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Things We Lost in the Fire

Notre-Dame de Paris / A Song of Stone

Having just watched Pompeii (2014) - an absolute failure of a film that renders the destruction and devastation of the ancient Roman city as if it were a kind of grotesque spectacle there to provide entertainment through set-pieces of sensationalist shock and awe - I make my way to the internet and find myself accosted by the news that Notre-Dame cathedral is on fire.

The coincidence is too specific to bear. While the daily news is forever full of terrible stories about death and bloodshed, suffering and exploitation, one can't help but feel something of a loss at the news of this sad destruction (partial or otherwise) of a work of art that has somehow survived the centuries. A structure of stone and brick that stood resolute through the chaos of the French revolution, the carnage of two-World Wars, the destruction of various terror attacks and the hostilities of countless protests. As a piece of architecture it has dominated the Parisian skyline for over eight centuries; becoming a symbol, an icon, a statement. Books, paintings, films and plays have been created to celebrate its once-eternal glory. And in a moment, it's gone, possibly forever.

The Fire of Notre-Dame [Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images, 2019]:

Seeing images like the one above not only hurts, on a personal level, but manages to sting even more so when I think about the experience of Pompeii and the horror of its conception. The crass, cynical commandeering of an actual historical tragedy to create moments of action and adventure suddenly seems even more insensitive; reminding us that the reality of the event in which people died, buildings fell and a vast moment of history became lost to the ashes of time, has little to do with the clichéd romantic soap-opera that the filmmakers have attached to it. To think about the destruction of Pompeii in light of the current damage of Notre-Dame only works to remind us that the overall feeling associated with the city's destruction by the erupting Mount Vesuvius is sadness. A sadness for the loss of life, the loss of history and the loss of place. This sense of loss is something the film in question fails to communicate, relying instead on a generic imitation of the Ridley Scott directed film Gladiator (2000), crossed with the dull romance of James Cameron's similarly egregious Titanic (1997).

Reading about the fire at Notre-Dame couldn't help put me in mind of a scene from a greater film; Orson Welles's rumination on the cathedral of Chartres in his masterpiece F for Fake (1973). The words come back to me as I scroll through social media images of Notre-Dame and the damage inflicted by the smoke and flames, and it helps me to rationalise why the potential loss of such a monument to history made me so genuinely upset; more so than I thought reasonable.

"Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world. And it is without signature. Chartres. A celebration to God's glory and to the dignity of man. All that's left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. There aren't any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory, of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been. To testify to what we had within us, to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in awe, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we're going to die! "Be of good heart", cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

F for Fake [Orson Welles, 1973]:

As an addendum of sorts, I'd like to acknowledge that one moment from Pompeii does redeem the experience of the film, and quite significantly. It's in the final scene, which, while still working to fulfil the narrative arc of its boring, unearned love-story, manages to express the sense of life eroded, or of a moment frozen, historically, in time. An image of life itself made history by a tragic event. It occurs between the contrast of two different shots, each powerful in their own way, but more powerful when placed together in unison. In the first shot, a couple kiss and are then claimed by the erupting wall of molten ash and smoke that moves across the landscape, destroying it. In the second, the same kiss shared by the now long-dead lovers is preserved forever, in stone.

Pompeii [Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014]:

I'm reminded of this final image when I look at the sad stone face on the monument of Chartres, as documented by Welles, and when I think of the ruined stone and slate destroyed by the fire at Notre-Dame. As a film Pompeii is still very much a failure for all involved, though especially for its director, Paul W.S. Anderson, whose previous run of films, from Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010), through to The Three Musketeers (2011) and his best film, Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), had seen him arrive at a style of filmmaking that was bold, technically adventurous and arresting in its use of form. With Pompeii, Anderson has returned to the safety of coverage and illustrated text, creating a film that is as visually bland and morally tasteless as its generic storytelling.

However, this one cut between shots, this attempt to express the tenderness of the human spirit, in protest against the fire and brimstone reprisals of the natural world, is beautiful and inherently cinematic. In this context, and in the context of the various thoughts about history, and the inevitable loss of history, art, culture, life, etc, which now form before me, these shots evoke something about survival and perseverance; that we remain. Even in the face of disaster, somehow a gesture, a spirit or the traces of something else, survives. It struck me as incredibly hopeful, almost yearningly so.


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