19 December 2006

Memory, Place and Film

Jeff Malpas
Filmic Memorials i Catalogue, 10.2005

‘Every film starts off from memories’, says Wim Wenders, ‘and every film is also a sum of many memories. Then again, every film creates memories’. Memories can take many forms, but for most of us memory and image are indeed closely interrelated. The memory takes the form of an image, while images are themselves typically imbued with or evocative of memories. There is also a direct connection between memory and place – the two are. Perhaps the most important reason for this is the ‘indexical’ character of memory. Memory always places us somewhere and every memory always involves us in some sort of bodily orientation. Memory is tied to the body and so also to place. This means that memory brings body and place with it, but body and place also bring memory. Memory – and so also the sense of a past – is part of the very fabric of place. Perhaps the best example of this in Wim Wenders’ work is in his homage to Berlin, Wings of Desire. In that movie, the city is perhaps the leading character in the film – indeed the original title was Himmel über Berlin (‘Heaven over Berlin’), while Wenders himself says that ‘the city called the film into being’.

It is a film, one might say, about the spirit of a city as much as it is also about the spirit of human life in that city, and it is also a film that plays with the fabric of the city as constituted in memory, in memorialisation, in the past and in the future (for memory is never only about the past). Shaun Wilson’s work, while not on the same scale as Wenders’, nevertheless exemplifies a similar connection between memory and place, and between both of these and the filmic image. Wilson’s works not only explore the almost tangible congealing of memories into embodied places, as both are then replayed through the medium of film, but the phenomenal texture of the images that result also carry something of the same phenomenal texture as is to be found in memory as such – the texture of that which is never completely given, never completely determined, always redolent of something more.

Of course, if place and memory are connected, then so too is there a special connection between place and memory that is apparent in the moving image of the film. Although we may sometimes assume that places only apparent with the ceasing of movement, the opposite is actually the case: place and places appear only as we move between and through such places. The moving quality of the filmic image can be seen as representative of just such movement. In film, of course, there are at least two types of movement that need to be considered. There is the movement that occurs within the cinematic field – the movement of a character across a street, for instance, as it is filmed in a single wide angle shot – but there is also the movement that affects the cinematic field as a whole – the movement that involves the movement of that which films, the camera, rather than of that which is filmed.

Andy Warhol’s famous Empire, in which the camera remains trained, umovingly, on the Empire State Building through a full 24 hours, is an example of a movie constituted purely through movement within the cinematic field, and the fact that it is so constituted, while it makes it an interesting artistic work, also makes it into a rather unexciting experience if watched for its full length. Most film and video depends on combining movement that occurs within the field with movement of the field itself – few movies are composed of static shots alone. Why should this be? Because what a movie does is to put us into a place in a certain way and it does so not merely through giving us a static window on a part of that place, but through allowing us, in a limited fashion, to explore that place and respond to it. In this way film takes us somewhere, and the means it employs to achieve this is the combination of light and movement, in a phrase, the moving image – but the image moves in at least the two ways that I have just distinguished. That means the way in which place appears and is articulated in film is through these two modes of movement, usually in combination. The tracking shot, the pan, the zoom, are all ways of moving the cinematic field, and they are also ways of exploring and articulating the space and place in which the filmic action is itself set and by means of which it is framed and determined.

Typically, different ways of moving the cinematic field, that is different shots, are associated with different ways of presenting filmic places – the sweeping shot, which often comes to focus on a source of movement that occurs within the field, is characteristic of the cinematic presentation of the epic landscape. I am emphasising the two forms of movement that come together in movie because it is movement that plays a key role in the articulation of place, and it is in and through place that such elements as character and plot, but also emotion and affect, and memory also, are articulated and presented (which is not to say that other elements besides the visual are not important also, but only that my focus here is on the formation of place as constituted through the moving image). One way of understanding place, and the memories that are embodied within it, is purely in terms of the movements that it enables and by which it is known. Underlying all of these comments about place, memory and film has been a set of ideas about, not merely the importance of place to film or even just the connection between memory and place, but of the importance of place to image (and imagination), to identity, to self and to ‘meaning’.

The sorts of beings we are, though we may often think otherwise, is such that we are ourselves inextricably bound to the places through which we move and in which we dwell. Our identities, as with our memories, are tied to those places. As soon as we attempt to make sense of ourselves, to represent or articulate ourselves, then we are also involved in articulating and representing place. It is thus no surprise then, that this same connection should turn out to be an integral part of film. ‘Every film creates memories’ says Wenders, and so every film also creates, and is a creation of, places – a creation, and recreation, of identity and self.

Text copyright Jeff Malpas, 2005. All rights reserved.

If you liked this essay then read some of jeff's many publications including:
  • Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). [personal favourite!]
  • Heidegger’s Topology: Being, Place, World (Cambridge, Mass.:, MIT Press, forthcoming).