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Memory in the Movies:

Films and Other Works for the Theatre or Television

on the Theme of Memory and Amnesia

 

Accidental Nostalgia (Cynthia Hopkins, 2004).  Not a movie but an operetta, with "alternative country tunes": a neurologist who suffers from amnesia discovers that she was abused by her father.  Never mind that the notion of traumatic amnesia for incest and child sexual abuse is highly controversial (to say the least): It's a thoroughly operatic plotline.  At the end, "the heroine has embraced her amnesia and... decided to bid 'good-bye to revenge'" ("An Operetta Has an 'Alt-Country' Flavor", by Randy Kennedy, New York Times, 03/25/04).

After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2001).  In this Japanese film, a social-service office in heaven helps prepare the newly dead for the afterlife by reproducing, on film, the one memory that each selects to keep for all eternity; all other memories will be wiped away.  Reviewed by Stuart Klawans in The Nation (5/24/99).  Something similar happens in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, in which Emily Webb, having married George Gibbs, dies in childbirth and gets to choose one day to relive.

Amateur (Hal Hartley, 1994).  "Another intriguing, nothing-is-what-it-seems drama from Hal Hartley, this one about a former nun turned pornographer (Isabelle Huppert) who helps a seemingly sweet amnesiac (Martin Donovan) reconstruct his past" (IFC Rant, 1/02).

Amnesia (Margaret Harris, 2000).  "An amnesiac stalks an apartment building trying to remember a nightmare she would rather forget" (IFC Rant, 1/02).

Anastasia (1956).  Ingrid Bergman as an amnesic who is convinced that she is Princess Anastasia, the only member of the Romanov family to escape assassination by the Bolsheviks.

As You Desire Me (George Fitzmaurice, 1932).  Greta Garbo as an amnesiac countess who returns to a husband she doesn't remember.  Based on a play by Pirandello. 

Beware My Lovely (Harry Horner, 1952).  Ida Lupino plays a widow is terrorized by her handyman, who is an escaped mental patient who suffers from blackouts.

The Black Curtain 

The Blue Dahlia (1946).  Alan Ladd returns from the war to find his wife (Doris Dowling) two-timing him.  She ends up dead, and he's on the run, helped by the estranged wife (Veronica Lake) of his wife's boyfriend.  William Bendix plays a buddy of Ladd's, who has bouts of amnesia due to a head injury suffered in battle, and who might well have killed Ladd's wife (the War Department objected because it didn't want people to think that injured war veterans could become murderers).  Script by Raymond Chandler.  

The Blue Dahlia inspired the name of the gruesome 1947 "Black Dahlia" murder case in Los Angeles -- even though the Black Dahlia case didn't involve amnesia.  The Black Dahlia case went unsolved for more than 50 years until Steve Hodel, a retired LA police detective, published a book (Black Dahlia Avenger: A Genius for Murder, 2003) implicating his own father as the murderer.  The Black Dahlia case played a minor role in another movie, True Confessions based on the book of that title by.  And in 2006, it got its own movie, the Black Dahlia, directed by Brian DePalma, and based on the book of that title by James Ellroy.  But the Black Dahlia is not to be confused with The Blue Dahlia.

The Bourne Identity (2002).  Theatrical remake by Doug Liman, starring Matt Damon, of a TV movie starring  Richard Chamberlain, based on the 1980 Robert Ludlum thriller.  Bourne is a CIA assassin who suffers amnesia and loss of identity while on a mission, and comes to suspect that he may be a terrorist.  The plot unfolds as Bourne tries to figure out who he is.  The puzzle is intensified when Bourne discovers that he possesses all sorts of interesting skills.  

[Bourne] discovers that while he does not remember his name, his job or his address, he has at some point acquired a repertory of unusual and, as it turns out, very useful skills.  He can not only speak French and German but is also expert in hand-to-hand combat and high-speed evasive driving....  The flicker of surprise that crosses Mr. Damon's brow as Bourne discovers these mysterious abilities is one of the picture's sly, witty touches (A.O. Scott, reviewing The Bourne Identity in the New York Times, 06/14/02).

Sequels: The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), also based on Ludlum's series.  The films will apparently continue with two more sequels written by Eric Van Lustbader after Ludlum's death. There is also the Bourne Legacy (2012; Tony Gilroy), which doesn't involve either Bourne or amnesia.

