This is my favorite moment from Citizen Kane:
A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.
I’m old enough to have memories like that, isolated flashes of recollection that light up the darkness of the past so intensely that you catch your breath. What’s more, I’ve found that the younger I was when the remembered event occurred, the more exact is my recollection today. Not long ago I ran across a CD reissue of a record I hadn’t heard in thirty years, the 1955 J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding performance of Let’s Get Away From It All, and I realized as I listened that I remembered the entire arrangement note for note, all the way from the intro to the shout chorus.
Much the same thing happened last night as I watched The Carol Burnett Show: A Reunion on Bravo. I was barely in my teens when I saw the skit in which Tim Conway played a maladroit dentist who injected himself repeatedly with novocaine while attempting to pull one of Harvey Korman’s teeth. I only saw it once–maybe twice–but when I viewed it again for the first time in decades, I was astonished to find that my recall of the skit was all but total.
I’m sure this says something about the receptivity of young minds, but I wonder if perhaps it might also tell us something equally important about the nature of art. Here is James Stewart, speaking to a British Film Institute interviewer in 1972:
I’m beginning to believe that, in films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments–not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part–you produce moments that create a feeling of believability to what you’re doing….
I was making a Western in British Columbia and we were on the Columbia Icefields. It was raining and there was heavy mist around, so we couldn’t shoot, so we were all huddled around a fire. Suddenly, out of the mist, came a man, and he was not a young man. He had a beard–it wasn’t exactly a beard, he just hadn’t shaved for a while–and he was a miner type, he was dressed like a miner. He came closer to us and he said, “Which one of you is Stewart?”
He came over and looked at me and said, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. I recognize ya. Well, I heard you was here, and I thought I’d come up and say hello. I’ve seen a lot of your picture shows, but I think the one I liked best–you were in this room and your girlfriend was in the next room and there were fireflies outside, and you recited a piece of poetry to her. I thought that was a nice thing for you to do.”
And I remembered exactly the moment, exactly the film, who was in it, who directed it, and I also realized that that picture had been released twenty years before. That man made a tremendous impression on me. To think that I had been part of creating a moment that this man had liked and had remembered for twenty years. I’ll never forget it. That’s what I mean by the moment.
I know what he means–now. I’ve become Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane, a middle-aged man with a head full of fireflies, perfectly remembered pinpoints of laughter and sorrow, ecstasy and humiliation, that crowd my consciousness without warning. Would that I also had a few flashes of life-changing insight tucked into my album of mental snapshots, but I guess that’s not how memory works. No doubt I, too, will be thinking of Tim Conway when I’m on my deathbed, or the way Van Cliburn played “The Star-Spangled Banner” when I heard him give a recital at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium in 1978, or the shy smile on the face of a pretty girl I once met by arrangement in a bookstore, not knowing what she looked like until the very moment of our meeting. I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.