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Messing with the mind: Several movies are zeroing in on the loss of memory and its effects

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

By Barbara Vancheri and Ron Weiskind, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Hollywood is playing mind games at the movies these days.

Memories are being erased like chalkboards. Sometimes they are wiped out entirely; at other times only the short-term recollection shorts out.


Related article

More films play with memory


That is what happened to Dory, the blue tang with Ellen DeGeneres' voice in "Finding Nemo." And darned if Drew Barrymore isn't afflicted with the same memory malady, much to the dismay of the smitten Adam Sandler, in "50 First Dates," opening Valentine's Day weekend.

The conceit was used, to dramatic effect, in 2001's "Memento," starring Guy Pearce as a former insurance investigator who suffered a head trauma that left him unable to form new memories. Hunting for the man who raped and murdered his wife, he tattooed clues about the killer on his body.

No one's going to those inky extremes to jog memories, but many variations on the theme are cropping up in the movies these days, including:

"Paycheck" -- A 1953 story by Philip K. Dick inspired this sci-fi thriller starring Ben Affleck as a reverse engineer who devotes weeks, or years, to a job and then has his memory of that period erased for a fat fee.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" -- Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are a couple trying to rescue their relationship by having their bad memories erased in this movie co-written by Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation"). Fictitious Lacuna Inc., which has a real Web site at, promises "focused erasure of troubling memories." When Carrey's character asks about brain damage, a doctor blithely says "it's on par with a night of heavy drinking." Opens March 19.

"The Notebook" -- An elderly man (James Garner) visits a nursing home to read entries from a notebook to a woman (Gena Rowlands) with Alzheimer's disease about a long-ago love affair in which they were involved. Based on the Nicholas Sparks novel. Opens in July.

"The Forgotten" -- Julianne Moore plays a woman reeling from the death of her 8-year-old son. But her psychiatrist says she never had a son and invented those memories. She meets a man with a similar experience, forcing her to try to prove her son's existence and her sanity. Opens Sept. 24.

It's not unusual for a spate of movies to deal with the same or similar topics. Summer 1998, for example, gave audiences dueling disasters in "Deep Impact" (comet) and "Armageddon" (asteroid).

Coincidence could be driving movies about memories, be they lost, wiped or washed, or real life could be seeping into reel life.

For one thing, it's a coincidence that all these movies on the same subject are coming out in such close proximity, says Steve Golin, producer of both "50 First Dates" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

They are being released within six weeks of each other, but the Carrey film began development in 1998, whereas the script for the Sandler picture came along in 2001, Golin says. "Eternal Sunshine" had to wait for screenwriter Kaufman to finish his work, and then it had to wait for Carrey, who was filming "Bruce Almighty" at the time.

"You never know what's going to wind up happening," Golin says. "We've got two movies that, broadly speaking, deal with the same subject matter but in terms of the type of story they are and the tone, they're completely different." The Sandler film is a "commercial, high-concept romantic comedy" while the Carrey film "is more intellectually challenging."

Filmmakers take notice when other movies cover similar subject matter.

"We talked about 'Paycheck' because it was the one movie coming out before [our films]," Golin says. "But John Woo has such a specific style of what he does and the type of movie he makes is so completely different than the type of movies we made. We weren't particularly concerned about it."

Golin is producing both films because, he says, the subject matter intrigues him.

"The whole way that your memory works and the way that your memories are distorted, how childhood memories are and our perception of things is something that's always interested me a lot."

While scouting locations for "Eternal Sunshine" in Yonkers, N.Y., where he had once lived, Golin went into a house that felt "weird and familiar and creepy." Leaving the home, he turned the corner and saw the school he attended as a boy. Only then did he realize the house was one where a friend lived whom he often visited.

"I hadn't been there in 38 years," he says.

Golin, it would seem, is hardly alone in finding the subject interesting.

"Memory loss is a theme that is uniquely human and offers story lines -- either dramatic or comedic -- that everyone can relate to," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co.

"Like fish-out-of-water or buddy-cop or any of the myriad formulaic themes, the memory-loss genre is seeing a resurgence and, of course, if the box-office results are favorable, we will see more of these types of films," he adds.

They should be favorable, he predicts, for "50 First Dates."

"I think many people fondly remember 'The Wedding Singer' and for many fans, this may be their favorite Adam Sandler film. It is a perfect Valentine's weekend film and should do extremely well on that opening weekend," Dergarabedian predicts.

As for what's behind all of this, he says, "I doubt there has been a calculated effort to create more of these types of films. Perhaps it is just that the cultural zeitgeist has led us to this point at this time."

That zeitgeist -- the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate -- includes aging baby boomers and their parents.

"My guess is that you probably want to look at the incidence of Alzheimer's as a rising trend and that many writers have relatives -- it's like the six degrees of separation or maybe three or two degrees of separation -- everybody knows somebody who has a problem with memory loss, particularly short-term memory, which is one of the early signs of Alzheimer's," says Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University.

As many as 4.5 million Americans may suffer from Alzheimer's disease. It usually begins after 60, with the risk rising with age.

"You're getting people who are living longer but not necessarily healthier. ... You have these writers today who are in that generation where they're perhaps taking care of their parents, financially, if not physically," Fischoff adds.

"So I would look to what these people are experiencing in their personal lives, which gives them ideas because writers tend to be cameras. They look at the world in terms of, 'What kind of story can I make out of that?'"

Television is more responsive to trends or topics, which is why a made-for-TV movie about a news event or newsmaker can get onto the air in months. Movies, however, can take years from pitch to premiere.

"If you have a number of different movies coming out now, they're probably not imitating each other but there was this kind of zeitgeist that was pervasive in two ways," says Fischoff.

"You have the writers who want to write about it because of what they're seeing and then you have the producers who tend to be older, who have money to fund projects who say I'm going through this, my parents are, I'm sympathetic to this issue. So you have those two creativity streams operating."

Even people who don't suffer from dementia may find their memory more porous or sluggish as they age. Or, as a bumper sticker with the initials CRS crudely puts it: "Can't remember [expletive]."

"There's a lot of people paying a lot of attention to memory because a lot of people are living longer and they're talking more about memory loss than they used to."

As for how realistic these movies are, Fischoff says the affliction depicted in "Memento" isn't very common. And if you have no short-term memory, it's hard to have long-term memory since you haven't banked any recollections.

"Paycheck" has as much chance of really happening as Affleck does of marrying Jennifer Lopez today. "That's really science fantasy right now rather than science fiction. We don't understand the brain well enough ... You can't go in, once it's stored and selectively pull it out, not yet."

"It's sort of like this: All of a sudden, there are five movies out about serial murderers or there are five movies out about rapists. For some reason, something catches the eye or interest of people, so you get this spate of films which, if there's a similar gestation period of a movie, they're all going to come out around the same time. ... It becomes a vehicle to allow a lot of variations on a theme."

That's how one subject can spawn an animated family film, a sci-fi thriller, a romantic comedy and examples of other genres, Fischoff says, "There are a number of ways you can go with it, with the issue of memory, and once you've done it, then people stop making them for a while."

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632. PG Movie Editor Ron Weiskind can be reached at or 412-263-1581.

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