Posts Tagged ‘memory’

Sometimes you rush to see a movie, like Southland Tales in 2007, because it was Richard Kelly’s follow-up to Donnie Darko and it starred The Rock and Jon Lovitz, and Sarah Michelle Gellar singing “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime,” but then once you actually see the movie, you don’t know what to think because the whole thing’s raw uncut early-21st Century insanity, it cuts way too close, and at the same time it’s so far over your head, your critical faculties have been rendered feeble, and though you offer some awfully confused and reserved raves about the movie to a select few in your sphere, you quickly forget about it, but not because it’s forgettable, even if you try to convince yourself maybe it was forgettable because it was pointless nonsense, but in fact you forget about it almost because it’s simply too much to process right now, you need to repress it for a while, until you’re ready to deal with this kind of noise, and while you think about the movie briefly from time to time, on the occasion that something else happens to remind you of the movie, you keep it on the backburner, practically by instinct, knowing you’ll get back to it eventually, and then after so many years you’re watching one of those singing competitions on TV, and a guy starts singing “I got soul but I’m/ not a soldier,” and suddenly bloody Private Timberlake with the Rockette nurses in the skee-ball arcade, it all comes gushing back to you, and suddenly it’s almost like you can’t make any more big decisions in your life until you watch this movie again.

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Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

Memory, Rene Magritte, 1948

I remember reading James Frey’s drug-addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces in 2005, back when the book was still classified as “non-fiction,” and I could’ve sworn a lot of the details smelled fishy. So the following year, once Frey revealed the truth of his fictions, I felt a little happy about it. I wouldn’t call it schadenfreude; I got nothing personal against the guy. OK, maybe there was some schadenfreude. But for the most part, I simply felt nice knowing my suspicions had been validated.

Somehow I missed the similar controversy that arose just over a year later regarding Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs Of A Boy Soldier. In fact I wasn’t really familiar with the book at all. I saw it for the first time while browsing the shelves at my local library a couple weeks ago, and I thought it looked fascinating.* And until I’d finished reading it, I had no idea that its veracity had come under serious scrutiny not long after its publication. Which is not to say that I never suspected Beah’s account may have been significantly less than 100% accurate. From the beginning, I took it for granted that the memoir of a boy soldier in Sierra Leone would have to be at least a little fudgy, considering all the trauma and drug abuse that must’ve fogged up his rear-view mirror.

Then I got to page 51 and spotted this fat red flag:

“…Grandfather always gave us a special medicine that was supposed to enhance the brain’s capacity to absorb and retain knowledge. He made this medicine by writing a special Arabic prayer on a waleh (slate) with ink that was made of another medicine. The writing was then washed off the slate, and that water, which they called Nessie, was put in a bottle. We took it with us and were supposed to keep it a secret and drink it before we studied for exams. The medicine worked. During my primary-school years and part of my secondary school year, I was able to permanently retain everything that I learned. Sometimes it worked so well that during examinations I could visualize my notes and all that was written on each page of my textbooks. It was as if the books had been imprinted inside my head. This wonder was one of many in my childhood. To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.

Beah may as well have written “Just in case anything here seems too far-fetched, this harrowing true-life story is really truthfully true. All of it. Truly! Because my grandfather gave me Magical Memory Juice when I was a kid, that’s why.

Reading this passage saddened me. The author doth protest too much, methought. And it didn’t feel like the passage was Beah’s idea, either. Throughout the book, his voice is humble, blunt, and fearless. I could be wrong, but I couldn’t help speculating that an editor or agent whispered the idea in his ear, told him to write about the memory juice to convince readers of something they didn’t need to be convinced of.

Yet Beah’s Magical Memory Juice didn’t spoil the rest of his book for me. I believe A Long Way Gone is true enough. I believe most of these things happened to Beah, and if any of those things didn’t literally happen to him, then I’m sure they either happened to someone not unlike Beah.

I guess the reason I’m more forgiving of Beah than I was of James Frey– aside from the fact that being forced to become a child soldier sounds far more terrifying than being a drug addict– is that except for the Magical Memory Juice, Beah’s details felt truer than Frey’s. Beah’s story captures what Werner Herzog would call “Ecstatic Truth.” And if Beah had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t, as Adam Kirsch would say, to “seduce the reader with an ostentatious display of soul-bearing,” it was to shine a light on the horrors of Sierra Leon’s civil war.

