollection: It’s central B.A., but the imaging truck just didn’t take that one turn that afternoon that I crave now years later.
On a flat gravel road outside of my hometown, the “camera” stops at a spot, too, arriving at widescreen nothing, sky luminous blue and the stand of trees down toward where the fishing was good, where the mine had blown up in the late 1920s and killed dozens of men who then were sealed inside with cement and today there lay pools where junked cars still rust a-tilt.
It’s a horizon that’s never reached, only glimpsed, no matter how long I stared at the ages of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, hoping to call salvation down from the sky—UFOs, not the Pentecostal Christ hailed at the bush-arbor meeting expanse down the way, nearer to Wheatcroft—and no matter how long I glare now at an image Google’s not-quite-sentient mapping caravan tired of nearly a decade ago.
In Wim Wenders’ melancholy black-and-white fable of the end of cinema, “The State of Things” (1982), his doomed filmmaker protagonist says something like, stories have architecture, and movies are walls to hang pictures on. In the back of an Airstream trailer pursued by Mafia assassins intent on collecting a debt, his producer laughs and laughs and laughs.
The killers catch up with the filmmaker a little later and he clutches a Super 8 camera to his eye as he, and the image, tumble to the ground, mortally dispatched.
A blink; blackness. No image.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.