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Posts Tagged ‘memory’

bench by SW

I was sitting on a bench in Battersea Park yesterday, opposite the lake. Two benches down, a woman took out a bottle of Brasso and a rag, and started polishing the brass plaque on the top of the back rest.

There must be thousands of these in the parks of London, but I hardly ever stop to notice them.

I got chatting to her. (The English ‘rule’ of not talking to strangers didn’t apply in this case because (i) we were in a park, (ii) she had a dog and (iii) she was doing something out of the ordinary!) She doesn’t polish every memorial plaque in the park. This one – the image above – is dedicated to a neighbour she knew very well. The neighbour’s relatives don’t live nearby, so she takes it upon herself to polish the plaque.

What a beautiful image of devotion to the memory of someone, like leaving flowers at a grave. I know that as Christians part of our remembering is praying for the repose of their souls. But in the wider secular context, these simple memorials and gestures are a simple way of connecting with the past and remembering those who have gone before us.

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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I had a few minutes in the British Museum last week – not long enough to visit the Hajj exhibition, so instead I wandered round the Islamic section by the back door.

I came across this beautiful unbound copy of the Qur’an from West Africa, together with its leather carrying case. There was a tradition of having an unbound edition of the book, so that the individual leaves could be distributed around a class of boys for study and memorisation, and then collected together at the end.

I have always loved unbound books, filing cards, manuals that come apart or consist of discrete detachable sections, etc. I don’t know if it takes me back to pre-nursery flash cards (although I don’t think my mum had a stash of these!), or my huge collection of Top Trumps.

I certainly remember being fascinated by a series of history ‘books’ at school which were really folders filled with facsimile documents, and one of my favourite birthday presents was a set of architectural blueprints (or whatever the technical word is) of each individual floor of the Starship Enterprise – with every lift shaft and escape hatch and ‘beam me up Scotty’ floor-disc carefully marked.

And I have had such a disrespect for books (or a love at the idea that they can easily and usefully be deconstructed) that – don’t be shocked – I have been in the habit of cutting them up into different sections so I can take just the next few necessary pages with me on the bus.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a ‘whole’, a unit, that can be taken apart and put together again – like a Lego or Meccano structure. Perhaps it’s the joy of taking out a beautiful object (in this case a piece of paper) and knowing that it has its proper place to go back to – the delight of storage. Or it’s just that something is useful and adaptable and practical.

Is there such a thing as an unbound bible? Bible flashcards? So you can take out your chapter of the week and carry it around with you without having to carry all two thousand pages? Let me know if you have something useful like this.

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What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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Czech Hitchcock - The Birds + Pyscho by Dave & Bry.

We think and talk a lot about films, but not as often about individual movie scenes. Philip French writes about the first time he saw the shower-room murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and then asks eight people from the industry to choose their favourite scenes of all time. These include the subway chase in The French Connection, the final mystical moments from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the moment when Jimmy Stewart first looks out over the dwellings behind him in Rear Window.

People judge a movie by the strength of its story and overall impact, but ultimately what they remember are individual moments and sequences. This perhaps reflects the very nature of film, which is a rapid succession of still pictures that provide an illusion of motion. And until the coming of cassettes and DVDs, few of us were able to see a picture over and over again or re-view a sequence. So we had to replay it in our minds, and naturally we’d often get it wrong. Which is how “Play it again, Sam” entered the language instead of: “Play it, Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By‘.”

James Stewart seems to have been thinking of this approach to cinema when he talked to Peter Bogdanovich about his craft: “What you’re doing is… you’re giving people little… little, tiny pieces of time… that they never forget.” This is echoed by Walker Percy in his 1961 novel The Moviegoer. Some people, his narrator says, “treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise”, but “what I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man. Likewise Jean-Dominique Bauby, the paralysed French writer, describes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly how he’d lie in the hospital recreating favourite scenes from Touch of Evil, Stagecoach, Moonfleet and Pierrot le fou. Canny film-makers have cottoned on to the idea, like James Cameron, who says: “You try to create one or more emotional, epiphanous moments within a film.”

These moments come in many forms – simple, complex, lyrical, violent, gentle, witty, romantic, revelatory – and, if they stick, become as real as any other memory. They can range from the split-second close-up of the suave spy’s missing half-finger in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps to the protracted pursuit of Cary Grant by the crop-dusting plane in North by Northwest, from the in-your-face eye-slicing in Buñuel’s first silent movie, the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou, to the puzzling sequence of the Chinese businessman’s mysterious box in the same director’s mainstream success Belle de Jour 40 years later. Like your favourite jokes, your cherished movie moments reveal something about you and, if shared, they can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, especially if one of them is the final sequence in Casablanca that features that line.

