Things Behind the Sun – A Digression on Memory, Trauma and Mystery

 

To talk lightly of a few of the places I’ve lived, may carry no enchantment for strangers, yet neither does it exclude them. As with heat-waves or drifting snow, moorlands or fierce sea-cliffs – such images remain accessible, imaginatively open to anyone. The beloved suspension bridges which carry my ridiculous yearning mind into the unfathomable, are not yet required . . .

But if I journey on into the details of time and place obsessively, in hope of some alchemic transformation that can turn the specific into a quality that works for everyone – how much might I be guilty instead of wilfully narrowing the degrees of our separation?

Two thirds of the way through Allison Anders’ undervalued Things Behind the Sun, a girl or young woman, skateboards waveringly down an anonymous residential lane, unaware that this will be the splitting point of her life.

To the viewer despite the context we’ve been given, the scene is casual, flowing, evocative – although that is not how she describes it looking back, not how she felt it at the time, nor how we’ll ever quite be able to see it again.

The trees and mailboxes, the whited-out, heat-wave atmosphere, slightly out of focus . . . all these things are like the late 70s to my mind, but to others it could represent other eras. Certainly, when I was her age, young people wore similar clothes and had hair cut in that style. Skateboards had not commonly reached the Chiltern hills nor certainly the council estates distant in the Vale below, but neither were children and teenagers so burdened and imprisoned by technology. Not that a mobile phone would have saved this Red Riding Hood in love.

That this short scene becomes the 70s to me, is of little consequence: the atmosphere is universal, and the innocence, the gentle passing of free time and space before she reaches her destiny, expands as if the continuation of her life could have gone on elsewhere calmly, safely . . . away from the routine of school, amidst sun flares between the dusty roadways, behind the beach.

The house from which she must have come, where she has chores to do set by her single mum – that whole backstory, we never see. It too haunts my mind, as do the houses of girls I admired when I was a child, on estates or on the posher lanes of villages my friends and I cycled to under the Chiltern escarpment, alone or together.

Those places, as well as many encountered since where nobody I knew lived or lives, still haunt me, and some have barely changed. Eradicate all the plastic modern cars and the atmosphere can feel as it did more than 40 years ago . . .  

Watching Brittany Finamore skateboard down that sun-struck road, haunts me just as much. There will always remain something I want to fix. Ameliorate. To go back in time. To live in the sunny avenue as it was before, and it never be corrupted. To never age and to love Sherry as she was and is and always would have been.

As well as finding a balance between the specific and the universal, it can be as hard for films to retain any reliable well of emotion – the centre and acceptable limits of which, come and go with the fashions that condition us. The scene in A Canterbury Tale (1944) when Sheila Sim locates the old caravan[i] in which she spent a summer with her now missing airman fiancée, remains unbearably moving to me: her crumbling face, the music, the whole atmosphere . . .  But many – even those used to ‘old’ films – find the scene wooden, pleading, dated unto absurdity.           

With music, perhaps the whole issue is simpler? Music is either more accepted or dismissed; probably it does not aggravate the ambiguities of the critical instinct so certainly? Van Morrison’s ‘Beside You’[ii]; Jefferson Airplane, ‘Comin’ Back To Me’[iii] Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’[iv] ; The Smiths’ ‘Back to the Old House’[v] will mean something or nothing, and anyway it’s all over in a few minutes, some might say – and lives in a neutral zone unowned by anybody. The words and music invite psychogeographic archetypes.           

Why is Things Behind the Sun, so unsung that although I live and breathe through at least 14 films a week, it’s taken me 17 years to come across it? I saw Donnie Darko[vi] in a Taunton cinema shortly after it was released. At first, I only chanced upon Things Behind the Sun – sideways from the Nick Drake song – as a clip. An evocative stilled image caught my eye, of a child on a skateboard on a white lane under trees, too far away to be certain if it was a boy or girl, redolent of the 70s . . .

Instead of an interrupted flashback, this 4-minute clip[vii] plays as a continuous sequence – and maybe the film as a whole, never equals the poignant, universal intensity of it. I’m not talking about the rape that seems the motivation for this ubiquitous clip – brilliantly filmed though that is: as aurally harrowing as it is visually discreet; isolating, impressionistic . . . yet more searing than any explicit scene of sexual violence. No-one hooked on exploitational voyeurism could get satisfaction from it – only sorrow, guilt, anger and pity.

No, I’m talking about before all that. I’m talking about the first minute or so when Sherry first appears. The way the short scene captures the fleeting magic of youth, gone before we knew we had it . . . and how that quality and personal life, destroyed in this innocuous house crouching under the trees, reflects on all of us.        

Seeing the entire film later, very few frames are wasted. The story builds towards the expansion of that heightened section and afterwards we must somehow survive it.

The invisible grace of the camera, the interplay of sounds and voices, and the skill of the editing are all evident in the perfectly measured approach to that archetypal expansion.

Accompanied by faint hypnotic vibraphone or keyboard, the sequence which immediately precedes Sherry’s flashback to the last sunlight of her youth, is also less than a minute long. It begins on the beach, cuts to clear morning sunlight on holiday chalets, a telephone ringing, adult Sherry on the phone, a meeting on the pier where the two main characters hoped together as children . . . before being splintered by the past. The overarching atmosphere is achieved so concisely that anyone distracted by popcorn could easily miss it.

And then, I am plunged again into that transient universal expansion . . .  No wonder the rest of the film struggles to live up to it.

On a map, Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach appear frighteningly vulnerable between lagoon and ocean. But the fact of that fragile spit of land, thousands of miles away – the details of which I’ll never actually see, may only be a distraction. That different reality interests me also – but unlike Sherry in the sunlight under the trees, it is elsewhere instead of inside my heart.

Apparently, the house skulking under trees where Sherry’s life is fractured was the very one in which the director was raped as a child, and though “the house is not to blame”, this is why buildings can be so lingering – for good or ill – their outlines and lineaments, their planes and reflecting windows, their hollow cellars; their flickering ghosts in shards of sunlight; the warm polish and dusty hands of bygone relatives . . . the tendrils they reach into us.

Later, Sherry discovers that a newer resident has made the house beautiful for herself and her children – living in another time at another angle. Of some houses and nightmares, that is not possible.

Things Behind the Sun may not be perfect. It would be hard for any colour film to match the black and white gravitas and yet improvised quality of the early films of Wim Wenders –  which if the story is true, had such an impact on Anders that she pestered the German director with letters until he gave her a job on Paris, Texas (1984) – a film whose emotive home-movie sections link naturally in my mind to the best sections of Things behind the Sun.

Memory loss of any kind is always testing – but Things Behind the Sun does not stretch us towards breaking point as Random Harvest (1942)[viii] does, and even if its drama approaches soap at times, it’s never sentimental.

Another problem is that even though Kim Dickens is so outstanding, it’s beyond my suspension of disbelief to see her as woman to the girl. There’s bound to be a personality fracture of course, but for me, although their qualities are perfectly transferable, the atmosphere of the two actors is just too dissimilar. Maybe after all this close analysis, I’ve come to know the two Sherry’s too well? Such looped and private intensity could hardly happen in a cinema! This gap is not such a problem with the character of Owen, perhaps because the audience is likely to be conflicted about his position as both rapist and victim; to care about him, yet despise him simultaneously?

But for the expansion and revelation of that one unearthly minute in Things Behind the Sun, I would gladly forego the relative ascetism of much High Art. Perfectly and perhaps partly accidentally – as the greatest art will always be partly beyond us – it evokes the beauty and promise of the world, of childhood potential, of first love, of metaphysical yearning . . . everything.

At first this can be more than difficult – that all those unfathomable visions, the dust of the street becoming gold[ix], come to us in the guise of a teenage girl, under trees just short of a busy road. At first, if you’re no longer near that age yourself, its perfection is likely to send you reeling back into your own past, overcome with regret and the heavy melancholy of unredeemable time. Desperate to turn back the clock, I forget my own powerfully held belief – one I cannot afford to let slip – that time is an illusion created by our limited perception. I forget the very thing that great art attempts to reveal.

