Few themes in the Bible are as persistent as the call to remember: whether it is God commanding the Israelites never to forget how he brought them out of Egypt, or Jesus telling his followers to eat his body and drink his blood in remembrance of him, or the thief on the cross asking Christ to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, the role that memory plays in shaping our identities and in binding us to each other and to God is integral to the faith.
Memory has also become an increasingly prominent theme at the movies, going back a few years to Memento, an ingenious film noir about a man who has been unable to create new memories ever since he was knocked head-first into a mirror while trying to protect his now-dead wife from a rapist who broke into their house. Despite his condition, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is determined to hunt the murderer down and kill him, so he surrounds himself with notes and Polaroid photos, and he tattoos the most important clues to his very skin. These notes, he says, are more objective, more true, than mere recollection, which can be unreliable.
But the film gives us ample reason to doubt Leonard’s claim. Director Chris Nolan arranges the scenes in reverse order — beginning with the execution of the man Leonard believes is guilty of the crime, and working backwards as Leonard builds his case — and we realize there have been points in Leonard’s quest where even he had the nagging suspicion that someone was trying to manipulate him into killing the wrong person. Shadowing all his efforts is the knowledge that his thirst for vengeance may never be satisfied, if he cannot remember that he achieved it; as Leonard himself puts it, “How am I supposed to heal if I cannot feel time?”
Breaking the story into shorter scenes and showing them in reverse order is a brilliant way to put us in Leonard’s frame of mind. As each scene begins, he has no idea how he got there — and neither do we. It also underscores the fractured nature of Leonard’s identity, and thus, implicitly, of all human identities. In “Memento Mori,” the original short story (by Nolan’s brother Jonathan) on which the film was based, this theme is made explicit, as the protagonist tells us that all persons are “at the mercy of the limbic system, clouds of electricity drifting through the brain.” He concludes: “Every man is a mob, a chain gang of idiots.”
Interestingly, Saint Augustine might have agreed with this, to a point. In his Confessions, the Bishop of Hippo said it is memory that holds our experiences together, and without his memory, there would not be a single Augustine, who left the hedonism of his youth to devote himself to Christianity, but many Augustines, each one living in the moment without any connection to his past or future. However, Augustine recognized that his own memory was flawed, and so he ultimately appealed to the memory of the transcendent God, who alone has a perfect view of reality, and can thus keep our “scattered selves” united to each other and to him.
Since Memento, the theme of short-term memory loss, and the potential to overcome such fragmentation of the self through bonds of family and friendship, has cropped up in more mainstream films such as Finding Nemo and 50 First Dates. In addition, a striking number of films have also explored the role that memory plays in giving and receiving forgiveness.
Take The Bourne Supremacy, in which Matt Damon reprises his role as Jason Bourne, the amnesia victim who discovered, in The Bourne Identity, that he was, until his memory went blank, a highly trained assassin working for an ultra-shadowy branch of the CIA. When last we saw him, that branch had been shut down, and Bourne had turned his back on his former life and settled down to a life “off the grid” with Marie (Franka Potente), a German woman who not only helped him stay one step ahead of his former colleagues but also humanized him, making him less of a killing machine and more of a person. Alas, any chance of a happy-ever-after is ruined when a Russian assassin named Kirill (Karl Urban) begins killing CIA operatives and leaving clues behind that point to Bourne. Kirill also tracks Bourne down and tries to kill him, too, to keep the CIA chasing a phantom — but he kills Marie, instead, and Bourne, who survives the attack, assumes the CIA is out to get him again.
Most amnesia movies are ultimately about redemption: someone’s slate is wiped clean so that he or she can start afresh. But they are also often about atonement — one must retrieve one’s memory in order to make right the wrongs of the past — and The Bourne Supremacy is a heartening case in point. As Bourne stalks his former colleagues, he is haunted by resurrected memories of his first assignment, in which he killed an idealistic Russian politician and his wife and made it look like a murder-suicide. Once the nature of these memories becomes clear to him, Bourne sets out to find the couple’s orphaned daughter, to confess what he did and to correct the false impression that has tainted her memory of her parents. What’s more, Bourne holds back from seeking cold-blooded revenge against his CIA bosses because he clings to the memory of Marie, even after she is gone. Thanks to Marie, he is more than just a set of lethal reflexes; he has grown, and may continue to grow, as a moral human being.The role memory plays in letting go of the past is also central to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry from a script by Charlie Kaufman. The film concerns Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), who is heartbroken because his girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has not only broken up with him but has had all her memories of him erased at a clinic called Lacuna Inc. Joel decides to return the favor by having all of his memories of her erased, too, but as the technicians visit his house and delete his memories one by one — working backwards, as in Memento — Joel is increasingly reminded of all the things he used to like about Clementine. He begins to hope he can save at least one of those memories; but alas, he cannot, and the erasure of Clementine from his mind becomes a moving analogy for the death that awaits us all.
While all this is going on inside Joel’s head, the secretary for Lacuna (Kirsten Dunst) shows up at Joel’s house and has a bit of a fling with one of the technicians, before throwing herself at one of the others. She says Lacuna is performing a great service, because they give people a chance to “begin again”; she compares it to becoming “pure” like a baby.1 But at the end of the film, she discovers that the boss she has flirted with has actually had an affair with her before, and has deleted her memory of that affair. This bothers her deeply; it seems that, given the chance to “begin again,” she was just going to make the same mistakes over and over, instead of learning from them and moving on. So, to get revenge, she writes all of Lacuna’s patients to let them know that some of their memories have been deleted, and she sends them the taped interviews in which those patients explained why they wanted their memories erased in the first place.2
These tapes arrive just as Joel and Clementine are getting re-acquainted, and the two seemingly new lovers get a shocking preview of the conflicts and mutually bitter criticisms that await them once they get to know each other again. One of the key questions posed by this film is whether people can get past their knowledge of each other and the hurts they cause each other to forge deeper, even more meaningful relationships, or whether they must always revert to some sort of naïve, innocent, pre-critical state. Clementine’s name — which means “merciful” — sounds hopeful enough, but the title of the film alludes to a poem by Alexander Pope, based on the story of Abelard and Eloise, in which Eloise has become a nun yet remains torn between memories of her passion for Abelard and the vows she took before God. The film ends with an image of two people running on a snowy beach, and it loops this image three times before fading to the credits. Is it a sign that Joel and Clementine are doomed to repeat the cycle of meeting, breaking up, and erasing each other from their lives? Or is there an affinity with Hirokazu Koreeda’s film After Life, in which eternal happiness is boiled down to a single memory and all else is obliterated?
How will our memories survive — or be transformed — when we leave this life behind? We don’t know. But with Augustine, we can rest assured that in God’s perfect but loving memory, our lives will ultimately find their narrative shape.
Peter Chattaway lives in British Columbia and writes about movies.
1. In Adaptation, also written by Kaufman, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) similarly pines for a return to innocence when she says, “I want to be a baby again. I want to be new.”
2. Other recent films in which outside agents manipulate the memories of others include The Final Cut, in which some parents give their unborn children brain implants that will record everything those children see and hear from the moment they are born; The Forgotten, in which an alien tests the family bond by deleting parents’ memories of their children; and Code 46, in which a futuristic government erases the memories of those who have broken certain reproductive laws but are to be readmitted into society, while leaving intact the memories of those who become outcasts.
— A version of this article was first published in Books & Culture.