History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies. ~Alexis de Tocqueville, 1856. History is to society as what memory is to the individual.
It is a continuum of the recorded events from the past up until the present. History much like memory is a meta-cognitive process of accessing knowledge from the past. In the emerging age of postmodernism, the totalizing nature of objective knowledge has been challenged. No longer is there an absolute belief in its validity and truthfulness.We belong to a culture where the reconstruction of history has like in Plato’s cave, become an act of retrieving it from the confines of the walls by way of our images and signifiers of the past.
History can only be recorded retrospectively, hence relies on memory, resulting in evaluation and reflection that colours and reshapes events, as Yosuke Yamahata states ‘Human memory has a tendency to slip and critical judgement to fade’. Thus history can not take place in the present as it is only in hindsight can it be recognised.Though the paradox of this rule in the words of Lenny from Nolan’s film Memento is that ‘Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the colour of a car’ and therefore as memory can be unreliable it is in this retrospective process history can be construed inaccurately. Through their representation of history and memory, Nolan in his film Memento, Yosuke Yamahata in his website Remembering Nagasaki, and Becker in his film Goodbye Lenin! raise questions about the nature of the cognitive process and the interdependence of history and memory.
Nolan represents how we as a society construct our history and cultural identity through his central character Lenny in his film Memento. Lenny suffers from anterograde amnesia which prevents him from forming new memories. He is cut off from his past as of from the last thing he can recall before his accident –his wife dying on the floor. Postmodern society lives itself through an understanding and organization of narratives by which it contextualizes itself. If there narratives breakdown, the subject splinters away from it’s unique individuality.
Lenny is forced to re-contextualise himself every fifteen or so minutes. He relies on his Polaroids, tattoos, handwritten notes and various documents which are his narratives to establish his history and identity. The narratives of postmodern society breakdown with the constant rewriting and replaying of history which creates a culture of the image divorced from any referent. The reproduction of events and persons only moves the ‘facts’ further away from any real truth because of the continuous manipulation and rewriting of history (our collective memory). We become a society detached from any genuine historicism.Humans map themselves temporally within the scheme of history.
However, as the subject becomes more fragmentary, as the subject approaches a society where one finds the end of historicity, where the temporal order of continuity is broken down, and time implodes into a perpetual present. Lenny is permanently trapped in the past; he can build new memory continuity from his first conscious memory to the accident, but nothing thereafter. Since he lacks the continuity of memory for all his actions and experiences after his injury, Lenny of the present has a separate identity to Lenny of the past.
Lenny’s identity is constantly fragmenting only to return to the same point in time to begin the process again. He cannot feel time because he cannot experience it more than a moment. Lenny attempts to construct his history and identity through the accumulation of physical evidence. Symbolically represented by the Polaroid pictures he uses to capture moments in time he won’t remember experiencing. By reconstructing history, Lenny creates a temporal memory. In the scene ‘Escort Service’, Lenny hires a prostitute to recreate the bedroom he and his wife slept in.The mise en scene and editing cuts of Lenny establishing links with his memory and the physical signifiers identify the meta-cognitive process of developing context and memory recall. The tattered copy of his wife’s book triggers a link to a memory of her reading it and a dialogue between the two.
Lenny takes the physical evidence to a deserted warehouse and burns it. The film noir style voice over allows us to understand Lenny’s situation and his relationship with his wife through the evidence. Lenny destroys the evidence to try and escape his perpetual present – ‘I probably tried this before.Probably burnt truckloads of your stuff. I can’t remember to forget you. ’ This is indicative of postmodern society in being unable to construct history in the present as it is only in hindsight can we appreciate and value what that history will be.
