The Way We Were

Life as a mosaic of memories in Up the River with Acid and pillow bowl rose tree

Ben Nicholson

pillow bowl rose tree
Director PETER TODD, Year 2023, Country UK

Up the River with Acid
Director HARALD HUTTER, Year 2023, Country FRANCE

“Swiftly the remembrance of all things is buried in the gulf of eternity.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In his memoir I Remember (1975), Joe Brainard creates a unique and deeply affecting self-portrait through a series of sentences, each beginning with the words “I remember…” Sometimes these are incidental details of his childhood; other times, they are moments of significance – what is moving is not necessarily a single recollection, but the cumulative power of them all. If we are products of our memories, then Brainard’s book explores the influence of even the most mundane remembrance.

Harald Hutter’s Up the River with Acid and Peter Todd’s pillow bowl rose tree are both, in a sense, preoccupied with a similar idea. Though they take different approaches, both films explore the ways in which the narratives of a life are created by the connecting of passing moments. In the case of Todd’s 16-minute film, those very moments are strung together to form a self-portrait through the observation of domestic space – a loose but beautifully intimate riff on Georges Perec’s Things (1965). In Hutter’s feature, those kinds of moments have largely slipped from the mind of the filmmaker’s father, Horst, who suffers from advanced dementia; simultaneously, they haunt his mother, Franciney, who must watch her husband recede before her very eyes.

In Up the River with Acid, Hutter seeks to examine how the condition has impacted both of his parents. The film is a blend of patient observations that follow Horst’s various routines across the span of a couple of days – as his deteriorating hearing and vision keep him relatively contained – and the feelings of Franciney, shared through an intermittent voiceover, like a poignant love letter. “Your memory is a vast wasteland,” she intones at one point. Perhaps, though, it is more like a dishevelled and rambling house, some rooms of which its proprietor does not always have access to. In The Dawn of the Day (1881), Nietzsche claims it has never been proven that ‘forgetfulness’ exists, merely that we have no power over recollection. In one scene of Hutter’s film, Horst’s powerlessness over recollection is as heart-warming as it is heart-breaking: Franciney prompts Horst’s memory of how the pair met. For a moment, he seems to have unlocked a door somewhere in his mind, and entered the room that contains this memory, even if he is only able to glimpse in briefly.

pillow bowl rose tree uses a house to convey the lives that inhabit it. In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005), Rebecca Solnit describes the meaning of the Tibetan word ‘shul’ as “a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by.” Todd’s film is dotted with examples of shul; the slightly crumpled lie of a pillow that has been slept on (a recurring motif); the fallen leaves of a rose gradually wilting in a vase. It is constructed from minute instances that might fall by the wayside – sun hitting a cushion, dinner plates sat on the table, flowers blooming in the garden – but which surround the largely invisible characters at their centre. In a way, Todd’s film feels like a slowed down moving image version of the photomontage that Hutter includes near the end of Up the River with Acid; the briefest glimpses of a life, the aids that allow us to reminisce and not forget.

The act of capturing these images on physical 16mm stock – transferring these ephemeral, transient moments to a solid archival format – feels significant. How the 16mm makes itself felt within the films is intriguing. For Todd, who shoots on a hand-cranked Bolex, the constraints of a 20-second shot duration become part of the film’s structure and rhythm. The brief snapshots of Joe Brainard are here enforced by the camera’s mechanics, which allow for a similarly striking build-up of significance. The impression of the 16mm in Hutter’s film is more nuanced, and while the chicanery of the edit is always playing its part, the celluloid seems to assign the images an authenticity of having been baked into the emulsion. It is as if the tricksiness of a malfunctioning memory can be combated with long takes and physical film.

In their different ways, both of these films feel like attempts to resist the inevitability of remembrance being "buried in the gulf of eternity.” In passing on a mosaic of memories to receptive audiences, they succeed in their task.

I remember Horst exercising in the breeze at the bathroom window.
I remember a green and white chequered tablecloth.
I remember Horst joyfully singing to himself in the car.
I remember the brilliance of a red poppy in the garden.
I remember Horst and Franciney’s trip up the river to the waterfall.

Ben Nicholson is a film writer and curator specialising in film, experimental film, and artists’ moving image whose words have featured in Sight and Sound, Hyperallergic, Notebook and elsewhere. He is the lead shorts reviewer at The Film Verdict and the founder of the critical and curatorial platform ALT/KINO.

This text was commissioned by Open City Documentary Festival to accompany the screening of pillow bowl rose tree and Up the River with Acid at Genesis Cinema, 10 September 2023.