Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Reflections: Immortality and Taxes
Preparing a tax return is the sharing of a ritual. Not in the sense of a group of people standing together, chanting words or motioning as one body—that is communal. Preparing a tax return, as I’ve just done, is a private act honouring two of the values we hold most desirable: individuality and permanence.
In transferring data from a box on a sheet of paper to another box on a screen, I leave my mark. This is a record of me alone, reduced to numbers and their context, and it will persist at least until those receiving the record deem it irrelevant. If it is never deemed irrelevant, it could outlive me.
The tax man is passionless, but he has pragmatism, and I respect that. I wonder if he will sustain me longer than will the memories of those who love me? They could write my story, rendering the gist of me—the events of me—in flat letters; flat as the numbers in the tax man’s file. But for these people, my standards will be too high. I’m satisfied being nothing but numbers to one who sought to know me only as numbers. Through those who knew me, though, I’d hope to be sustained in a more enriching way, with loving feeling.
Of course, love cannot be rehearsed and passed along. Even great authors, actors and painters can only be complimented on the degree to which they fall short of recreating their subjects.
And can I be trusted to perpetuate myself? Aren’t I biased? I have this blog; I’ve written many other things and double-back-saved all of it like a paranoiac. But how vulnerable would all this be to future readers, assessing it according to the prevailing analytical framework of their day, not mine? Assuming, of course, anyone wishes to read it at all?
I spend a lot of time looking at other silent movie blogs and websites, in part because it’s a great way to discover films I haven’t seen yet. However, many of these sites float dead in the digital ether—I’ll often read blog entries from someone who last updated in mid-2004. That date-stamp’s another number, of course—the only thing tethering the site to anything current.
Blogging about silent movies can feel like tending a gravesite. Around you, things may be happening—film festivals; special screenings; new, ‘definitive’ digital transfers. But the movies themselves—the artworks—are old and their directors and actors almost always long dead. The stars especially—all the silent icons are gone.
Last week, I watched a film from 1917. Everyone involved with that film, from the actors and director to the camera crew, set designer and producer, is surely deceased. The youngest teenager in the cast is likely dead. If not, then any day now. Only one person may be left: an infant, filmed eating ice cream. This child is the setup to a gag in which one comedian wields an ice cream cone against another. This child may still be with us; but if he (or she) is, then he or she is over ninety.
Well, ‘ninety’ doesn’t mean much, except as a marker of mortality. For record-keeping purposes, it’s a useful number that keeps things up-to-date. Somewhere though, that elderly person is an infant still, and will always be known, at least to most viewers of that film, only as a baby.
Images like this bring a quiet gravity to silent films. I watch them and remember that every performance, competent or not, itself memorable or not, deliberate, or unwitting, like the baby’s, is a gesture from a dead hand. Even in the lightest comedy there’s this bit of weight. It’s moving, and it’s permanent.