Cut Short

Philosopher/writers have often pointed out metaphors that insist on a linear view of life (i.e., “the seven ages of man”), while others are grounded in cycles (i.e., “from dust to dust”). But what if you can’t experience ‘progress’ in daily life or any of the norms of sequential reasoning because you have suffered brain damage affecting the regions responsible for memory? This deficit might well be visualized as a filmic series of re-runs and short cuts.

In fact, some of the most moving presentations about the workings of memory have come from popular films. The infinite combinations of analog and digital techniques, montage and movement, transparency and opacity have made film a particularly evocative medium for issues involving the retrieval of information. Taken as an entity, the following works simultaneously reenact a history of modern and post-modern filmmaking styles while representing models of memory that we have fashioned over time.

In Total Recall (Verhoeven, 1990), the main character searches for a false memory. Here, the age-old visual themes of art and illusion, dream and reality, suggest Plato’s model of memory as “soft wax,” taking in impressions that may not be accurate and are in any case blurry. This recalls Blowup (Antonioni, 1966), which was about accessing stored information while honing in on external details. The film metaphorically expresses the brain as a combination of analog and digital capacities. Blowup also extolled a modernist emphasis on framing and made use of shifting scale as a means of leveling abstraction and realism.

Memento (Nolan, 2001) provides a set of metaphors we have fashioned for memory (e.g., file cabinet, film reel, computer, hologram). The film connects with an ongoing history of formal aesthetic styles such as Cubism, Constructivism, (digital) Illusionism, and electronic communication. Throughout the film, we are asked to consider what we can know from touch and sight. Nolan is careful not to construct a typical film narrative (perhaps akin to film scholar Annette Michaelson’s equating narrative and linear perspective). Instead, each scene stands alone, representing one of many directions the main character, Lenny, might pursue.

In a way, Memento is an attempt to reverse-engineer the brain. Memento opens with a Polaroid fading out (or, ‘undeveloping’) while time’s arrow is played backwards. The film’s narrative is staged from different angles, forward and backward in time, in black-and-white and in color. Nolan employs numerous flashbacks. We are placed within the head of the main character, Leonard (Lenny) Shelby. His wife has been killed, and he seeks the murderer while staying at the aptly titled, Discover Inn. While confronting his wife’s assailant, Lenny was left with an injury damaging his capacity to create new long-term memories. He has evidently suffered anterograde amnesia, and although he can think and recall events from his past, he can’t make new memories.

Actually, Lenny can recall some events but only long enough to write or tattoo a note to himself. Many people have inaccurately likened memory to a file cabinet, implying that everything has its place. The idea is that each time we meet a new person, that memory is stored in a specific location. Similarly, in the film Lenny etches his emotional responses to individuals upon his body as if he were inscribing notes. But he cannot form or consolidate permanent memories of these events in his brain. Lenny continually refers to his situation as anterograde amnesia, corresponding to what some neuroscientists call a loss of episodic memory, a failure to remember life’s experiences. Lenny correctly places the location of his injury in the hippocampus, a structure deep within the brain. Damage to the hippocampus is most often considered to be responsible for anterograde amnesia in general and loss of episodic memory in particular. As was true for Lenny, the initial acquisition of factual knowledge (semantic memory) can be preserved relative to the loss of episodic memory. The implication is that different areas of the brain may be involved and one tidy, hierarchical organization is unlikely.

Memento’s reverse-narrative structure reflects Lenny’s experience. Lenny’s illness precludes his awareness of a linear narrative and releases a database of images that may be associated in different ways. Formalist unity has become fragmented amidst a rich network of associations involving the possibilities of sentient body memory. Collage and montage techniques suggest psychological disturbance. Memento presents memory as a broadcast of eternal re-runs. Simultaneously, it questions the role of vision in knowledge, asking whether the world disappears when you close your eyes. The film insists that we attempt to see situations through the eyes of the main character, who has suffered brain damage. We must always take into account Lenny’s (faulty) perspective when attempting to discern ‘objective’ facts. Lenny, with his anterograde amnesia, essentially rediscovers the world each time he opens his eyes. Through him, we come to understand that memories are already interpretations that can distort facts – a modernist conceit. Actually, this is similar to recent debates regarding “recovered” memories of sexual abuse, which are often determined as mistakenly recollected. In sum, memory is malleable and associative and, like art works, can be fabricated.

Solutions in science often come from things that do not operate according to the norm; this malfunction then provides crucial information about normal function. Memento asks whether the brain damage depicted on the screen is psychological or physical. In the film, Lenny tests this idea by recalling his prior life as an insurance adjustor, asking a client with memory loss due to damage to the hippocampus to lift an object that, when touched, gives off a mild electric shock. Typically, a person will learn to avoid being shocked because they will remember that the object is charged. Lenny did not expect that his client, Sammy Jankis, would tell him he was being shocked, but Lenny did think Sammy would not continue to pick up the charged object. In fact, Sammy repeatedly picks up the object and repeatedly gets shocked. The distinction that Lenny was exploring, however, is valid. Neuroscientists distinguish between conscious recollection of events (declarative memory) and unconscious or habitual learning (non-declarative memory). Evidence suggests that these two forms of memory are not the same and that impairment of one does not necessarily imply loss of the other. Patients with anterograde amnesia may not retain what they have learned (declarative memory) but may still be able to act on it (non-declarative memory). While not inevitable, non-declarative memory is often affected along with declarative memory in patients with anterograde amnesia, meaning that Lenny’s test of Sammy for real (as opposed to feigned) amnesia would be necessarily inconclusive – as it was. As we discover, Sammy’s condition ultimately led him to unwittingly assist his diabetic wife’s suicide, remembering how to give her insulin shots but not realizing how frequently she was commanding him to do so.

Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard once mistakenly referred to engrams as traces or memories left in the “reactive mind.” Neuropsychologist Karl Lashley also fruitlessly sought proof of such engrams. In the early-to-mid-twentieth century, neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield located different kinds of memories in specific places in the brain during surgery on conscious epileptics (the brain is not pain-sensitive). Recent models of memory have looked for ways that the mind can bind together data that are located in different regions of the brain. But precise localization of different memories in different brain regions is an incomplete model; to some degree, extensive damage to deep brain structures impairs memory regardless of the precise region affected. According to linguist Steven Pinker in his book How the Mind Works, in considering memory one also has to allow for space in the brain, processing time, and ample energy resources. Although memory has been likened to various computerized storage mechanisms or buffers that work in parallel, people generally outperform computers. Emotion and qualia play ill-defined roles as well. We can expect that issues of memory and the brain will continue to appear in the cultural landscape.

Susan Sontag demonstrated that each age seems to seize on a particular illness as metaphor of a state of being. The question “What can we know if …?” has undergone fascinating permutations. Questions of the importance of vision versus touch as a source of knowledge characterized an important part of eighteenth century scientific philosophy, resulting in the Molyneux question, “What would a blind man perceive if he could suddenly see?” The question has ramifications extending to the role of the environment in learning to see and to interpret what is seen. Similarly, if you have no memory, how do you interpret the fragmented world you now must view, when everything is seen as if for the first time? At a time in history when our life expectancy has dramatically increased, a pressing question must be, “What we can know if our memories are shot?” Our identities are created and re-created in reality within the framework of passing time. In recent cinematic time, the absence of linear plot development can be seen as a fresh parallel to the absence of memory. Without it, our personalities, like Lenny’s, are fragmented or, cut short.