“Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” – Leonard Shelby, Memento
I recently got sucked into one of those “Bourne” marathons that are on cable every so often, and I started thinking about the concept of memory as it applies to movies. My friends often tell me that I have a very good memory, with one even saying that I remember his own life better than he does. And yet somehow, I am drawn to characters who are the opposite – amnesiacs and people who have willfully twisted or deleted their own memories. I had an English teacher in high school who said that the two most important things you could give a character that you were writing were a name and a birthdate; without those, a character didn’t have an identity. Yet in a movie like “Drive,” where Ryan Gosling’s protagonist is known only as “Driver,” or “Fight Club,” where Edward Norton’s protagonist is essentially nameless (though 18-year-old spoiler alert notwithstanding, he really is Tyler Durden), the character’s lack of identity isn’t detrimental; in fact, it’s essential to how they act. If Gosling’s character were tied down in any way, he wouldn’t be able to, well, drive as well as he does. If Edward Norton’s character were more fully formed, you wouldn’t believe that he’d invent a Brad Pitt alter ego to change the world.
With that in mind, I think the three movies/franchises that best deal with a lack of memory are the aforementioned “Bourne” movies, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and, of course, “Memento.”
“Memento” was one of those movies that I saw in the theater in high school, and couldn’t believe what I was watching. Now, while I’ve not become the Christopher Nolan devotee that others have (https://jjspsa.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/why-i-still-dont-love-the-dark-knight-trilogy/), that movie put him on the map, and is one of the most audacious independent films you’ll ever see. Again, nearly 17-year-old spoiler here, but it turns out that Guy Pearce’s Leonard, who has anterograde amnesia, may have killed not in the name of vengeance of his murdered wife, but as a coping mechanism to deal with his trauma. In fact, he may have even been the one responsible for killing her, depending on how you feel regarding the veracity of the Sammy Jenkis story.
Regardless if you’ve seen the movie or not (and I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t), the movie posits many interesting ideas about the necessity and the imperfection of memory. Leonard says that, “If we can’t make memories, we can’t heal,” and to him, his trauma is always fresh. Yet, when you see him vengefully writing down Teddy’s name on the back of a polaroid at the end of the film, you see that Leonard’s true nature is to remain the hunter: “I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve told me? Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve made me do. You think I just want another puzzle to solve? …. Will I lie to myself to be happy? … Yes I will.” Near the end of the film, Leonard says a line that has stuck with me since I first saw the movie: “I can’t remember to forget you.”
Joel Barrish, Jim Carrey’s character in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” takes a very different path to losing his memories. Despondent over the break-up he has with Kate Winslet’s Clementine, including the fact that she chose to erase her memories of him, he seeks a way to rid his mind of all memories of her. Yet by the end of this process, he’s begging the mind-erasing scientists to leave him with just one memory of her, aching not to forget the love that they shared.
When I first saw the movie, I found the ending quite hopeful: Clem and Joel decide, even against all odds, and knowledge of the bad past they’ve shared, to give things another chance. And then, on subsequent rewatches, I’ve gone back and forth: perhaps this is a depressing ending, with two people making a pact to keep hurting each other. It’s a loop from which they are choosing not to escape. But it’s interesting: by being willing to put himself through that pain again, Joel seems to understand Clem has had such an impact on his life, and has shaped him, that without her, his whole identity is compromised. He needs to date her again, because without the earlier memories, he doesn’t know who he is.
Which brings us to Jason Bourne. He’s defined not as an expert spy (including proficiency in driving, multiple languages, hand-to-hand combat, and everyone saying his name incessantly), but by his own search for identity. Sometimes, his amnesia is played for laughs:
Usually though, it’s a struggle for him, and gives him his purpose. By the fourth film, when he’s discovered that his father started Treadstone, and that is why he, nee David Webb, was recruited for the program, he is still searching for who he is. As Bourne tells Marie in the first movie, “I don’t wanna know who I am any more. I don’t care. I don’t wanna know. Everything I found out, I wanna forget. I don’t care who I am or what I did.” Of course, in contradiction to that statement, he spends three more movies trying to find out who he is, and what he did, because he can’t function without knowing. Jason Bourne’s raison d’etre is to find out who Jason Bourne really is. When he’s about to kill Tommy Lee Jones’s Dewey in the most recent movie, Dewey tells him that he’s never been Webb, that Bourne has been inside him all along. For the archetypal hero’s journey, the final stage is the return home, with new skills, knowledge, and bravery. The Bourne movies posit that he never wants to return home, and that his purpose for being is to remain in the first stage of the hero’s journey, the departure. His lack of memory, even with information that could provide a foundation for identity, makes it impossible for him to ever feel settled.
What does it all mean? I don’t think these movies present any kind of grand unifying theory of memory. But I do think they do an admirable job of showcasing how memory of past actions, loves, and identities form who we are going forward.
Or, simply put: