A Snapshot of 2022: “Still Processing” Grief Via The Criterion Channel
The Memory Tourist
by Thomas M. Willett
December 28, 2022
As the years linger on, I’ve come to realize that we’re living in a very nostalgic period. I’m not discussing so much in a franchise way, but more this sense of witnessing and coming to terms with our mortality. Even as 2022 ends with significantly fewer COVID-19 fatalities than in previous years, the reality is that it’s still a thing. The winter has run rampant with a triple flu and countries outside America are still experiencing millions of losses. Even then, those who have taken precautions have likely grown nostalgic for a few reasons. Maybe they’re coming to terms with what they’d leave behind or the fragility of a human body.
It’s why films like The Fabelmans (2022), Armageddon Time (2022), and Bardo (2022) have found established auteurs looking into their past to find greater meaning in their relationships. Whereas these would’ve been seen as self-indulgent exercises five years ago, I find myself in a more forgiving mood now. These are the stories everyone should’ve been telling after surviving the worst collective year of modern existence. We should be celebrating the people in our lives and do our best to preserve their memory for others to understand their significance.
I say this as someone who has had a rough two year span regarding death. Last year, my friend from high school died from a drug overdose, causing me to dig deep into those years to understand what he meant to me and realized how much joy and regret was found there. The loss became more tragic as I humanized the moment, painting in the details and discovering a moment of time I hadn’t thought much about. For as dour as life was then, there is something profound about recognizing that life wasn’t always like that. Better yet, it makes you realize the power of being alive at all.
I say that as I spent the time since having to think about my grandparents. Christmas 2021 included a doctor’s phone call determining whether my grandfather should be allowed to have a surgery that would prolong his life at most another few months. While I watched my father deal with the grief of losing him, I had this strange sense of acceptance. He was in his 90s, had spent the final years of his life in and out of the hospital. I applaud the nursing care who risked their lives in 2020 with hospice care. I was more concerned that at a point life ceased to have meaning because of how immobile he was, co-dependent on doctors to take care of him. It was also an awkward day when the family cleaned out grandmother’s nursing home, accepting that her social life with us was over. At most, I would await the phone game approach to how we shared news.
I’m sure the loss impacts everyone differently. For me, it was as much a moment of painfully waiting for the suffering to end as it was figuring out how to summarize their lives. I was the obituary writer. I knew how to capture their lives in these snapshots and have them resonate with readers. I can’t speak for how my father has taken these losses, though he has become more willing to share stories, doing what he can to keep their memory alive. Given my insecurity around them both being health risks for most of the past few years, it felt like we all should be relieved. The suffering was over. They were at peace.
But as the funeral was being prepared, the memorabilia came out. Along with the stories were these boxes of photographs spanning decades. Their youth suddenly appeared in my hands as I flipped the pages of photographs slipped into their respective slots. My grandfather was the photographer in the family, so he was often hidden. What we were seeing was the world usually through his perspective. Along with trying to figure out what was going on, there was something to trying to understand what he saw in that moment. Why did he want to capture this group of people holding a conversation? What spoke to him about this mountain range? In some respect, it’s the same fascination I have with Kirsten Johnson’s phenomenal Cameraperson (2016) documentary where she captures unrelated moments and the viewer tries to make sense of why Johnson included it. Given that she also made the excellent Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) about her father’s years with dementia, I’m willing to believe she and I share a reverence for life and achievement, doing what we can to preserve our existence.
With all of this said, there was one piece of media that I felt captured and understood the grieving process best. When the dust settles and all that’s left are the memories that live in our mind, how do we recognize their lives? The Criterion Channel is home to an amazing, seemingly endless, resource of shorts, and one of the filmmakers I have grown to love the most is Sophy Romvari. By some luck, I stumbled across a collection of her work that included Still Processing (2020), described as Romvari looking through a box of photographs and trying to make sense of her relative’s passing. She needed permission from her parents to share them, and the results are incredible.
Based on what work I’ve seen, she is a filmmaker who uses art to grapple with complicated themes. Most of her best work can be called a fusion of documentary and fiction, finding these connections that we have to each other. In this case, she uses an approach that embraces the silence, allowing the viewer to understand what it’s like to truly grieve. While it ends with a slideshow that ties together moments, the audio is largely non-verbal. There’s no suggestion of what these pictures are supposed to mean. As the opening suggests, these are just photographs that were taken without any greater purpose. Their intention is forgotten or not ever expressed. The only indication of how we’re supposed to feel are various cuts to Romvari looking at them whose blank stare suggests what the title promises. She’s still processing. No emotion has fully formed, and it makes the sense of discovery all the more sublime.
As the images flash over the screen, there is one technique that could read as a gimmick but actually elevates the piece into one of the best things I’ve seen in 2022. Save for a momentary score of sentimental strings, she leaves things largely silent, allowing for the sensory details of her environment to speak for her. We grieve alone, never given the chance to break out into song or have that essential consoling that puts it into context. All we have are our thoughts on the subject, and Romvari puts them exactly where they should be.
Much like Jennifer Reeder, Romvari’s use of subtitles helps to create a subconsciousness in her work. These lines are never spoken and yet they are essential to understanding what is being communicated. She shouldn’t say them out loud. They should be there to be read, an expression of our interiority as we determine something more metaphysical. In the case of Still Processing, the subtitles communicate an array of emotions that everyone likely has experienced at some point. With death representing a finality, the context of a messy ending of a family relationship. When the subtitles read a wish of not having been so mean to him throughout his life, there’s a gut punch that comes with the accompanying innocence. It’s just a picture of someone smiling, youthful in appearance. With this move, she’s pushing aside the pettiness that we all face to those we spend our lives around, finding them at our best and worst moments. When grieving, regret tends to be richer because there’s satisfaction with the joy. Maybe you’ll wish it lasted longer, but the pain stings because of how it lingers, can change the good into something cruel and unintentional. Was Romvari really that mean to him or is this just a projection of how limiting time is?
