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Present-Tense Memory: On Joanna Hogg and B.S. Johnson

The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, 2021)

Memory is like a run-on sentence, lopsided and top-heavy, unreliable and frequently unnavigable. If not actively eschewing linearity, then the instinctual function of recall is inconsistent: important events are shelved away, each and every facet of a particularly unremarkable day are instantly easier to list off. To best encapsulate such a slippery internal entity, one must first surrender to its perpetually in-flux rhythms.

It can be an alienating decision, sublimating narrative conventions within the backwash of memory. In Joanna Hogg’s considerably autobiographical The Souvenir, the British director presented a straightforward chronology whose temporality was nevertheless collapsed (as I wrote of for photogénie on the occasion of the film’s 2019 release); when I saw it opening weekend in New York City, my crowded theater at the Angelika was a source of a steady stream of walkouts, and a few hisses as the credits began to roll. Although surprised that not even Hogg’s visual sumptuousness could be enough to entice a weekend viewer who saw there was a new movie with Tilda Swinton playing, I was still cognizant of how the relative taciturnity of The Souvenir—its indictments of privilege and its frankness paid towards romantic relationships is hardwired into the film itself, channeled through the most passing of gestures, never explicitly imparting the necessary prerequisites that’d take an audience by the hand—never compromises itself, and never compromises with the audience. Her honesty about her own past and career as an artist effectively elbows out any undeserved universality.

Within the first installment of The Souvenir was the central figure of Anthony, the posh, undercutting and exploitative heroin addict played with equally venomous panache and unimpeachable tragedy by Tom Burke. Anthony’s relationship with Julie (Hogg’s proxy, played by Honor Swinton-Byrne) was one of the film’s two grounding agents, the other being Julie’s student film of the title, a quasi-documentary on the city of Sunderland that undergoes various forms. The film concluded with Julie being informed of Anthony’s offscreen overdose, and an image of startling symbolic simplicity—the opening of the large hangar doors of the film studio—that perfectly denoted the forward-looking temperament of the previously hemmed-in Julie.

Jumping headfirst into the future gives rise to its own host of pitfalls and general incertitude, however, and The Souvenir Part II posts itself from within this hazy confluence of grief and responsibility—Julie’s requirements as a student don’t dampen themselves to accommodate for personal loss. As structurally subversive as The Souvenir was, the relationship dynamic still hurtled towards an inevitable end, whose occurrence was expected as soon as Anthony’s behavior grew more erratic, threatening and despondent. Without the corporeal Anthony presiding over Part II, Hogg delves even deeper into the undertow of her memory, yielding even more detours (comedic, inconsequential, or some combination of the two), more relationships (sexual, platonic, professional) and more time spent with family, wrestling with the encouraged recuperation that past experiences have necessitated and a burgeoning artistic independence, if not a financial one.

Reprising their roles as Julie’s parents, Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth shoulder the maddeningly unspecific duty of maintaining the proper distance from their daughter, while also paying proper heed to what Anthony’s death has conjured up within her. This unspoken strain between parent and child mildly boils over—politesse still reigns for this unabashedly upper-class British family—when Julie accidentally knocks over the beloved first artifact of her mother’s recent ceramics classes, the sugar bowl breaking into sharp-edged pieces that can draw blood with just a touch. Part II may suspend other scenes with an unceremonious intensity, but this example of repressive at-home snafus draws itself out in a single take, surveying the safety precautions made (the dogs must be swiftly escorted away from the shattered bowl), and more importantly, Tilda’s significantly labored attempts to conserve her maternal veneer, bristling at her daughter’s touch, though feigning assurance that everything’s just fine, that accidents happen.

The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, 2021)

Memory attaches itself to objects and places (and, objects within certain spaces), so this broken sugar bowl is no different than, say, the postcard of the eponymous painting acquired by Julie in The Souvenir, or the house at the center of that film’s 2013 predecessor, Exhibition. This observational, even taxonomical purview is what animates Hogg’s memory play, an effort to recreate the past, with the innate understanding that something will always be unimpeachably off about such a facsimile; case in point: the view from the windows of Julie’s apartment are backdrops, blown up photos that Hogg herself took at the very time and place of her own student apartment. The auxiliary elements of memory loom—music, conversations, weather—and exist more as throughlines than the otherwise accepted tenets of personal storytelling, giving at least something of a foundation to the finicky behavior of recollection.

In B.S. Johnson’s “novel-in-a-box”, The Unfortunates (1969), something of a literary, spiritual precursor to Hogg’s films, the British author navigated the loss of a friend through tangible tokens, ranging from subway stations to kitchen appliances. Packaged as 27 unbound passages ranging in length, the 25 sections that are neither the introduction or conclusion are meant to be read in any order, shuffled at will, as to replicate Johnson’s own career-long goal to document the “randomness of the mind”, with his own memories as the jumping-off point. Johnson, one of the rare few to receive outspoken praise from Samuel Beckett, nevertheless had to support his experiments in fiction and autobiography by working weekends as a sportswriter, often going out to various Midlands towns to cover football. While on assignment in Nottingham, Johnson is suddenly inundated with memories of friend and peer Tony Tillinghast, who’d died all too young from cancer. Johnson’s prose volleys from his coverage of the game to a spiraling account of his friendship with Tony, culminating in his prolonged bout with the disease, and finally, his death.

