Letter From The Editor - Issue 61 - February 2018

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Writing Fantasy

At The Picture Show
November 2017

Marjorie Prime

The shape of memory

On remembering and being remembered, the comforting stoicism of Jon Hamm, and the delicacy of self in Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime
Director: Michael Almereyda
Screenplay: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by Jordan Harrison
Starring: Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, Tim Robbins and Stephanie Andujar
Not rated / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release
(out of four)


It's spoken as a command - a gentle command - rather than a question, or a wistful reminiscence. Remember.

If there's some sense of urgency behind it, please understand Walter Prime (Jon Hamm) has something of a personal interest. After all, he was, in a manner of speaking, remembered into existence in the first place. Across from him, in this placid, beige living room, is Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 85-year-old woman in the throes of Alzheimer's, or some other form of dementia. Her particularly lovely way of putting it is that she has an inclination "to pack lightly."

Which is why Walter Prime is there. He is the holographic projection of her long-dead husband Walter, an intelligence made up of memories of the real Walter - memories provided by his daughter Tess (Geena Davis), her husband Jon (Tim Robbins), and of course Marjorie herself. (What she can still recall, anyway.) No doubt others have chipped in here and there.

He is, as he appears, in his early 40s. Right around his age when Marjorie married him. She was much younger than him, then. Now, they sit and talk. He does most of the talking, of course. He remembers more; she listens, and asks questions, and eagerly contributes what fragments she remembers. He tells her stories of her life - "their" life, together, among other things. Nights at the movies. Family memories. Engagement stories.

But it's the finer details that everyone gets hung up on. Specific turns of phrase. Idiosyncrasies of personality, or posture; a physical feature that's slightly off. Barely detectable quirks that you might not even notice if you hadn't known the person for years. The holograms - Walter and others who come after him - are under constant scrutiny for their authenticity. Even if getting closer to the real thing tends to make their presence all the more unsettling. (Some, Tess in particular, are already pretty suspicious of the technology.)

And what of those discrepancies? Two people recall the same memory with different details. Some saw these people, during their lifetimes, in a different light than did others. Other things are ... well, more negotiable. Marjorie is told, by Walter Prime, that he proposed to her on the night they saw My Best Friend's Wedding. "What if we saw Casablanca instead? ... Then, by the next time we talk, it will be true."

Those nebulous gaps between lives and lives remembered - between how we remember ourselves and how we are remembered by others - are given thoughtful inquisition in Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime (based on Jordan Harrison's play of the same name). Memories are both the key to who we are, and strangely illusory - a contradiction the film elegantly indulges. The closer we get to seeing, touching those memories again - or a physical representation of them - the more agonizing the distance between us and them.

A couple of times during the film, the film cuts to what we presume to be actual depictions of moments we've heard described, by one character to another. Some time after we hear Walter Prime's version of the night they saw My Best Friend's Wedding, we see it play out in flashback, with twentysomething Marjorie played by Mindhunter's Hannah Gross. Almereyda allows the differences between the two versions - the one we're seeing and the one we've only heard - to speak for themselves. Aside from the variances in detail, the tone set by the scene's lighting - the intimate way it frames the two characters in physical relation to each other - is withholding and yet staggeringly revealing.

And back in the "present" (which should be around the late 2050s), Walter Prime recounts the story as he has learned it, as he has been taught it, as it has been remembered to him. With eyes of deep concern, he asks that Marjorie remember it, too. Impresses it upon her. Hamm's voice is so persuasive. Sturdily authoritative, yet exceedingly calm - as if he's still on that grassy hilltop dreaming up a Coke ad. Remember.

When he's no longer needed - when the conversation has concluded - Walter Prime simply fades away.

"I came to Casablanca for the waters."
"Waters? What waters? We're in the desert."
"I've been misinformed."

If we're on the subject of keys to our existence - memory or otherwise - water (and its open-ended symbolism) is as good as any other, and Almereyda never lets us forget it. Physically and sonically, he surrounds his characters with it. Even in their memories, it never stops raining.

Certain events and recollections are recounted in monologue while rain pounds persistently - and just quietly enough - to tranquil, foreboding effect. The family - Marjorie, Tess, Jon - live on the beach, and speak fondly of their times spent on its shores. Sometimes instead of rain, it's just the waves we hear.

The film's opening image is of the ocean, the potent sloshing of the water accompanied by a jarring opening musical cue - strings crying, surging to the surface, crescendoing in an anxious shriek - reminiscent of certain moments in There Will Be Blood (also the opening cue) and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It should come as no surprise that the great Mica Levi has composed one of the year's great scores, following her extraordinary work on Under the Skin and Jackie.)

