Film Scratches: Public Stories, Private Memories – Tip of My Tongue (2017)
Film Scratches focuses on the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially as practiced by individual artists. It features a mixture of reviews, interviews, and essays.
A Review by David Finkelstein.
When filmmaker Lynne Sachs turned 50, she had an impulse to look back and examine her life. (This impulse to take stock typically hit my parents’ generation on their 40th birthday, marking an interesting generational shift.) She invited 12 fellow New Yorkers, some of them friends and some strangers, to spend a weekend in her home, examining their lives together, as prompted by key public events of the last half century, from the Kennedy assassination (which only one person remembers, as they were all under four years old) to Occupy Wall Street. She filmed them listening, talking, remembering, writing and drawing, and then meticulously collaged the footage into a fluid stream of memories, mixed with historic footage and audio, augmented by Steven Vitieollo’s evocative electronic music. The result is Tip of My Tongue, an 80-minute examination of one generation’s complex and diverse navigation between public and private experience.
I came to this film expecting to see my own experience mirrored, since everyone in the film is my own age, they live in my city, and most of the footage was shot only a few blocks from where I live. The surprise, for me, was the broad diversity of experiences in the film. In my own personal memory book, the AIDS crisis would take first place. I spent the decade of my 20s moving from funerals to memorial services to hospital rooms to meetings and street protests, and this has shaped my view of the world ever since. One woman in the film had a similar experience, as she talks about working for an AIDS service organization at the height of the crisis, and the strange experience of feeling that she is living through a war, while many of the people she knows are almost unaware of the crisis. AIDS occupies a significant although small portion of the film. Some public events which had an enormous emotional impact on me and pushed me into activism, such as the death squads in El Salvador, the Gulf War, and the Iraq War, are absent from the film. On the other hand, as an 8 year old white kid in New York, my awareness of Dr. King’s assassination was strong but vague, but for filmmaker Sachs, who grew up in Memphis, the impact was immediate and visceral. I paid almost no attention to the Iranian revolution as an 18 year old, but one woman in the film lived in Tehran and watched it unfold on the streets of her own city. The revolution forced the universities to close, prompting her to become a mother at a young age, rather than a student. Princess Di’s death made no impact on me, but it meant a lot to several people in the film.
One sequence is typical of the film’s complex, multilayered texture. A woman recounts (in Spanish) an early memory of an order by the government of the Dominican Republic for farmers to kill their pigs, which directly affected her family’s livelihood. She tells this story while drawing a picture of it with a red marker on a mirror, holding her hand over her left eye. As she reaches inside her memory, emphasizing her left brain functioning, watching her own face, and simultaneously expressing herself with images and words, the camera uses a rack focus effect to shift to a man standing behind her, intently listening, who may or may not understand Spanish. Much of the film highlights the effort of remembering, and the shots are more often of listeners than of speakers. Most of the participants seem unused to examining their own history in such detail. The effort engages them, but they seem even more engaged by listening to each other, prompting each other to fill in the details. Living in New York doesn’t provide much common ground, as this is preeminently the city that people move to, and only one man describes growing up in New York. Neither does being the same age provide similarity: differences in economic circumstances and whether or not you have kids seem to create very different ways of landing in one’s 50s. These differences catch everyone’s attention.
The film is beautiful to look at. The familiar archival footage of marches, speeches, and crowds is layered, colorized, slowed down, so that it forms an atmospheric background to the conversations, just as public events do in our lives. Some events have minimal impact: they are images glanced at on a TV screen as we pass through a room, focussing on our immediate life concerns. Some people are politically engaged by choice and habit, and public events play a large part in their emotional weather. A discussion of the economic shift precipitated by President Reagan is particularly revealing. The shift is so abrupt that everyone seems to make the connection, for once, between politics and their own fortunes. (I remember that the number of homeless beggars on the subway and the streets of New York seemed to increase tenfold in Reagan’s first year, creating a completely new city.) One man remembers his father’s business suddenly thriving, while another recalls starting out his adult working life unable to find a job.
Tip of My Tongue is most notable for what it deliberately avoids: drawing conclusions or making statements. Sachs makes no comment on the particular characteristics of her generation. (I’ve always felt that my generation, sandwiched between the clearly defined Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, is one that lacks an identity in the popular imagination. Being born in 1960 is like arriving at a wild party just when it is winding down and everyone is leaving.) By avoiding pronouncements and analysis, the film provides a crucial service: it portrays real, lived experience, revealing the complex and diverse ways that public events enter our consciousness.
We now find ourselves living in a time of constant, multiple assaults on social progress, in which continual activism may be the only way to survive. What prompts people into political action? Why am I riveted to news about the Syrian civil war, knowing that there is very little I can do that will affect the outcome? Why are some people completely disengaged from the news? The reasons that people become more or less aware of the impact of public events on their personal lives are extremely diverse, and change all the time. Our individualistic culture discourages Americans from being aware of social issues. By examining in detail a great many examples of this diverse lived experience, we get a sense of when public events burst through and hit us in the gut, and this knowledge will prove crucial to survival in our embattled era.