Strangely Familiar

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N an I are chatting aimiably, having accidentally met in a movie lineup. In the last few years we’ve run into each other at a few media studies conferences. As the line slowly nudges forward we cover the usual topics: academic gossip, films we’ve seen, current projects.

“It’s amazing, how many things you do,” says N. She’s a film theorist, and a junior academic, like me. I’ve sometimes found her a bit standoffish, but there’s something tough and rebellious in her, that I like. It’s contrasted with something else in her – vulnerability? fear? – a flavour I can’t quite identify; it draws me in.

We’ve both recently been offered tenure-track university gigs. It’s serendipitious: how often do you run into someone living through the same set of life-changes as you? I’m eager to break through the fog of jealousy and half-remembered resentment that clog so many interactions with artists and academics. I’m excited to speak as equals.

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But an amused smirk tugs at the corners of her mouth. I’ve been reminiscing about a film I screened at this same cinema a year ago.

What’ so funny?” I ask.

“Well, it’s just – you do so many different things. I just can’t get over it.”

I realize she’s bestowing the faintest of praise on me: I can do a lot of things. It’s like I’m a well-trained circus monkey. Well, I get that a lot. I write books, make films, and teach. Some people find that a bit much. She’s younger than me, by at least ten years. She’s probably just feeling insecure.

“Oh I think it’s just that I work in a lot of different genres,” I say, sounding huffy, not meaning to.

N winces, almost imperceptibely. “No. You. Really. Do. Do a lot of things. It’s. Uncanny.”

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Trying to make sense of this, I mentally rummage through what I remember of Freud’s essay, “The Uncanny”, that I once read in school. It’s an essay about dreams and of dream-like but real situations, like, for example, seeing a double, or someone who reminds you of you – on the street. You start to doubt your own self: who are you? Yourself, or this other? According to Freud, moments like that make you feel mortal, aware of the frailty of your own existence. Too familiar becomes too strange.

Maybe my artistic productivity reminds her of something about herself. I’ll probably never know what – a film she wanted to make? A sense of beauty or artistry she’s grappling for in her own theoretical work?

She won’t reveal it anytime soon. Her eyes cloud over. I can’t think of anything more to say. We turn away from each other – our eager recognition has dissipated. We stare blankly towards the doors of the cinema.

I get my ticket ready for the bored, black-haired, kohl-eyed girl at the cinema door. I watch N disappear into the lobby.

I hope she finds the art she’s looking for.

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