Summing up the first series, Manohla Dargis (then at the Los Angeles Times) said that the drama of Identity was existential (Who am I?), and the drama of Supremacy was moral (What did I do?).  I would say that the drama of Ultimatum is redemptive: How can I escape what I am?  ...Cut off from the  CIA and from himself [by virtue of his loss of episodic memory], Bourne has nothing to draw on but tradecraft [semantic and procedural knowledge] and instinct (David Denby, reviewing The Bourne Ultimatum in The New Yorker, 08/06/07).

The Butterfly Effect (2004).  Ashton Kutcher stars in this completely awful recovered-memory movie, in which a college student travels through time to alter the traumatic events that have ruined his life (and save his childhood sweetheart, to boot).  Every time he changes something, things get worse.  Maybe the moral of the story is: forget the past, because your problems are in the here and now.

The Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008), based on a true story about a woman whose son is kidnapped.  Her child is eventually returned to her by the police, but she strongly suspects that he is not really her child.  The whole plot turns on issues of memory and recognition -- issues also raised in The Return of Martin Guerre (1982) and Sommersby (1993).  

Clean Slate (Mick Jackson, 1994).  A private detective played by Dana Carvey loses his memory each time he falls asleep. He wakes up each morning next to a tape recorder on which he has recorded whatever progress he made on his case the day before (summary by Bill Underwood).  Basically it's Groundhog Day with amnesia; but it was Bill Murray's memory that made Groundhog Day so interesting!

Close Your Eyes (Nick Willing, 2004).  A psychotherapist hypnotizes a child to solve a kidnapping.  Adapted from Madison Smartt Bell's novel, Doctor Sleep.

Code Name: The Cleaner (Les Mayfield, 2007).  In what may be a send-up of the Bourne movies, Cedric the Entertainer plays an amnesic who might be a secret agent, or might be a janitor.

Crime Doctor (Michael Gordon, 1943).  Remake of The Man Who Lived Twice, starring Ralph Bellamy (1936).  Warner Baxter plays a gangster who is rendered amnesic from a blow to the head, and becomes a famous criminal psychologist; when he recovers his memory, he is put on trial for his crimes.  First in a series of films featuring contract actors from Columbia Studios: The Crime Doctor's Strangest Case, 1943; Shadows in the Night, 1944; the Crime Doctor's Courage, 1945; The Crime Doctor's Warning, 1945 (in which an artist's blackouts coincide with murders); Crime Doctor's Manhunt, 1946 (in which the good doctor investigates the murder of an amnesic veteran); Just before Dawn, 1946; The Millerson Case, 1947; The Crime Doctor's Gamble, 1947; and The Crime Doctor's Diary, 1949.  Remade as Man in the Dark, with Edmund O'Brien, 1953.

Curse of the Jade Scorpion (Woody Allen).  In the movie, "a hypnotist forces the lead character to commit crimes, then forget them immediately" (John Leland, New York Times, 12/23/01).

Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1941).  

The Deadly Percheron

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985).  Rosanna Arquette plays Roberta, who reads the personal ads and is intrigued by a repeated entry from some who is "desperately seeking Susan" (played by Madonna, in her first film role).  After suffering a head injury, Roberta takes on Susan's identity and lifestyle. 

Dollhouse (2009).  From the guy who brought us "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", this Fox television series focuses on Echo (played by Eliza Dushku), one of a group of "Actives", individuals who can be "imprinted" with various personalities to perform certain assignments (or "engagements"); after they're done, their memories are wiped clean, and they revert to a kind of "zombie" state, living in the "Dollhouse" until their next assignment.  As the series unwinds, Echo begins a quest to discover her true self.  "Echoes" indeed -- of multiple personality disorder, Project MKULTRA, the Manchurian Candidate, and the like.

Dying to Remember (1993).  Melissa Gilbert plays a Manhattan clothing designer who through hypnotherapy recovers a "past life" in 1960s San Francisco that ends with her murder.  She then goes to San Francisco to check the truth of her memories.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman, 2004).  Jim Carrey (who also played an amnesic in The Majestic) and Kate Wisnlet star as former lovers who undergo high-tech treatment by the Lacuna Agency to erase all memories of their relationship.  She goes through with it, but midway through the process he begins to have doubts (never mind that their friends must still remember the whole thing).  Like Memento, the film runs backward at times, to convey the impression of amnesia.  There's a Memory Police thrown in for good measure.  Watch for representations of implicit memory: in an early scene, for example, the two lovers meet and experience a sense of deja vu.  But of course it's not really deja vu -- they've actually known each other before, and traces of their prior relationship have produced a familiarity-based recognition.  The treatment can erase all conscious recognition: but what about unconscious recognition, and what about feelings?

