The other day I watched Moonstruck, the 1987 film set among the Italian-American community of New York, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. It’s a delightful production, which scarcely puts a foot wrong in any department. I had not seen it some twenty years, but something remarkable occurred. I could remember every single element of the film. It wasn’t just its general tenor, or stand-out scenes such as where Cage and Cher first meet in a bakery and he explains the rage he feels towards his brother, her fiancé. I remembered every scene, every image, every movement of the camera, every word of dialogue. Even the tiniest of features, such as details of costumes, pictures on a wall, or objects in a grocery store – I recalled all of it.
How could this be? I had not seen the film in over two decades, and cannot have given it any thought since then. I haven’t gone around consciously with every shot and the complete dialogue of Moonstruck rolling around in my head. Had you asked me only a week ago what I thought of the film I would have said that I remembered it fondly, that Cher was very good in it and Nicolas Cage too, though he over-acted a bit. But that would have been it. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much of the plot, and if you had asked me who else was in it I was not have been able to say Danny Aiello, or even Olympia Dukakis, who along with Cher won an Academy Award for her performance. So where was Moonstruck in my head all that time? How many other films are stored there? And how?
This is quite a common phenomenon for me, and I assume for others. Films that I have not seen in a long time, for which I seem to have little recall, nevertheless come flooding back upon the point of actually seeing them once again. Everything is so familiar, and this is not just at the point of viewing. I not only recognised scenes from Moonstruck in their every detail, but I anticipated the scenes coming up as well. I knew what the next line of dialogue was going to be before the actor had said it. When I watched John Mahoney in his fine cameo as a hapless academic who knows nothing about the young women he pursues, I had such a sensation of delight, knowing what he was going to say next and the way in which he was going to say it. Yet a week before I would not have been able to tell you that he was in the film at all.
But this only happens with certain films. Last night I watched A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, a film I saw just the once when it came out in 1982. I remember being rather disappointed in it at the time, but little else, and when it came to watching again I realised I recalled none of it – not the cast (apart from Allen, of course), not the setting, the dialogue, or even its more eye-catching moments that you might expect to have lingered, such as the flying machine invented by Allen’s character. But A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy I had seen just the once, when it had made little impression on me (I have to say now that I was wrong – it now seems a film of great charm, wit and technical skill).
Moonstruck, in contrast, meant something from the start, and I saw it more than once. I committed it to memory – not consciously, but by repetition and because it held meaning for me.
So Moonstruck was in my head while A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was not. But how many films are in my head? I have seen thousands, many more than once, and I have experienced that total recall (or something close to it) with many films that I have not seen in a long time, but which I could not consciously recall without the trigger of the film itself.
The scientists of memory tell us that there are different kinds of memory systems. We have short-term, or working memory, which is the immediate need system. It manages small amounts of information which may then get passed further along the brain for deeper processing. Long-term memory is the deep-rooted stuff that our mind has elected to keep permanently. This can be sub-divided into explicit (or declarative) and implicit (or procedural) memory, defined as ‘knowing what’ (memories of facts, figures etc) and ‘knowing why’ (how to do things, like riding a bicycle, which we have acquired through practice). Declarative memory can be further divided into episodic memory – the memory of particular times, places, contexts – and semantic memory – deriving the common features from different experiences. No memory, however, is exclusive to any one of these systems or procedures: they transfer from one to the other, being stored in different parts of the brain when they do so (including different parts of the brain at the same time, for security purposes – much like any good digital data preservation strategy).
Some argue that long-term memory barely decays over time, so that in principle we could remember everything we have retained, and there is infinite space in which to do so. We could remember everything, if only we had enough time. So I could remember every film there ever was, if only I could impress upon my mind (through repetition) the need to recall, and had many hundreds of years available in which to see all the films that there are, and will be, to see. But our brains deteriorate, and so we lose the capacity to retrieve all we might retrieve.
Moreover, the mind balances that which we may remember with that which, for sanity’s sake, we can afford to forget. To be unable to forget anything is a horrible curse, famously analysed in the case of memory prodigy ‘S.’ (Solomon Shereshevsky), the subject of neuropsychologist A.R. Luria’s great book The Mind of a Mnemonist. I did not need to have the whole of Moonstruck playing in my head all of the time. I recalled it only when I had need of it, or when it was practical to do so.
