Cinema: Essay

No One Goes to America for the First Time

Anjum Hasan is a poet and author. Her latest novel is The Cosmopolitans
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One has to content oneself with that old cliché: It is just like the movies


MY DÉJÀ VU IS NOW SHADING INTO RECOGNITION EVEN THOUGH THIS STILL ISN’T THE AFICIONADO’S KNOWINGNESS. I AM STILL SUBJECT TO THE WHIMSIES OF THE IMAGES IN MY HEAD

My déjà vu is now shading into recognition even though this still isn't the aficionado's knowingness. I am still subject to the whimsies of the images in my head

I AM IN America for the first time, and on my first day there, step through a lobby to face a two-storied apartment building running around a swimming pool. The pool is such an unwrinkled blue, it looks like a prop. There are empty deck chairs, and in one corner a barbecue which, too, appears very real and yet unconvincing. I have seen this before. In other words, Hollywood.

The setting is from some film I’ve mostly forgotten. If I search deeper in my memory for more about the film that this scene evokes—the clean, sunlit pastel of the building, the pool in which no one swims but where someone might be hiding, the unfulfilled promise of the barbecue—then that narrative will take over entirely and any other possible associations, perhaps from a book or painting, blanked out. But I’m already starting to remember fragments from the movie featuring these things— that it involves the connected stories of three women, that one of these women will open a door on the upper floor at any moment, lean over the balcony and jump into the pool, and that this ordinary scene is, therefore, touched with a deep sense of unease. Yet I don’t want to give in to it altogether. I don’t want déjà vu to harden into recognition.

I go out into the street. A convertible passes slowly down the avenue and the evening sun starts to pink the mildly dusty air between the palm trees in this Los Angeles district of Venice. I have seen this before. The car is driven by a boy visiting from England who doesn’t know how to drive. He will careen down the street, the cops will arrive, the scene framed by exactly this broad avenue and this palm-fringed sunset. Later that evening, I am cooking dinner and look out of the kitchen window at the half-lit side lane outside to see three large squirrelly animals walk across it, not hurried but furtive and conspiratorial. Raccoons, I think, and they’re on their way to steal a man’s sports shoes and tear up his carefully laid out lawn. I know how this one ends—with one of the raccoons being deliberately run over. I saw the film in question only a couple of months ago and haven’t had a chance to forget the story yet.

And this is how it is over the following days. The afternoon sun slanting through the venetian blinds reminds me of having seen the same brilliantly striped Californian light framing a man and a woman having a conversation in a room about her husband’s death which he, the man with the noirish shadows on his face, will head to Chinatown to investigate. Introduced to the sight of Beverley Hills, I’m unable to suppress images of eager teenagers studying video footage of the homes of Hollywood stars in order to break into them when their occupants are out partying. When I am in a bus and the driver confides in me, charmingly, that LA has the most maddening traffic in the world, I am only half listening because in the car before us, stalled like the bus in the backed-up early evening jam, a car that she has just angrily honked at for several seconds, sits a man who has had enough. He is going to step out with his briefcase—a decoy, because he’s been laid off months ago and isn’t really going to work—and have one of Hollywood’s most enraged meltdowns.

With time, I find myself trying to dodge the evocations. I would like to see Los Angeles through my own eyes but I find that the city, like that Borgesian book composed entirely of quotations, appears to me wholly derived from films. These are not necessarily films with popular mythologies, not much watched films whose famous scenes a visitor might actively seek to map onto the city, knowing they were imagined here. Pulp Fiction, say. I’m not really seeing Pulp Fiction everywhere I go. Instead these are long-ago films coming to me, or obscure ones, or those a critic might term ‘forgettable’. I have been watching forgettable films for years, and now find that I haven’t forgotten them at all, that my memory has preserved dozens of minor scenes from trivial films, as if in anticipation of this time when I will see the real thing. But are the wide boulevards, the bars in which aspiring actors might be found working, the hills that hide the homes of the rich, the possibility of guns in glove compartments, and the old apartments with art deco motifs the originals in this case or the films in which I originally saw these things?

I would like to see Los Angeles through my own eyes but I find that the city appears to me wholly derived from films

The celebrated scholar AK Ramanujan said no Indian reads the Mahabharata and the Ramayana for the first time, which could well be transmuted in our era into: no Indian goes to America for the first time. An insignificant minority among the middle classes might have resisted going across, a little jaded by the plentitude of America around us. But we have all the same already seen the movies and TV shows, read the novels, followed the headlines, heard out the visiting relatives and friends. So the journey to America is not new for me except in this one purely visceral sense of my actually being here. But even this partial newness is received with surprise when I reveal it to the people I meet. No one, not any longer it seems, comes to America for the first time. And this enhances my own bewilderment, the feeling that I am too late, that it is impossible now to experience America in the original. So I call up that old cliché: America is just like the movies.

