13 June 2007

Piecing together a narrative

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first…”
“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!”
“…but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”
“I’m sure mine only works one way.” Alice remarked. “I can’t remember things before they happen.”
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.

(Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Chapter 5 – Wool and Water)

Memories are an important part of our lives. They give us meaning, linking our past with our present, explaining our lives. They seldom come to us as one long story, beginning to end, explaining everything in one narrative; but appear in fragments, many a times triggered by cues from our daily lives which are unknown to us.

It is this mysterious, fragmented and episodic nature of memories that fascinates me. And, this piecing together of fragments to make a whole – a story, a picture, a life – is what attracts me to the art of storytelling. For, what purpose does my memory serve if not to help me tell my story – to come to terms with my own past, my history, my identity? I see it as something that explains who I am.

Coincidentally, I’m not alone here. When I look around, I see fiction and film inundated with memories – sometimes whole sequences of them, stories within stories, films within films, sometimes appearing repeatedly – filling in what has been denied to the reader/film-viewer, and sometimes even to the characters in the story or the film, explaining the raison d’etre of the longer and larger story that we read or view or experience.

This denial – and the subsequent, automatic filling in that memories do – is an interesting phenomenon. And, what better medium to represent it than film, visually. Although I’ve seen many films which deal with memories in an artistic cinematic manner, the film that comes first to my mind is Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries’, a B&W film made some 50 years ago, in which the first memory of the protagonist’s, an aging professor’s, childhood was a field of wild strawberries.

Memories, along with identity and history and loss, form an important part of Atom Egoyan’s films (about which I have written in my previous post) as well. The film-viewer’s enjoyment of Egoyan’s films, from his first ‘Next of Kin’ in 1984 to his 2005 film ‘Where the Truth Lies’, is really achieved – completed and even climaxed – by piecing together fragments, much of it in the form of memories, from the various characters’ pasts to form one complete narrative in the end.

For both Bergman and Egoyan, this heavy reliance on memories leads to complex films. With Bergman, memories represent dream-like sequences which tend to freeze time; and in ‘Wild Strawberries’, for example, Bergman uses dreams and photographs to a great extent to piece the narrative together. With Egoyan, using metaphors (and media aids) such as videos, audio tapes, fairy tales, and even colour, memories fill time and space, providing a continuity which is necessary (for the film-viewer) to piece the narrative together.

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