the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Monday, May 01, 2006

As Time Goes By (1)

In “The House Next Door,” episode 46 of the 1990s BBC sitcom “As Time Goes By” (Sydney Lotterby, dir.), Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) and Jean (Dame Judi Dench) are startled by noises coming from an empty house next door. While the noises turn out to be just those of the former owner returning to take away some boxes, this disturbance nevertheless sets in motion a chain of events which further strengthens the bonds of the unlikely family at the center of the series.

The premise of “As Time Goes By” is that Lionel and Jean dated briefly, were separated for 38 years when he is sent to fight in the Korean War, and then accidentally become reacquainted (and fall back in love) when Lionel attempts to date Jean’s adult daughter (whom he has recently hired to be his secretary). “The House Next Door” episode, therefore can be seen as a miniature allegory for the series as a whole—the unfamiliar (i.e., strange noises next door, the mother of one’s employee and date) turns out to be familiar; and a space of absence (i.e, the empty house, the 38 year interregnum) provides the opportunity for the strengthening of existing ties.

More generally, the themes of memory and remembrance within the series (Lionel’s and Jean’s preservation of their memories of their former love over nearly four decades of separation) are now doubled back onto the series itself, which concluded its run last year and has now been released in its entirety on DVD.

These themes of memory and commemoration came to assume an unanticipated significance this morning when I visited another “house next door”: Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent film and media blog by that name. Rather than finding the expected discussions of current happenings in the world of cinema, there were instead two announcements stating that Matt’s 35 year old wife Jennifer Dawson had passed away unexpectedly this past Friday (she was reportedly in excellent health, and the medical examiner apparently still does not know the cause of her untimely death [“For now, the chart lists ‘cardio-pulmonary’ as cause of death, which, as the doctor put it, ‘That's a fancy way of saying we don't have a fucking clue’”] The couple has two small children, 2 and 8 years old).

For me, the title of Matt’s blog evokes two associations. First is the image of an empty house (as in the one in the “As Time Goes By” episode), representing an imaginary space or reality parallel to our own, and serving as a figurative reflective screen with which we can both identify but also project our fears and fantasies. That is one way of understanding the function of cinema and television. Second, is the image of an actual neighbor’s house, whom one might visit to borrow a cup of sugar or chat about the weather. That, in turn, is one way of thinking about the virtual communities enabled through the internet.

I didn’t personally know Matt Seitz or Jennifer Dawson. My only connection to them, beyond reading “The House Next Door,” was that several weeks ago I approvingly discussed his review of Ice Age 2 (in fact, it now seems oddly appropriate that that discussion itself took as its starting point Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man, which she wrote in memory of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had passed away two years earlier). The announcement of Jennifer’s passing, though, has jolted the “House Next Door,” for me, from the first sense of “house next door” to the second—creating a shock of recognition, a sense of a vicarious community created around a very real and tangible loss.

Speaking of virtual communities, I don’t (yet) post many comments to other blogs (though I am an avid reader), but felt compelled to write a little something to his:
Hi Matt,
Checking your blog on Monday morning to read about film, and seeing this shocking news leaves me somewhat speechless. Though we don't know each other, please accept my sincere condolences.

For what it is worth, film is inherently about memory, memorials, and commemoration, and therefore, at the very least, it is reassuring to know that Jennifer's memory will be in very capable hands.

"The harder you try to forget something, the more it will stick in your memory. Once I heard someone say that if you have to lose something, the best way to keep it is to keep it is to keep it in your memory."
(Wong Kar-wai, "Ashes of Time")
And, in fact, the last movie review which appeared on “The House Next Door” before Jennifer’s death (one day before, to be precise) was on issues of memory, remembrance and amnesia in relation to United 93:
The unofficial graffiti tag of 9/11 was “We Will Never Forget,” yet this film, which is dedicated to the memory of all who died, is ironically designed to make you erase everything but the 100 most emotionally intense minutes of 9/11. Given all this, it seems no surprise that Greengrass’ last film, The Bourne Supremacy, was a blockbuster action sequel about a government-trained killer with amnesia. This new movie is a different kind of amnesiac agent: It’s propaganda produced by, and for, the malleable center of the American psyche, a place where political leanings are built from Tinker Toys.
Amnesia and nostalgia are, as Andreas Huyssen argues in Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, inextricably intertwined, and it is arguably the awareness of our potential to forget which thereby creates the imperative to remember. In this context, the subtitle of “The House Next Door” (the blog, not the sitcom episode) comes to assume an unexpectedly poignant significance: “A long strange journey toward a retrospectively inevitable destination.” The “retrospectively inevitable destination” being our own mortality, or the process of commemoration which it makes possible.
(Part 1 of 3)


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