Lest I Forget

Posted on September 7, 2010

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First and foremost, please do not take the title of this post to be in any way disrespectful of veterans, war memorials or epitaphs in general. Maybe mindful of some of my conversations about Schindler’s List this past week, the phrase, lest we forget, kept recurring while I was writing so eventually I gave in and decided to use it for this week’s title. After finishing this post I decided to look up the origins of the phrase. The words Lest We Forget form the refrain of Recessional, a poem by Rudyard Kipling which was composed in 1897 for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The poem expresses pride in the British Empire yet also contains (according to Wikipedia at least) an underlying sadness that the Empire will succumb to the inevitable fate of all previous empires before it.The phrase later passed into common usage after the first World War. Increasingly linked with Remembrance Day observations, it was seen as a plea not to forget past sacrifices and was often found as the only wording on war memorials. Which to be honest with you makes me think of Saving Private Ryan more than Schindler’s List, I know which one I prefer on a day to day basis but I also know which one I will never forget and maybe this is how films sometimes persist. They work their way into our collective conscious and serve as permanent and personal reminders, lest we forget, of better times, worse times, happier times, hard times and of course, Modern Times.
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Towards the end of last week many people communicated (via email, phone, plain old words from mouths into ears) that they were preparing comments for the post, Ten Reasons Why I Love You, but that they hadn’t quite formulated what they wanted to say yet. It was as if the correct words dangled tantalizingly out of reach, clinging to a shared idea reluctant to reveal itself, and I have to admit I share this feeling. For a few weeks now I have merely wanted to talk about some of my favourite movies so that you in turn can talk about some of yours, but we seem reluctant to start that journey, possibly because (I think) we are trying to get a grip on why such things are even important to us in the first place. For me, it has almost become an existential question, why does something as silly as a movie carry such resonance that it lasts with me through the years, insists on reminding me that it is there and shows up uninvited at the unlikeliest of moments? When I contemplate a film with personal importance and relevance it stops me dead in my tracks and transports me to a point where I can remember the circumstances in which I saw it and the feelings it evoked, until I find it almost impossible to consider any other film that doesn’t fall within the same category, genre, emotional sphere. So maybe this is an important consideration when considering our favourite films. The mood we are in when we are asked that question colours our immediate or first answer to the point that all subsequent considerations are derivative and remain in some way inextricably linked to that first flag we planted in the ground. I’ll give you an example and you see what you think.

I saw two movies in the summer of 1991. It was a working summer away from home and I stayed with some relatives while trying to earn enough money for the next college year. They themselves had an awful summer and would be divorced within a few years. What had started out brightly enough soon faded to grim reality, the husband not coming home until the next morning, the wife putting on a brave face, me floating between the two of them unsure from one day to the next whether I was easing or adding to their strain. By day I helped take care of the kids if asked, by night I worked in an old Victorian mansion turned state hospital; washing, dressing, and feeding the demented inhabitants of a crumbling geriatric ward. I had landed bang smack in the middle of the cuckoo’s nest and that nest hatched frail little birds with no memories of the people they loved, the people they hated and how they even came to be there in the first place. In one case, a pair of eighty five year old twins had been placed there at birth by the lord of the local manor. Twinned evidence of an indiscretion with a servant girl, their keep and lodgings had been payed in full with far more coin than two incarcerated lifetimes would ever add up to. The sisters grew up together, played together, lived through two wars and grew old together, never leaving the hospital grounds and oblivious to the world that had placed them there. During that summer, one of the sisters died of pneumonia, the other died the following week of something that was neither physical nor medical and was therefore impossible to categorize. I remember the doctor signing a second death certificate after he threw away the first when he realized that “a broken heart” would not be an acceptable cause of death. I don’t know what he wrote on the second certificate but it was the last lie to be visited upon the sisters. I remember seeing two movies that summer. I went to see Terminator 2 with the husband. I attributed great significance to the time spent together and what it meant to us both but with the passing of time and the lack of sustenance, its significance has long since faded. The other movie I saw that summer I saw on my own initiative. In the lashing rain on a cold Friday night I walked to the movies, an Irish boy in Kipling’s empire state a little out of sorts and very out of place. I bought my ticket and sat down to watch a movie I had looked forward to for weeks. The most technicoloured of visual feasts and scabrous visions of suburban middle aged apathy passed before my eyes during two hours of isolation, alienation, cruel children and bored adults, and before I knew it I was back on the streets in even heavier rain but with a lighter heart and the beginnings of a notion in my brain.

Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands had ladled something down my throat, flicked a switch with a scissored digit and lit an old Gothic oil lamp, one that has flickered over the years and weathered many a wind. From time to time I stop and remind myself, lest I forget, that I will always have scissors for fingers, hedges to shear and tonnes of ice from which I can sculpt. What more could I possibly want?

For many years, Edward Scissorhands were the first words out of my mouth when asked about my favourite movie. Subsequently, embarassment or intellectual snobbery has relegated it quite dramatically, yet I think it has informed so much of my subsequent filmic experiences that it deserves a public resurrection. Not only has Edward Scissorhands entered my subconscious and helped me decide how I would view and live this life, it has also identified what I look for most in films; visual flair, escapism, dream like imagery, a willingness to forego obvious, easy conclusions safe in the knowledge that the route to the discovery of some things is more important than the destination and that there are rewards to be had in arriving there ourselves without obvious direction(s).

So where then does the masterpiece, Citizen Kane, sit in this particular scheme? Visual flair? Yup. Escapism and dream like imagery? Hell yeah! No easy answers? Absolutely. Citizen Kane will be on the list. But what about a film like Jaws? One of my all-time, all-time favourites yet it doesn’t hit any of these cues, excepting maybe visual flair and technical bravado.

Citizen Kane

Jaws

And this is I think where I arrive at my final destination this week. My arrival at the notion of important / emotional / developmental milestones and the flags we plant in order to revisit them when required. This is why Memento for example, is a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant film but Raiders of the Lost Ark lands higher on my list of favourites. This is why I love A Night to Remember but have never seen (and never will see) Titanic.

And this is why Inception was a great date out at the movies, but Toy Story is my girl and always will be.

The Matrix is a kick ass piece of high-wire wizardry, hanging it out there and willing to risk it all, and there are countless people ten or fifteen years younger than me who will say it is the greatest movie ever made. But, lest I forget, I was there first time around when Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back bounced off a wall in the dark and landed on the retinae of a wide-eyed child. Those films recognized and acknowledged me as an innocent child, Jaws and Aliens told me I wasn’t necessarily safe just because I was a child, The Breakfast Club told me it was often painful to be a child and Edward Scissorhands told me…well, that one’s a secret, but one you can easily guess.

If I ask you what is your favourite movie and you give me your least self conscious answer, well then my secret is out for all to see and Jaws will finally sit comfortably alongside Citizen Kane and not look a bit out of place.

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Posted in: Film, Film, Top ten lists