When you watch a movie, you are looking at the past, seeing traces of light that fell, perhaps, on an afternoon before you were born. You may be looking at the faces of old people when they were young, or at the faces of the dead, shining like stars whose light reaches us after they’re gone. The romance of celluloid lies partly in the elegant simplicity with which it answers the dream of stopping time: each frame is a moment pinned like a butterfly.
Ever since early childhood I’ve been in love with the past, afflicted by the same condition as Michael Chabon, who wrote, “I suffer intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before I was born.” This sensibility is only one part, though an important one, of my cinephilia. But in thinking about the relationship between cinema and memory—memory which is always so closely tied to regret and desire—I find it fitting that the two films at the top of Sight & Sound’s most recent poll of the greatest films ever made, Vertigo and Citizen Kane, are both about inconsolable regret for the past, about being haunted by something lost. One of the most extraordinary things about Orson Welles is that even as a wunderkind in his twenties, he was drawn to stories about aging and the pain of remembering things vanished or unachieved—themes he would return to in middle agein Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight.
Vertigo multiplies this theme as in a hall of mirrors. Scottie is seduced by watching an elaborate enactment of obsession with the past—the hoax of Madeleine’s possession by her great-grandmother. Her trances and suicide attempts, the melancholy hours spent contemplating graves and portraits, the replica necklace and hairstyle and bouquet—the whole thing is meticulously, almost airlessly calculated, like Hitchcock’s movie. But Scottie reacts to the pretense of a haunted obsession with a real one; in his trance of grief, his consumption by the past, he feels what she counterfeited. And his need to recover what he lost, by the cruel and perverse means of forcing Judy to become Madeleine again, is fetishistically focused on the way she looks; he needs to see her again. When the image is a perfect replica, he responds—in that rhapsodically disturbing moment—as if she had truly returned from the dead.
“How the ghost of you clings,” runs a line from the great anthem of nostalgia for lost love, “These Foolish Things,” which is sung in another delirious movie about the seduction of the past, Terence Young’s Corridor of Mirrors (1948). Like Vertigo, it is about a man (Eric Portman) who searches for a woman with exactly the right look, and when he finds her sets about transforming her into a copy of the beloved he believes he lost. The woman in question (Edana Romney, who cowrote the script) is drawn into his sinister, decadently perfumed world of make-believe, and at the same time repelled by it. The man, who believes he was born after his time and chooses to inhabit his own fantasy of the past, represents the allure and danger and sad isolation of pure escapism. His lifestyle becomes a prison, addictive as a drug: “You can’t leave,” the woman is told, “because if you did, the world would seem cruel and ugly.” Cinephiles take warning.
Corridor of Mirrors, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948), belongs to that upsurge of interest in spiritualism that often follows a war, with a critical mass of people longing to connect with the dead. These films seem far removed from the postwar world, sinking luxuriously into more romantic and picturesque eras. But they all have a specific yearning, a piercing wistfulness in their stories of people who fall in love across time. They fall in love with specters, “visible incorporeal spirits”—a word that comes from the same Latin root (spectare, “to look at, contemplate, watch”) as “spectator” and “spectacle.” It goes without saying that we all know what it is like to love a specter, a ghost of light in a dark room.
Portrait of Jennie and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, along with the resurrection scene from Ordet and Johnny Guitar’s incantatory dialogue about remembering and forgetting, are all touchstones in João Bénard da Costa—Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved (2014), a film essay about the late director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa that is largely a meditation on the pleasant pain of memory and the spectral nature of cinema. It is not so much about watching movies as about rewatching them, about the need for movies to be remembered, talked about, written about, reinterpreted, relived. Memory is malleable, changing over time and diverging from other recollections of the same event. Movies too change, are different each time we return to them, even as they promise to remain the same. It’s we who can’t do that. As Bénard da Costa says in the film, “If memory lies, that lie is part of me.”
“Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation,” wrote biologist Gerald Edelman, “And every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.” There is another family of films that celebrate—albeit in an elegiac key—the ability of memory to imaginatively reconstruct a lost world, especially the world of childhood. These include How Green Was My Valley and The Magnificent Ambersons, which depict a bright, complete world slowly coming apart, gradually cooling and dimming; and Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, which uses music and the searching beam of the cinema projector to conjure a childhood that is not a vanished golden age—young Charles Foster Kane with his sled—but a lonely spell of watching, dreaming, yearning. Memory is always so closely tied to regret and desire. The most potent image in Citizen Kane may not be the final reveal of “Rosebud,” but Bernstein’s girl on the ferry, the fleeting vision never grasped and never forgotten.
When you watch a movie, you are looking at a world you can never enter, at things and people you can never possess, because they are only colored shapes, or patterns of shadow and light. Cinephilia is a form of unrequited love.
Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. Her writing has appeared in Sight & Sound, Threepenny Review, Believer, Reverse Shot, and other publications.