portrait of a senior on fire
on friendship, love, and dwindling time
Valentine’s Day has passed and the end is nigh. I don’t speak of heartbreak, let alone any impending apocalypse: I refer to the t-minus three months until the Class of 2020 passes through the Van Wickle gates for the second and final time. A certain poignancy, a melancholic sense of the inevitable, has cast a cloud over my beloved campus. Each drunken dash to Jo’s, each harrowing warning of “Caution: Bus is Turning” is but a last-minute addition to what will soon be the archives of our college lives. Naught to do but accept my fate and enjoy the last glimmers of half-fledged adulthood as best as I see fit. As I…see fit. Huh.
What do I want to do with my remaining days? I’ve already made a Brown Bucket list; it’s admittedly a paltry one. The single, measly activity I can think of is getting shitfaced in our local Shake Shack (yes, they sell wine, and yes, you too can do this). But what next? Spend as much time with friends as possible? Finally find a way inside Blueno’s hollow interior? Focus on classes?
Truthfully, I’ve always been a nostalgic person. I’m prone to passionate rants about childhood shows and the genius of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Half the songs I listen to come from iconic scenes in movies; I boot up Spotify not to uncover new singles but to find comfort in familiar hits, to reminisce about the moments that left me with my jaw on the floor. I cannot help but want to memorialize my time at Brown, to condense the myriad feelings and experiences this place has given me into a single set of objects, a select series of photos, carefully curated three-to-four minute blasts into the eardrums. And now I find myself longing to uncover as many of these mementos as possible, even in the midst of the very moments I strive to preserve.
Of course, such strategies do little but offer flickers of what was first felt. For all our technological innovation, for all our methods and means of memorialization, we cannot replicate the past, relive the moments, re-experience the magic. So what can you do but thrive in the moments you have? Exist fully in the present? Live as if you “know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them” (thanks, Andy Bernard)? And then, when you do leave those good old days—leave them in the past, and take what is possible into the present? For they never quite die. We cannot let them.
Two weeks ago, I saw a film that changed me forever. IFF’s advance screenings have always been exciting for me; my little film snob brain loves the idea of seeing a movie earlier than most other people. In any event, I walked into Granoff on a last-minute whim fully prepared to watch yet another beautifully shot but emotionally distant period piece. I walked out utterly spellbound, convinced I had just seen what was nothing less than a meditation on the meaning of why we make art and the connection fostered between its subject and its creator.
To avoid spoilers (I would never, ever spoil this for someone else), the narrative follows an aristocratic woman named Héloïse who refuses to pose for a portrait; its impending delivery to her Milanese suitor is but the first step toward a forced marriage and the complete loss of what little autonomy she has on a small island off the coast of Brittany. When a painter named Marianne arrives on the island and begins to work on a portrait in secret, she and Héloïse quickly find themselves embroiled in a passionate—and utterly forbidden—affair. If you’re sensing shades of Call Me by Your Name, you’re absolutely right; the two films are very much two sides of the same coin. But Portrait takes a divergent approach to its central romance through a melancholic examination of its inevitable dissolution. From its opening frames—in which an apprentice of the now-older Marianne questions the history behind a spellbinding painting of a woman staring out into the night—the audience is immediately positioned to experience what follows as imbued with a sense of tragedy. The film’s world will not allow its audience the luxury of hope any more than it will its characters.
Yet this could not matter less. To spoil this film is not to provide a Wikipedia-style summation of its story. No, what matters here are the particulars. The little details, the blink-and-you-miss-its, the moments where the connection between two souls on this giant rock hurtling through space defies all laws of science, society, class, and world order. It is a film where a smile cannot help but make you smile. Where a glance conveys sentiments incapable of being expressed through words. Where each successive draft of a painting, each slight variation in position and portrayal, shows further progression toward total understanding of the person before you. In short, what makes this film sing is its journey, not its destination.
I, a 21-year-old child in man’s clothing, would never dare attempt to define art in broad strokes. But I believe this film truly succeeds in capturing the flickers of passion that drive both the subject and artist of its titular portrait, such that when we finally see the finished product—its function in the “outside world” little more than a commodity to “advance” Heloise’s station in life—we have been granted access to the beauty that fostered its development, even as the purpose behind its creation proves to be little more than transactional. The Milanese suitor will see only the end product. We, the audience, have been given the true gift.
Perhaps the “best” art is that which transgresses this boundary, that which allows for subjectivity and personal history to intermix with the initial intentions behind its creation. I think of my own writing, my desperate attempts to capture the seismic shifts in worldview I have experienced over the past four years. The need to convey my newfound understanding of the world. Hell, in this very article, the pressure to capture what it is about Brown that causes me to hold it so dear. And at the end of the day, despite all my abstract and sprawling monologues about the cosmos, I find that what I really wish to tell you about are the flickers of life I have seen in others. The look of gratitude at the end of a long day of shooting film. The shared sense of exhaustion over coffees at Blue State. Giggles and goofy smiles in response to the amazing punching power of a mantis shrimp (look it up, it is insane). These moments are not planned. Not orchestrated. They are spontaneous, unexpected, and utterly profound, like the helpless smile of a woman who cannot help but love another—even as their paths forward demand otherwise, they have shared an experience. They have lived.
I will live. I will love. I will find a way into Blueno’s hollow interior. And most of all, I will know that I am doing my best in each and every one of those stupid, infuriating, beautiful little moments that make up a day on College Hill. For we cannot relive them.
And that’s okay. We get to smile all the same.