Instead, desperately, I wanted to go back to the Vale below the escarpment, back to 1976, 77 or 78. But even then, I knew that the ideal of love we all hold somewhere inside, is one that will always remain partly out of reach. Sherry would have destroyed me then as she destroys me now, as Jake Gyllenhaal does in Donnie Darko, (also 2001). For pure love goes beyond sex. It is not earthly. Yet simultaneous with this yearning despair, Sherry moves me out of reach – as can all the people or voices invoked so far: Sheila Sim, Marty Balin, Morrisey and Greer Garson . . . if only you can get through the pain of passed time; get through the temporal barrier.

Almost 30 years ago, my lover and I – who I’m lucky enough to still have with me – tried to work out all the inarticulate, breaking-down lyrics of ‘Beside You’, almost wearing out the cassette tape going back and forth. But however hard we tried, there remained gaps which only widened – and into those breaches, with the music and the feelings behind, we always flowed.

We wanted to know why, like all the best music, poetry and art, the song took us out of reach. We wanted to analyse it. But it couldn’t be done: the exact words, the exact melodies, the colours, the sounds, the smells evoked . . . even the sum of them does not contain it. It just IS, as Van Morrison – channelling aspects of Eastern religions – would later sing himself.

Irresistibly, I’ve tried the same breakdown with the minute and half from when Sherry first appears on her skateboard – particularly the first crucial 15 seconds, as the adult, looking back speaks: “Y’know, I almost didn’t come over that day. I thought: Just play it cool, and just see him at school y’know. But . . . I was so . . . in love with you, I just had to see you . . .”

Every time, this heartbreaking section takes me out of reach . . . and no displacement of time or space or into other more personal seasons makes any difference.

Back within the fences of time, how much of its heartbreak is positive and how much the obvious destruction of virtue? How might trauma force people out towards self-destructive yet occasionally creative margins? Summer, loss, youth, misdirection, survival. They are all unbearably connected. 

“The summer of our lives is all that we live for,” a friend wrote as brief epigram to a handwritten book of poems he made for me when we were about Sherry’s age. The same friend, thinking primarily of D H Lawrence’s The Rainbow with Imogen Stubbs as Ursula (BBC 1988), later told me how he could “hardly bear” great television adaptations – as he “always fell in love with the doubly unobtainable heroines.” His earlier epigram was partly a reference to the heat-wave of 1976, and when Sherry skateboards uncertainly to the end of her summer, and in search of love, enters that fateful house – (the polar opposite of Mexico and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947): “And then I saw her, coming out of the sun”) – in twenty seconds of screen time, Brittany Finamore as Sherry embodies the whole ideal of warmth and youth and hope.

This perfect moment, unattached, goes on as if it were a lifetime, impressed into my mind. I fell in love with her in those seconds – as would anyone whose eyes have really seen[x]. My own past is absorbed and for days I feel bereft, all my plodding certainties vanishing without a murmur. I don’t want to be this old! I want to be back in my bedroom on Elmhurst with Comin’ Back to You on the record player. Love, no matter how absurd or fictional – the over-excitement of it, unable to sleep, the original idea, the Platonic Form of it – is a tension that drives you back to the edge where the whited-out threshold of light rests.

In the end, all those things we can never understand, all those feelings that must remain unfathomable: the dappling of trees, the heat-wave, the houses of loves you never knew, the mystery of our teenage years . . . How so many worlds could miraculously overlap when half our waking life was wasted at school – is a question that even an obsessively-kept diary might have struggled to answer. Despite that today’s teenagers seem happy with technology, it’s tragic that they cannot realise how much it has robbed them of.