The webpage Remembering Nagasaki, designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki provides an example of how through the course of time, the memory fades and the reference to evidence becomes vital to construct our collective memory.The webpage consists of photographs, a first hand account – ‘the worst was when electric and telephone wires got tangled around people’s legs and they couldn’t escape’ and testimonials from individuals detailing how they first came to know about the event. The visual photographs imply fixed meaning however spontaneous truth cannot be obtained without an understanding of the context in which the photographs belong. We view the photographs accompanied by Yamahata’s account and are able to observe him reliving the experience through the pictures and reflecting on his own memories.
At the time, I was completely calm and composed. In other words, perhaps it was too much, too enormous to absorb. ’ The past finds itself eventually dissolving away as the last living remnants of it fade and then it is effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts. Yamahata illustrate the significance of physical evidence in establishing history.
The opening sequence of Memento acts as a metaphor in representing how the memory works. The mise en scene allows us to explore the processes in accessing memory.We are presented with an image of an instant Polaroid snapshot which begins to fade until we are left with a blank photo. The following sequence is shot in reverse; the photo slides back into the camera, the blood runs up the wall, the bullet reverses back into the gun. The Polaroid fading is representative of how at the time, memory is vivid and focused, but as time passes memory, like the photo, fades. Like history, the further away we get from an event, the more we rely on evidence to reconstruct it, but as Nolan asserted, recorded events and documented evidence can be unreliable and inconsistent.This predicament is further exemplified by presenting the plotline backwards in reverse chronological order inter-splicing a black and white film noir style sub story. This renders the viewer as blind and helpless as Lenny.
Furthermore through the choice of this structure Nolan is drawing attention to the fragmented nature of recalling memory and the distortion between the chronology and how we remember events. Memory is a meta-cognitive process and is entirely subjective determined by the individual.For this reason no possible objective history can be obtained leaving truth entirely to interpretation.
The website is constructed such as to represent this notion of subjective truth. It is designed with hyperlinks, thumbnails, and icons which serve as an interactive medium through which the web user is able to explore the page and construct their own meaning along the way. ‘She says that when you see such things when you’re young you don’t really know, understand or realize how horrible they really are’.The website includes an open forum for web users to provide their own insight and perception of the events relying on stories and evidence in which most never experiencing it first hand. Lenny uses the physical evidence to replace his memory. He consciously chooses to forget what Teddy tells him, burning two of his photographs, destroying the evidence so that he won’t remember that he has already got his revenge and killed Jimmy. He creates a false memory by recording, as evidence, Teddy’s number plate and the sentence ‘Don’t believe his lies’.
Nolan represents society through the characterization of Lenny. Just as Lenny can destroy evidence and alter his personal history, so too can we destroy evidence to alter our collective history. The historian Michel Foucault posited that history is a multiple overlapping and interactive series of legitimate versus excluded histories by which an episteme dictates what counts as knowledge and truth and what doesn’t.
Nolan suggests that the construction of memory thus history isn’t necessarily an accurate process.Throughout the film Nolan inserts clues to draw parallels between the different ways a single truth can be constructed within the memory. In a scene where Sammy Jenkis is sitting in a mental institution, Nolan edits two single frames with in less than a tenth of a second of Lenny sitting in his place. Memory is tangible and therefore events can be constructed falsely because of it. Becker explores images and signifiers role in representing history in his film Good Bye Lenin!Set in East Berlin from 1989-1990 the story follows Alexander and his mother Christiane, who falls into a coma shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall and doesn’t wake until eight months later. When his mother wakes Alexander has to maintain the illusion that her beloved Socialist East Germany still exists in order to not fatally shock her in her weakened condition.
Alexander reverts their apartment to the way it was before the wall fell in order to reconstruct her old world by means of physical signifiers.Alexander collects evidence from before the wall fell and pieces it together to form a reconstruction of the past. This reconstruction is symbolized by the pretend “News Reports” Alexander and his friend Dennis film and present to Christiane as real to cover up the increasing presence of symbols of the West such as giant Coke-a-Cola billboards. His concealment of the impact of Westernization with signifiers from his mother demonstrates how essential physical evidence is in constructing history and context by creating a direct link to memory.