50 First Dates (Peter Segal, 2004).  Adam Sandler re-united with Drew Barrymore (they were in The Wedding Singer): a veterinarian (Sandler) falls in love with a woman (Barrymore) who lacks "short-term memory", so every time they go out, it's a first date -- from her point of view, anyway.  Clean Slate meets Groundhoog Day.  AS A.O. Byatt put notes, the movie's theme is that "with enough practice, we can find some perfection in our lives" (New York Times, 02/13/04) -- a theme that probably runs through lots of amnesia movies.  Byatt also puts the movie in the category of "philosophical brain-damage romantic comedy" -- a category that really warrants explication.   

Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton and Pixar Animation Studios, 2003).  Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), a timid clownfish who lives on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, sets off in search of Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), his more adventuresome son, who has been caught by a skindiving dentist for his fishtank in Sydney.  He's accompanied by Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tangfish who suffers from "short-term memory loss" (meaning that she forgets things quickly, much like H.M. and other patients with the amnesic syndrome).  However, there are at least two instances where Dory shows that she has implicit, if not explicit, long-term memory (quotations approximate).

At one point on their journey, Dory is cautioned to go through a trench, not over it.  Dory forgets this information, of course, but when they finally get to the trench she has the intuitive feeling that they should go through, not over.  Marlin overrules her, and they encounter a school of jellyfish.  The incident is reminiscent of Claparede's patient, who forget the experience but retained the knowledge that "Sometimes people hide pins in their hands".

When Dory finally encounters Nemo, she has of course forgotten all about him.  Whe she asks his name, he replies "Nemo", and she comments that "That's a nice name".  The incident is reminiscent of demonstrations by Johnson, Damasio, and others, that amnesic patients can acquire preferences through what Zajonc has called the mere exposure effect, even though they don't remember the exposures. 

Gothika (Mathieu Kassovitz, 2003).  Halle Berry plays a psychiatrist who, after one of her patients dies from spontaneous combustion, wakes up to find herself an inmate in her own hospital, accused of murdering her husband (Charles P. Dutton) -- who was also the director of her hospital.  She doesn't remember anything, but solves the mystery with the help, if that's what it is, of another psychotherapist (Robert Downey Jr.).

The Great God Pan, a play by Amy Herzog produced at Playwrights Horizons in New York, December 2012. Jamie, the protagonist, learns from a childhood friend that he (the friend) had been molested by his (the friend's) father, and that Jamie might have been molested by him too. Jamie remembers nothing about this, but searches his memory for clues (and retrieval cues), and wonders if such an event might explain the turns his life has taken.

The Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003).  Based on the Marvel Comics superhero.  In the comic-book original, and also in the earlier television series, Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist, is involved in a laboratory accident that turns him into a raging green giant whenever he feels angry.  That's enough pop-Freudian psychology right there, but the film adds a theme of repressed memories of (possible) childhood trauma, which (together with a genetic abnormality) have allegedly rendered Banner especially vulnerable to the chemical's effects.  "The body keeps the score" (Bessel van der Kolk) indeed!  

I Love You Again William Powell and Myrna Loy, the duo from the "Thin Man" movies.

Indictment.  Made-for television movie about the McMartin Daycare case, starring Shirley Knight as Peggy Buckley.

John Doe (2002).  Not a movie, but a television series on the Fox network.  An unidentified man awakens in a strange environment, disoriented, unable to identify himself or recount his autobiography, but possessed of an amazing fund of factual information.  "Needing to make himself a real person, the man finds a loophole and finds that there are 300,000 plus social security numbers issued to dead or missing persons.  He picks his name: John Doe.  Making a life for himself without knowing what he likes, Doe begins finding out" (from the series website).  Link to series website.

Journal of a Crime (1934).  Right when she is about to confess to murdering her adulterous husband, a woman lapses into amnesia.