What can you do when you fall in love with a fictional character – with the ghost of a ghost, filmed nearly 20 years ago and set in a sliding time as long ago as 20 years before that? The popularity of the name Sherry peaked in about 1962 . . .  In vain I try all the sunlit avenues to escape such an impossible yearning. But those twenty or forty seconds, until she takes a seat next to the spider, at the centre of his web, resurrect too many layers of meaning – even up to a sense of autumn for the human race.

. . . “for a while the song of the ring roads had been the Music of the Spheres. The road that in summer, cut through the streets and avenues in a blue arc, had been a bow – for which all the estate’s children might have become arrows. But most would never find a chance. One by one their hopes were unstrung; their deep potential sealed forever.”[xi]

If you are born oversensitive, tragedy and loss are everywhere and trauma can strike from almost nothing. Is this, more than anything else – with or without objective remembered trauma – what makes people artists? Without her trauma, would Sherry have become ‘normal’, or would she always have had some compulsion towards rebellion and determination, towards emphatic expression – like the inner mystery or rage which obliges my every valid breathing move? I cannot accept fate or time or space or limitation. Every time I get to the end of Billy Liar[xii], (regardless of whether Billy is emotionally seriously arrested; even if his puerile fantasies make you grind your teeth), I’m always sure when next I see the film that the ending would have changed. He won’t go and buy the milk, surely not.

Now, whenever I recall Sherry rolling down the harmless lane, in cut-off jeans like we’ve all had in hot weather, I will always want to be there and say: Please don’t go in. Really, your cassette is for me – and I will grow to love every song no matter how much I hate them.

 

Music can make a utopia that shames life with its beauty” Greil Marcus writes in The Shape of Things to Come[xiii] and the same can apply to film and art and literature. But how often are these revelatory moments the same for everyone – at least in longer forms such as novels and films? It has to be the principle of noticing them that counts. Like life itself, generally films can only have short moments that might act as revelation and these may be all but buried in second-hand emotion, clichés, entertainment and exploitation.

The sense of a life and a place as Sherry approaches us under the trees in Things Behind the Sun retains a sense of utopia, even after we know that moments later, both will be torn apart and the things behind the sun will also scar our watching selves by implication or identification.

Rape is in many ways a worse crime than murder: for the victim is still around to suffer or crack under a lifetime’s trauma.

Trailing jacket and skateboard, when Sherry leaves, we watch from the house inside the fence as though we’ve become one of her rapists. Can we still manage to be ourselves or failing that, become at least the indifference of a house later made beneficent? 

“And the people round your head, who say everything’s been said[xiv] don’t appreciate that it’s the intensity of how things are said that counts. Utopia in music or painting needn’t last long, if necessary it can shelter inside their pure emotion or their heightened abstract . . . until or unless our obsession wears them out. In film and stories – closer to everyday life, it is less veiled, less protected. Meanwhile life itself, is both too long and too short for Utopia.

I used to spend more of my days as a painter and hope one day that I can return to it. But the best of my paintings, (not necessarily those I most cared for), became always about the future and the ideal, the transcendent . . . and there was just too much here and now, too much past to deal with. Life is trauma – for all but a few lucky, insensitive or innocent people. But do we really want the long retreat? “Truth is the flame we must burn”[xv] The trick is to try to make most of the trauma good.

Despite the relative greyness of the working-class/aspiring lower middle-class, council estate where I grew up, it was no effort for me, over forty years later, to blend it into the bright, only faintly trashy, whited-out suburb of Cocoa Beach in Things Behind the Sun. But then I’ve always found it easy to identify with place at any level of wealth. The wealthy suburbs of Donnie Darko and the hills from which he cycles back at the opening of the film are easy to feel. They even somehow remind me of the Chiltern escarpment, only a seven-mile cycle (sometimes via a place called World’s End) from where I grew up – not because there is much visual similarity, but because for him and for me, they served the same purpose.

The truth we must burn with, is to realise all our days – past, present and future. To know them all without drowning. Which adds to the sadness I feel for Sherry. After years of survival, even if she succeeds in turning her trauma into art that will sear others, she will never want to go back. Her past mystery is cut off.

