The Rear-View Mirror: Fin de siècle

After more than two years, we’ve finally arrived at the end. This is the very last Rear-View Mirror. And what do you see when you look into the mirror?

Julie: When I was asked to write contributions to the Rear-View Mirror: more and more, small fortresses of old books on cinema and film history started establishing themselves on my desk. Behind these comforting piles I entrenched myself, discovering new and inspiring (and often infuriating) figures of early cinema, happy to be offered a space in which to tell their stories.

The main attraction of the feature, however, was always what the other contributors found and wrote about. Their thoughts and feelings about films I also loved. Most compelling were the pieces in which a setting or a personal experience came through: sketching not just the subject, but also the author’s experience and their voice. Like that time Mege chanced upon Primer. Or when Alan found that silent films aren’t, you know, silent and why that matters. Why the sublime The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is Matt’s favourite western, and the time when Mege and I had a similar idea. Of course there is much more to A Damn Fine Cup of Culture. Contributors muse on games, trailers and – more recently – the lockdown. There is even a podcast! But behind my fortress of books, scribbling my articles for the Rear-View Mirror is where I found my place.

Eric: When Matt asked me if I’d like to contribute something to A Damn Fine Cup more than a year ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of piece I’d be able to contribute. So I started off by reading the Rear-View Mirror posts, and I haven’t really stopped since. It’s been a pleasure being part of the Rear-View Mirror series, and while I found something to say in the end (always with Matt’s gentle encouragement), the one thing I’ve gained so much joy from the past 100+ entries was seeing all the bits of culture I’ve loved over the years reflected through the minds of the damn fine folks at ADFCoC who were equally – and often, even more! – enraptured by them. While some entries have lodged in my memory with more immediacy than the rest, every one of them has the special ability to transport me to a certain time and place, like Proust biting into a madeleine and immediately being whisked away.

And that’s one of the things about memories, isn’t it? That, so often, they can be bittersweet? I’ve shared Matt’s opinions on Rushdie’s oeuvre, swerving as it does from fantastical and optimistic to gradual disillusionment over where India’s ended up with time; I’ve felt Mege’s turn of the millenium entry on CSI, comparing its guilty pleasures to that feeling back when we were kids reading comics under a blanket at night with a torch; and Julie’s warmly conversational deconstruction of Goodfellas, f-bombs and all, noting details in I’d never stopped to think about, as vivid as my recollections of them were.

One of the biggest joys about the Rear-View Mirror, though, is how surprising it can be: instead of going with the crowd pleaser of a well-known anime director, choosing the man arguably as great but always in his shadow; or punching FB up to see a post on this cultural landmark that immediately brings to mind memories of my mother and her siblings guffawing around the dinner table at his risqué antics; or feeling the weight of history in a piece about Yeats, or quietly namedropping one of my most favourite poems of all time. I’ve never told you all how quietly thrilled these posts have made me, but know that they have; and I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to have come along for the ride.

Matt: Oh boy. I was quite pleased with myself when I proposed the Rear-View Mirror format: here’s something that allows us to easily do quick, fun, light-hearted weekly posts. A simple structure that would let everyone join in the fun who felt like contributing but who was perhaps a bit wary of the commitment of writing longer blog posts. A format that would let us indulge in some nostalgia but also mix things up if we felt like it.

And then people went and ran with the idea, ending up with some of the longest, deepest, most intricate posts as part of the Rear-View Mirror feature.

… I love it when a plan comes together.

For me as a contributor, I really enjoyed that the Rear-View Mirror posts went through distinct phases. After starting with one of the rare books in the series, Lincoln in the Bardo, the first couple of months were about recent damn fine culture, mostly films, but also TV series and video games. I had yet another chance to write about the sublime The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), perhaps my favourite film, together with Jules et Jim (1962). These posts also took me back to those times of my life, especially my years at University where I made the closest, most important friendships, which for me often went hand in hand with watching films and reading books and having long conversations about these with like-minded people.

Then, probably when we got to the mid- to early 1990s, the Rear-View Mirror became a mirror of my school days and of the films and games that I enjoyed as I was growing up, whether that was the 1991 classic Lemmings or Milos Forman’s 1984 adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, which I still remember going to see at the cinema with my sister and my Mozart-loving dad, something that happened very rarely. (At the time, we did go to the cinema as a family on a yearly basis, but that particular constellation was pretty unique.)

The further back we got in time, though, the more we wrote about art that I’d not had a chance to enjoy when it came out, only when I was older myself. This started feeling like travelling back in time to a period before I was born – which at times gave me a strange feeling of temporal vertigo, looking at so much culture that, if anything, was my parent’s first and foremost. It’s quite fitting, probably, that my entry for 1960 was a post about the film version of The Time Machine. If nostalgia was partly the appeal of the Rear-View Mirror, doing so on a weekly basis almost took on a therapeutic element: regularly looking at the past and ourselves in the past, refracting it all through our memories.

As we moved past 1950s, the Rear-View Mirror began changing again, as Julie joined in more and more often – and it was a joy to see her sharing her love for classic and later silent cinema in joyously erudite posts that sparkled with curiosity and a deep affection for the material. More and more, I had to resort to the trick of writing not about culture from that year but instead focusing on people who were born in the first third of the last century, such as Harry Dean Stanton (1926) or Akira Kurosawa (1910), while Mege did a similar thing, doing posts about Hitchcock’s consummate collaborator Bernard Herrmann (1911) and iconic gangster Clyde Barrow (1909), while Julie would conjure up wonderful essays about Lois Weber (1913) or Mildred Harris (1901), while Alan started contributing great posts about silent films and music or about The Artist Later Known as Carry Grant.

I knew relatively early that I wanted to end the feature in 1900. The early entries were easy – or perhaps difficult, because there was so much to choose from. Later the Rear-View Mirror became something of a challenge, albeit always a fun one. As we approached 1900 it became harder… and would only become more so as media fell by the wayside. We could have probably found books to write about, or plays, poems, paintings, and later classical music and opera… but it would have become more and more of an intellectual exercise. The works of art that we wrote about, we always had a personal connection to them – and that was a large part of what made the Rear-View Mirror a joy. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who contributed, from Mege and Eric to Alan and Julie. Whatever comes next (and there will be something, he wrote with a conspirative wink), I’m already looking forward to it. Who knows – perhaps we’ll be able to bring yet more contributors in on the fun?

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