Kisses for Breakfast (1941).  Dennis Morgan stars as a singer who suffers a sort of fugue on his wedding day, following a blow to the head, and ends up unknowingly marrying his new wife's country cousin (played by Jane Wyman); meanwhile the old wife gives him up for dead, and they all meet up when the country cousin is invited to the city cousin's re-marriage.  No evidence of implicit memory: the alter ego can't even sing!  Apparently not available on video, turns up occasionally on cable's Turner Classic Movies (which is where I caught it).

Life on Mars, originally a BBC TV miniseries (2006-2007), broadcast in the United States in 2008, and remade for American television by ABC (premiering Fall 2008).  The plot centers on a New York City police detective who, after being hit by a car, apparently travels back in time to 1973.  Various events strongly suggest that he is in a coma, or persistent vegetative state, and the whole thing is being played out in his mind.

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996).  Geena Davis plays a suburban schoolteacher who suffers an amnesia covering all but the past eight years.  After a car accident, and with the help of a private detective (Samuel L. Jackson), she gradually realizes that she's a CIA agent with an assassin on her trail. 

Love Letters

The Majestic (Frank Darabent, 2001).  A variant on The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), not to mention Sommersby (1993), but with a more explicit memory theme.  Peter Appleton (played by Jim Carrey), a Hollywood screenwriter badgered by the House Un-American Activities Committee for supposed Communist sympathies, is rendered amnesic in an automobile accident.  He finds his way to Lawson, California (played by Ferndale), where he is mistaken for Luke Trimble, a war hero believed dead.  He quickly comes to believe it himself, and helps Trimble's father Harry (Martin Landau) rebuild the Majestic theatre, and falls in love with Adele Stanton (Laurie Holden), Luke's old girlfriend.  

One episode nicely illustrates the dissociation between episodic and semantic memory in amnesia, when Adele remarks to Luke: "You remember the movies but you don't remember your life?".  

And it's his memory of the movies that allows Peter to recover his past.  When the Majestic plays a B-movie called "Sand Pirates of the Sahara", which he had written before the accident, he finds the lines familiar.  He inspects the poster closely, sees his real name in the credits, and the memories come flooding back.  Because he was personally involved with the movie, in this case remembering the movie is the key to remembering his life.

The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962; remade by Jonathan Demme, 2004).  Based on the novel by Richard Condon (1959; he also wrote Prizzi's Honor and its sequels), starring Laurence Harvey, Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, and Angela Lansbury (the original was withdrawn from distribution in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, though it still makes appearances on television and in repertory cinemas.  An American soldier (Laurence Harvey in the original; Liev Schreiber in the remake), son of a demagogic U.S. Senator and a ruthless political operative (James Gregory and Angela Lansbury in the original; in the remake, Meryl Streep combines both roles) is captured in Korea, brainwashed, programmed to kill through a combination of classical conditioning and hypnosis, and rendered amnesic for the experience.  But fragments of memory keep intruding into consciousness -- especially in the mind of his friend and fellow-prisoner, Marco (Frank Sinatra; Denzel Washington), who carries the plot by trying to figure out what is wrong.  The original, which is a genuine masterpiece, has lots of references to psychogenic amnesia, and what we now recognize as implicit memory.  The remake replaces Korea with the Kuwait of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, China with Manchurian Global, a multinational defense contractor, and psychological techniques of mind control with biotechnology in the form of drugs and brain-implanted computer chips.  

Commentaries:

"Brainwashed" by Louis Menand (New Yorker, 09/15/03), and reprinted in a 2004 reissue of Condon's novel by the Quality Paperback Book Club.

"How Brainwashing Came to Life and Thrived" by Jeff Stryker (San Francisco Chronicle, 08/01/04).  

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate by Jonathan Marks, an investigation of CIA-sponsored research on "mind control" in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki).  "A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned Helsinki port, The Man Witout a Past seemed to distill Europe's hope for redeption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with lyricism, gentleness, and beauty" (Leslie Camhi, "France: The Film Vote", The Nation, 07/01/02).  Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival; Kati Outinen also won for Best Actress.

Matrix 

Memento  (

Memories of MidnightTV Movie based on the Sydney Sheldon romance novel.

Memory (Bennett Davlin, 2007).  Not exactly an amnesia movie, but Billy Zane plays a scientist who studies memory loss, who suffers from horrifying visions after being infected with a mysterious substance.  Devlin adapted the screenplay from his own novel. 