So how and why did I remember the film so well? I do not understand enough about the various memory processes and how they operate together, but their relationship to film must be an intricate one. Books on memory give many examples of what we remember and forget, but they seems always to focus on individual aspects, such as faces, words, actions, sounds, specific points in the past. Films are more complex – they are a reflection of life, motion in context, all the more powerfully so for being bound up as stories. Yet I can find little reference to the recall of films in the literature of memory, at least in their entirety as opposed to single memorable scenes. A recent article by Julie Beck for The Atlantic, ‘Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read… and the movies and TV shows we watch‘ does touch on the subject. But her theme is why we do not remember any book we read or film we see soon after experiencing them, unless we make a particular effort to do so – such as through repetition. She also argues that memory is changing in the Internet age, as so much that we might want to recall we do not bother to do so, because we know the information will be somewhere. Memory shifts from retention of the substance to retention of the indicators, as though everything were short-term memory nowadays.
Well, maybe so, but this doesn’t tell me why I was able to remember Moonstruck. It seems to me that the primary purpose of memory is survival. We retain information that enables us to function, from recognising friend and foe, to knowing what foods are good to eat, to remembering how to open a door. But this core survival function has expanded richly because of the great power of the human brain, combined with the complexities of modern living. I did not, on the face of it, need to recall the plot and dialogue of Moonstruck in order to survive – indeed, I had lived in reasonably good health, and without major accident, for twenty years since I last did so.
I retained the film, I think, in part because it made me happy. Its humour and its romance and its characters appealed to me. It confirmed to me things which, in a broad sense, made me feel safe, and hence a survivor. It provided comfort and an affirmation of the good. I could also speculate that there was a element of professionalism involved. I have been a film archivist and historian for many years, used to looking at films closely, evaluating them, comparing them with other films. I took note of the film because it was noteworthy, though it helped that I saw the film more than once (itself part of a process of identifying value through confirmation). In the same way, I (mistakenly) did not put the effort into noting A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, because it seemed to have little to offer compared to other films I was seeing. Now I know, after seeing it last night, I will remember it well.
Whether the whole of Moonstruck was sitting there in my head, however, I rather doubt. Our memory banks are not giant image stores from which we retrieve the past exactly as we saw it. Memories are profoundly, and biologically, subjective. As psychologist Ulric Neisser puts it, ‘Remembering is not like playing back a tape or looking at a picture; it is more like telling a story’. Memories are records of impressions, which change over time and experience. One of my earliest memories is of being discovered at a children’s party, reading a book upstairs while everyone else was playing games downstairs (I’ve not changed much). But I remember this incident from my mother’s point of view – she comes up the stairs and finds me sitting there. It’s not my memory at all, or rather what I now remember of it has been translated through the anecdotes of others and by what the meaning of the memory turned out to be.
In my mind, I had not changed the plot or any other aspect of Moonstruck, but there must have been some sort of compression that took place. I could not have remembered every small detail of the costuming or décor, for instance, but something in my mind, upon acknowledging the familiarity of these scenes, decided that those details looked right, so that it was as if I remembered them in full. Perhaps there is some analogy with how digital video compression works: the video files we see on TV, on DVD, on streaming sites, and even in cinemas, are all compressed (the term used is lossy), meaning that not all of the visual information recorded in the master file is there. Compression technologies (such as MPEG-2) make a video look like the full thing when it is only partly so, simply to save on file size and so enable more efficient distribution.
So maybe there was, metaphorically speaking, a lossy encoding of Moonstruck in my head, at least for those parts that could be reconstructed from basic elements, with the power of suggestion doing the rest. That doesn’t explain how I knew what the characters were going to say before they said it, nor might it explain such elements as the looks on the character’s faces. By whatever complex combination of processes it occurred, my ability to remember large parts of a film I had not seen in twenty years, and in minute detail, feels extraordinary. The brain is the most astonishing storage system, even if what it stores is subject to all of the vagaries of biological processes.
There are many, many books, articles and websites on film and memory, all of them on how memory is used as a thematic device, or on film and memory as analogies, not about how or why film is remembered. There is a gap in our understanding of film that needs filling. The neurologists can tell us the mechanics of how we remember films (though I feel they haven’t told us enough as yet), but we need to think more about the why. For me, it all points to something fundamental about the purpose of film, which is to provide assurance and identification of the self. We can live without films, readily enough, but to have them available has proved so useful to us. They enrich our memories. They help us survive.
- There’s a clear guide to the different forms of memory at http://www.human-memory.net
- Three of the best books on memory that I know of are Steven Rose, The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind, Rusiko Bourtchouladze, Memories Are Made of This: The Biological Building Blocks of Memory and A.R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory
- Memory: An Anthology, edited by A.S. Byatt and Harriet Harvey Wood, is a rich and interesting compilation of texts on memory, unusual in having the scientific alongside essays and extracts from the literary word (but nothing on film). It includes the essay by Ulric Neisser cited above
- The academic news site The Conversation, has published a number of good, accessible articles on developments in memory studies