Today we are talking about movies about memory, something that lots of movies have dealt with in one way or another, for both dramatic and comedic effect.
(Incidentally, this is #33 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
Right away what comes to mind if we’re talking about movies about memory is Memento (2000 – directed by Christopher Nolan). The story is about Leonard Shelby, a man with anterograde amnesia who is therefore unable to make and store any long term memories. The film’s story is all about how Leonard’s condition opens himself up to being manipulated by various people, including an undercover police contact, a bartender, and ultimately, Leonard himself. More than that, the film’s presentation attempts to mimic the Leonard’s experience by presenting much of its narrative in short chunks that are shown in reverse-chronological order (so viewers constantly find themselves in situations that they do not understand how they got into). Memento is a gripping noir-ish thriller that definitely makes a mark, even if it does not completely make sense (there is a really long sequence in the chronological middle where Leonard is able to maintain his intentions, necessary for the story, but inconsistent with what he’s been able to do up to that point). It’s not my favorite film about memory (that’s coming up) but it’s a pretty iconic one.
The idea of people who regularly lose their recent memories show up in some other movies that I’ve seen as well, but where it’s played mostly for laughs. Fifty First Dates (2004 – directed by Peter Segal) is a romantic comedy about the concept, in which Adam Sandler becomes the one person who is able to help Drew Barrymore move forward with her life, even if she can’t remember most of it. Clean Slate (1994 – directed by Mick Jackson) uses the same idea to tell a mystery-comedy. Neither film is a great success. A bit better is Finding Nemo (2003 – directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich), which helps popularize the myth that some fish have a memory span of only a few seconds with the breakout character Dory voiced by Ellen Degeneres.
Amnesia plays a role in lots of films, with them often beginning with the main character waking up someplace, not having any idea who they are and / or how they got there. Some examples I can think of include The Bourne Identity (2002 – directed by Doug Liman), Cowboys vs. Aliens (2011 – directed by Jon Favreau), Cube (1997 – directed by Vincenzo Natali) or Paycheck (2003 – directed by John Woo)–although in that case it’s obvious that it’s the main character himself who has elected to give up his own memory. Mirage (1965 – directed by Edward Dmytryk) has a variation of this, in which the main character has amnesia, but is so confused that he doesn’t realize it at first. That’s probably a more realistic approach to amnesia (he said, without having any medical knowledge at all).
My favorite movie that starts with this gimmick is Dark City (1998 – directed by Alex Proyas) which is about aliens who have created an environment for humans to live in, in which they periodically use technology to adjust reality, alter memories and experiment on humanity. Their intention is to do this to film’s main character, played by Rufus Sewell, to discover if giving someone the memories of a serial killer will actually turn them into a serial killer? In the end, John Murdoch (as he is known) overcomes his enemies thanks to an ally giving him a lifetime of false memories training him how to use special abilities to defeat his alien captors.
Then there’s another category of movies in which the main character does not remember his or her own past, but it’s something that they’ve been living with for some time. This would include The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996 – directed by Renny Harlin), Hancock (2008 – directed by Peter Berg), Wolverine from X-Men (2000 – directed by Bryan Singer) and its sequels, the sequels to The Bourne Identity, and the sequel to Finding Nemo, Finding Dory (2016 – directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane). In Total Recall (1990 – directed by Paul Verhoeven) and its remake (2012 – directed by Len Wiseman), the main character cannot remember his own past because false memories have been implanted over his real ones. At least, that’s what we assume if we read everything quite literally.
Total Recall is not the only movie which has used amnesia to allow a “bad guy” main character to basically reinvent themselves. You see this also in The Unknown (2011 – directed by Jaume Collet-Serra), in which an accident causes an spy to believe that his cover story is reality, and to forget his true mission and role. Meanwhile, in Oblivion (2013 – directed by Joseph Kosinski), Tom Cruise plays a guy who believes his memories have been wiped following an alien invasion, but discovers eventually that he is actually one of thousands of clones who were originally programmed to help destroy the human race.