The Miracle at Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 1941).  "[A]fter a wild evening on the town in the company of servicement,  [Betty Hutton] can't remember how, or by whom, she got pregnant" (Terrence Rafferty).

The Mnemonist of Dutchess County (Josh Koenigsberg). Inspired bu a.R. Luria's account of the mnemonist Shereshevski. Milo, the mnemonist, seeks help from a psychologist who is looking for a topic for his next book; and he performs memory stricks for money while pining for the owner of the bar where he's working. The play's premiere, by the Attic Theater Company, was reviewed by Claudia La Rocco in the New York Times, 03/02/2013.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001).  "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" (John Leland, New York Times 12/23/01).

My Own Worst Enemy, a television series premiering on NBC in Fall 2008, featured a multiple personality, created by the CIA as part of a secret mind-control program (modeled on the real Project MK-ULTRA, and the fantasies of certain promoters of the MOD epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s).  One alter ego is a businessman with a suburban family, the other is a superspy and assassin.  Fall 2008 was a particularly good year for amnesia on television, with the second season of Samantha Who? and the premiere of Life on Mars.

The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004).  A very good two-hankie tearjerker starring Gena Rowlands (the director's mother) as a woman with Alzheimer's disease and James Garner as a fellow nursing-home patient who reads to her every day.  Moving depiction of what happens in a relationship when one person forgets another, and how the other tries to maintain the relationship through memory.  

Novo (Jean-Pierre Limosin, 2002, who also wrote the script).  This French farce suggests a bright side for amnesia: every time Graham (Eduardo Noriega) has sex, it's like the first time; women who otherwise wouldn't sleep with him, do so knowing he'll never remember.  Characterized as "light entertainment", "Euro-trash", and "borderline soft-core porn" by Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle (01/08/06), who nonetheless notes that "Graham is practically a zombie, but this odd male sex fantasy makes a case for the lifestyle".

Nurse Betty  

Overboard

Pandorum (Christian Alvart, 2009).  Dennis Quaid plays an astronaut who awakens from cryo-sleep but doesn't know who he is or what his mission is.

The Pawnbroker (Sidney Lumet, 1965).  Rod Stieger stars as Saul Masserman, a Holocaust survivor trying to suppress memories of his time in the camps.  It doesn't work.

Paycheck (John Woo, 2003)  Based on a novella by Philip K. Dick, who also brought us Total Recall (based on his story, "I Can Dream It For You Wholesale) and Blade Runner (based on "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?").  Ben Affleck stars as an industrial spy who, as a sort of legal protection, has his memory wiped clean of each job after he does it.  The only evidence he has of the work he's performed is a paycheck.  He takes one last job, for a big payoff, and wakes up to find himself amnesic for the last three years of his life but also charged with murder.  The movie follows him as he attempts to put his life back together based on fragmentary evidence.

Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984).  Harry Dean Stanton stars as an amnesic father, gone from home for four years, who tries to rebuild his relationships with his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and son.  Script by Sam Shepherd.

Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942)  Ronald Colman as an amnesic veteran of World War I who takes up with a music-hall singer played by Greer Garson.  After another head injury, he recovers his memory and returns to his family, but is amnesic for his "fugue".  Garson becomes his secretary, but keeps her secret to herself.  Based on a short story by James Hilton, who also wrote Lost Horizons, the book and movie that gave us Shangri-La.

Rashomon

"Repression", episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, first broadcast on NBC in September 2001.  Not a movie, but it still counts.  The plot hinges on the allegedly repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse, recovered in psychotherapy.  As the police psychiatrist explains, "Technically it's called 'false memory syndrome', but I call it the 'power of suggestion run amok'."  Guest stars Amy Irving and Shirley Knight. 

The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), set in 16th-century France, based on a real-life case, a novel by Janet Lewis and historical work by Natalie Zemon Davis.  Remade as Sommersby.  See also the Changeling.

The Return of the Soldier (1982).  Based on the 1918 novel by Rebecca West.  Directed by Alan Bridges, starring Alan Bates, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, and Ann-Margaret.

Samantha Who?  Not a movie but an ABC television series, introduced in the 2007, about a real-estate executive (played by Christina Applegate) who wakes up from a coma with amnesia, and who now tries to compensate for her past behavior.

