10:55 am Apr. 6, 2012
This weekend, Williamsburg's Nitehawk Cinema will screen two very different movies, one at midnight and one at noon. Both films concern questions of memory and nostalgia.
The two films in question are Dario Argento's Deep Red and John Hughes' Sixteen Candles, both of which are essentially about the way we remove vital information from our memories in order to make the present more palatable.
They are different from each other in every other way, of course. Deep Red is an Italian giallo, a lurid cross between a detective thriller and a proto-slasher horror film, and Sixteen Scandles is a beloved teen-sex comedy.
As far as double features go, this one's pretty winningly dysfunctional. I wish the Nitehawk was simultaneously screening the two films in different theaters. That would really drive home the two films' emphasis on subjectivity and the necessarily muddled nature of memories. Patrons would be able to dart from one theater to the next, creating their own incoherent, choose-your-own-adventure-style narratives from scenes of Blow-Up's David Hemmings puzzling over the murky details of a gruesome murder and Molly Ringwald pining after Michael Schoeffling's senior hunk.
Deep Red's opening credits are mysteriously interrupted by a flashback to a Christmas-set scene. An image of a genderless child (it could be a boy or a girl based on the ambiguous camera angle) is inexplicable and very brief. A peppy child's lullaby, scored by the influential Italian prog-rock group Goblin, plays. But then we go right back to the credits sequence, which is scored with a bombastic, synth-organ-heavy theme.
This irruptive flashback is a great indication of the type of movie we're about to see. It's Argento's idea of a meta-joke. We, as viewers, are about to sublimate this scene that we can't make sense of for the sake of creating a more coherent narrative.
In Deep Red, Hemmings plays Marcus Daly, a pianist who witnesses the brutal slaying of Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril), a celebrity clairvoyant. Ullman's extra-sensory perception (ESP) is only of interest to the film's plot in that ESP allows Marcus to see things that nobody else had been able to remember. For instance, Marcus uncovers a mural in a private estate that has been papered over. Oh, and by the way, this estate is one that Marcus had only read about in a book. A book that he only read because a friend recommended he go to a specific library.
The path that Marcus follows to get at the mural and discover why Ulmann died is convoluted and often inexplicable. But that's the point: Repressed memories are rarely unearthed in Deep Red as a direct result of Marcus's resourcefulness. For example, he feels there's one detail missing at the crime scene, specifically a painting that was removed that might be able to reveal the identity of the murderer. But he can't think why that detail matters. Furthermore, there's no singular, pressing reason motivating him to continue his investigation. The killer isn't actively chasing him and he has no personal stakes in the case. Still, Marcus is driven to remember, if only just to get a fuller picture of what happened. Repression is the real villain in Deep Red.
Similarly, characters selectively repress aspects of their personalities in Sixteen Candles for the sake of growing up. Hughes's comedy is a vision of high school as it's experienced by kids that refuse to be limited by their archetypal social statuses. Samantha Baker (Ringwald) is a sophomore who is hyper-aware of how low she is on the social totem pole at her high school. This becomes even more painfully apparent on the night of a big school dance, which happens to be held on the night of her sixteenth birthday. The trouble is that nobody remembers Samantha's birthday, not even her family, and no cute boys want to take her to the dance. The boy she has her eye on is popular jock Mike Ryan (Schoeffling), a senior who's rather unhappy with his status at the top of the high school food chain. That's what being young is all about in a John Hughes movie: willfully ignoring your past for the sake of creating a better future.
Samantha's problems are symptomatic of high school life, according to John Hughes. Everyone who has reached a certain age in Hughes' film wants to be recognized for being unique, but almost every young person is defined by age or looks or lack of social graces. For instance, a young Anthony Michael Hall plays "The Geek," a freshman who wants nothing but to be able to hook up with Samantha. The Geek doesn't know anything about Samantha, which makes his attempts to flirt with her on the school bus that much more funny ("Just answer one question: am I turning you on?"). But all these young people, including Mike, want to be something their caste doesn't allow.
That yearning to overcome social programming shows that Samantha and her peers are finding their voices. Because the echoes of the past directly affect Deep Red's present, both its narrative and Sixteen Candles' correctly assumes that remembering the past is an active process of self-fashioning. Or, to put it another way: We are whatever we choose to remember we are.