One of the recurring phrases I hear, and often use when conversing with a close one is, “Remember when we…” As we mature, our constant desire to cling on to memories seems to grow stronger. These memories are, essentially, our own versions of our history we want to either live repeatedly or forget. While the reliability of our own minds is uncertain, to say the least, our constant need to visit the times of the past informs our mood and decisions in the present in either a positive or a negative way. My favorite films of January capture this very subjective nature of characters’ memories that sometimes allow them (and the audience) to escape from their present into the reveries of the past but sometimes also deceive and misconstrue the decisions characters make in their present.
Known to me before watching the mystery-thriller as a film term that makes you sound smart, Akira Kurosawa’s revolutionary “Rashōmon” (1950) is a founder of films that have different characters giving their own subjective view of a murder they saw take place. Kurosawa’s film works on numerous levels, not least as a meta-commentary on the cinema viewing experience, but its central conceit itself is one that explores the inherent fallibility of memories. The characters in the film seem desperate to use their memories to correct the mistakes they make in the past, but Kurosawa’s film suggests that these differing accounts only lead to further conflict between the characters. Kurosawa’s deeply cynical view of the wretched conditions of post-war Japan (the film is told entirely in an abandoned temple with the spectators recalling the events) suggests that the individual memories of each person will only lead to deception and uncertainty. Except for the false note at the end of the film, this mood of despair and ambivalence informs most of the character interactions even in the present as they recall these different memories of murder.
History seems much rosier (and symmetrical) to Wes Anderson, as he and his characters put on (miniature) nostalgia glasses to remember the glorious days of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014). The film begins with four successive flashbacks – from a girl reading the book that has the title of the film to the aged author writing the book to the young author recounting his meeting with the old owner of the hotel, Zero, and finally to the now young Zero describing his relationship with the hotel’s manager, Mr. Moustafa. Not only do these flashbacks cleverly demonstrate the way stories travel throughout time, but they also suggest that Anderson realizes that he is merely presenting his version of Zero’s nostalgic memory of Mr. Moustafa and The Grand Budapest Hotel. There are several tender moments in which Zero recalls the harshness of the past that haunt him, but the overwhelming sentiment from both Anderson and Zero is that of nostalgia. Through the razor-sharp comedy, (brought to life by one of the most terrific ensembles in film history) and vibrant story-book like aesthetic, Anderson uses memory as a form of remedy for his characters to recall a place that feels far detached from the “barbaric slaughterhouse that [is now] known as humanity.”
Another film that has this singular belief in the rich past is Paul King’s mesmerizingly charming “Paddington 2” (2017). A distant cousin to Anderson’s film (characters are much less profane and talk at calmer pace) King’s film operates in a similar world with an even greater utopian feel to it. Narratively, King’s film is much more straightforward than my other favorites and focuses significantly on Peruvian bear’s adventures in the present. But, even in that simplistic narrative, the human characters, Henry Brown and Phoenix Buchanan especially, continuously look back at their own memories of their youth to remind themselves of their heydays. More than the narrative emphasis on memory, however, the film works as a rewind machine for both the viewer (depending on your political allegiances) and filmmaking techniques that harken back to the Golden Age of Silent Cinema, particularly revisiting the physical comedy of the great Charlie Chaplin. King’s fantastic film creates a world that, although, set in the present, has a vintage feel to it that again uses memory to distract the audience from what is going in the world currently.
Unconcerned about giving the audience an escapist feeling, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” (2017) grounds his central character, Reynold Woodcock, and his relationships with other characters in the memories he has of his mother. Keeping in tune with the mysterious, and delightfully unstable nature of Anderson’s latest piece, Woodcock’s recollections here both reveal memories with a mother that may come out of love and affection, but also may come out because of a lack of it. The occasionally stern interactions he has with Alma, his muse, and Cyril, his sister, both possess “an air of quiet death” that suggest that his memories haunt his present. But, there are also interactions which are childish and lovingly understanding that suggest that maybe what he seeks in the present is to replicate the love he received in the past. The mystery maintains the Freudian influence the film possesses implying that memories, good or bad, will continue to inform our thoughts and decisions in the present.