Broadly speaking, Zachary Oberzan’s Your Brother. Remember?, an experimental video essay in which Oberzan and his older brother faithfully reenact home movies they made together 20 years earlier, is the best work of its kind since Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg, with which it shares not just formal qualities, but emotional and intellectual ones as well. Like Journals, and Rock Hudson’s Home Movies before it, Your Brother. Remember? resembles something of a video collage composed of largely preexisting material. Oberzan culls his footage from three primary sources—Jean-Claude Van Damme’s cult classic Kickboxer (1989); the infamous mondo “documentary” Faces of Death (1979); and home movies made by Zachary and his brother, Gator, in which they attempt to recreate scenes from those two films, which they shot around 1990—and combines it with new, meticulously choreographed reenactments of their former imitations. What results is a surprisingly sophisticated meditation on the specificity of cinematic representation and the impossibility of successfully reclaiming the past, as well as a secondhand character study as exhaustive and authentic as any in recent memory. That it does all of this amid Van Damme impersonations and toilet humor is what elevates it from a work that’s merely accomplished to something like a work of genius.
It’s one thing for a film to engage with themes as difficult as mortality and memory, but it’s another thing entirely for a film to do so and still be overtly and immediately entertaining. I think the trick to Rappaport’s success with his essay films was, in part, that he delivered intellectual rigor surreptitiously, smuggling in an important thesis under the guise of levity and humor. That’s an effort redoubled by Oberzan: Though disarmingly personal and unbearably sad, Your Brother. Remember? opens as a farce, and if tragedy is in its heart, on the surface it barely even approaches tragicomic. Part of the brilliance of this approach is that it encourages an emotional connection to the material to develop organically, so that when we find ourselves ultimately bowled over it’s as surprising as it is cathartic. It’s telling that the only time Your Brother. Remember? adopts a remotely serious tone (during a candid interview with Gator as he suffers symptoms of withdrawal), it cuts almost immediately to a jokey musical montage and dance number performed by Gator, brought by the power of cinema back to good health. It’s been said of Cassavetes that “his comedies face up to tragedy and reject it,” and that’s an accurate description of what this film does so well.
Your Brother. Remember? also qualifies as an exceptional work of film criticism, at least insofar as it interrogates itself and the medium with insight and feeling—both rare qualities in what’s ostensibly a personal documentary. If Oberzan’s reappropriation of preexisting film footage brings to mind the work of Rappaport (and Godard before him), his self-reflexive interest in home movies seems somewhat more novel, with Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil being perhaps the closest analog. But Your Brother. Remember? distinguishes itself from Marker’s opus in two important respects: the first is that by revisiting his own home movies, Oberzan plunges himself into a history that’s intensely personal, which lends the proceedings an almost diary-like intimacy and appeal; and the second is that Oberzan makes no attempt to efface his own place within the history he’s examining, and his own redemption as author is just as significant to the point of the project as Gator’s is as character and principal subject.
But Oberzan is skeptical of his own privileged position as the teller of the story and controller of its meaning: The film opens with Oberzan on stage delivering an extended monologue in character as Van Damme, but it’s eventually revealed that the monologue is a word-for-word reenactment of both the opening monologue from Faces of Death and, later on, a monologue told by Gator. It might seem like a minor point, but as a narrative gesture it’s sort of brilliant: What we presume to have been authored by the film’s director is actually a calculated reiteration of something said spontaneously by his subject. His authorship and the meaning of his words is subverted, and in an important sense Oberzan relinquishes control.
On a more superficial level, there’s a surprising degree of enjoyment to be found in simply watching Oberzan and his brother struggle to recreate their old home movies without deviating from the source material. Actions and gestures that were totally incidental in 1990 are locked into place permanently by the camera, and matching the nuances 20 years later is nearly impossible to perfect. But even when the replication gets close (some sequences show an attention to detail that must have taken hours to reproduce accurately), time always manages to wedge itself between the home movies of then and now, one iteration ever-receding from the other. Oberzan is acutely aware of the sadness in that distance, and in the end his project seems more concerned with the dissonance produced by his recreations than any attempted similarity. Even if they could perfect their reenactments, what would always emerge as the most striking feature is how ultimately unalike the two home movies have to be, how necessarily changed the brothers are even when doing and saying the same things. Their childhood fantasies may be far removed from how Kickboxer actually looks and sounds, but their adult selves are just as distanced from the past—and that distance, though of course inevitable, is tragic. That’s the beauty of the film: It shows us the terrible finality of the recorded image, a past captured but impossible to relive.