Nostalgia: Memory & The Experience Of Time

It’s interesting to consider how the depiction of memory has changed since the 19th century.  James Longstreet’s memoir From Manassas To Appomattox reads of it’s time, when it was taboo to detail personal relationships to persons, events or otherwise.  The antithesis to this being the seminal work of Bergson.  Since the 20th century it is standard for any art form to depict that that is wholly personal to its author.  This is true of the artist’s approach to memory.  Where Longstreet would restrict his accounts to statistics and figures, Frank Harris would supply a reader with story warts and all in My Life & Loves, but specifically with his own ideas included.  Hollis Frampton does the same, but transposes a biographical account to the medium of film.  Is a biography not just one man’s account of his life as memory serves?  This is the question of 20th century art forms.  Frampton may even go so far as to dissect this proposition of biography in Nostalgia, much as Borges did in his text Borges & I, though with the elegance reserved for such endeavors as proposed by Bergson’s work that made both men’s works possible.   Yet, the question is, within art, how does the incorporation of “time” (reflexive or not] manipulate the memories which the artist depicts?

In Creative Evolution, Bergson proposes all experience takes place in time, and for a film artist such as Hollis Frampton this is inescapably true.  Film as a medium manipulates and transposes time in an accepted narrative line whilst still adhering to it’s very own duration as a piece.  Frampton works his art on Bergson’s “sensory plane”, in that his piece Nostalgia is both visual and audible; however Frampton takes one step beyond this in how he manipulates this ‘sensory plane” to be even more reflective of his film’s duration.  To put it simply, the audio of Michael Snow’s voice-over narration’s content does not sync with the image which Frampton presents his audience.  Therefore, the audience must do two things which as a byproduct bring the film’s duration in time to a sensory forefront.  First, one must pay close attention to that which Snow describes, for it will be the backstory to the anticipated image yet to be seen.  Furthermore, one must retain the content of the image, to better understand the preceding explanation Snow has given the audience.  This is a process as muddled as it appears here, hence, the primary sensation Frampton has given his audience is not one of a documentary (which Nostalgia essentially is as far as content is concerned], but rather illustrates through the audience the time it takes to remember and the sensation of remembering.

Frampton’s background as a photographer, which is the focus of Nostalgia, has conditioned him to deal with time in a unique way.  As is well known, photography began as a documentary tool in the 19th century, and has arguably never lost the association.  Therefore, it seems fair to suggest that Frampton manipulated his film with the essence of the photographic purpose in mind.    Justifying the duration of shots as well as documenting in real time the experience he meant to capture.  That is to say as a recording tool, the movie camera operated within the parameters of Bergson’s “mechanical time” whilst documenting the organic, which in this case are flames.

On the other end of the avant garde film spectrum is Jean Genet’s The Song Of Love.  Genet comes from a literary background similar to Pasolini, though having done more serious jail time.  It was this time in prison which his film is an account of.  To illustrate the emotional content of his memories, Genet employed many of the effects pioneered in the fantasy films of Jean Cocteau [who often visited Genet’s set].  Genet opts for emotional content, and emotive experience over the reflexive technicalities of Hollis Frampton, preferring a fantastical approach more instep with Alfred Doblin’s depiction of memory in Berlin Alexanderplatz.  Genet and Doblin pose the antithesis to the artist’s responsibility when dealing with time and transversing it’s sensations to an audience that Frampton and Borges are so concerned with.

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” (Borges, page 246]  It’s that sensation of remembering from the present that Borges makes tangible in his story Borges and I, and is also the aesthetic sensation of the author in Frampton’s Nostalgia, the author who is Frampton himself, just like Borges.  Borges uses his “present voice” to recall his past in the third person, and splitting the identity of Borges into the Borges of then and now.  Frampton makes the same tactic applicable to film in an arguably reflexive manner in that the image is the work of Hollis Frampton photographer made in the early 1960s, while the voice of the now (during screenings] is of Mike Snow, a filmmaker.  The change in identity, Frampton to Snow is just as significant and meaningful in the continuity of continuous time as the change in career, photographer to filmmaker.  Hence the identity of both Borges and Frampton has been split by past experience to present “shared” experience with their respective audiences/readers.  This division of identity over a matter of time reinforces Bergson’s idea of “organic time”.

Borges’ approach to the theory of “organic time” is of the very poetic, in which he juxtaposes the physical author with the mental representation of the same author, and though they share one identity, only the “mental” is given a voice.  Throughout the piece allusions are made to the everyday life of the writer Borges, yet, according to Bergson, no act can ever be exactly repeated by an organic entity.  Thus, Borges when writing Borges & I was remembering uniquely, as will his reader.  But upon a second read, all will not be as remembered, which is a point the voice of the “mental” makes in the piece.  It is then arguable that Borges’ piece is as reflexive as Frampton’s.

“Efforts stored up in the present is indeed also a memory,”[Bergson, page 51] describes perfectly the sensation the audience feels while ingesting the works of Frampton and Borges.  Though the audience/reader feels they are taking part in both respective works in one single moment, in actuality they are experiencing physically the passage of time.  Thus the suspension of mental awareness by stimuli creates a plastic sensation of time, which both Frampton and Borges exploit in their audience/reader as well as depict within their pieces.

The latter proposition seems particularly relevant in Nostalgia.  Film is the physical representation of time in it’s passing, which the audience surely knows though is compelled to understand the plastic time of the film as a given reality.  Thus, as each photograph in Frampton’s piece is burnt and replaced with a new photograph, the audience resets its mental clocks.  When a film is understood on such a compartmentalized level, one begins to understand better the beginnings and endings which exist within a film working down from scenes to sequences, sequences to shots, shots to frames.  The construct of Frampton’s film, it’s repetition, disjointed information, and split author all work in unison to likewise compartmentalize the audiences sense of time.  For instance, at the start of a new shot it is typical a viewer will ponder the facts before, the photo now, and the photo to come; in other words they are remembering to remember what they remembered while only being conscious of the now while sub-consciously acknowledging the passing of time.

Bergson’s phrase “organic time” has some rather unique ramifications.  “Organic Time” when put in the most simplest of words means that organisms, always undergoing the process of change and development, cannot repeat the same action twice.  This opens up a new theory in the interpretation of Nostalgia.   Though Snow’s voice over is a constant mechanical recording, a change will occur within the audience.  No audience member will view the film and take part in it’s process of remembering the same way twice according to Bergson.  Thus it is proposed that Frampton has constructed a film which builds layer upon layer of remembering to remember having remembered again; a process so complicated in the mechanics of the mind, but yet trivial to human experience.

Which is where the before mentioned concept of plastic time becomes dominant.  Borges construction of time in Borges & I is stilted in it’s retrospective observations since text must occupy a “mechanical time” in contrast to Borges the man who exists in “organic time”.  This is not so much a juxtaposition as an ending achieved through contrasting means.  For only in the medium of “mechanical time” can Borges illustrate the sensations of “organic time” which are then shared with his readers.  It is an uneasy contradiction which is addressed with in the text itself.  The “mental” of the author in Borges & I experiences organic time, but perceives his physical counterpart to inhabit “mechanical time”.  It may even be read as a dehumanization of one in favor for the other by Borges himself [outside his text that is].  The same is applicable to Nostalgia.  The mechanical time of film embodies in it’s visual illusions the organic time of the director and his audience.

It seems a justifiable counter argument that film and literature are void of “organic time” because such a sensation is only achieved via an illusion.   But it is the illusion which is the sensational for the persons observing, the tangible to those unaware of the nuanced mechanics within the mediums that the pieces exist.

It is through such rigorous manipulations of time that the sensation of memory and in turn self reflection can be emoted through a piece and too it’s audience.  As a race, humanity has been obsessive  about shared experiences; one may argue that all art is fundamentally inspired by such a drive.  Yet, it seems relevant that the pre-occupation with time, which so clearly defines humanity on a person to person basis, should provoke the highly conceptual planes of experience that Borges and Frampton strive to lift their audience.

The plane of experience though mathematical and calculated in Frampton’s work, does lack the lyricism of Borges.  Borges has the ability to, in his fiction, wed the differing approaches to the experience of time and sensation of memory which Jean Genet and Hollis Frampton represent.  The poetry of lyricism is a human sensibility, and may indeed move Borges’ piece deeper into the spectrum of “organic time”.   Consider the emotive quality of poetry, and it’s contrasting meaning to those who have varying experiences and backgrounds.  Thus it seems reasonable to propose that poetry has the organic quality that most writing does not.  Since Borges [being a skilled poet himself] plays with time through his poetic sensitivity, isn’t it fair to gander that his work will posses the merits of “organic time” more dominantly that Frampton’s Nostalgia?

Bergson’s notion of “organic” and “mechanical” time define the back bone of the works Borges & I and Nostalgia.  The pieces differ immensely in form, medium, and reflexivity, but share the common concern of what does memory mean to human kind and how is it felt?  Perhaps to broad or too vague, but none the less, Borges and Frampton endeavored to search themselves for an answer.

-Robert Curry

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