I am trapped in this persistent déjà vu during my week in LA, which means I’m constantly aware of things being shadowed by another, anterior meaning. But connecting the images before me to the images buried in my memory does not, somehow, resolve this haunted feeling, or vanquish it. For the nature of film itself—the way the image on the screen can sear itself onto one’s mind—has begun to worry me. Could it be the case that I’ve forgotten nothing? Have I become a compendium of everything I’ve ever seen? A horrifying thought, as much for the character of what one views as for its volume.

I watch movies in a way that can be best described as random: pick them out of one of the plastic crates around the house that my husband keeps loaded, mostly with Hollywood films of all stripes, glance at the text on the sleeve and then play it only half knowing what to expect. I watch Hollywood without ever feeling I am committed to it. I watch it lazily and half-heartedly and yet not without enjoyment, pulled into the story even while noticing how the lifestyle at the edges, in the background of the frame—appliances, clothes, accents, make-up, sexual choices, cars, décor—is the real story. I could be trying to resist Hollywood through Hollywood. I can see these films but I’m not taken in.

Still, I do seem to want this sedation, coming out of this curiously familiar yet remote place, which is why the Hollywood film I am watching doesn’t matter so much. It is the foreignness that lulls me, the awareness that little of what is unfolding on the screen has anything to do with me. The corollary to ‘no one goes to America for the first time’ is, of course, we are all Americans now. Yet watching Hollywood, I know full well the separateness of that space called America, a space made up of very distinctive buildings and streets and rooms and forests and rivers. The amazing particularity of these material things, a particularity reinforced in almost every movie I see, assures me I do not belong to America, I am not there and never have been, so I can be a tourist to it in this way.

I have been watching forgettable films for years, and now find that I haven't forgotten them, that my memory has preserved dozens of minor scenes, as if in anticipation of when I will see the real thing

This acting out of stories in spaces that are meant to look true-to-life, evoke real locations where real things are happening to real people, is the very opposite of how Bollywood tells its tales. Usually, no city has to look like itself in a Bollywood film, no setting resembles an everyday one. What is the point, these films seem to be asking, if the fantasy of cinema devolved into these all too mundane markers of reality? So everything in such a film tends to contribute not to a realistic effect but an instructive one. All the elements in the frame say, ‘We are telling you something about the wealth, poverty, beauty, despair, power of the characters.’ The fashion of putting in Western cities as pure backdrop and White people as landscape in recent Bollywood blockbusters is only a perversion of a long- standing cinematic convention about the use, or disuse, of place.

So the more Hollywood films I watch, the fewer Bollywood films I am able to. I can’t fully believe in either but seem to need to suspend much more disbelief for one than for the other. I have ended up falling back on America and become aware of just how subliminally its cinema works on me. I discovered with a happy sense of affinity some years ago, the poet Adil Jussawalla’s essay on his painfully intense relationship to films. He was devastated by cartoon tragedies as a child and as an adult had to eventually stop watching films because they so completely wrecked him each time. In my own case, I have regulated the drug to one film a week. Any more than that drains me hollow—dialogues rattle with hideous insistence in my head all day and scenarios demanding intervention from me saturate my dreams. I am embarrassingly out of place in this new era of addictive TV dramas, easy Netflix streaming and YouTube archives.

Towards the films I do watch, I could take a more intelligent approach, cultivate taste, be more discerning. I do from time to time attempt this maturity, think of myself as, say, a David Lynch or a David Cronenberg fan, though I sometimes confuse one filmmaker for the other. And what tends to take over very quickly is an overwhelming sense of the superfluity of taste. That image on the screen is too much with us. We have all seen too many films. This fervidness, this other, insidious way that films work on us, which has nothing to do with what we really like out of what we see, is what becomes clear to me when I go to America for the first time.

Along with Pulp Fiction, the film I expected to ‘see’ in Los Angeles was Lynch’s well-known Mullholland Drive. I kept waiting for it to rear up from the landscape and resonate with my experience of the city. Mullholland Drive is, for me, the Hollywood film about Hollywood, about the desire and dread that these films can occasion, and the viewer’s complete identification with the fantasy. But my subconscious did not, just because I wanted it to, turn to great cinema. Heading to Hollywood—the geographical location in north Los Angeles, not the indeterminate filmic space in our heads—I forgot about David Lynch. Instead, I kept getting flashbacks to another film that I hadn’t thought about since I’d watched it some 10 years ago. There is a stressed-out movie producer, someone has been accidentally killed, many studios on view and the cars that pull up or away from them. But what I remember most vividly is the contrast to all this Hollywood tumult in that film—an unconcerned artist who makes trippy art with an icy blue-white sheen to it and always appears dressed only in that one colour.