The execution is simple, going on to feature actual footage of them as kids. For one of the first times, Romvari is discussing her past. She asks “what were we listening to?” as children dance around a chair. It’s goofy, nonsensical, and very disorganized. In more innocent times it would be considered embarrassing, but now Romvari notices that looking at the past brings a certain pain. Why does joy hurt so much? Over the course of 17 minutes, Romvari has perfectly captured what it’s like to look into the archives, especially of a fairly fresh loss. Unlike my grandparents, I’m sure her loss was more abrupt and the sense of peace came at a more difficult climb. With that said, losing a friend in their early 30s, when so much of their life laid ahead of them, is something that connected me to this piece more. I attended his funeral and saw pictures of the years I missed and the few I was there for. In that moment, I had no choice but to contemplate what those moments meant to me, finding this sad affair full of pictures of him eating Mexican food with his sister and visiting the beach. In a moment of loss, it’s hard to forget that he lived and for as cornball as the funeral director usually makes those moments, the pictures work best by themselves.
I also think of Romvari’s Nine Behind (2016) which also is intended to be a self-reflective piece. I should note that unlike Still Processing, I’m unsure if that qualifies as autobiographical. Even then, the intention of her silence conveys a point that I don’t think even subtitles could capture. During a phone call with her elderly relative, she begins to ask questions about his life. Over the few minutes, we see one side of the conversation, but it’s clear that so much is missing in the questions Romvari is asking. There’s a disconnection of language, history, and even emotional connection. They are family, and yet something is missing. All of these years together, there’s the sense that she didn’t think to ask questions that would preserve their memory, give them a preservation that would make him endearing to future generations. Whether it’s true or not, this too feels like it’s full of regret. The only difference is that it’s implied instead of comfortably mentioned.
It’s something that I also see in the emotional silence of Lynne Sach’s Maya at 24 (2021). With nothing more than a clockwise twirl, Sachs captures Maya’s life at 6, 16, and 24. Without commentary, the sense of growth happens and soon she’s an adult. While I remain convinced that it doesn’t quite resonate as emotionally as it would to The Sach Family, I still have come back to it over the past year, noticing how time has evolved and changed all of us. Soon all we’re left with are questions about the years gone by, the things we’ve missed, and the ones we wish would’ve lasted a little longer. It’s the beauty of shorts like this. They don’t need two hours to give us insight. All Sach needs is four minutes to make an art piece that has driven me back to it over and over.
I suppose that the only way to properly end this journey through Criterion Channel’s amazing content is with An Evening (2013). While a lot of Romvari and Sach’s work reminds me more of my friend and the younger people whose lives were cut too short, An Evening is something that feels reminiscent of something I’ve actually experienced this year. Following the passing of my grandparents, there was the reality of having to deal with their home. It still has this uncanny quality of feeling like someone had lived there, where their belongings are still scattered in just the ways they wanted. Like the pictures, all I can do is look at the bed and wonder what they thought about at night.
An Evening is a short by Sofia Bohdanowicz that pushes the concept of loss to new levels. I’m not even sure that it’s necessarily a funereal story, but it’s tough to not read it as such. Over 19 minutes, she films a vacant home as a day turns to night. We see the notes left on a fridge and the disheveled rooms. Even the way that kitchen machines have lights go off in the dark begins to inspire chills. Like my grandparents’ house, there was a life here and to a stranger our only choice is to guess what they mean. Even the use of dusk is powerful, as if the closure of a life, where the visuals become more difficult to see. What’s left is a memory of what we saw. There’s no score to tell us how to feel, just the wind blowing through the night air and any creaks an old home would have.
It’s what I think about as I went into my grandparents’ home after their deaths. I was especially drawn to his bookshelf in a room that I rarely went into. There were whole collections of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and a few John Steinbeck among others. I wondered what those books meant to him and if there were any clues left in those pages. Given that he loved to open a book to the point it broke the spine, I imagined each one was personally molded to his style of reading. Something about his personality was hidden even in the organization of that wall. Why were these the ones he displayed? I picked up his copy of Steinbeck’s “The Wayward Bus.” It was a great read, but I remain perplexed by a hand-written chart in the back where someone wrote out various prices for things relevant to the plot. Why was this here? What did he hope to discover?
Again, that’s a mystery that is left for us to only speculate about. There’s no way to ask him now, and it’s haunting to be alone with those details and have to determine how much we want to look into it. For those who mean a lot to you, there’s hope that you’ll learn something new in that chart. Even if it’s indirect, something will come of navigating the memories. A new connection could be made and their lives molded into a greater texture. It’s one full of regret, but it’s important to remember the hope and optimism. Amid the emptiness is something that provokes thought. It’s only if I keep looking that I stand to find a greater substance.
I imagine that there will be more deaths in the years ahead. It’s an inevitable part of life and I imagine the journey will not be unlike what I went through in 2022. Sure, it’s more convenient to turn to films like Petite Maman (2021) or Personal Shopper (2017) and recognize some more abstract truth in there. Even making a film akin to The Fabelmans might seek to cement their legacy for generations to come. With that said, I find Romvari, Sach, Bohdanowicz, and even Johnson’s view of life much more fulfilling. There are things we’ll never know. We’re still processing something that is unique to everyone. For me, coming to terms with that void is the most satisfying way, and hopefully, with that I can hope to make a greater context start to take shape.