Second Nature, made-for-TV movie produced for TNT, script by E. Max Frye and Steve Griffiths, directed by Ben Bolt (2003).  Alec Baldwin stars as Paul Kane, secret agent who suffers amnesia in a plane crash (or, at least, that's how it appears), and then must uncover the truth about his identity, family, his past, and his mission.  

Shattered (Wolfgang Peterson, 1991): Based on a noel by Richard Neely.  Tom Berenger stars as an amnesic victim of an automobile accident who tries to reconstruct his life.  Berenger's diagnosis is announced as "psychogenic amnesia", because it covers only his personal life, not impersonal memories, but of course organic amnesia also dissociates episodic and semantic/procedural memory.  Later in the movie, Berenger experiences some recovery of memory, but that also occurs in traumatic retrograde amnesia following a  concussive blow to the head.  One interesting feature of the film are the efforts of Berenger's wife (Greta Scacchi) to help him relearn his past history.  This succeeds, to some extent, but they seem to have the qualities of "second-hand", semantic memories.  

Singing in the Dark.  A singing waiter is an amnesic Holocaust survivor.

Snapdragon (1993).

Solaris (2002), directed by Steven Soderburgh and starring George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, based on an earlier film of the same title by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972), in turn based on a science-fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem.  Clooney joins the crew of a spaceship, orbiting the planet Solaris, which is haunted by beings sent by the planet below.  It turns out that the planet is itself intelligent, and the beings have been fashioned from the crew's own memories -- as Clooney learns when he encounters his dead wife, reincarnated.  Ray Bradbury includes a story on a similar theme in his Martian Chronicles.

Somewhere in the Night

Sommersby (1993), a remake of The Return of Martin Guerre, set in the American Civil War.  See also The Changeling.

Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945).  Hitchcock classic starring Ingrid Bergman (her first starring role) as a psychiatrist in a private asylum (think Chestnut Lodge) and Gregory Peck, with a dream sequence by Salvador Dali.  Peck is an amnesia victim who thinks he's committed murder and has taken on the identity of the new asylum director, Bergman helps him avoid the police and find the truth.  Great representations of implicit memory and the recovered-memory myth, without all the sexual-aggressive baggage of classical psychoanalysis. 

36 Hours.  James Garner plays an army officer who wakes up in what appears to be a military hospital.  It turns out that he's kidnapped by the Germans, who attempt to persuade him that he suffers from amnesia in order to get details of the D-Day invasion.

Total Recall (1990).  Both a memory movie and an amnesia movie: In 2084, Arnold Schwartzenegger turns to ReKall, to provide him with false memories of a vacation on Mars ("For 300 extra, you get the girl and save the planet").  The process goes wrong, and suddenly Arnold is being chased by people who would do him harm.  Or maybe it's just another false memory. Remade, for no apparent purpose and to no apparent good effect, in 2012.

Trance (2013). An employee at an art-auction house helps steal a Goya painting, hides it, and then receives a concussive blow to the head when renders him amnesic. A hypnotherapist is brought in to help him recover his memory.

The Truman Show

The United States of Tara (HBO, 2009).  This television mini-series, first shown on HBO in 2009, focuses on Tara Gregson (played by Toni Collette), a wife and mother who has dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder).  While much of the plot hinges on shifts between Tara's four personalities (Tara, the "host"; "T", a rebellious teenager (who tries to seduce Max, Tara's husband); Alice, a stereotypical housewife straight out of the 1950s; and Buck, a "male" Vietnam vet (who watches pornographic videos with Max), interpersonality amnesia also plays a central role -- as well as the family's attempts to deal with Tara's problem.  Richard Kluft, a psychiatrist who is an expert on dissociative disorders, served as technical advisor to the series.

Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001).  "This Hollywood remake of the 1997 Spanish movie "Abre los Ojos" can only be called un desastre. Tom Cruise plays a magazine-empire heir who lives in the Dakota and works (apparently) in the Condé Nast building—he's a playboy publisher splitting his time between Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz (who re-creates her role from the original as a tempestuous free spirit). There is an accident, and Cruise winds up charged with murder and disfigured (he sometimes shouts through a plastic mask). The movie jumps in and out of dreams and nightmares, rushes forward and backward, and the only thing that emerges clearly isthat a big star is coming to terms with the anxiety of losing his looks. It's one of those rare movies that manage to be overwrought and completely boring.  Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed it, has to begin all over again and figure out why he wanted to be a movie director " (David Denby, The New Yorker). 