These movies are part of a subset of others which use the question of memory to create confusion over what is real and what is not. We see this in Blade Runner (1982 – directed by Ridley Scott), in which the main character might or might not be an artificial life form; The Forgotten (2004 – directed by Joseph Ruben) in which the main character finds she is part of a cosmic experiment to remove any evidence of her child’s existence from the universe; Vanilla Sky (2001 – directed by Cameron Crowe), where the main character doesn’t remember putting himself into cryogenic suspension; and Spellbound (1945 – directed by Alfred Hitchcock) in which a man’s amnesia makes him believe he is a murderer.
Another approach to the whole thing of amnesia are those movies in which only the character is confused–the audience is fully aware of the reality of the situation. You get this in Regarding Henry (1991 – directed by Mike Nichols) in which a man’s loving wife and daughter help him to recover after he survives a shooting; While You Were Sleeping (1995 – directed by Jon Turteltaub), in which a man’s amnesia opens the door for the comical misadventures of a woman who has an unrequited crush on him; and The Majestic (2001 – directed by Frank Darabont), in which a blacklisted Hollywood writer is mistaken for a war hero who went missing. Men in Black (1997 – directed by Barry Sonnenfeld) has a funny approach to this where a government department keeps the existence of aliens on earth a secret by regularly wiping people’s memories with a small flashing light. A more intense version of that sort of story is The Notebook (2004 – directed by Nick Cassavetes) in which a woman with dementia is brought back to temporary lucidity by having the story of her youthful passion read to her. It’s a mixed bag of a film, but packs an emotional wallop, and has been known to leave viewers bawling.
Now, not every movie about memory deals with amnesia. There are a lot of films about people having to face the truth of their pasts, to confront the trauma they have experienced. Rain Man (1988 – directed by Barry Levinson) has elements of this. But it’s stronger in the more recent The Dressmaker (2015 – directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse), in which a woman has to confront the incident which caused her to be ostracized from her community. She’s confused about it, not because she has amnesia but because she was a child and didn’t fully understand what was happening. An even better take on this idea is The Railway Man (2013 – directed by Jonathan Teplitzky), in which a former POW in a Japanese World War II prison camp is unable to enjoy his married life because of the nightmares that haunt him from that time. He won’t talk about the ordeal so his wife has to seek out understanding from others as to what actually happened. He eventually must face things when he has the opportunity to confront one of his tormentors. This movie is as much about memory as all the other amnesia films that I’ve mentioned, but in a way that is overall more moving for how plausible it all is.
But it’s not my favorite film about memory. That’s got to be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004 – directed by Michel Gondry). Indeed, this movie largely takes place inside a set of memories. After breaking up, Clementine (Kate Winslet) undergoes a procedure which erases all memory of Joel (Jim Carrey) from her mind. Devastated, Joel decides to have the same thing done to him, but changes his mind once it all starts to happen. Most of the film features Joel frantically racing through his memories of his relationship attempting to hold onto, while the world seems to disappear around him. To complicate matters, one of the technicians who is working on Joel has himself fallen in love with Clementine, and is using his knowledge of their relationship to try to recreate her experiences but with him instead. Meanwhile, another technician is involved with a girl who has had her memory erased several times, so that she’d forget the affair she keeps having with her boss, the procedure’s inventor.
This film talks about kind of the opposite concept as Dark City (mentioned above), where we see that removing someone’s memories does not fundamentally change them as people. Even Joel and Clementine, having both completely forgotten about the other, find themselves meeting and getting together again. But the movie doesn’t leave them there, it has them discover their history, and have to face the question of whether they begin again a relationship which has already failed. They do, and you could consider that a happy ending, but you could also interpret it pessimistically: both Joel and Clementine are unable to rise above their natures, intentionally walking into something which is basically doomed. Now, my interpretation is not quite as bleak as that, I appreciate the tinge of sadness and complexity that the movie has up until its end.
Full Disclosure: I have never seen Rashomon, but I gather you could say it was about memory in the sense that the stories we hear are different because they reflect different people’s perceptions of a situation. I guess you could say the same about some films I have scene, like Courage Under Fire (1996 – directed by Edward Zwick) or even Citizen Kane (1941 – directed by Orson Welles), although in that case it’s not different people recounting the same incident, but rather different people recounting stories of the same individual.
I also have never seen Mulholland Drive, The Hangover, or Unknown (the other one, with Jim Caviezel, from 2006).