Time Regained (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

 As I started to write this commentary, I suddenly realized that I'm about to become as long-winded and passionless as the subject matter. Sigh.

A preliminary note on the nature of memory and dreams. How interested are you when people tell you their dreams? How interesting is it for you when you're walking along the streets of a strange city and your host says, "ah, I just remembered that my family once held a picnic on this very spot, and my aunt passed out from the heat, and ...."

Before you answer those questions, let me offer some suggestions to help make your responses more thoughtful. I suggest that your interest levels will depend on (1) to what degree you share the humor and emotional style of the narrator (2) to what degree the memories are related to something in your own life, or something that interests you (3) to what degree the wit of the narrator can tell you something about the nature of the process of memory itself (4) whether the memories themselves are inherently amusing.

So, if I listen to Woody Allen tell me about his memories of being a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in his youth, I will probably be listening with rapt attention, thinking of my own childhood times with my dad, and laughing at Allen's wit. On the other hand, if it is my aunt's infinitely detailed recollections about her gall bladder surgery, or my former mother-in-law's stream of consciousness ramblings, then I probably will not be able to tell you what she just said, even immediately after she said it.

A preliminary note on the appreciation of foreign literature. How interested are you in the great works of literature from countries that are not your own, written in languages you do not speak? Again, let me offer my Cliff's Notes on the subject. Your interest level will probably depend on (1) the "translatability" of the work. Does the nature of its greatness lie in its story or in its language? A great story is a great story in any language, but if the essence of the literature is the language, you probably won't "get it" in translation. Many Russians believe that Pushkin is a greater writer than Tolstoy. Internationally, however, Tolstoy's yarns about the Napoleonic wars appeal much more universally than Pushkin's famous verse novel about courtiers. Pushkin may have the great gift of phrase, ala Shakespeare, but those of us who don't speak Russian will probably never know it. (2) the skill of the translator himself. Nabokov translated Lolita into Russian because he was afraid that somebody else would do it. Somebody else would have been obliged to a literal rendering of the novel. Nabokov felt no such limitations. He didn't translate the story literally. He made Humbert a Russian emigre, made him function with Russian psychology, and he created new puns and place names so the jokes would work in the Russian language. Lolita is the only book I can name which was translated in such a manner. But even Nabokov himself failed to bring Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into an English language version that sparkles. Despite my admiration for Nabokov, and his obvious mastery of both languages, his Onegin is still a lifeless work, and I'm still at a loss to understand Pushkin's genius.

Damn, that was a long introduction, and I'm still not near getting to the movie, but I'm now ready to talk about Proust. His "Remembrance of Things Past", a multi-volume tome essentially about memory, mainly taking place in France before WW1, although flashing to other times as well, is considered one of the great masterpieces. I can't get into it. I don't find Proust witty or incisive. I'm not interested in the characters and times he describes, or the conversations that took place then, and I don't speak French, thus obviating my ability to be dazzled by his literary stylings. And he doesn't really tell stories with a conventional structure. I've read two of the books in English translations, seen movies adapted from his work, and I guess I'll never "get it". It's like listening to my aunt's surgery stories. For me, the only thing I like about it is the demonstration of the nature of memory itself.

And that's also the only thing I could get out of this movie. The old novelist (1871-1922) is on his deathbed, the film is his recollections. There is no real structure to it beyond the nature of memory. A sound reminds him of something, the furniture in his room is reassembled, and he is transported back to an incident in his earlier life.

He recalls his childhood, his lovers, and the death of the old world after WW1. That topic was all the rage among European aristocrats for about 20 years. "Oh, the kings and emperors are all disappearing, and the common people are taking over everything, and all the old codes of honor and civilization are gone. Our world is dead. Oh, woe!" Basically the same salon palaver that people exchanged after the death of feudalism, the end of slavery, and the break-up of the Beatles. The glory and elegance of their time was faded, and they spent several decades whining about it, and even keeping around token royal families to remind them of their once-glorious empires. Some Europeans still regard that era as some hot shit.

