John Seamon, Memory and Movies: What Films Can Teach Us about Memory

John Seamon, Memory and Movies: What Films Can Teach Us about Memory (Cambridge MA: MIT Press 2015) 272 pp. $21.95 ePub, PDF, $30.95 Hb. ISBN: 9780262029711

From psychoanalysis to ecocriticism, commentators of various theoretical hues have attempted to marry scientific discourse and film studies. However, critical discussions that use neuroscience and cinema in concert are relatively rare. Many previous commentaries on memory in film have been the preserve of trauma studies. They tend to investigate how film narratives form part of a literary and cultural collective memory. The work of Monica J Casper and Eric Wertheimer comes to mind, as does scholarship in the field of Holocaust Studies.

In Memory and Movies: What Films Can Teach Us about Memory, John Seamon proposes that memory is a complex and varied collection of independent systems. As antidote to the potential complexity of this definition, Seamon’s refreshing approach draws upon one of the most pervasive and accessible art forms known to contemporary civilisation: the movies. Seamon moves seamlessly through a series of cinematic examples that best illustrate his ideas on human memory. Film case-studies are used to explain: working memory, which is associated with short-term retention; the process of long-term memory; trauma, amnesia, and memory loss; and the nuanced biases of autobiographical recall. Seamon’s writing style is clear, accessible, and informal. It is testament to the writer’s desire to privilege reader accessibility and engagement that his cinematic canon is comprised of titles familiar to many western readers, such as Avatar, Titanic, Groundhog Day, and even 50 First Dates (an Adam Sandler comedy that, no doubt, has attracted only very limited academic attention to date). However, Seamon draws upon some relevant art films from European and World Cinema, such as Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which may require some tracking down on the part of uninitiated readers. This leads us nicely to a key caveat of the book. Although Seamon explains the plot premises of many of his film examples, viewing is probably required fully to understand them, a task that may prove daunting given the sheer volume of films that the writer engages with.

Each chapter is foregrounded and contextualised with a useful ‘setting the scene’ paragraph. Although these preludes effectively set the tone for the forthcoming chapter, at times they could have been sharper to provide a more direct indication of the chapter’s central theme and argument. Likewise, lines from films are quoted as epigraphs, often to good effect, however some of these appear a little isolated and their thematic implications could have been better incorporated into the writer’s corresponding argument. At times, broad theories could have been fortified with the application of more specific studies of film theory on cinema and memory. For example, David Bordwell’s work on cognitive poetics would have been highly relevant to Seamon’s chapter on ‘When Troubling Memories Persist.’ An introduction to a greater number of pre-established definitions, particularly when ‘setting the scene,’ would have helped to refine and clarify some of the writer’s more esoteric conceptions of memory.

Despite its anecdotal nature, crucially, Seamon encourages a proactive, almost interactive, relationship between the reader and the text. Frequently, the author sets the reader activities to complete, which are both well-conceived and clearly explained. At one point, he gives the reader the task of drawing a penny to help illustrate a point about the unreliable nature of short-term memory, particularly when one is faced with memorising multiple details in a short space of time. For some, this style may undermine the academic rigour of Seamon’s writing. Later, he describes age-related memory loss in films such as On Golden Pond and Amour, while prescribing methods to maintain memory function. It is likely that this technique will perturb those accustomed to more traditional, restrained styles of academic writing. Certainly, Seamon is susceptible to accusations that his study is hybrid rather than pedigree, part scholarly monograph, part self-help book. However, Seamon’s book is an academic work with a strong ethos of outreach and inclusivity precisely because of its highly accessible writing style and use of movies from popular culture, not despite them.

Often, Seamon displays an astute ethical sensitivity in his critique of mainstream, predominantly Hollywood, cinematic representations of memory conditions. For example, he considers how such films rarely provide accurate explorations of amnesia, which is evident in his discussion of Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). He argues that the illness is used as narrative cliché, a stock trope, positioned using strategically timed blows to the protagonist’s head as means to turn memory off and then on again. The illness is appropriated for generic effect, providing comedic contrivances and eventual resolution. Although Seamon does not comment upon it, this use of amnesia conforms to an artistic tradition of mistaken identity that dates back to Shakespearian theatre and, earlier, Classical Greek drama.

Seamon’s analysis of how actors ‘learn lives’ is particularly insightful. Its premise is reminiscent of early Soviet film theorist Vsevolod Pudovkin’s work on ‘the actor’s toolkit,’ formulated back in the early twentieth century. In Film Technique and Film Acting (1958), Pudovkin explicated the key role of the actor in crafting meaning through their embodiment of a character on screen. In his analysis, Seamon extends Pudovkin’s reflections (albeit indirectly) to consider what it means for an actor to inhabit a role from memory. He explores the assorted techniques employed by actors to remember their roles during the performance process, drawing upon comments from actors such as Michael Caine about the delivery of lines.

The use of film to illustrate the subjectivity of memory and experience is well rehearsed in the field of audience studies. Such research often draws upon interviews with participants about the remembered and experiential nature of cinema going. Although Seamon does not draw upon these methodologies, nor do they form part of his remit, his analysis provides a fitting companion piece for scholars who seek a holistic alignment between film and memory studies.

Daniel Clarke, University of Sheffield