Mandela Cinema

Curator's Note

Writing on Nicholas Ray’s film They Live by Night (1948), French philosopher Jacques Rancière relates having long been haunted by one of the film’s most salient shots, which shows the first encounter between the young, escaped prisoner Bowie and his paramour Keechie. As Bowie enters the garage where Keechie works, there materializes before him, as Rancière writes, “a body the likes of which no one had ever seen before: dressed in a mechanic’s coveralls, this being who is neither an adult nor a child, masculine nor feminine, who is entirely adapted to the space where it evolved but entirely alien to the people who occupy it, is a being possessed of a singular beauty born from the impossibility of classifying it under any of the genres of beauty known to the cinematographic repertoire.” By showing “a real being” that had “come to exist in the cinema,” the shot shows “Bowie’s all-consuming love for Keechie,” which would “perfectly parallel our love for cinema’s power to create a body.” Rancière confesses to harboring the desire to write about this shot, which would “be, for the cinema, what the apparition of the young girls in flower on the beaches of Balbec was for literature: the construction of a completely novel individuation, of a love object that is one precisely because it has been stripped of the identifiable sexual properties that make it an object of desire.”

There was only one flaw in this plan: the shot does not exist. The scene in the garage takes place well into the film, when Bowie and Keechie had already met twice. Keechie’s apparition before Bowie occurs earlier, in her father’s shack, and even this scene comes after they had already exchanged typically terse dialogue in the darkness of a roadside verge, with Keechie’s face shrouded in shadows, largely invisible to her future lover. And yet Rancière maintains that his vision of this missing shot was no mere trick of memory, and even notes that he was “not surprised to discover the same error in another commentator, as if we needed this missing shot to contain the impression left by this body. After all, the apparition of this singular body and novel beauty has indeed taken place cinematographically."1

Ranciere is doubtless unaware of it, but with his musings on this “missing shot” from They Live by Night, he is exemplifying a phenomenon that, in certain murky corners of the Internet, has come to be known as the “Mandela effect.”2 The term derives from the blogger Fiona Broome, who was convinced that she could remember the South African anti-apartheid leader dying in prison in the 1980s, a recollection that was shared by many of her readers, bewildered that Nelson Mandela would later become president of the country. Other collective false memories have since surfaced, giving rise to heated online conversations. Perhaps the most interesting of these, from the perspective of film criticism, is the widely held belief in the existence of a movie called Shazaam, starring the 1990s comedian Sinbad as a genie. I must confess that my initial reaction when hearing about this example of the Mandela effect was to scoff: “What are they talking about? Of course Shazaam was a real movie."3 But no. I, too, was a victim of this inexplicable delusion. There is categorically no evidence of the film’s existence beyond the feverish discussions about it on the web. We can, perhaps, readily dismiss the more outlandish theories accounting for the existence of these Mandela effects, ascribing them to slippages between parallel universes or conspiracy theories about records of the past being altered, but the sheer malleability and suggestibility of human memory, prone to invention and more wildly unreliable than we assume, is not such an easy thing to shrug off.

This was hammered home to me recently when re-watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accatone (1961). I had first encountered the film during a legendary seminar on Pasolini at the Freie Universität Berlin in 2006, which was accompanied by a complete retrospective of the Italian filmmaker’s œuvre at the Arsenal cinema. His debut film moved me so much that I watched it repeatedly, committing it so firmly to memory I felt little cause to revisit it in subsequent years. Returning to it in 2023, I was avid to experience anew an early scene from the film which was particularly vividly engraved in my recollections. Disputing the claims of one of his lowlife friends that swimming on a full stomach is life-threatening, the titular Accatone, with typically impetuous brio, decides to engorge himself on a meal and dive into the Tiber River. A crowd amasses alongside the riverbanks, their breaths bated as they await the spectacle. Perched atop one of Rome’s oldest bridges, the marble, statue-bedecked Ponte Sant’Angelo, Accatone rebuffs some heckling bystanders, says to himself “Okay, let’s satisfy the masses,” makes the sign of the cross, and athletically plunges into the waters below. In my mind, he stays submerged beneath the Tiber for several pregnant seconds, as both the onlookers in the film and the spectator of the film momentarily fear that he has indeed drowned, before our hero triumphantly emerges from the depths, his arms held aloft, bellowing in exultation at his death-defying act. I even remember Bach’s Passion of St Matthew poignantly bursting onto the soundtrack at this point, as it would at other key moments of the film.

But all this, as the renewed viewing of the film revealed, was a pure product of my capricious Hippocampus. In actual fact, Pasolini introduces a dissolve almost immediately after Accatone hits the water, transitioning to a lateral tracking shot showing the protagonist, safe and sound, playing cards with his cronies, until he expectorates in the face of the friend who had issued the initial challenge. 

I have no idea if this mental deformation of the Accatone sequence is a common affliction, but at the very least, I shared with Rancière an evocative misremembering of a sequence in a film, a sequence whose perfection was only marred by the fact that it never actually existed. In fact, the history of film criticism is replete with such missing shots and imagined sequences. It could hardly have been otherwise during the long period when films were exclusively watched in cinemas and, outside the rare opportunities to access them on an editing table, could not be viewed on demand, paused, or rewound. Critics during this time had to rely on their eminently fallible memories to retrieve information from the films they wrote about. But even in the post-1980 age of VHS cassettes, DVDs, and streams, where technology has rendered summoning up a specific moment from a film utterly effortless, the role of anamnesis in film criticism has not been eradicated – far from it. The material substrate of a film may well reside on a celluloid print or a DCP hard drive, but on a fundamental level, films only exist in our memories. And if our brains distort and pervert the films we watch when we replay them in our minds – wiping out some scenes while creating others out of thin air, twisting and contorting the plots, even re-casting roles with other actors – then this, too, has a logic which is not entirely divorced from that of the film that was actually made.

Godard once quoted a Borges anecdote about a book G.K. Chesterton wrote on Browning: knowing Browning’s poems by heart, Chesterton quoted them from memory, and saw no need to check his citations against the published record. Inevitably, of course, he made glaring errors, and his diligent editor proceeded to correct them with a standard edition of Browning’s poetry. But Borges found this to be a tremendous shame: surely it would have been infinitely more interesting to see where and how Chesterton had mistakenly conjured up Browning’s text, than to pretend as if he had a perfect recall of the poet’s writings. We could say the same about cinematic Mandela effects. Whether it is Keechie appearing before a love-struck Bowie in a grime-filled garage in They Live by Night, Accatone jubilantly rising from the waters of the Tiber in Pasolini’s film, or Sinbad playing a genie in a kids movie from the 1990s, the “false” memories we have of films are no less an intrinsic part of cinema history than their “real” counterparts.


1. The above quotes are from Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista (Oxford: Berg, 2006), p. 96.

2. My sincere thanks go to my student Felix Burose for providing the impulse for this connection.

3. I do not remember actually having watched the movie, but as someone who was a child when it would have been released, recall being generally aware of its existence. And for those who may be tempted to point out that the source of my confusion lies in another, verifiably extant, genie film made in the mid-90s titled Kazaam and starring basketballer Shaquille O’Neal (a.k.a. Shaq), I absolutely reject this hypothesis. The point, precisely, was that there were two movies so similar to each other, made in near simultaneity, much like Dante’s Peak and Volcano (both 1997), Deep Impact and Armageddon (both 1998) or Antz and A Bug’s Life (also both 1998). The nineties seemed to specialize in such uncanny cinematic pairings.

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