Monday, November 21, 2016

On Memory

DANI: You remember everything.
CHARLES: What’s important.
- from "The Way I Danced With You"
Strange Days (1995)
Last night we saw Doctor Strange, there’s this bit at the beginning when the main character, an unusually talented brain surgeon is conducting a procedure and at the same time playing one of his favorite games where he shows off his “photographic memory” by having a nurse play random pieces of pop music and instantly reciting when it was released.

This is a game I might play, I have played this game. I could pretty much tell you exactly when a song was released until about the turn of the century. I could tell you pretty much when anything happened, until the year 2000.

No idea why, but since then I get dates mixed up the same as anyone else. I assume it has to do with my age, and where I am in my life, and I am not so quick to state without fear of contradiction what I know to be true.

There is also the very definite possibility that though I was generally accurate about pop music, when it came to things not so cleanly definable, such as who said or did what to whom, why and where and when that may or may not have happened. That is where I have truly made many significant errors.

Last year I had a deep dream. My wife discovered an app, one that - if you find the correct chair in which to sit - can allow you to travel backwards in time. There is a Siri-like AI you speak to, providing as many details as you are able, most specifically time and place, and it will transport you there.

We each had our own chairs, I cannot report where she went went, but I was successful at traveling twice. Each time I walked about, search for those I wanted to find but with no success. At first I was self-conscious that I would be recognized and then I realized that was impossible. Seriously, if the present day you walked past your younger self, you wouldn't even notice you.

Though I was confident each time that I had in fact returned to those moments, each over twenty years ago, and was in more or less the right place, I was merely wandering in a melancholy memory, alone in bleak daylight. Returning to a place was no more like peering at a still picture of the location of a party the day after it has ended.

Before Midnight (2013)
I am reminded of when my wife and I finally watched Before Midnight on DVD. We had seen the two previous films in this trilogy and while each of those were passionate, in the moment events (most of the second film happening entirely in real time) to go back to the first after watching the third would color that film with a dense wistfulness for lost youth which was not evident to me upon first viewing.

These three films follow one relationship over the course of almost two decades, dropping in on them at nine year intervals, from when they first meet, first speak to each other, to a time much later when they are married and have their own children.

What it would be like to watch each film for the first time in reverse order? That would be intense. It would be like a mystery, how did this all begin? Because we can never do that with our relationships. None of us were being recorded the day we met our significant other, how could we be? We didn’t know who that person was going to be in our lives.

For my part, I am glad there are no photos from the night I met my wife. First of all, they would probably have my ex-wife in them, too, and part that is always awkward. Also, my personal appearance in late 1989 was fucking embarrassing.

Even stranger, what if someone happened to have a video camera at the party that night, and went around interviewing everyone, and came up to ask us inane questions as we met and stood and drank and smoked cigarettes in the wee hours of the morning on January 1, 1990? What would we have said?

What did we say? What did we think? I know I was attracted to her, but then, I was attracted to a lot of people. What else was I thinking? I am lost in that. I wish I knew. My girlfriend’s punk high school pal who lived in Manhattan. I was impressed and intimidated, but she was open to me and we talked and that’s how these things begin.

In the movie Strange Days, there is a device through which you can record a person’s memory for playback. You can use these recordings to enjoy a memory and it will feel entirely like you are experiencing the moment again.

You can also experience others’ memories, and that is where the trouble comes in. Yes, it would be fun to feel for all the world like you are back at the beach when it’s the middle of winter in Ohio. But of course, that’s not where the money is.

The protagonist is a memory dealer, trafficking in recorded memories of sex and extreme thrills, but it’s an addiction to his own recording of intimate moments with a former lover that makes it impossible for him to get over her. Does the same thing happen to people who have made their own sex tapes? I shudder to think.

Doctor Strange (1978)
It is in the absence of specific details that our memories begin to shift and mutate, perhaps never settling into one final, if inaccurate, narrative.

When you first visit a new city, much of your disorientation comes not from not knowing what is around the next corner, but that you create a picture of what might be around he corner. We are constantly prepared for what we expect to see in a familiar place, and in our mind’s eye we anticipate seeing it. Our mind creates images of what it is about the experience, it’s instinctive.

So, when we are in a new place we instinctively create an expectation, and then confront reality -- but we retain a memory of what we thought we might see, but didn’t.

The same can be true in relationships. You create a picture of what is inside another person, and you believe it is there, and maybe it is, but maybe it changes, or perhaps that was never the picture. Even after you know the new truth, you still retain a memory of what you believed was reality. Reverse engineering your memories can be a traumatic thing to do.

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