Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2017


Forgive and forget

On perfect truth and the tangibility of memory, and the personal dramas that get in the way of Rememory's own concept

Lionsgate Premiere
Director: Mark Palansky
Screenplay: Mike Vukadinovich and Mark Palansky
Starring: Peter Dinklage, Julia Ormond, Martin Donovan, Anton Yelchin, Evelyne Brochu, Henry Ian Cusick and Matt Ellis
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 51 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

We are so obsessed with recalling and refining and cataloguing our own pasts that a preoccupation with memory in our cinema is not just natural but essential.

At the risk of exposing a recency bias on my part, contemporary science fiction seems the most common culprit for said excursions into the subconscious. Maybe it's because memories are so much more tangible than ever before - more commonly and permanently documented - that we begin to think of them in more definable, even physical, terms. So our sci-fi gives us implanted memories, recorded memories, erased memories, relived memories, manufactured memories, bought and sold memories. The precious cargo of stored (personal) data.

Again: It's not that these are new or unfamiliar ideas, but that a culture that constantly underscores its relationship to memory has given sci-fi (in particular) new openings with which to examine it. Often in ways that place memory itself on par with a consumer good. In Mark Palansky's Rememory, the goal is absolute truth. A scientist named Gordon Dunn (Martin Donovan) develops a device that can extract perfect memories from the deepest corners of the subconscious - so that one might remember an event exactly as it occurred, rather than in the distorted form that it will have invariably transformed into since then. This technology is considered to be therapeutic - a way of confronting events of your past and reconciling your relationship to it - but, of course, the multinational technological corporation funding the project (and on the cusp of rolling it out for public consumption) doesn't really care how it's used. Just as long as it's used by as many people as possible.

Aside: As with any storytelling premise based on an advanced technology, there are numerous ways you could use the conceit, countless applications for such a device. It would seem to be able to solve many of the ambiguities of criminal justice, for example. If someone is charged with a crime, the device can simply extract his exact memory from the day in question. Although no doubt this would bring up questions of civil liberties: Would a defendant be required to undergo the procedure in order to prove his guilt or innocence? These questions are more interesting than anything the film attempts, though they don't lend themselves to the overwrought sentimentality Palansky is after.

(Also: the absolute best use of a Rememory device, obviously, would be to settle petty arguments among friends and loved ones.)

That the ability to compartmentalize and forget is essential to the way the mind works - to the way humans think and cope - is at the heart of the ethical and practical concerns that have begun to give Gordon pause just as his prized invention is about to hit the market. Just before ... dramatic pause ... he's MURDERED.

And so the murder mystery begins, with the film giving us a row of suspects to sift through - the empty suit of a CEO, Robert Lawton (Henry Ian Cusick); the angry young man (Anton Yelchin) who showed up at Gordon's office the night of his death shouting about the unintended side effects; the mysterious Wendy (Evelyne Brochu), another seemingly unhappy customer; or even our protagonist, Sam Bloom (Peter Dinklage), who has an interest in the possibilities of memory recall due to the still-lingering aftereffects of his brother's death years earlier, the result of too much drinking and a subsequent car accident along a desolate country road.

When Gordon dies, Sam - hiding behind a slew of made-up names and half-filled-in backstories - plays amateur sleuth, which involves stealing the Rememory device (the only one in existence, apparently - and only Gordon knew how the technology operated), earning the trust of Gordon's wife Carolyn (Julia Ormond), then interrogating any and all of Gordon's test subjects. The memories of each - and Sam's, and Gordon's - hold their own clues and secrets, and in commitment to this specific gumshoe formula, the film is careful in how much it withholds, and for how long.

Structurally, this is all fair game. But the impact of each memory, revelation or twist that we (and they) learn, remember, or accept is consistently tedious, especially the more the film strives for emotional depth. Palansky mistakes irrelevant detailing for complexity, and cheaply calculated melodrama for profundity. But where he proves most inept is in the ways he attempts to deploy memory for dramatic effect. The most ineffectual is his depiction of hallucinatory memory fragments invading the consciousnesses of those who've gone through the Rememory process. This is the device's big, dangerous side effect - yet in execution it doesn't come across any differently than any other character casually haunted by someone from the past. When Sam suddenly sees his long-dead brother - for whose death he still feels guilty - in the flesh, the script sees it as a Banquo's Ghost situation, a surreal and unwanted intrusion that calls the character's entire state of mind into question. Instead it plays merely as a nagging reminder - the same type of thing that lingers for everyone, made physical only for the benefit of the visual medium. What Palansky somehow doesn't seem to understand - or find a way around - is that this is an exceedingly common device. Yet his intentions are for it to be something bigger, stranger, scarier, more consequential.

Consequential enough, perhaps, to lead to a murder; or at the very least to drive a relative stranger to go out of his way to solve one.

I hate to make the obvious reference here, but I'm compelled to cite Terrence Malick - probably the most prominent chronicler of memory and memory-structure in American cinema - specifically because of the way he transforms ostensibly mundane images into ecstatic, even spiritual, moments. Rememory achieves the exact opposite. Palansky presents memories as monumental discoveries and breakthroughs, yet they come across as quotidian and small. He's unable to express anything about these memories, or memory in general. The intangible, personal qualities of it are conspicuously absent.

His own sci-fi premise even bites him. Because the purpose of Gordon's device is to reveal full, unvarnished, perfect memories, what we end up seeing is - by the very nature of everyday reality - dry, matter-of-fact, banal. To counter this, Palansky heightens the stakes, manufacturing twisty melodramatic import out of a handful of memories to make up for the fact that the rest of them are so intrinsically normal.

The big takeaway is that Rememory is using the subconscious only to solve or explain narrative arcs - it has no real interest in examining memory itself. It feels like Palansky came up with the outline for an eventful, noirish mystery but never realized how interesting his core subject was.

For all the sci-fi movies to have dealt with the subject in recent years, this one seems most reminiscent of The Final Cut - a largely forgotten low-budget Robin Williams vehicle from 2004 - in which memories are recorded, stored, and then cut together at feature length to memorialize the dead. The film didn't exactly work - it never stretched itself or its premise as far as it wanted to go - but it was a fascinating attempt. In large part because it seemed as preoccupied by the concept of memory as by the ways in which it could be used to manipulate and deceive, redeem and enlighten. In theory, Rememory could be a similarly intriguing failure. Instead it falls almost entirely flat, undone by a myopic, repetitive approach to its core ideas.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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