As you can guess, I adore cemeteries. I wrote about them monthly for four years for Gothic.Net and didn’t come close to exhausting everything I wanted to say on the subject. I love everything about cemeteries: the monuments, the landscaping, the wildlife, the history, the iconography, the people you meet in them and the stories they tell…
I never thought I’d see a boring cemetery documentary.
In May 2007 I endured Forever, a documentary by Heddy Honigmann about Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Afterward, I was so furious that I couldn’t wind down and go to sleep. Three hours of my life I’ll never get back!
For those of you who don’t know, Pere Lachaise Cemetery is an enormous graveyard, full of political and artistic celebrities. Honigmann assumed that everyone viewing the movie knew the cemetery’s history. In fact, outside the theater afterward, I heard an older couple trying to puzzle out what the graveyard’s name meant. They’d heard Pere (which means Father) as Pierre (stone). Lachaise (Father Lachaise’s last name) they translated as “the chair.” So they were struggling to figure out why the graveyard was named for a stone chair. I wondered if I should stop and clarify things for them, but I’d paid $24 for two tickets to the damn movie and wasn’t in the mood to be charitable.
Honigmann’s modus operandi seemed to be loitering at the graves of famous people with her camera crew until she could find someone to talk about their relationship with the deceased. Most of the conversations were inane: people visiting Proust’s grave who hadn’t read his work, a South Korean fan of Proust who explains his adoration in untranslated Korean, a gathering at the grave of the Communards full of atonal singing and absolutely no context or explanation. If you didn’t know who the Communards were or that they were shot down inside the cemetery before you saw the film, you’d still be clueless afterward.
Worst of all, people’s ruminations were completely unedited. Whenever an interview subject paused for thought, the camera remained trained on their faces for an embarrassing and excruciatingly long time. It wasn’t enough to hear a snatch of song by an unknown chanteuse, we had to listen to her whole song, lingering over every nuance of her gravestone for three minutes.
One of the recurring people in the movie was a Japanese pianist who’d come to Paris to study Chopin in memory of her father. Over and over through the movie, we watched her sitting at her piano, practicing, complete with sour notes and repetitions of phrases until she mastered them. The movie ended with her playing an entire etude. While any sane film maker would have used the lovely music as a soundtrack to explore the exquisite sculpture of the cemetery, Honigmann made us suffer through watching the pianist’s face in enormous closeup. For the entire length of the piece of music.
I’ve never seen so many people checking the time on their cellphones in my life.
Perhaps I could have felt more forgiving of the movie if I hadn’t been forced to sit through a mind-numbing interview with the director beforehand. The evening started late, they presented her an award (!), she gave an acceptance speech, then a movie critic interviewed her for the longest hour of my life. If only it had been light enough in the theater to read… Or if I’d guessed the damn questions were going to go on so long, I would’ve sat in the lobby. All around me, people shifted and muttered, groaning each time the interviewer posed another question. After that finally concluded with a brief Q&A, there was an intermission. When I left during the movie’s credits at 11 p.m., the film festival people were gearing up for a second Q&A. If anyone remained in the theater. It looked to me as if people were pouring out, as irritated as I was.
The highlight of the evening occurred in the lobby. A woman complained to her friends, “On top of everything else, I had a snoring tranny sitting next to me all night!” Several of us grinding our teeth in the lobby burst out laughing.
Let’s just say this: I will never watch another Heddy Honigmann documentary. I will never download a movie from Jaman, who sponsored the award given to her. And I will never forgive the San Francisco International Film Festival, for failing to warn me to come an hour late and miss the interview ordeal.
And the description made the movie sound so wonderful! I was so looking forward to it.
Here’s the trailer: