MARY: So, not such a bad day after all?
TIM: No. It was pretty good really. Very good day actually, as it turns out.
About Time (2013)
Recalling old memories has always been a bit of a struggle for me. It often feels as though I am looking for ways to remember the past – the search extending to a physical one in the case of the misplaced VHS tapes which chart my childhood years. Just as smells and sounds can take us back, films can connect us to certain time periods too – even if the memory exists only to remind us of sitting in a particular room at a particular time.
Memory is a theme that has always fascinated me. In film, memories can take on a physical quality: characters can revisit the locations of their past, where they may find places and outfits frozen in time, even though they return with the benefit of hindsight. This visual window into memory can help us to reflect and find meaning in our own lives.
The change of heart that permeates Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is perhaps the most pressing example of the twisted nature of memory. Faces lose their features and things fall apart as the memory of an ex-partner is permanently erased. As ex-couple Joel and Clementine soon discover, to forget the bad is to sacrifice the good along with it.
The dual narrative in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) conjures a similar melancholic feeling in the viewer. The story of what was – and what could have been – is projected in a slideshow montage for Mia and Sebastian to watch. The trajectory of their lives takes a different turn, of course, and a chance encounter sees the pair run into one another unexpectedly years after their break-up. Without an exchange of words, it is evident that their love persists even in a distant, changed reality – one where they cannot be together.
The complex notion of forgetting is not reserved solely for romantic relationships in cinema. In About Time (2013), Tim’s time-travelling must come to an end in advance of the birth of his next child, meaning that he may only visit his dying father one last time. The memory that the two choose to revisit together is of a childhood journey to the beach – a day of skimming stones and holding hands. It is striking that the pair should wish to return to such a significantly insignificant moment of shared time.
More recently, Charlotte Wells’ stunning debut feature film Aftersun (2022) explores one daughter’s attempts to remember a childhood holiday she shared with her father. The title itself reads as an ode to the unspoken acts of care that make up our relationships – Sophie’s father ensuring that the sun does not burn her skin, even as communication becomes a struggle between them.
Sophie’s father appears and disappears in flashes. Between these flickers of light, we watch as an older version of Sophie ‘physically’ grapples with the man she knew and loved, desperately trying to get him to ‘stay’.
Sometimes the thought of memory and its natural progression can be overwhelming and difficult to face. In the case of all these films, however, there seems to be one uniting message: remember what you can, and appreciate it for all it’s worth.
About Time, dir. by Richard Curtis (Universal Pictures, 2013)
Aftersun, dir. by Charlotte Wells (Mubi, 2022)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, dir. by Michel Gondry (Momentum Pictures, 2004)
La La Land, dir. by Damien Chazelle (Lionsgate, 2016)