There's a pool outside as well; the aforementioned flashback - Walter, the movie, the marriage proposal - is seemingly brought to life by that water, as Marjorie floats by herself in the pool one afternoon and, admiring the mysterious ring on her finger, takes us back to that night. Even the framed artwork on the walls follows suit.

In its power, its tranquility, its menacing instability, water forms relationships with every character in the movie, virtually every scene. Every time and place. From opening image to closing shot, it frames the entire film - delicately governing a certain separation between its perpendicular reflections of memory and self. There's a moment when a mildly drunk Jon, in conversation with the avatar of his former father-in-law (albeit a version much younger than any he ever knew), slings what's left in his glass of bourbon into Walter Prime's face. He knows what he's doing; it's little more than a self-satisfied joke, its punchline the liquor splashing, unobstructed, onto the wall across from him. It reminded me of a scene with another hologram in Blade Runner 2049, in which the Ana de Armas character walks out into a downpour, stares straight up at the drops as they fall down toward her, and then right through her, untouched.

"Why don't you tell me more about myself."

It's the first question every Prime has to ask. After all, its job - pretty much its entire job - is to learn who it is. Or, rather, learn who everyone expects it to be. Remembers it to be. Perhaps in some cases wishes it to be. Its purpose is ostensibly to download other people's recollections and specifications and reconstruct an entire identity, albeit with only fragments to work with. To impersonate, and become. To evolve into some semblance of the person instead of just the correct face, or shape, or voice. Sometimes a character will tell Walter Prime that he's doing or saying something incorrectly - that is, different from Walter himself. Or he'll be told that the version of the story he's just told isn't quite right. And he'll placidly accept. "I'll remember that now."

He has pleasant back-and-forths with Marjorie, in which - at least as far as she can remember, or as far as she's been told by her loved ones - she fine-tunes treasured details about her late husband. Later we'll see her as a hologram, too.

The above is a bittersweet line, evoking Marjorie's state of mind - her forgotten past, forgotten self - while also hinting at something, albeit temporarily, restorative. There's a serene joy in her eyes as she's informed - reminded - of some small detail about herself, or a brief moment in time that she once shared with someone. It's always nice to hear another person remember you fondly.

Through the A.I. device, the film also embraces the way our personal histories blend with those of the people who shared them with us. We're not the only ones with our memories - others were there, too. With careful precision, Almereyda and Harrison's writing touches on the way memories get conflated and passed along, between people, across generations. We don't just remember the memory, but the memory of others telling it. Every memory is a composite. This confronts another, thornier reality: That the way other people see us, or know us, or remember us is as much a part of who are as the way we see or remember ourselves.

"Maybe that's why I'm your Marjorie."

The implication is that there is no choice. When the time comes for you to get your very own Prime - of a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child - they don't ask you what age the person should be. They're not custom designed. Rather, it's as if whatever enduring image of them exists in your subconscious - whichever version of them left the deepest impression, or perhaps the most unfinished business - that's the one that appears before you.

It is the most mystical feature of Marjorie Prime, coming across less as a technology and more as an extrasensory power. As if this sort of metaphysical communion is a human need, and we've finally evolved to the point where we can have it. Create it. The delicate volatility - the combustibility - of human relationships and human communication is one of the film's crucial preoccupations (with Tess' relationship to her mother Marjorie being most emblematic). In these holograms, people get the most elaborate version of the go-betweens they so often rely on in life in order to deal with other people - to negotiate personalities and relationships. A Prime leaves the bullshit at the door, divorced from basic human frailties - the games, resentments, deceptions, baggage. It's a lack of ego that separates the hologram from the real thing, and that very lack of ego that makes it so much easier to talk to them.

While the film - much of which is made up of conversations between a living person and the Prime they've acquired, for one deceased loved one or another - depicts the relationship between the two as a sort of therapy, it's not clinical. It's contemplative and inquisitive, but its emotional undercurrents are powerful, if subdued.

One particularly moving sequence is a simple, short montage of photographs of Lois Smith/Marjorie - some in frames, some piled on a table; some stoic, some happy, some peaceful - immediately after a wordless (Levi-scored) scene at her 86th birthday party, as the avatar of her husband looks on impassively through the window from inside. In those few photos, she goes from a young woman to an old one. And then the last photograph dissolves away into a shot of a jet shooting contrails through a partly cloudy sky. We have so many ways of remembering, immortalizing people. But perhaps the biggest takeaway is that memories, in the end, take on a life of their own.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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