The passage of time is depicted in imaginative ways by directors of Mudbound, Last Flag Flying and The Shape of Water
It is a quirk of human consciousness that, whether collectively or as individuals, we work out where we are going by trying to make sense of the past. Time flows continually, and the present does not exist, since as ancient philosophers pointed out every moment is fleeting. Given that we can only guess as to the future, the past has particular authority over the direction of our societies. While conservatives urge us to keep calm and think of Churchill, progressives still dream of the spirit of ‘45 and the ethos of the welfare state.
In 1922 in Paris, two celebrity intellectuals, Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein, debated whether time is an objective, mechanical fact or an aspect of experience, felt in multiple and dynamic ways. Film has a great ability to capture time as a feeling, recalling worlds long gone and elapsing whole years in minutes within tremendous states of longing or anticipation. This was on my mind as I watched a number of historical films at the recent BFI London Film Festival.
One of the best, Mudbound, takes ‘return’ as its subject. Told through six different voice overs, its diverging points of view give it the feel of being both modernist and recalling the classic novel. Two young men, one black and one white, return to their families in rural Mississippi after distinguished service in Europe in WWII. In a South determined to maintain old racial hierarchies the real battle is at home, where there is no place for heroes. Its end returns to its opening scene as the two families pass each other in hostile silence, the white brothers burying their recently departed, violently segregationist father, and their black dependents forced to confront a rather different tragedy.
‘Return’ has a wider meaning in a US whose 400-year history of racial hatred refuses to be buried. Last year’s documentary of writer and activist James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, began by contrasting footage of police attacking Black Lives Matter protesters in Ferguson in 2014 with the faces of southern whites insulting black students trying to go to school in the early 1960s. The title of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, only indirectly refers to Obama’s presidency, as it quotes Reconstruction blacks in the 19th-century after their brief participation in political life was terminated by a racist South who was keen to halt the advance of equality after the end of slavery. The Ku Klux Klan, a group dedicated to restoring the values of the slave era, appear in Mudbound in a scene whose horror owes in no small part to its contemporary relevance given President Donald Trump’s flirtation with their current Grand Wizard, David Duke. It is hard in these post-racial times to maintain faith in progress, when the beasts of the past raise their unslain heads once more.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of Americans in the wake of WWII that they were “men who had been swamped, lost in too large a continent, as we were in history, and who tried, without traditions, with the means available, to render their stupor and forlornness in the midst of incomprehensible events.” Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying gives a sense of this forlornness in a land now forced also to contemplate its greatness as itself history. Set during the capture of Saddam Hussein, it follows three ageing ex-Vietnam vets played by Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carrell as they take a road trip across a rather downbeat America to bury the latter’s son who was killed in action in Iraq – or so the military claim. As they consider ageing through the prism of their own disillusion with a government who lied about Vietnam and has lied again about Iraq, the leads are just about engaging enough to carry the male badinage of the script. The casting of Fishburne as a preacher who has renounced his youthful debauchery is a minor masterstroke given his first role as a whacked-out 17-year-old marine in the classic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now, but the fantasy of patriotic reconciliation that ends the film undoes the confrontation of past ingloriousness that precedes it.
A rather different kind of fantasy is found in the creature-romance adventure The Shape of Water from Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro. Like that earlier film, the fairytale allows escape from the all too human violence of repression, as the battle between US and Soviet scientists centres upon classified experiments on a captured Amazon reptile river-god. Science fiction more normally extrapolates from today to offer a vision of our potential future, but this homage to the classic sci-fi inverts this relationship and is set in the 1960s of the sci-fi B-movie’s heyday. This period is rendered as a weird place removed from nature, and the inhuman objectives of its Cold War fanatics provide a comment on our relationship to the ecosystem, and a song of love for its virtuous wonders.
Remaining much closer to the historical record of imperial power is Zama, Lucrecia Martel’s tale of an 18th-century Spanish colony on the Asuncion Coast. Martel drops us in this location without explanation, somewhat in the manner that we find her lead character, a Spanish magistrate, continually promised a transfer home that never comes. The setting on the water’s edge, and an antagonistic relationship both with the subjugated people and the bands of outlaws surrounding them, turns this into a beautifully-realised tale of the state of non-being that is waiting at the hands of a distant, stagnating colonial power.
In writing on the decline of faith in progress, Svetlana Boym noted that “the 20th century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia.” This would fit the British film The Party, Sally Potter’s political satire of a disastrous celebration held by Kristin Scott-Thomas as an opposition MP taking up a position as Shadow Health Minister. Although its setting is contemporary, the 71-minute chamber piece is shot in a black-and-white that recalls the era when its characters’ worldviews were first set. Its all-star ensemble embodies the permutations of post-68 politics, from Bruno Ganz’s homeopathic life-coach to Cillian Murphy’s Blairite privatizer. The brilliance of its balance between sensitivity and farce rescues the film from being as ostentatiously self-regarding in its politics as the well-heeled and well-intentioned intelligentsia that it caricatures.
Marcel Proust wrote that “the time at our disposal every day is elastic: the passions that we feel expand it, those that inspire us shrink it; and habit fills it.” The films discussed above not only fill the time, but place such individuality of experience within the scope of history. They restore to us our perspective, and connect our feeling to something wider.
Photo Credits: Steve Dietl
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