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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Recalling movies written from memory

"The problem -- it's up here," declared Keanu Reeves, jabbing a finger at his forehead in 1995's "Johnny Mnemonic." Reeves was playing a data courier who'd wiped his childhood memories in order to store other data in his neurons, and while "JM" has largely been forgotten, the wave of mentally challenged movie heroes continues to build.

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Of course, long before Johnny, amnesia had long been a favorite device of suspense thrillers and film noir, most notably in films such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" and George Marshall's "The Blue Dahlia." And yet, over time, it became more of a cinematic cliche except in movies that sought to channel the spirit of classic noir, like "Amateur" or "Mulholland Drive." The notion of memory impairment, however, has seen myriad variations, especially over the past decade, ranging from false and implanted memories to repressed memories and other memory vs. reality dissonance.

Why this recent trend? Well, there are several paths one can take to answer that question, and one certainly starts with author Philip K. Dick, whose novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" became the classic sci-fi noir flick "Blade Runner," which featured humanlike robots who had been programmed with false memories of their childhoods. In book after book, Dick -- who himself was plagued with visions of past-life experiences as a Christian in Rome circa 100 A.D. -- was digging at the idea that, as he put it, "Your world -- and your memories -- could be delusions and you'd have no way to detect it."

Dick died in 1982, the year that "Blade Runner" was released, but his reputation as a master of mind-bending fiction continued to build among a generation -- many of whom indulged in mind-expanding substances and went on to become filmmakers. The 1990 "Total Recall," based on a Dick short story, saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in the year 2084 receiving memory implants that awaken a forgotten past life, while 2002's "Minority Report" featured a kind of reverse memory, where precognition allowed criminals to be identified and caught before they even committed their crimes. 2003's "Paycheck" had Ben Affleck as a tech hacker, whose employer erases his memory to protect trade secrets.

Dick's pop metaphysics and ontological nightmares have actually received better treatment in the films they've inspired, rather than the direct adaptations. Most notable is "The Matrix," in which Keanu Reeves pops a red pill and learns that the world as he knows it is nothing but an evil illusion, a false memory that he must dispel to save himself and his friends. But also in its wake were B-movies like "Cypher," "Dark City" and "The Forgotten," in which memories and reality never quite seem to jibe.

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George Clooney and Natacha McElhone in steven Soderbergh's "Solaris"

And let us not forget Charlie Kaufman, a Dick fan himself, who has even penned an adaptation of Dick's bad-trip opus "A Scanner Darkly." "Eternal Sunshine" certainly bears the hallmarks of Dick -- a belief in the fluidity of time is clearly reflected in how the film's storylines run both forward and backward simultaneously. Also, its depiction of memory as unreliable and subject to manipulation is pure Dick-ian paranoia.

The other certain influence on this wave of films has been the mass embrace of pop psychology in the United States, in particular the increased fascination with "recovered memories." This began as fringe science, surfacing first in the jargon of UFO abductees who spoke of "missing time" (parodied nicely in "Men in Black") and, later, under hypnosis, of the anal probes of gray aliens. Then there were new-age gurus like Shirley Maclaine who championed the notion of past-life memories, daydreams wrapped in psychobabble and treated as fact. Nowadays, however, it's become accepted -- albeit hotly debated -- "science," with recovered memories serving as admissible evidence in court. (The recent trial of child-molesting priest Paul Shanley is but one example.)

The event that really brought this to a head was the McMartin trial, which lasted from 1983 to 1990, and was depicted in the 1995 film "Indictment." James Woods and Mercedes Ruehl play battling attorneys in a case that saw the owners of a California day-care center accused of "ritual satanic abuse" of children. The charges were fueled by an unlicensed therapist who managed -- using plenty of leading questions -- to have the children discover previously unknown memories of abuse. The marathon trial ended with no convictions, but it certainly made "recovered memories" a household term.

The best examination of this issue came in 2003's most gripping documentary, "Capturing the Friedmans," which reconstructs -- through unnervingly candid home-movies and interviews -- the meltdown of a Long Island family accused of child abuse. Arnold Friedman was convicted of molesting boys in the computer classes he taught at home, but the kicker comes when interview after interview reveals students who now deny the alleged incidents. The only person sticking to the abuse story is -- surprise, surprise -- a guy who "recovered" the memories through guided hypnosis.

As anyone who's seen "The Manchurian Candidate" knows, hypnosis is the best technique to control someone's mind, to create memories that never actually happened. If anything, much recent cinema suggests that traumatic memories are inescapable. Starting with "Jacob's Ladder," and moving right on through films such as "Chasing Sleep," "The Machinist," "Open Your Eyes" (and the U.S. remake "Vanilla Sky"), "The Butterfly Effect" and "The Hulk," we see protagonists who wish to remain in blissful denial of their current condition, but whose repressed memories keep bubbling up. This is a riposte to the idea that the mind can willfully blank out painful moments from the past; ditto for the procedure offered by the Lacuna clinic in "Eternal Sunshine," which erases those painful memories the mind can't dispel.

Lenny, the confused protagonist of "Memento," lacks short-term memory due to a head injury, but his long-term is just fine . . . or so we think, until the final reel reveals that his memories of his wife's murder may not be accurate, and that his revenge may be on the wrong guy. This film addresses the complexity of memory in a way that "recovered memory" therapists refuse to admit: memory -- as Freud pointed out -- is not immutable, it's subject to re-interpretation, even re-transcription, based on where we're at now. As such, it can't necessarily be relied on as "truth" -- a point that still remains best proven by "Rashomon." Steven Soderbergh's remake of "Solaris" was another nice example of memory's frailties: Given an opportunity to bring his memory of a dead lover back to life, George Clooney is plagued by the idea that he's remembering her wrong, that his memories of her are only a surface approximation of all that she was.

"Memento" may have pushed the memory angle as far as it can go, though. What was used to mind-bending effect in "Memento" has now become cheap throwaway schtick for a ditzy fish in "Finding Nemo," or a high-concept gag for an Adam Sandler film, "50 First Dates."

Some things are best left forgotten, but judging from the recent wave of science-fiction films, inner space is still the place. Look for Richard Linklater's version of "A Scanner Darkly" sans Kaufman's script, to be released this fall, starring, yet again, Keanu Reeves -- this time as a narc who wrecks his brain on drugs and can't remember whether he's a cop or criminal. (G.F.)

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