My deja vu is now shading into recognition even through this still isn't the aficionado's knowingness. I am still subject to the whimsies of the images in my head

Strangely, or perhaps predictably, walking down Hollywood Boulevard fills me with a vague excitement but reminds me of nothing. The Hollywood Museum, housed in the three not extensive floors of an art deco building, is described as the biggest collection of Hollywood memorabilia in the world, which disturbs me. Is this all? I hadn’t imagined Hollywood could be domesticated— shuffled into crowded glass cabinets, homey framed autographed portraits and short clips on loop. This is not just too small but too still to be a museum of that ceaselessly zooming thing. It hits me hard when I stand before Marilyn Monroe’s dress. This is the famous black spangled dress with spaghetti straps that she’d worn on her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio and in which she’d sung for the American troops in Korea. This dress was hanging limply on a stand and looking every bit like the worn-out piece of half-a-century-old nylon that it is. There was just nothing to that dress without its cinematically kinetic wearer.

ON THE WAY back in the bus to Venice, I try to place Monroe in the patchy cache of my movie watching and realise I’ve only seen one film of hers, a black and white one, long ago on late night television in the early 90s. It is all set in a hotel room, and I recall Monroe having a painful miscarriage on a bathroom commode while keeping up a conversation with Albert Einstein. When I try to look up the film, I find there is no such thing. Yet I am sure I haven’t misremembered, that it was Monroe in that trademark off-white halter neck dress and matching slingbacks, dominating that interior. More determined, somewhat panicky googling throws up the answer. The film, actually from 1985, features an actress playing Monroe, and is based on a play that imagines an encounter between her, Einstein, Joseph McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio. And it is, of course, in colour; I had remembered it as black and white only because I’d seen it on our black and white set. So when I saw Monroe in all those photographs and clips in that museum, I recognised her but I didn’t really know her.

Which is exactly what I could say about Hollywood. My déjà vu is now shading into recognition, even though this still isn’t the expert’s or even the aficionado’s knowingness. I am still subject to the whimsies of the images in my head. That swimming pool in the courtyard of the apartment where I’m staying continues to bother me—I do now badly want to give it a name. I have no idea how to rescue this one movie from all the lost ones in my head till I suddenly remember, with relief, that after watching the film featuring a pool and a suicidal woman on the upper floor, I’d exchanged emails with a film critic friend, Jai Arjun Singh. If I can locate those emails, I will know. A search through the digital leavings of the years throws it up. In 2010 I’d asked Jai as we were discussing Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, ‘Have you seen Robert Altman’s 3 Women from the 70s? I think it forms a nice companion piece to Repulsion. Very American in its obsessions, very talky… but similar in wanting to look at the world, and men, from a woman’s point of view. I like these woman-centric films though I’m starting to wonder if in all of them the women have to go off the cliff somehow? (As literally happens in Thelma and Louise!)’ To which Jai had said, ‘This is one of those truly bizarre coincidences! I just watched 3 Women for the first time last week and was quite haunted by it. Will write about it on my blog soon. Interesting you thought it formed a nice companion piece to Repulsion—it reminded me very strongly of Bergman’s Persona and also, to an extent, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.’

Perhaps those crates in the house hold better, more distinctive films than I’m giving them credit for. But my theorising in the email seems somewhat thin to me, the comparisons stretched. I appear to be willing these separate films I’ve seen to come together in a story. I wrote back to Jai saying I must watch Persona soon and also that I’d watch out for his post on 3 Women. And then I forgot about it. I look it up now—seven years too late, but, in another sense, at just the right time. The idea for the film, writes Jai in his blog, came to Altman in a dream. And the powerful pull of that swimming pool becomes clear to me when I read, ‘Generally speaking, water plays a big part in this film, as does the idea of being unnoticed or cocooned. At times you might even be lulled into thinking the whole movie is taking place underwater, or in a place where the usual laws of time and space don’t apply. Even when the plot seems to be moving along ‘normally’, something feels a bit off.’

I recall everything now. The narrative described in the blog post brings it all back to me. And yet ‘something feels a bit off’. Perhaps it’s another film altogether that I’ve been trying to get at all along, set in an apartment building exactly like this one, except that now it is night and the place is a motel. A man is in hiding or without a home, and staying in a room on the upper floor. Another man, a friend or lawyer or insurance agent, will visit him in that darkness, have a significant conversation with him. It is likely that the room is unlit and this visitor speaks to the man in a crisis through the screen door. He has him in his power, this cowering man’s fate is in the other one’s hands. I am obsessing now, certain I have seen this film but unable to place it. In the end I’m going to have to let it be. I will have to tell myself that it’s just part of that one long waking dream whose images persistently elude even as they seem so compellingly, so discomfitingly intimate.

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