Remembrance or "What does my name taste like?"

Michael Skovmand

The title of this Canadian short echoes the ambiguities of the film as a whole. Firstly, 'remembrance' is the noun form of the activity of remembering, referring to the profession of one of the two main characters: he is a performer who dazzles his audiences with his total recall of words and names. Secondly, 'remembrance' connotes memorial rituals commemorating those fallen in wars or other tragic events. Canada has official 'Books of Remembrance' listing all those fallen in that nation's wars. And that second connotation links up with the temporal setting of the film. Remembrance is an account of an episode one evening during World War II in a small Canadian town. It is a reconstruction of time past, of events remembered, a remembrance. The setting is true to period in every detail, be it dress, hairstyles, interiors, music, the railway station, sounds of an old train engine, etc. Furthermore, the film is shot in a tinted monochrome traditionally connoting old photographs - dark greenish for exteriors, lighter green and amber for interiors. In other words, Remembrance is a historical pastiche - an imaginative reconstruction of a particular episode in a small town in Canada during World War II. And thirdly, the title Remembrance relates to the narrative structure of the film, which is in itself an act of remembering by the main character, a flashback contained and framed by the mind of Alfred Graves, standing on the platform, waiting for the train.

The story, or fabula, is fairly simple. Alfred Graves (Mark Ellis), thirtyish, performs his total recall of words and names before a sparse, but impressed provincial audience. He is approached by blonde Aurora Isaacs (Stephanie Morgenstern) after the performance, who expresses her admiration and asks him to join her for a drink. The verbal exchange between them - "What's your secret? - What's yours?" is an early indication of an interest that goes beyond the polite or the professional. They go to a bar with live music and have a conversation about Alfred's special talent. Not only does he possess the faculty of total recall, indeed he is unable not to remember everything, but this is combined with his synaesthesia - which means that one sensory faculty experiences the world in terms of another: taste is experienced as sound, sound as colour, etc. The two dance, and there is a sense of reluctant intimacy between them. She accompanies him to the railway station, and on the platform, waiting for his train, she reveals to him that she works for the Intelligence Service and is there to recruit him because of his special talents. She issues an open invitation to him to come back to the local hotel and discuss the matter, an invitation with ambiguous erotic implications, and leaves him. In the glare from the headlights of the approaching train, he makes up his mind and leaves the platform, presumably to join Aurora, and the Intelligence Service.

It is, however, when we look at the discourse, or syuzhet, (which is of course what we do whenever we watch a film) that the ambiguities invoked by the title of the film start making themselves felt. The three opening cuts between Alfred and his recollection of Aurora saying: "we have to choose very carefully", "my first name is Aurora", and "think it over" are teasers initiating what turns out to be the three main interweaving themes of the film: remembering, love and commitment. These establishing cuts set up the contract of expectations between film and audience, thematically and dramatically in terms of establishing the axis of interest or conflict between Aurora and Alfred.

The ensuing match dissolves from the headlights of the oncoming train to the stage lights of the auditorium, establishing the flashback structure of the film - literally a "flash back"; is it just a transitional device, or is it a mark of the story being narrated from within the subjectivity of Alfred Graves? It is, and it isn't - the point of view is that of a circling, semi-detached camera with Alfred as its pivot, which nevertheless picks up reactions beyond Alfred's awareness, such as the significant exchange of glances in the audience between Aurora and, as we are reminded in a later explanatory flashback, her colleagues in the Intelligence Service.

But why does Alfred hesitate when, reiterating everybody's name in the audience at the end of the performance, he comes to Aurora Isaacs, calling her Miss Isaacs. After all, as we learn in the following scene in the dressing room, he knows her first name. Is this simply indicative of him being struck by her as a woman - or is it perhaps the recognition of a soul mate? Alfred is presented as a slightly awkward, slightly nerdy person, who hesitates to make personal contact - quite literally, when he hesitates to accept Aurora's hand, and offer of her company, the implication being that his peculiar abilities have isolated him as an individual. This impression is amplified in the next scene in the bar, the longest in the film, and a crucial one. As the two arrive in the bar, the camerawork and the editing becomes expressive of Alfred's subjective experience of the place: tight close-ups, wobbly hand-held camera, abrupt editing, shrill singing and intrusive ambient noise are indicative of Alfred's unease at being in this cramped, rowdy room.