If I had been Beah’s editor, I would’ve whispered in his ear: “Sell it as a novel. Just say it’s ‘Based on a true story.’ If it turns out some things didn’t happen quite how you remember them, then so what? They’ll still call you the Sierra Leonean Hemingway. Oh, and lose that part about the Memory Juice. I don’t care if it’s real; I simply don’t buy it.” 

* On the other hand, I did work in a large bookstore when A Long Way Gone was first published, so I admit there’s a chance that I had in fact heard of the book before and simply forgot. In my defense, I ingested many intoxicants in those days, and I never once ingested any Magical Mystery Juice.

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(Part 35 of an ongoing series)


You could see the sea out there if you could see it.

Eduardo Roel (Luis Guzmán)

Lem Dobbs, screenwriter: “I’ve always thought one of the great cliches of filmmaking that you hear people say constantly, that I don’t think is true at all, is that unlike novels, in films you can’t show thinking. That is a total lie! I think movies are brilliant at showing someone thinking! I mean, I think what I particularly encouraged [Steven Soderbergh] to do was… put in the movie more shots of Terence Stamp just being meditative, just sitting in a chair thinking. Smoking. Reflecting. You may not know exactly what he’s thinking. I think you can pretty much infer what he’s thinking… It’s very novelistic to do this kind of fragmentation. People talk about it as being cinematically stylish, and I think it’s really almost more of a literary device.”*

What’s in Wilson’s (Terence Stamp’s) head? Plotwise, it’s revenge on Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), the douchey, music-industry bigwig who killed Wilson’s daughter. But there’s so much more: flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), conversations pieced together from various moments (did we talk about that here, or there?), wish-fulfilling fantasies (or maybe little universes spawned from possible outcomes, like Hugh Everett’s many-worlds metatheory). The film constantly calls attention to itself being a film, especially in Sarah Flack’s editing. That’s cool, though, because I can’t readily name another film that does a better job depicting the way our brains think (or at least the way my brain thinks), while still telling a coherent narrative. (Granted, I haven’t seen a whole lot of the French New Wave movies that Soderbergh’s drawing from here.)

Terry Valentine’s introduced with what Soderbergh calls a “trailer” for his character, soundtracked by The Hollies’ “King Midas In Reverse.” This trailer includes moments that will reappear later in the film, and it ends with an American Express billboard featuring Peter Fonda that actually existed for real. This is one of the most amazingly brilliant sequences in the history of cinema.

I never got around to seeing The Limey in theaters. I didn’t see it until 2003, when I rented it from Netflix. I’m pretty sure I fell asleep when I watched it the first time, not because I was bored, but because I started watching it very late at night. The last moment I remembered from that first viewing was when Wilson throws the dude off the balcony. I could’ve sworn I finished watching the rest of the film the next day, and yet as I re-watched it for this review, I slowly realized I couldn’t remember anything about the second half of the movie. How the hell did that happen? This movie is excellent. If I didn’t finish watching it in 2003, why didn’t I? I And if I did finish watching it in 2003, why didn’t I remember what happened after Wilson throws the dude off the balcony? Stupid brain.

Violence shouldn’t be funny, but sometimes you can’t help but laugh. When I was working in a bookstore, a big heavy book fell on my good friend Maura’s head and my first reaction was to laugh. Then I asked if she was OK, and she was just fine, and then my boss scolded me for laughing even though I couldn’t help it and I quickly asked if Maura was OK and she was. But I get why my boss scolded me. Even though the violence in The Limey is fictional and intentionally funny I still feel a little guilty laughing at it, and it makes me think of that big heavy book falling on Maura’s head.

What I thought I wanted wasn’t what I wanted. What I thought I was thinkin’ about was something else… Bide your time, and everything becomes clear, and you can act accordingly.

In a scene originally filmed for Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, Wilson performs Donovan’s “Colours” and sings that the word “freedom” reminds him of the time when he was loved. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs wonders if “Memory is the path not taken.” Soderbergh says The Limey‘s essentially about the look on Terence Stamp’s face when he realizes the truth behind his daughter’s death. The Limey reminds me of so many things I remember and a few other things I don’t remember.

*From the filmmaker’s commentary track of The Limey DVD. Like other commentaries for Soderbergh-directed DVDs (particularly Schizopolis), this track is itself a work of art. Aside from simply offering many valuable insights into the creation of a great film, the actual form of the commentary reflects The Limey‘s themes (memory fragmentation, reality layers, dimensions of choice), as well as playfully deconstructing the concept of DVD commentaries.

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