Summer Hours (2008) — On the Meanings of Stuff

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece in which I commented upon the extent to which our impressions of films are coloured by a lifetime’s worth of experiences. While all critical responses may be anchored in a shared humanity, there is no such thing as a clean or dispassionate read and what you think of a text is likely to be as much a product of your bullshit as it is of the inherent qualities of the text itself.

I wrote that piece and immediately sat down to watch Summer Hours by Olivier Assayas, a film that so closely matches my own personal experiences that it is at times quite uncanny.

A number of years ago, my mother died leaving quite a complicated estate. While I had been serving as my mother’s carer for a number of years, her death put me in a situation where I was legally involved with my much older half-siblings. While these siblings had always been a presence in my life, they had all left home by the time I was about 10 and their subsequent visits became increasingly sporadic and tense as my mother’s emotional stability declined. By the time I was legally manacled to them by my mother’s estate, I was effectively a complete stranger who had been parachuted into their existing group dynamic. While the stress of the situation meant that we all found a way to more-or-less cooperate, it rapidly became quite clear that my siblings and I had very different attitudes towards my mother’s possessions.

As someone who had been in the firing line of my mother’s emotional instability for my entire life, I viewed my mother’s things as a burden in need of lifting… I wanted to be rid of the stuff because I wanted to be rid of my mother and every item that went out the door brought a tangible sense of relief. Though my siblings expressed a number of different attitudes towards my mother’s stuff, one prevailing attitude seemed to be that the stuff was almost sacred in that it allowed one of my siblings in particular to reconnect with his (seemingly far more pleasant) childhood without the person my mother became getting in the way and spoiling his feelings of nostalgia. To this day, I could not tell you which of these two attitudes was the more ‘sane’ or ‘rational’ but we not only saw the objects in very different lights, we were also using them as props in what turned out to be very different psychodramas, which is precisely the theme of Summer Hours.


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The Offence (1972) – I am not your Godhead, I am just a Paedophile

I get the impression that for many, a trip to the cinema is a religious experience.  Note that I say ‘religious’ and not ‘mystical’. People commonly reach for transcendental terminology when groping for fresh panegyrics with which to adorn some film or another;  said film is not merely good, watching it is comparable to what a medieval peasant might have experienced upon visiting a cathedral or what a fakir might experience after twenty years crouching upon nails in the sub-continental wilderness.  This is not what I mean by religious experience.  What I mean instead is that people go to the cinema (or read a book) in order to have their moral compasses reset.  They go to see a romantic comedy in order to re-connect with what it is to be really in love.  They go to see Pixar’s Up (2009) in order to know what it means to grow old with someone.  They go to see a navel-gazing drama that deals in matters of identity and alienation in order to get some insight into who and what they are.  People use films in the same way as they once used the Sunday sermon : As a form of guidance.  Simple moral and psychological truths made accessible and easily digested along with pop-corn and diet Coke.  Is it then any wonder that we treat successful actors as living gods?  These people are not merely entertainers, they are the prophets of a secular age.  Our need to constantly tell stories about ourselves drives our desire to consume the stories of others.

Most films are happy to play their role in this relationship.  Modern romantic comedies have their relationship advice, Godard had his attempts at spreading Maoism and even nihilistic film-makers such as Noe are happy to sell their audiences on the horrors of existence, a belief which, in its own way, is no less consolatory than the more up-beat alternatives such as Sam Mendes’ bile-raising “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it”.  However, some film-makers seem instinctively aware of their positions as moral teachers and reject the role.  Directors such as Hanneke and Von Trier assume accusatory and playfully obtuse attitudes towards their audience in order to avoid it.  Sidney Lumet’s The Offence, based upon the play This Story of Yours by John Hopkins is a film that seems to deconstruct this relationship, turning it into something unhealthy and disturbing.

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