We are given a further instance of Alfred's isolation as they move through the crowded room, when a solder passing by asks him: "Are you afraid to put on a uniform?" In other words: what is an able-bodied young man like Alfred doing out of uniform in a time of war? We are indirectly provided with an answer as Alfred and Aurora find a quiet table at the back of the room. During their exploratory conversation we learn about Alfred's total recall, his inability to forget, combined with his synaesthesia. The effect of all this on him personally has been a tendency to withdraw, not to engage in life - since he is unable to forget, he'd rather not take any risks, the memories of which he would be stuck with for life. Aurora presents herself as a secretary in the military who does her small bit for the Cause - the War, a less than truthful presentation of herself, as it emerges. However, she is clearly fascinated by Alfred, and asks him: "Do you dance?" To which he replies: "No." The following shots find them on the dance floor - the implication being that Alfred does not habitually dance, but that night he is making an exception. The exceptional character of the situation is underscored by the lyrics of the music from the band in the bar, which at this point change from being background noise to being a commentary on the action. Gradually the two move closer to one another, enveloped by the song of the female singer in the band. "This isn't Like Me" - a slow ballad in 1940's musical idiom, written by Ellis and Morgenstern - is a wistful first-person ballad about someone who meets someone and all of a sudden breaks with his/her habitual patterns of behaviour, breaks out of his/her shell and gives love a chance. My slashing of personal pronouns is not prompted by any desire for political correctness; there is a real ambiguity as to the gender of the crypto-addressee of that song. Is the song expressive of Alfred's subjectivity, or Aurora's, or both? Clearly the awkwardness and timidity of Alfred seems to point towards him as the most obvious candidate, the one who is in the process of breaking out of his solitary existence, of becoming a mensch (to quote Billy Wilder's The Apartment, another story of an anonymous human being who in the end chooses to engage with life). On the other hand, we find a parallel conflict in Aurora, who is with Alfred for professional reasons, in order to recruit him for the Intelligence, but whose professionalism is obviously undermined by her growing infatuation with Alfred.

The intimacy of their silent dancing is only broken once when Aurora asks him, "What does my name taste like?" - a question which he recalls in a flashback in the final scene, and which appears to make him decide to stay. Her question is an obvious reference to his synaesthesia, but we need to look at the final scene in order to explain why that remark is so important to him.

The final scene returns us to the platform where the film started, with Alfred waiting for the train - but a few minutes earlier than the opening scene. The song from the bar segues into the platform clip, indicating how the memory of the bar lingers with Alfred. At this point the flash back catches up with the frame in what is the only overtly foregrounded auteured editing device of the film, an almost Magritte-like effect of Alfred turning at the sound of himself and Aurora entering the platform. Apparently Alfred is telling Aurora about his past career as a journalist and why he gave it up. There wasn't enough to write about, and now, with the War, there is too much. Then follows the crucial conversation, in which Aurora reveals her true identity as an intelligence agent , as well as her having been sent to check him out to see if he was "the real thing", and, if so, recruit him.

The ambiguity inside Aurora of personal and professional agendas is still there. She tells Alfred that there is something she wants to say and something she has to say. When he asks her what it was she wanted to say, after he has taken offence at what he perceives as her doubledealing, she doesn't answer, but pecks him on the cheek, asks him to reconsider and leaves. At this point there is a flash back to the dancing scene, and Aurora's question: "What does my name taste like?" What is it about this question that makes him change his mind? My answer would be that her question reveals to him that Aurora's interest in him is not just professional, but personal - she is a soul mate who doesn't see him as a freak, but instinctively relates to his synaesthetic experience of the world.

The interrelatedness of personal and political choices is underscored by the ending. The song "This isn't Like Me" lingers as the credits scroll, and as the song is transformed from its diegetic role into an extra-diegetic anchoring function, it comes to signify the thematic closure of the film, underscoring the theme of personal emancipation, from fear, habit or limiting self-perceptions, towards commitment and a sense of purpose. This ties up with the underlying theme of 'intelligence' - the dichotomy between the barrenness and superficiality of Alfred's demonstrations of mnemonic intelligence, and Aurora's purposive and committed engagement with the Intelligence Service in the struggle against the forces of Hitler and his allies.

Remembrance is a truncated specimen of the well-loved genre of the Wartime Romance, a feature film in embryo, drawing on audience familiarity with the cinematic repertoire of such wartime romances as Waterloo Bridge, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, From Here to Eternity, etc. The dominant thematic in all of them is the tension between the micro issues of individuals and the macro issues of war, the tensions of divided loyalties between patriotic commitment and personal attachments or concerns. One of the problems with WW II romances, in contrast to most other wartime romances, is the fact that, unlike, for instance, the futility of WW I or the politically problematic nature of the war in Vietnam, WW II was, basically, and certainly retrospectively, a just war against identifiable evil. There is, consequently, no real dilemma for audiences to empathise with in characters debating with themselves whether to join or not to join the war effort - those who don't want to join up are beyond the pale of our sympathies. This is why practically all WW II romances tend towards the excessive black-and-white emotionality of melodrama - one of the most recent examples being the shallow and stereotypical Pearl Harbor.

Remembrance is an interesting variation within the genre of the WW II romance - a variation with a twist - the twist being the male protagonist's peculiar psychological make-up. Like most successful shorts, it is an intriguing combination of economy of narration, discipline of focus, and yet of vistas of perspectives potentially explorable, of stories untold.

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