Unruffled Psychological Still Lives
Andre Aciman considers his youthful innocence, caught between an Eric Rohmer film and his memories of his first love. Aciman asks us to wonder how our films and novels project upon our experiences insights that we struggle to see. The movie theater on West 57th Street is nearly empty—this is the film’s last run in New York. I hear voices on screen. I have no sense of how much I’ve missed or if coming late might ruin it. The sudden disappointment of missing a part of the film distracts me and gives the entire viewing an unreal, provisional feel, as though seeing it now doesn’t really count, might need to be corrected by a second viewing. I like the option of a second viewing that is already implied in the first, the way I imagine seeing places or hearing tales a second and a third time while I’m still experiencing them the first time—which is how I confront almost everything in life: as a dry run for the real thing to come. I’ll return, but this time with someone I love, and only then will the film matter and be real. This is how I went out on dates, answered job ads, picked my courses, made travel plans, found friends, sought out the new: with enthusiasm, sloth, and a touch of panic and reluctance—the whole occasionally bottled up in a brine of incipient resentment, perhaps disdain. Diffidence as an instance of desire. I withdraw before the real.
I light a cigarette—in those days you could, and I always sat in the smoking section. I put my coat on the seat next to mine and begin drifting into the movie, because something about the film has already grabbed me. It has as much to do with the film itself as with me, the viewer. The twining of the two—the film and me—was not incidental, but in an uncanny, perhaps untenable way, essential to the film itself, as though who I am matters to the film. Everything happening in my very private life matters to the film. The ferment of lights in Midtown Manhattan suddenly matters, my longing to be in Paris instead of New York matters, the drab machinery shop I’ve left behind in Long Island City, the passages I still need to translate from the Apology, my misgivings about the girl I’d met at a party in Washington Heights more than a year earlier, down to the brand of cigarettes I am smoking, and—let’s not forget—the prune Danish I had purchased on the fly to snack on, because something about prunes brings out a sheltered, Old World feel I still associate with my grandmother, who lives in Paris and loves France and keeps summoning me back there because life in France, she says, gives every semblance of extending the life she’d known before moving there—all these have, like unpaid extras, chipped in and are playing their small part in Eric Rohmer’s film.
The personal lexicon we bring to a film, or the way we misunderstand a novel because our minds drift off a page and fantasize about something superfluous, is our surest and most trusted reason for claiming it a masterpiece. The spontaneous decision to head to the movies tonight is now forever grafted onto My Night at Maud’s. Even walking halfway into the film has cast a strangely premonitory, retrospective meaning to this evening.
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