Memory & Film: Defining Structure and Content

Narrative films rely upon assembling essential signifying units to convey a fictitious account of a story from the perspective of the filmmaker.  The same could be said of the novelist and the oral storyteller.  These artists must trust their audience to properly interpret these units, place them in order so that their alignment is coherent.

French Spiritualist philosopher Henri Bergson outlined two types of human memory.  The first is Motor Mechanism, when a person purposefully memorizes a text or moment.  The second is involuntary memory, when a person commits to memory something vital to their person, whether conscious of it or not.   To navigate any form of memory, Bergson proposes that a person implements intuition and is able to perceive these memories not as individual units but as a continuity of units.

The application of Bergson’s philosophy to film seems only natural.  Narrative film, aligning its signifying units into a linear continuity, artificially simulates involuntary memory, so an audience processes the narrative intuitively.  Consider this, that the signifying units that compose a film (shots, scenes, sequences and so forth) are equitable to a series of involuntary memories.  That narrative films function on the psychological time of a novel.  Each unit of a film is essential, chosen for its strength as a signifying unit, arranged linearly by the filmmaker to function on the intuition of involuntary memory.  This way an audience can intuitively make the leaps in “clock time” the narrative calls for.  Thus, a film’s narrative can span any number of days, weeks, months or years without losing the spectator in the scope of its duration.

The understanding of film’s close relationship with these basic philosophical texts has sparked an analysis of the very conventions of this philosophy within the narrative itself.  Bergson alludes to the unreliability of involuntary memory.  What is remembered is remembered not on purpose, but because it is essential to the growth and survival of a person (or a film), open to subjectification if the memory needs skewing to serve its purpose.  This is the primary issue Orson Welles attempts to address in Citizen Kane (1941) and later Mr. Arkadin (1955).  As the reporter interviews the various players in Kane’s life, he is stuck with a number of varying interpretations of Kane’s character.  The reason no two impressions of Kane are alike is the direct result of the effects of involuntary memory.  Welles’ execution of these principles in Citizen Kane suffers from a lack of direct contrast; scenes are not repeated from various characters’ perspectives.  Citizen Kane, as a film, is no better equipped to address the issue of memory than the average narrative film, though it is self-aware with regards to the mechanisms at work within.

Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) comes closer.  The events of the narrative are relayed by a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) at Rashomon gate during a rainstorm.  The woodcutter relates not just his experience, but also the differing testimonies of all those who took part in the crime which is the subject of the trial he is concerned with.  This enables Kurosawa to repeat the crime of murder and rape from varying perspectives within the film.  Contradictions, differences, and memory lapses illustrate the problems of involuntary memory as a reliable source.  Inevitably, involuntary memory becomes corrupted by the subjective needs of each character.  Though Kurosawa was more concerned with the frailty of a justice system dependant upon subjective testimonies, Rashomon succeeds in accurately illustrating the nature of involuntary memory.  But Rashomon is still reliant upon the conventions of intuition to absorb its audience and communicate its narrative, so it can never become truly reflexive.

For film to become reflexive of the involuntary memory that makes it believable to an audience it must forfeit its structural relationship to Bergson’s notions of time.  Perhaps filmmakers were not yet equipped with a means to implement such reflexivity.  However, that means would eventually come in the form of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Alain Robbe-Grillet outlined a new means of narrative story telling in his work Pour un Nouveau Roman (For A New Novel).  Robbe-Grillet proposed that the psychologically subjective nature of the novel could be replaced with a strict objectivity, that a narrative could be told without the inherent perspective of a character within the narrative or from the perspective of the novel’s author (third person narrator).

The technique of Robbe-Grillet’s Pour Un Nouveau Roman would be implemented in Alain Resnais’ second feature, Last Year At Marienbad (1961).  Resnais’ film, scripted by Robbe-Grillet, negated the structural affiliation of film to Bergson’s concept of intuition by aligning the signifying units of the film without the narrative thread.  The illusion of continuity within the film is achieved by match on action cutting, and arranging the signifying units in what could be perceived as a quasi-continuity of “clock time” (for instance, day follows night just as night follows day).  To say there is no narrative does not mean there is no story.  A man (Giorgio Albertazzi) is attempting to relate to a woman (Delphine Seyrig) their meeting of the previous year.  Resnais has subjectified the story to a point where it cannot assume the position of a linear narrative; it is tied too closely to the perspective of the male lead in the film.  The structure of the film itself is transformed into the involuntary memory of the man, not the filmmaker.   The responsibility of aligning the units of Last Year At Marienbad falls to the audience as a result.

The content of the film (and the units within) focuses on a man and a woman.  They each have differing memories of having met before at Marienbad, though the details and circumstances of their previous meeting seem to change with every shot of the film.  When the principle characters can only recall their involuntary memories, the film can consist of only the conflicts that Welles and Kurosawa attempted to articulate in their films.  For Resnais, there is only that conflict, and he heightens it by allowing his characters to navigate exclusively with their intellect.  Henri Bergson believed that to assess memory intellectually one could only perceive the singular units of memory, not the continuity that they compose (a perspective taken by the subjective structure of the film).  For the couple (and the audience) in Last Year At Marienbad, this means perpetual re-examination and assessment without ever communicating to one another the shared experience of the year before.

Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet have succeeded in not only articulating Bergson’s theories within their film, but also forcing the audience to take an active part in aligning and contextualizing the units of Last Year In Marienbad, consciously executing Bergson’s theories.  What Last Year At Marienbad cannot do is remove the subjective element from the film as had been done in Robbe-Grillet’s novels.

The relationship between the author and the reader that Alain Robbe-Grillet outlines in Pour Un Nouveau Roman is strikingly similar to the relationship between the girl (Emmanuele Riva) and the Japanese man (Eiji Okada) in Alain Resnais’ first feature film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).  If Bergson’s theories on involuntary memory and intuition are applicable to the structure of film, they must be applicable to the novel.  Robbe-Grillet believes that a novel with a subjective narrator can only share experiences with the reader (just as a filmmaker with his/her audience).  If events are objective, described without elusion or psychological speculation, the novel becomes a singular experience to the reader.  Similarly, the girl’s experiences in Nevers are singular to her, that is until she shares them with the Japanese man.  Now they share the memories of those experiences, though the perspective and meaning of the events may contrast.  One person’s sacred memory can just as easily be perverted once that memory is shared.  The preservation of the meaning of memory is the central concern of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet.

Filmmakers, in telling a narrative, are constantly concerned with preserving the meaning of the units of the film just as the girl wishes to preserve the memory of her German lover.  The altering of any unit of a film or memory could be devastating to the continuity that contains it.  In this way, Resnais was attempting to grapple with the problematic nature of Bergson’s theories of memory as well as their application to the cinema.  But if the cinema is synonymous with the memory of the girl’s German lover, then Resnais does not see all interpretations of shared memory as destructive.  If the girl had not shared her memories with the Japanese man, she could not have returned to Nevers.  In this case, a shared memory allowed for constructive results.  One can therefore assume, that to share a film with one’s audience, objectively, may also be constructive, hence Resnais’ second feature Last Year At Marienbad.

-Robert Curry


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