Johnson actively eschews linearity, though the manner in which he snags different shards of memory and stitches them together is nevertheless a throughline between the work of both artists. As the broken sugar bowl in The Souvenir II is bestowed an arguably undue amount of screen time, Johnson enacts a similar fascination with the mundane suddenly loaded with thematic emblems, such as a wedding gift:

At least once he visited us at the Angel, we were married then, it had hardened into marriage very happily, what Tony had called the saga of my women had ended very well, for me, he was happy for us, I think, had brought us a belated wedding present, a whisk, a whisker for the kitchen, a good one, he said it was, they had the same model themselves, and it was good, yes, though we did not use it until our electric one failed, but for some uses, in some ways, it was better than the electric one, that’s true, handier, as well, how I try to invest anything connected with him now with as much rightness, sanctity, almost, as I can, how the fact of his death influences every memory of everything connected with him.

Hogg and Johnson circle around one specific loss, mapping the emotional devastation via roundabout means, such as broken ceramics or kitchen whisks. The stifling, overly apologetic, and ultimately prevaricative atmosphere that envelopes Julie and her parents after her clumsy mistake brings forth the divisions Anthony has drawn through the family, the innate parental desire to care for one’s offspring grappling with the general exhaustion of what, in retrospect, was an ever-worsening situation. The decision for neither child nor parent to acknowledge this conundrum explicates why such a minute event holds so much durational significance within the memory. And Johnson, piling one clause upon another, effectively demarcates his stratified consciousness, offering up a blueprint of how he arrives at a perspective that is always shrouded by death.

There’s something cannibalistic about these dual methods, as personal memory is consumed by its owner, then externalized once again—Hogg and Johnson remember remembering. To replicate this diaphanous process—not only is misremembering a risk; not being able to remember at all is also a possibility—they utilize their respective artforms as methods of automatic filtration. One gets the impression that there are countless scenes from both The Souvenir II and The Unfortunates on a cutting room floor somewhere, or left in a trunk with other drafts. Matters of identification beyond the respective central protagonists of The Souvenir II and The Unfortunates are in keeping with this narratological cherry picking; both frequently swap characters in and out of their personal perspectives. Given the assembly of Johnson’s book, background is all but absent, bolstering the prevailing present-tense recollection, where memories are experienced as if for the first time. If details are made known, it’s because something more commonplace has been prioritized, like the location of a pub, or the victory of a certain soccer team.

The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, 2021)

Hogg negotiates a similar, in medias res disorientation, as both chapters of The Souvenir replicate the bustle of film school, with different characters flitting in and out of focus; in the first film, it was as if Anthony had been dropped out the sky into his relationship with Julie. The director is also ostensibly saddled with the unreasonable responsibility of preserving her stars’ image, a modern filmmaking protocol that she refuses to kowtow to. Tilda Swinton’s own presence is thrillingly unpredictable, and Charlie Heaton, made ubiquitous by Stranger Things, is self-effacing at best, save for a messy bout of period sex; otherwise, he’s in the background, just like the bit-player he plays in the film. Richard Aoyade reprises his role as egomaniacal esthete Patrick, who is currently in the process of mounting his The Red Shoes inspired counterpoint to the British film industry’s “kitchen-sink realism”. Something of a lingering vestige of Anthony’s world, Patrick’s haughtiness is now further unleashed, and although just as expertly delivered by Aoyade as in the last film, his barbs play as even more unnecessary, more self-aggrandizing.

Hogg reduces these figures to their most striking physical and emotional features, instead of trying to shoehorn some intrusive and resolving characterization into their arcs. Deliverance can come packaged within merely polite exchanges, such as a late-film conversation between both Swintons, wherein the difficulties of London mass transit is discussed in one long, handheld take, the obvious rekindled rapport made visible in a conversation that—lovingly—goes nowhere. Still, this isn’t to say that Hogg withholds catharsis for Julie, though exacted so judiciously, it understandably evaporates as the aspiring filmmaker moves forward in life. She repurposes the imagery of her own Tilda Swinton starring student film Caprice (1986), whose hallucinatory spirit hasn’t been much reflected elsewhere in Hogg’s career. A reappropriation of life and work has been par for the course for Hogg’s literary forebears—so much so for Johnson that Jonathan Coe, who writes the otherwise praiseful foreword of The Unfortunates, finds his later work not worth engaging with, as it grows more forcibly regurgitative.

Of course, Johnson was struggling with his own personal, creative and family issues, and suffering from the attendant pressure, killed himself in 1973, at age 40. The burden of a compromised, or even denied, personal vision prevails in The Souvenir II as well, as Julie loses funding from her department when she pivots from her original Sunderland documentary to the more intimate and revealing short that documents her and Anthony’s relationship in miniature, with Ariane Labed and Harris Dickinson filling the respective roles. Such adherence to memory, bluntly, isn’t always bankable. Consequently, The Souvenir II offers a brief dispatch from Julie’s ensuing professional career, where she’s directing a music video that possesses no ephemera of her previous work; nevertheless, Julie preserves her steadfast commitment to her short (just as Hogg herself interpolates Caprice). Johnson does something similar with The Unfortunates, lacing the different sections of the novel with a Joycean account of his sports report writing process, highlighting the ways in which the personal is infiltrated by the professional, and vice versa, a more experienced juggling of various career modes that Julie herself is in the embryonic stages of. As both Hogg and Johnson seem to posit through their respective works, to create is to remember, in all the mangled, im/personal, palimpsestic likelihoods of truly great art.