When I get a moment after Easter, I’ll post about my own favourite scenes.

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The quest for immortality can now take a digital form, with a gadget that takes a photo of the world as you see it every thirty seconds, and so has the ability to create an unbroken log of your life from start to finish. Kurt Kleiner reports for the New Scientist:

A camera you can wear as a pendant to record every moment of your life will soon be launched by a UK-based firm.

Originally invented to help jog the memories of people with Alzheimer’s disease, it might one day be used by consumers to create “lifelogs” that archive their entire lives.

Worn on a cord around the neck, the camera takes pictures automatically as often as once every 30 seconds. It also uses an accelerometer and light sensors to snap an image when a person enters a new environment, and an infrared sensor to take one when it detects the body heat of a person in front of the wearer. It can fit 30,000 images onto its 1-gigabyte memory.

The ViconRevue was originally developed as the SenseCam by Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK, for researchers studying Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Studies showed that reviewing the events of the day using SenseCam photos could help some people improve long-term recall.

It’s just about memory. But the beauty and genius of the human memory is in fact the way it allows us to forget – selectively. We all dream of having a photographic memory, but this would only create information overload. And we’d have to sift through the same stuff all over again in order to see what was significant, what was actually worth remembering in the first place – and worth forgetting. We create the person we are in the present by what we choose (consciously and subconsciously) to remember and what to forget.

Day 17 (September 27th): Memories by blythe_d.

This gadget reminds me of the lovely central idea from the 1995 film Smoke. Harvey Keitel plays a tobacconist around whose shop the main characters revolve.

He has an unusual habit: every morning, at the same time of the day, he photographs the same street corner, and puts the pictures together in a series of albums. It’s time-lapse photography on an enormous scale. He can’t explain why he does it. He just needs to do it. And it’s a really marvelous device for delivering the movie’s main theme: everything that matters, all the meaning in the world that can be condensed from holy books and vows and catechisms and poems, is right there before us. We just need to have the eyes to see it. [Imbd]

Yes, there is a longing in the human heart to hold onto the past. But the real question is how we take it into the future. And no amount of digital technology is going to help us answer that.

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There is still a mystique about film sets. The idea of being involved in some great project, in the magic of cinema; of seeing the director at work, or of meeting the stars. For most of us, it will never happen. For some, the only way in is to become an extra.

ARD Film set by nicholas macgowan.

Richard Johnson writes here about the reality of life as a ‘supporting artist’. It’s everything you’d expect: lots of waiting around; endless worrying about whether you have the right look; the free lunch; the modest fee; if you are lucky, a smile from one of the cast.

I’ve never been an extra on a film set, but I have been an unwanted intruder on a photo shoot. When my brother and I were little, on family holidays, we would play a game of trying to sneak into other people’s photographs. When we spotted someone about to take a photo, we’d do whatever it took to get in the frame – there was more time in those days, when people struggled with the focus and the light meters.

We had two strategies: You could take a long, sideways run into the far background, and stand there innocently, unobtrusively, as part of the distant scenery. Or you could walk boldly just a few feet behind those being shot, at just the right moment. It you timed it right, you made a big splash; but there was always the risk of moving too soon. 

It was a bit of holiday fun. And perhaps something more. A childlike longing, not for fame, but perhaps for immortality. I used to imagine this photo sitting in a frame on a French coffee table, or a German mantelpiece, years later; our cheeky grins jumping out from the background; our new friends wondering who these strangers were, and what they were doing.

mantelpiece by carbide.

Are these normal thoughts? Maybe not. But I do think there are some simple and almost universal longings at work here in our childish pranks and in the pull of the film set: To be part of something bigger; to have a place in the lives of others; to be remembered; to leave a mark. It’s easy to scoff at the contemporary obsession with fame, and the almost compulsive need there is to connect in all sorts of superficial ways. But maybe we should try to understand more what is at the root of these human needs – the desire to belong.

It makes you appreciate what a revolution the first Christian communities were in those highly stratified ancient societies. Places where anyone, absolutely anyone, could belong. Where no-one was excluded because of race or sex or social status or economic power. Where a new and deeper kind of belonging was possible, because of what Christ had done for everyone, and because of the hope he offered to all.

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