In the movie, "Tom Cruise... draws a blank on the most important event in his life" (John Leland, New York Times 12/23/01).

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)

Vital (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2004).  Hiroshi Takagi (played Tadanobu Asano) loses his memory in an automobile accident, in which his girlfriend is killed.  An anatomy book revives his interest in medicine, and a dissection cadaver may revive his memory.

The Vow (Michael Sucsy, 2012).  Rachel McAdams plays Paige, a young married woman who is injured in a car accident, and awakens from a coma with an amnesia that covers her life since she met her husband, Leo.  Not only that, she reverts to her pre-marital personality.  With Jeremy, the fiance she jilted before she met Leo, still in the picture, Leo tries to reconstruct their love and marriage.  A.O. Scott, reviewing the movie, wrote: "The Vow ends up taking a pro-amnesia line, in two different ways.  First, by suggesting that memory loss can be a great opportunity to start fresh, re-examine options and resolve long-standing wardrobe issues, and also in its exemplary commitment to its own forgettability".

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Forman, 2008).  While talking to a former Israeli Army comrade, Forman realizes that he has no memory of the September, 1982, massacres at the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps in Southern Lebanon -- even though he was in one of the units that controlled access to the camps by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists.  He then proceeds to interview other members of his unit, in an attempt to reconstruct his memories -- and presents his findings in the form of an animated film.  It's not completely clear how much this movie is based on popular notions of repression and recovered memory. Forman was a writer on the Israeli television series about psychotherapy, which became HBO's In Treatment, so he's clearly got psychodynamic psychotherapy in the background.  But in an interview on Fresh air with Terry Gross, Forman clearly stated that he remembered being at his post, but he had no memories of the massacre itself, or other details.  But then again, the IDF didn't participate in the massacre, and he was stationed some distance away from the camps.  So, maybe he doesn't remember much because nothing much happened to him that night.  Perhaps it's best to view Forman as using the notions of repression, amnesia, and recovered memory as a structural framework for his documentary -- whose purpose, quite aside from any personal therapeutic intent, is to force Israeli society to acknowledge the massacres and their possible complicity in them.

The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (2008).  A man loses his memory after a car accident, and his grandfather uses backgammon to restore his identity.  Seems unlikely, but it won the "Best Picture" award at the 2010 California Independent Film Festival. 

XIII (2009), based on a French comic-book series, itself a takeoff on the Bourne seies, this NBC miniseries features Stephen Dorff as XIII, a secret agent, maybe a "Manchurian candidate"-type suspected of assassinating the President (a peacenik who who was about to withdraw troops from Iraq and Agfghanistan); the problem is that XIII is amnesic, and he can't prove his innocence.  With Dollhouse: more Manchurian candidate, anyone?  

 

Commentaries

"The Last Word in Alienation: I Just Don't Remember" by Terrence Rafferty (New York Times, 11/02/03).  "The recent craze for amnesia movies could be about our nagging sense of unease." 

"An accurate Movie About Amnesia?   Forget About It" by Richard Perez-Pena (New York Times, 111/02/03).  "Doctors say Hollywood-style memory loss is a complete fiction".  Actually, I think that more recent movies have sometimes come close to getting it right.

"Hollywood Memories Are Getting Fuzzy Again" by Hugh Hart (San Francisco Chronicle, 02/08/04).  Hart cites the period around 1945 (the year of Hitchcock's Spellbound) as the "Golden Age of Amnesia" and quotes Richard Walter of UCLA:  "One reason we're seeing a lot of amnesia movies is that it's a perfect narrative vehicle for dealing with identity issues, which is what movies are really, finally about".

"Only in the Movies: Living a Life Unencumbered by Memory" by James Gorman (New York Times, 04/20/04).  Distinguishes between an older generation of amnesia movies, which focus on retrograde amnesia, and the newer crop, which focuses on anterograde amnesia.  He argues that anterograde amnesia is an implausible premise for a modern plot, because modern people have access to lots of other records of the past besides their own memories -- including newspapers, photographs, and computer disks.

Amnesia is film "noir's version of the common cold" (Lee Server, in Ava Gardner: "Love is Nothing". (2006), quoted by Janet Maslin ("Touched by Venus, Called by the Wild", New York Times, 04/17/06).

 

This page last revised 04/07/2013 5:53 AM.