December 23, 2001, Sunday


On Film as in Life, You Are What You Forget

By JOHN LELAND (NYT) 1150 words
IF you had your choice this season, what would you forget? How about everything?

In the new movie ''The Majestic,'' a screenwriter played by Jim Carrey drives his car off a bridge and emerges with a rumpled shirt and a near-complete loss of memory. As he wanders around making doe eyes at people he cannot recognize, he is in good company. If the movies are any indication, this is shaping up as the season for convenient forgetting.


In ''Memento,'' Guy Pearce plays a former insurance investigator who cannot form short-term memories. He knows who he is, but has to write notes on his body to remember what he is doing from one moment to the next. In David Lynch's ''Mulholland Drive,'' a starlet played by Laura Harring survives a car accident with a case of total amnesia, then embarks on a Nancy Drew quest to discover her missing identity.

Tom Cruise in ''Vanilla Sky'' draws a blank on the most important event in his life (hint: it's also the last). And in Woody Allen's ''Curse of the Jade Scorpion,'' a hypnotist forces the lead character to commit crimes, then forget them immediately.

The movies play out a forgetfulness that has permeated the culture in recent years. The stock market, the Internet and even history departments have all yielded their own versions of amnesia. Though it is a conventional plot device, this forgetting offers a window on broader fantasies and anxieties.

''These films crop up in multiples for a reason,'' said Denise Mann, a chairwoman of the producers program at the school of theater, film and television at the University of California at Los Angeles. ''There's a sense of social unease that's coming out in the movies.''

Books play along as well. In ''The Corrections,'' the celebrated novel by Jonathan Franzen, a drug company is developing a formula that wipes out past personality.

There have been waves of amnesia movies in the past. Robert Sklar, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, points to a similar spate after World War II, including ''Spellbound,'' ''The Blue Dahlia,'' ''Somewhere in the Night,'' ''Deadline at Dawn'' and ''Love Letters.'' The films used amnesia to address the social dislocations of the war, Mr. Sklar said. ''So many of the men or their families were trying to reconstruct their pasts. Amnesia was a metaphor for gaps in time that the war created.''

The current amnesia movies play with a new set of dislocations.

Though it may be tempting to relate them to Sept. 11, the movies were all conceived years before, during the economic boom, which produced waves of collective amnesia. Dot-com diehards crowed that the business cycle no longer existed, and the exuberance of the market allowed anyone to believe the past was irrelevant. No matter that you flunked out of college, you could still be an Internet zillionaire.

Wealth was similarly wrenched from its connection with the past, tied not to your salary history but to your stock options, whose worth lay wholly in years to come. There was little need to remember the past; security lay in your purchase, however abstract, on the future.

Identity became fluid, as anyone who has ever gone into a chat room knows. Memory could be erased with the stroke of a computer key.

It was a period for ahistoric thinking, and as you might expect, history suffered, falling into its own version of willful amnesia. The past, it seemed, could be rewritten. Joseph J. Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, lied to his Mount Holyoke students that he had fought in Vietnam. Edmund Morris reinvented himself as a historical figure in his 1999 book, ''Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,'' concocting various encounters with Reagan over the years.

Most recently, critics have accused Michael A. Bellesiles, whose 2000 book, ''Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture,'' presented evidence that gun ownership was rare in our history, of fabricating some of his research. (Mr. Bellesiles has promised a rebuttal.)

The movies play off this greater amnesia, creating stories around it. Amnesia is the flip side of nostalgia. Instead of wallowing in an idealized past, the movies present the past as forever out of reach, beyond the power to recollect. It has to be reconstructed.

In ''The Majestic,'' after Carrey's auto accident, he has to reinvent his identity from clues around him. Drawing on the memories of the local townspeople, who mistake him for a missing war hero, he creates a nobler self than the one he left behind. Losing his past was the nicest thing that could happen to him. This may seem like a boomer's-eye view of death -- with the convenient bonus that no one has to die. But Frank Darabont, the film's director and producer, said: ''It's really a way to experience one's rebirth. It's a story about somebody finding his better self. What better way to get there than to empty the vessel?''

But in most of these movies, this metaphorical rebirth has a darker side. In a culture obsessed with individuality, what could be more horrifying than to lose one's identity?

The consequences are often dire. In ''Memento,'' for example, the lead character uses his loss of memory to behave without conscience, knowing he will not remember his actions.

In this way, amnesia in today's culture taps a far bleaker fantasy than nostalgia, said Ms. Mann of U.C.L.A. ''We want to return to the affluence and calm of the Eisenhower era, but we can't get back there because of inexplicable events of random violence,'' she said, citing the school shootings of recent years as one example of violent disruption. In the movies, similarly, characters lose access to their past after violent trauma.

Slavoj Zizek, a psychoanalyst who has written extensively about the movies, ties the vogue for amnesia to a much broader disruption, stemming from shifts in global politics. ''Until the collapse of communism we had large stories to tell,'' he said. But it became impossible to understand the events after 1990 in simple terms such as East versus West. ''If we take any political event today, it explodes into a thousand narratives,'' he said.

For all this, the traumas of the season have exposed the limits of amnesia. It's easy to wish to forget the events of Sept. 11. But this is a trap; memory is probably what everyone needs right now. However painful the associations, a knowledge of the past -- of history and language -- became more valuable than ever.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company