The smell of minted coconut chutney, sweet tamarind paste, and oil-drenched puris would fill my childhood home whenever I watched the Sound of Music. It was surely an odd pairing; a nonet of Austrian patriots and Mumbai street foods don’t seem like logical companions. But for me, they were as bound as sun and sky.
Like many art forms, films are permeable. We all have our rainy Sunday movie, and as much as they impress upon us, we impress back. For example, if the dahi puri—crisp fried shells stuffed with potatoes, pomegranate, cilantro, onion, and topped with colorful chutneys and salted yogurt—were not yet ready by the thundery scene where Maria (Julie Andrews) sings of her favorite things, I would pause the film and patiently wait. Obviously, this was because dahi puri was my favorite thing, and I wanted to submit to the song of strudels and mittens my own nomination. It’s this kind of reediting to the motions of my own whims accrued after hours of watching that makes the Sound of Music something far more personal and weighty than most other films. It felt counterfeit to watch it without the promise of my mother’s cooking; like reading a copy of your favorite book with annotations in all the wrong places.
Jonathan Lethem realized that movies we rewatch are less about the film itself than the memories they conjure from times past. The Disappointment Artist, Lethem’s 2005 memoir, is something of a reverie. He draws you through his life through films; the timeline of his personal development might as well be a movie marathon. For a bulk of The Disappointment Artist, which I must admit is as self-indulgent as a memoir can get, Lethem speaks of this tension between self and art. The book’s major fault was its lack of attempt to connect with the reader. Lethem folds too deeply into himself and his own idiosyncratic tastes. At times he feels so wrapped up in his own world that he forgets about the reader and their desire to relate to his stories. I felt forgotten as his audience; memoirs are of course to be about oneself, but Lethem shines the spotlight too bright upon himself, blinding the reader from seeing meaningful connections. Despite its flaws, which I blame partly on the editing, there are lessons to be reaped from this book. However, I must caution that the process is more akin to truffle hunting than berry picking—you’ve got to root through the dirt before you reach the good stuff.
One morsel was found in “13, 1977, 21,” an essay in which Lethem recounts his experience watching Star Wars twenty-one times. The piece is all over the place; he bounces between his mother battling brain cancer to finding C-3PO sexy to Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. He is moving right along with the reader and discovering facts about himself in pace with us: “I even came, within a year or so, to hate the fact that I’d seen the movie twenty-one times. Why that number? Probably I thought it was safely ridiculous and extreme to get my record into the twenties, yet stopping at only twenty seemed too mechanically round.”1 Questions posed to himself are interjected with half-baked epiphanies, yet his frenetic writing underscores a cinematic truism: Movies stay still, and life keeps on moving.
In some ways, we even begin to orbit those movies we rewatch. We build relationships around them; my brother and I reached ceasefires in long feuds over screenings of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, now an annual tradition. We learn empathy; it must’ve been the fourth run of Finding Nemo when the true weight of fatherhood fell heavy and I saw my Dad, a stoic physician both withdrawn and present, with new eyes. But most significantly, we layer years of memories and emotions into the films we rewatch; “My Favorite Things” is more of a lyrical conflation of taste and sound and anticipation than a mere song.
Einstein believed in the theory of gravitational waves—the idea that phenomena of such immense density and gravitational pull continue to send waves through the universe eons after their disappearance. I like to think of movies in this way. Some films absorb all the knotty relationships, fraught identity issues, and unresolved traumas of our lives until they become catastrophically saturated with those tensions. And then, bang! They become these weighty objects so densely packed with meaning that they continue to reverberate for the rest of our lives. For Lethem, Star Wars still sends crests of its impact some thirty years later.
What becomes quickly apparent while reading The Disappointment Artist is that so much of our lives are lived relationally to works of art. But how do we distinguish between movies we just happen to rewatch and those (if you prescribe to my loopy Einstein appropriation) which have this abstract gravity? Surely not every film we watch on multiple occasions is charged with deep meaning; I sincerely don’t believe The Devil Wears Prada, no matter how fabulous, has been that impactful on my life. It’s a hard question to answer, but Lethem’s stories are a good place to begin.
It’s a shame that I no longer have a taste for dahi puri. It took years, but eventually the tamarind started to taste too sweet and the puris too oil-laden. My mother would always offer to make some during my periodic visits home, but I would politely decline. She still offers, knowing full well I don’t like them anymore, but I think she still hopes that a remnant of that kid waiting patiently on the living room floor is alive and well. But I have changed and my relationship to my mother has too–that’s just what time does. Yet, as if by some strange ancient synesthesia, whenever I watch the Sound of Music, I have this quiet craving for my mother’s homemade dahi puri.
I think this is the ultimate test of finding the points of gravity within yourself. The movies that conjure, that remind, that inflict guilt and bestow joy, those are the movies that send waves throughout the rest of our existence. Those movies where the most indelible aspects are external—the people we watched them with, the fears we were hiding from, and even the foods we craved. When Lethem writes of Star Wars, it is known that this is no longer just a spool of film, and that knowledge encourages one to search within their own universe for those celestial movies. These essays are a reminder that things that seem most innocuous or mundane have a way of sticking with us for years on end. Sure, I’ll continue to politely decline dahi puri when I go home, but one day, when the promise of my mother’s cooking is forever lost, I’ll know where to find her.