Memory is a confounding thing. It’s an area of life ripe for investigation, an opportunity of which filmmakers have eagerly taken advantage. Alfred Hitchcock puts the intoxicating allure of memory on center stage in Vertigo. (500) Days of Summer is the long journey to taking off those rose-colored glasses and acknowledging the flaws in a partner, a relationship, and yourself. In Memento, Christopher Nolan uses a man with anterograde amnesia to examine the lies we tell ourselves. The foolhardiness of love and the lengths we go to rid ourselves of such painful memories is a central message of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Hell, whole shows have dedicated an exorbitant amount of time to simply playing with the gap between his version of events and hers!
Filmmakers have looked at memory from a thousand different angles, creating movies ranging from Rashomon to Solaris and Total Recall to The Vow. However, a more difficult facet of memory to portray on film is memory itself. How exactly do we remember things? What do those memories look like? While there are others that try to do this, the three films that represent memory in the rawest sense are Lady Bird, Daddy Longlegs, and Boyhood. Through technical and thematic elements, the directors evoke the feeling of remembering in the audience, remembering a past that isn’t theirs.
Lady Bird (2017)
In her love letter to Sacramento, Greta Gerwig created a precise look for memory. Collaborating with Director of Photography Sam Levy, they focused on how Lady Bird could realize the aesthetic of memory. Avoiding any distracting or heavy-handed attempts of memorializing the events of the film, the duo was inspired by a Xerox-ed copy of a photo that had “lost a generation of image quality and [was] a little bit distressed.” Softening the edges, losing some of the specifics is one way memories change over time. They take on a certain glow that can hide other truths, making us unreliable narrators of the stories we tell ourselves. When Lady Bird finally hooks up with her über-aloof crush, she (and the audience as an extension of her) clearly hear him say that he too is a virgin. However, when they later have sex, he swears he never said that, claiming she just made an assumption. It’s in line with both characters; Kyle may have just said what she wanted to hear and Lady Bird may have been so focused on their joint deflowering narrative that she willfully misremembered the exchange.
The feeling of memory permeates throughout the entire film. Alex Bickel, the colorist, worked hard to achieve the distressed look Gerwig and Levy were so drawn to. On the film’s commentary track, Gerwig discussed how the quick cuts in editing were to reflect how quickly time moves, especially during those moments you want them to slow down like senior year of high school. By creating strong visuals that evoke the notion of memory, Gerwig was able to heighten the emotions of the story she’s telling. It’s easier to picture Lady Bird, once again being called Christine, reflecting on her turbulent last year at home. We see it all how she would be, too.
Daddy Longlegs (2010)
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s film Daddy Longlegs is said to be like their entire childhood condensed into the two weeks the film takes place. That’s the amount of time the immature Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) has sole custody of his two sons a year. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go smoothly. He struggles to fit the kids into the rest of his life as well as figuring out how to be a father rather than a friendly babysitter. The cinematography (DPs Brett Jutkiewicz and Josh Safdie) is crucial in evoking the feeling of looking back on time past. The long lens, handheld camera often loses and gains focus on characters in the middle of shots, like a parent filming your sibling’s dance recital might. Unsurprisingly, they examined the raw material from their childhood while preparing for the film. The Safdie brothers’ father was described as a “compulsive videographer,” filming over 300 hours of their childhood.
For many, those pictures and videos have become like memories. Sure, we can remember certain moments from our childhood, a long road trip or an odd birthday party. But we simply can’t remember everything. With the advent of home video and the ability to chronicle large parts of an entire life with ease, it changes the perspective of a memory. Rather than seeing a certain Christmas morning through your eyes, you are taking on the point of view of the person filming, watching someone watching you. The altered point of view ultimately makes our memories feel like movies to us.
The feeling of looking back on the past from a different perspective reflects the multiple lenses the directors were viewing their childhood and their father through. From the vantage point of adults, Lenny is neither a hero nor a villain, reflecting their still-complicated feelings towards their father and themselves. While a memory may burrow into our brains and stay there forever, the way we view it can constantly change.
Twelve years in the making, Richard Linklater’s epic ode to the ordinary is most similar to how we might remember ourselves. Aided by watching the cast age as the movie progresses, the film feels as close to real life as we’re likely to get into a narrative feature film. In Boyhood, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) simply grows up. It’s something everybody does, but it’s an act that has never been given this much time and attention. Mason does quite a bit in the twelve moments of his life we see. It is a coming-of-age film in the truest sense as we watch the character go from age 7 to age 18 and finally, leave for college.
Linklater’s whopping 160-minute examination of life and the passage of time was all in pursuit of making a memory of a childhood. If you were looking back on your youth, what exactly would come to mind? According to Linklater, not much of the typically big events. The Important moments rarely loom quite so large on our minds the further we get from them. As they are certainly not driving a traditional plot structure, the seemingly randomly chosen memories depicted in Boyhood showcase Linklater’s exploration of the memories that “stick.” Rather than seeing Mason walk at graduation, we see him on a car ride home from it with a friend. Instead of seeing Mason lose his virginity or have his first kiss, we see him farther into a relationship, having already experienced all of the “firsts.”
The naturalistic way the film unfolds these memories were meant to replicate how time passes. In the film, there is no text on-screen to distinguish between passing years or changing towns. The cuts from one scene to the next can feel abrupt, especially as the jump forward in time can wrap up a story before the audience may be done with it. The jarring progression of Mason’s stepfathers, his father suddenly having a wife and newborn, a new crush becoming a relationship before turning into angry exes all happen between the beats we’re privy to. As we move further from the moment itself, the before and after tend to fall away, leaving only the emotion burning brightly in its place.
What is the effect?
While none of these films may explicitly deal with the notion of “past” in context, they are made with a distinctly future perspective. It might be key that all three films were at least semi-autobiographical. The directors themselves are equipped with that future knowledge. Gerwig has repeatedly stated that none of what happens in her film happened to her, but she believes that “it rhymes with the truth.” The Safdie brothers made their film an abridged version of their time with their father. Linklater has a lot in common with young Mason, continuously moving while his mother found new work and new boyfriends.
All three films function as time capsules of sorts which heightens the melancholic nature of memory. It may not be necessary to make such a personal film to capture the way our memory works, but the authenticity of the retrospection can be felt by the audience. Perhaps these three films stick out in this way because they tell a truly singular story, full of intimate details and honest emotions. The concreteness of the memories presented are specific and most likely not relatable to anybody else except their creators. But that specificity cuts to the emotion flowing just beneath the scene and is effortlessly mirrored by those watching.