How much would you risk to retrieve your lost memories if they felt important to you? The movies I’ve been watching lately happen to have themes revolving around this question. They explore how past memories shape our identity and ideas about who we are, affect our relationships, and reveal information that is crucial to our sense of self.
Love, loss and risk
In The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, based on Walter Mosley’s novel, Samuel L. Jackson plays Ptolemy Grey, a 91 year old man suffering from dementia. We first meet Grey in a pitiful state, living a lonely life with no ties to the outside world, except through a caring nephew who comes to his apartment to check in on him.
As the story progresses and Grey’s condition deteriorates, we watch him endure an unconventional treatment that he opts into at enormous risk to his life in order to regain his memory. The treatment uncovers memories that bring him both pleasure and pain, revealing the deep loves, losses and betrayals in his life. Yet these recovered memories ultimately bring life back to Grey’s days. We witness his transformation as he exercises agency in his life and makes some tough choices that he can live (or die) with.
The miniseries Surface, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, immerses us into the bewildering life of Sophie, a woman who has just survived a traumatic accident. She has lost memory of everything about her life: who she is; who her friends, loved ones and acquaintances are; what matters in her life. The episodes I’ve watched so far hint that what happened to Sophie may not have been an accident; that perhaps she or someone else had a hand in it. Sophie appears to have a perfect life: financial security, a beautiful home, a loving and supportive husband, a loyal friend, a caring therapist, and a mystery man whose place in her old life she is trying to understand.
All these people appear to be helping Sophie heal and unravel the mystery of the incident. But who are they really? Doubt is cast on all the characters (including Sophie) and we find ourselves questioning everyone’s motives and wondering what they are hiding. Like Grey, Sophie finds out about an experimental treatment that could help her retrieve her lost memories. Her therapist is opposed to it because it’s too risky, but Sophie is desperate to find answers. There is a sense that underneath Sophie’s seemingly perfect life, something sinister is striving to surface.
The seductive past
Reminiscence stars Hugh Jackman as Nick Bannister, who describes himself as “a private investigator of the mind” and uses a machine he invented to help his clients relive their forgotten memories. The movie is set in a dystopian future where climate change has brought Miami partially under water, and temperatures are so high during the day that people live their lives by night. (It’s scary how sci-fi is becoming current reality – evacuations in Florida due to flooding are currently underway as I write this). Life has become so bleak that the only way to feel alive is to revisit a nostalgic past. The movie explores the lure of this idealized past that becomes an escape for people living in a state of individual and collective despair.
But the past is complicated. Nick’s words, “Nothing is more addictive than the past”, prove to be premonitory as he falls victim to the very addiction he cautions against. His assistant, Watts Sanders, played by Thandiwe Newton, tries to steer Nick away from his obsession with a client whom he falls in love with while working to help her uncover a memory. The client disappears and, using his memory machine on himself, Nick gets embroiled in the dangerous world of his client’s past in an effort to find her and unravel the mystery of her disappearance. Meanwhile, Watts helps Nick fight for his life and tries to keep him rooted in present day reality.
Memory – blessing or curse?
The exploration of trauma, love, risk and loss as they relate to memory in these movies makes me wonder: how much should one risk to retrieve lost memories? Since memory is a mixed bag, all of it comes back: the good, the bad and the ugly. If we could selectively pick memories that keep us comfortable and help us avoid pain, would it be worth it?
Memories are complex and confounding – they reveal and they obscure, many times offering more questions than answers. They can be both life giving and life threatening, trapping us in seductive illusions and false realities – we may find ourselves addicted to an escapist fantasy or trapped in a terrifying hell. We may learn truths about ourselves and others that could liberate or paralyze us.
Memories show us what core values and mental programs run our lives, revealing our strengths and weaknesses, our evolution or regression. If we don’t have our memories to remind us of what has been, how do we find our place in the world? How do we know who we are, or decide who we now choose to be?