Don’t go back! You can never go back. Such dire warnings are scattered through art and literature. George Bowling[xvi] goes back to his childhood locale for air but finds himself suffocating instead. If you expect a literal trip down memory lane to revive or enrich you, it’s not likely to work. Most of it should stay inside your mind, where it can be perfected. That is the higher truth – detached from everyday life. Historical truth is something else – though just as elusive and fictional.

Considering the way our alternative lives may have been, imagining the extension of directions we did not take, can be a richness – but if such pondering leads to dissatisfaction, then the intensity has failed. Pursuing the past can become dangerous. Aspects of this are all too easy nowadays. The regression towards the dubious comfort of old loves and friendships, may work as a therapy but can be a distraction from the harder or purer truth. The immersion must be imaginative – it should break the temporal constrictions in your mind, not tantalise with what might have been.

This is partly why the surface of art of any kind, has never much interested me, only the meaning or feelings behind. The media, the form, the style . . . in the end it’s only the mystery or effectiveness that are imperative. Being visually biased perhaps, I can be as influenced by film and TV as by anything else – the only hierarchy that matters is that of passion and effectiveness.

I have been criticised for not keeping up with the ‘contemporary’. But in the realms of art (which unlike technology, is about challenge and truth rather than comfort and practicality) there’s nothing new behind the sun. No matter how original any art thinks it is, essentially, it will have been done before. But the re-interpretation, the intensity, the really seeing, remain vital. It’s all too easy to drown in the superficial styles or gestures of a period. Too many artists are lost this way – with the timebound and the stunt, replacing the open or the unearthly.

Yet if you could go back and have all your time again (and such eternal recurrence would not frighten me, not if I could retain a self-awareness it takes decades to acquire) what could you do with it? You’d be out of time. No-one then would understand you. Then, we lived on hints and guesses. Now, we would be certain of our uncertainty.

Such complaints hardly fit with the ending I’d planned. The time and places lost; the love unrequited; the love that would never have worked. Most of us are not as unlucky as Sherry – at least not at so young an age. We should not be afraid. Even if the old houses are gone, they’re still there in memory. 

The truth is, that not even several lives would be enough to deal with all the feelings we have. Not even if you remembered them all clearly and were prepared to never waste a moment, value every subtlety and every shadow. All this impossibility, all this that I am failing to put into words now, is perhaps why I should forget the here and now and return to painting. There I burnt desire and could sometimes pass beyond the need for patience. Then, I rarely wanted to go back except as a pleasurable whim. Then, only the pure centres of people were important – unbound from age or beauty or time. All of which sounds ridiculously pretentious . . .

In the end, all those things: the places you lived, the people you knew or only saw in passing; all those you knew without knowing; their parallel worlds . . . All that mystery and potential; all the dreamt or fictional lives more real than reality; the suggestions of poetry, the hope between the lines, the impossibilities and transcendent truth of the best music and art . . .  Though you and I can contain all this, and it never ends nor can be lost, such statements must inevitably sound, if not ecstatically religious or tritely optimistic, then complacently resigned: “You’ve always got your memories”. Such things can be prescribed but not dictated. We have to be content to feel them as they pass and let the rest of the melting iceberg go . . . except of course, I can’t. 

So, is it better only to look back with a gentle, sentimental nostalgia – or is that just cowardice? Is the visionary quasi-spiritual quality of High Art better because it looks forward rather than back? Yet some art seems to contain both. ‘Beside You’ combines love, place and past time with myth and forwardness. Again, I forget my own philosophy – my desperate philosophy which I doubt hourly – that we can incorporate everything into ourselves; incorporate the past into the living future, since they are the same anyway; that we already frequently live outside the cycles of time. I forget that I believe this forwardness can be found in anything intensely realized. The impossibility of loving Sherry – the flood of which, by implicating the labyrinth of the past, cannot fail but amplify the pain of looking back – makes me forever lost. Yet being lost, drowning, is only a stage. We must come out the other side if we persist. And so, youth will not be wasted on the young, nor wisdom on the old – since in my intense identification with those seconds of Things Behind the Sun, I become young again; and in not caring about being old later on – knowing it’s just an arbitrary point – I become free.

 

 

Lawrence Freiesleben   March 2018

 

lwf@hawkvalley.co.uk  (First draft finished on a sunny lunchtime outside The Mason’s Arms, Bowland Bridge, Cumbria. 19th of February 2018)


NOTES & LINKS: All links checked July 2019, but sadly, the 1968 David Bowie cover of Lesley Duncan’s Love Song has now been blocked. However a friend has since sent me a better version, in which Bowie also credits Lesley Duncan – this part of his introduction was cut off on my earlier link.  : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXi3q_BUtIU

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMJ8lVXXNP8 (sourced 18th February 2018) From approximately 1hr 47.19mins. To those who don’t find this scene powerful I would suggest you’re not making enough effort – or haven’t relaxed far enough into the well of universal emotion! Originally seen in 1984 and still my favourite film: see http://internationaltimes.it/a-canterbury-tale/

[ii] from Astral Weeks by Van Morrison (1968). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ke27QakSPxM 

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NdvMT32skw – sourced on 18th February 2018 

[iv] (Tumbleweed Connection version (year) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14nD-QMjFvI ) sourced on. 16th February 2018

Another great cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRz0hmXhE8g  sourced on 17th February 2018 has now been blocked on “copyright grounds”

[v] Acoustic version https: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIg22ibTbeQ – the album version (probably deliberately) comes across less sincerely, almost sarcastically. 

[vi]        The original theatrical cut. Please don’t bother with the ‘Director’s Cut’. The original version with a running time of approximately 108 minutes (Pal – UK) or 113 mins (NTSC – U.S.) is a clear case of “less is more”. The over-explained Director’s Cut has lots of additional scenes, but although most of them are good in themselves, they only distract or drag on the concise original. This isn’t a question of my liking puzzles; the absurdity of time travel can never bear much close examination – anymore than the literal details of religions. They are all as ultimately superficial and irrelevant as scientific “explanations” of the world.

The later, Director’s Cut is a good cult film, but the original is an intuitive masterpiece – another instance perhaps, that illustrates the way in which even the best art may depend upon luck – and in the film world, upon pressure as well. Donnie Darko needs to be felt, not explained. The shorter original is more powerfully evocative, more tragic and yet more hopeful, more moving and simply more memorable. I tested this fact [! – what’s the point of being relativist in this instance?] with another comparative viewing in March 2018. 

[vii]     https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5ge3dq – sourced 13th February 2018

[viii]    Random Harvest (1942) with Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson. A classic tearjerker if ever there was one – to some people, myself included, the ending will always be devastatingly bittersweet. To others, the whole film is just a Hollywood contrivance. 

[ix] “The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported … Thomas Traherne’s Meditations: Third Century – Spirit of Prayer

[x]     To paraphrase Lesley Duncan’s Love Song.  The writer’s own version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYelRP3MzEw – sourced 15th February 2018 

[xi]      From Maze End (2013) last paragraph of chapter five. As yet unpublished. 

[xii]       The ending of the semi Kitchen-sink drama Billy Liar (1963), divides viewers quite markedly: Some see Billy’s failure to leave as tragic, others as comic, others as merely depressing. Yet Julie Christie seems happily resigned – as if she’ll soon be back to finally persuade him. Meanwhile Billy’s invocation of homeward-bound companions could be seen as either regressive or determined.

[xiii]    The Shape of Things to Come, (Prophecy and the American Voice) by Greil Marcus 2007 

[xiv]    One of the lyrics from ‘Things Behind the Sun’, by Nick Drake, released on the Pink moon album, 1972 

[xv]    Another of the lyrics from Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ – covered by so many others that it’s not immediately obvious that she actually wrote it! 

[xvi]    George Orwell. Coming Up for Air. 1939

 

 

 


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