Barbara Tuchman won a Pulitzer Prize for her description of this era in "The Guns of August" (paperback info from Amazon), and I won't attempt to match her accuracy or her eloquence. Here is how she put it:

That old, lost world was Proust's obsession. The structure of the movie, such as it is, follows the structure of the final volume of Proust's multi-volume masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past. At least I think that work is a masterpiece. Experts say so. Since I never had to read the book for a class or anything, and it's unlikely I ever will, I'll have to accept that on faith. It will stay outside my experience unless they bring back Classics Comics. Come to think of it, a pop-up version of Remembrance of Things Past would be good, and what a great gift for the pre-schooler who has everything!

Although I'm not sure exactly what would pop up.

I don't think you simply "read" this book, like you would nestle into your armchair with a Tom Clancy novel. Instead, you "study" it, like Finnegans Wake, with a yellow highlighter, plenty of pencils, and legal pads at your beck and call, or at least your beck. Whatever a beck is. There's another thing wrong with the modern world - too many ignoramuses like me who don't know a beck from a behest.

You'd think I'd be thrilled with a movie version, right? Enabling me to experience a great work of literature without having to grapple with the difficulty of the prose? It never seems to work out that way. Every time I try to watch a movie version of a classic book that bores me, I find the movie boring as well. It always seems to work out that placing Proust or Pushkin on film allows you to enjoy all their boredom with none of their depth.



As I said, the film did at least get me thinking about the nature of memory, and how my memories are so different from those of my classmates who have never left home. One of my best friends still lives within a few miles of where we grew up, still keeps all of our old papers from school, still hangs out with some of our high school acquaintances. When we drive past a corner in Rochester, he recalls all the changes that have taken place there. All I know is that it doesn't look right. When his recollections get to the right year, I get that pleasant twinge of nostalgia, remember something which leads my mind somewhere else, and we are both briefly transported to another time and place.

Most of the time, I can't experience this. I left for college when I was 17, and have never stayed in any place long enough to be interested in the "local" section of the newspaper. That isn't what I planned. It just happened. I have no sense of connectivity through my life. I lived in several countries where the newspapers were in several languages, and I also wandered through several cities and states in America. I never go anywhere that contains my memories. So it goes. Maybe this is why I don't get Proust, and all of his connections to the past, and I'm not impressed by all of his refined upper-crust sensibility, so I really can't find anything to relate to.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 1.85:1

  • no meaningful features

The Liner Notes

An Official Selection at both the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, Raoul Ruiz's Time Regained performs the remarkable feat of bringing the work of Marcel Proust to the screen. With brilliant execution, Time Regained realizes the mixture of space and time, of image and memory, which flows throughout Proust's multi-volume "Remembrance of Things Past." Aided by and outstanding cast of international film stars, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Emmanuelle Béart and Vincent Perez, Ruiz has made a glowing reverie on a passing age that both overwhelms and entertains.

Time Regained (the title of Proust's last volume) opens in 1922, as Proust is on his deathbed, looking through photos and remembering his life. Gradually, we watch as his own experiences give way to the characters in his novel; fiction eclipsing reality. Ruiz, with incredible visual dexterity, shows how the author's creations combine with his own experiences, like slides projected onto the wall of his room. Memories of the idyllic days of the lost paradise that was Proust's childhood alternate with the rich recollections of his life in turn-of-the-century Parisian society. The drama of the Great War, examined in the context of spectacular soirées and grand parties, becomes in Ruiz's hands, an elaborate comedy of manners.

In Time Regained, Ruiz discovers the impossible: the intangible timelessness that was the object of Proust's novels, blending both the baroque and the surreal. The result is a montage of moving snapshots and feverish dreams that makes the film the ultimate in Proustian cinema, succeeding magnificently where other adaptations of his work have failed. Enriched by stellar performances, Time Regained is a "gorgeous, meticulously crafted spectacle" (Jack Matthews, NY DAILY NEWS) that is presented here for the first time, in letterboxed format.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 3.5/4. Ebert wrote an absolutely eloquent article about this movie, which moved me far more than the movie itself.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.6 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Meticulously faithful to Proust, getting as close to his spirit as a movie can get. Successful on its own terms, but not a mainstream entertainment, despite a star-studded international cast.

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