Framing the Past

Mapping the darker corners of your mind on celluloid

Text by Tom Ridgway

Illustrations by Olivia Meier

The ancient Romans had somthing called ars memoriae or the "art of memory". In your mind you would construct a building, then when you wanted to remember something, you would attach it to an image and stock it far inside. To remember something you would simply "walk" through the building and fetch the image. Back in 80BC, a rhetorics teacher recommended that his students concentrate on images that were "novel", "marvellous",  "exceptional" or "ridiculous". He went on: "Things immediate to our eye or ear we commonly forget; incidents of our childhood we often remember best". The basis of the art of memory was that we remember in images, which burn themselves on to our brains.

The teacher's advice might explain why cinema has burrowed its way into our consciousness so successfully. There are certainly enough ridiculous images to circulate, and occasionally a few novel, exceptional and marvellous ones, too. And it certainly explains our insatiable appetite for childhood, the-summer-I-became-a-different-person flicks in which characters' memory buildings are seemingly stocked only with images of analogue technology and extinct brands of confectionary. Yet that rhetoric teacher was also on to something more profound. Memory in certain filmmakers' work is conceived of as buildings in which characters spend their time bumping up against the walls of their pasts. Places where, even if there are doors, they tend not to open to the outside, but to a Wonderland rabbit hole taking them deeper inside. They are films that take that feel-good nostalgia and give it a good kicking.

Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad is the ur-film of memory. It established the tropes that have, rather appropriately, since been endlessly replayed. A quick story recap. A man roams the seemingly endless corridors and salons of a luxurious hotel, while, in a voiceover, he narrates how he is walking through the seemingly endless corridors and salons of a luxurious hotel. He also tries to persuade a mysterious woman that they met the year before at the hotel (or another one, he's not sure) and that she should run off with him ASAP. Unfortunately for him, she spends most of the film denying they have ever met. So far, so nouvelle vague.

Yet a simple plot description cannot do justice to Resnais' visual and narrative games - jump cuts; non-linear, apparently random skipping around in time; fabulously stately tracking shots - that slowly drag you into the film's strange hotel-bound world and don't let you go. You spend the film desperately trying to work it out, attempting to apply a narrative order to the images - that means that; this means this - but it steadfastly rebukes you. It is deliberately confusing and poetically frustrating, even more so because the film's hotel-memory-container is recognisable: it puts into images how your own brain functions. Memories flit in and out of focus. Things you thought were true suddenly seem less so, and the past keeps bubbling up to infect the present. It is a place that exists while being entirely constructed, a present that is lived as the past, a labyrinth in which you are always lost even though you built the damn thing yourself.

Nineteen years later, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - essentially a horror remake of Last Year - made explicit what is only hinted at, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Resnais' film. At the end of Last Year when the man finally persuades the woman to leave with him, the man says that the first thing the couple did was get lost (again). In The Shining, Kubrick gives us a finale that includes not only an actual labyrinth but also a father chasing his son through it with an axe - a more obvious (or visionary, take your pick) vision of how the past is always threatening to destroy the present and the future would be hard to imagine.

A different solution, which didn't include killing your own child, is suggested in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kill your bad memories. "Technically speaking, the procedure is brain damage," according to the film's Dr Mierzwiak, which says it all. Yet when the film enters main character Joel's head and begins exploring the buildings of memory it contains, it comes to the same conclusion as Last Year: memories may be uncertain but they have extremely strong foundations. As Joel's time with Clementine is progressively wiped, the couple run around his head trying to escape, until they reach the beach house where they first met. It is not their house and they pretend to be the owners, a rather lovely way to suggest that even in our own memories - our own mental constructions - we are constantly playing at being other people, pretending to be something we aren't.

Gondry's metaphor for the final destruction of Clementine as a memory is the beach house collapsing - an image that recalls a scene in Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror, his strangely absorbing and defiantly impenetrable reflection on childhood memories. In Mirror, the unseen narrator, a dying filmmaker, has a dream about his mother. In it, she is a young woman washing her hair, when the room starts to collapse around her. The next scene links this beautifully unsettling image to the departure of the narrator's father, as a long tracking shot takes us through a series of doorways, deeper and deeper into his apartment. When the past seeps into the present, it seems to say, even the most reassuring spaces can become alien. Hitchcock used a similar image in Spellbound, his not-so-good film about psychoanalysis, in which a character's awakening to his own past is represented by a series of doors opening.

Yet whether it is an apartment in Moscow, upstate New York or a hotel in Germany or Colorado, all four films invoke the idea that at some point in our lives the past becomes such a constricting force that it shuts down the present, condemning us to simply repeat what we have already done. Which is what nostalgia films suggest we should do. It is as if the building we have constructed of our memories has run out of space but we are condemned to simply knock down and rebuild using the same materials, like some unhinged Sisyphean architect. In all four films, tracking shots don't explore the world as much as shrink it, so that forward movement becomes circular. Tarkovsky has the same actress play the narrator's mother and wife in Mirror. Jack in The Shining endlessly writes the same sentence before freezing to death in his (mental) labyrinth. The lovers of Last Year immediately get lost again. And Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine decide to give their relationship another go despite knowing for certain that it will once again end in recrimination and heartbreak. It is an endless, inescapable cycle of past-conditioned error that also features in a less expected setting. Check out the end credits of Wall-E, in which Wall-E's plant re-establishes humans on Earth, who then go on to simply to behave in exactly the same way that led to them living like "Jabba the Hut" on a spaceship in the first place.

Alain Resnais' Last Year in Marienbad is the ur-film of memory. It established the tropes that have, rather appropriately, since been endlessly replayed. A quick story.

So while Ancient students used their imaginary buildings to house self-improvement and make memory useful, Resnais, Kubrick, Gondry and Tarkovsky use theirs to create symbols of how memory is the ultimate entrapment, an endless repetition. It is a collective vision that, unlike the comforting memories of a simpler  past, suggests the best we can do is try to construct a cordon sanitaire of self-delusion and, if that doesn't work, to disappear. As Tarkovsky's narrator puts it: "I can't wait to see this dream in which I'm a child again - and feel happy again because everything will still be ahead, everything will be possible." Not long afterwards, he dies. §


  • Framing the past