An A-Z of Film Themes

M Is for Memory

M Is for Memory


As numerous politicians, journalists and public intellectuals have noted at one time or another: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So overused is this phrase, first coined by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, it today serves as a kind of one-size-fits-all for discussions of history; eye-catching, comprehensive, easily stretched to fit whatever happens to be the week’s hot debate – the rhetorical equivalent of Lycra boxer shorts (and about as successful at disguising bollocks). Wrenched from their original context, his philosophical treatise A Life of Reason (1905-6), Santayana’s words now belong to any fortune-cookie aphorist with an opinion to share.

Never one to miss out on the chance of making my work sound cleverer than it really is, I’ll henceforth be referring to this blog as my “Ode to George.” For though it may sound like I’m covering well-trodden ground, and at the risk of condemning myself to a hundred lines of hackneyed repetition, what follows is an essay on film, memory, the past and why we must, vis-à-vis Beyonce, guard against that most terrifying of psychological phenomena, déjà vu.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

For Santayana, memory was a bulwark against stagnation. “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness”, he wrote. “When experience is not retained… infancy is perpetual.” Individuals and societies need memory to develop ethically, politically and socially. Absorbing the lessons of the past was a prerequisite to progress. Santayana had not seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when he penned these words, but I suspect he would have appreciated the film’s sentiments. When Mary (Kirsten Dunst) recites a snippet from Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard”, and considers it a celebration of forgetfulness, she is unaware of the destructive impact forced-amnesia has had on her own personal development:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot

The world forgetting, by the world forgot

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

Each prayer accepted and each wish resigned

Dr Howard Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) nods approvingly at her recitation. He would do: he’s the mastermind in charge of erasing memories of those unable, or unwilling, to suffer them. And, what is more, he and Mary have had a torrid affair – subsequently deleted from the latter’s own mind-bank. So ignorant is Mary of her past mistakes, she almost falls for the good doctor’s charms again. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is an ironic title, for this film suggests that vicious cycles await the person who refuses to remember.

On the other hand, Santayana may have looked less kindly upon a film like Forrest Gump, whose message is manifest in the line: “My mama always said you’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.” Perpetual infancy would seem to be Gump’s overriding charm as he dithers through the “turbulent sixties” and the “selfish seventies”. It is perhaps unsurprising that numerous critics saw in this film a paean to forgetting, a dangerous distortion of history, one which erased the impact of sixties social movements and painted a Disney-like portrait of post-World War II America.

Santayana – and I feel like I’m beginning to understand his taste in movies now – would have seen in Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), the amnesiac anti-hero of Christopher Nolan’s thriller Memento, all the sinister implications of a life of Gumpish forgetfulness. A little amnesia goes a long way here. It is both alibi and catalyst for murder.

Had Santayana lived long enough to become a hip, Zizek-like, rock-star intellectual, he might well have written a book on how Gump and Shelby offered equally unpleasant portrayals of the same phenomenon. Personal ethics, moral choices and progressive politics have all been eroded in a society that promotes forgetting as a virtue. Perhaps he’d have prefaced his study with a line from Eminem:

Kinda feels like déjà vu,

I wanna get out of here, I do


Now, where was I?

The sheer volume of public dialogue that surrounds films like The Help, Goodbye Lenin, Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful to name just a few highlights the stake we place in memory. Individual recollections merge with collective politics to form an arena in which our beliefs, values and hopes for the future are contested. Memory is at once ideological and emotional. It is modernity’s conscience.

Indeed, it strikes me as no accident that Santayana’s phrase gained particular clout in the years following the end of World War II. For example, a search for “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” in electronic archives of The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune sees its usage begin in the late 1940s. The first direct quotation I could find in the Times appears in April 1945 in reference to a play called A Place of Our Own. The play’s subject matter was apposite. As the review noted, it used the First World War and its aftermath as a lens through which to explore contemporary concerns. Namely, America’s role on the world stage: should the country remain isolationist and avoid getting involved in world wars, or should it intervene for the sake of humanity? As the full extent of Nazi atrocities became apparent, not to mention the spread of international communism suggesting to some a case of history repeating itself, such questions would only intensify. And so too would recourse to Santayana.

Writing in 1960, self-styled “Mr Conservative”, Senator Barry Goldwater lamented the downward spiral America had endured since the introduction of social welfare programs in the 1930s. The Roosevelt administration’s New Deal legislature, along with a softly-softly approach toward international communism, was, in Goldwater’s view, the reason his country stood at the brink of collapse. “We conservatives do not want to ‘repeal’ history”, he announced. “We just don’t want to repeat it.” His call for a new era in American politics was of course accompanied by the solemn refrain: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Twenty years later, conservatives would forget Goldwater’s ‘30s revisionism and blame the 1960s for America’s international, economic and moral decline.

Those who cannot…

Goldwater’s New Deal bashing is obviously not everyone’s idea of remembering the past. For the purposes of this blog it brings into perspective the paradox of Santayana’s phrase. What does it mean to “remember the past”? As historians have long pointed out, there is a disjuncture between “the past” – that is, what actually happened – and the way in which we tell it. In F.R. Ankersmit’s view there is an “incongruity between present and past, between the language we use for speaking about the past and the past itself.” History is not the past but a narrative used to make meaning. Memory is not the past but its reconstruction. On the back of such ideas, the next stage has inevitably been to ask for what purposes this reconstruction takes place.

We observe how a society, to quote political scientist Michael Shudson, uses memory to “[think] out loud about itself.” 1980s films about the Vietnam War – Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, the Rambo series etc. – say as much about political conflicts of the Reagan era as they do about the war itself. Maybe, as some have argued, they helped support an aggressive foreign policy in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iraq and everywhere else that had a knock on the door from Uncle Sam during the 80s and early 90s. Films like We Were Soldiers, World Trade Center, United 93 and Rescue Dawn promote individual heroism at the expense of social context, thus celebrating war even as they commemorate its victims. Even silly time-travel capers and comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine and Take Me Home Tonight speak to recent attempts at revisiting and valorising the once-despised 1980s. As western leaders see their cherished free-market ideologies discredited by economic catastrophes – the credit crunch, mass unemployment etc. – a nostalgic look back to the “golden” age of neoliberalism might be just what the propaganda machine ordered. Memory reassures, it invents, it forgets.

While there is some mileage is this approach, there is the danger of dismissing memory as something that is simply made- up – all about construction and fabrication. It turns, as Barry Schwartz puts it, “the study of collective memory into a kind of cynical muckraking.” There are certainly times when I find myself adopting this stance as a convenient ruse to avoid having to deal with memory as anything more than empty nostalgia or ideological conservatism (see, for instance, my earlier post “G Is for Gettysburg”).

Surely, there is more to memory than this. Is it not possible to find a place where past and present are not irrevocably separate, but can co-exist?

When Scotty (Tom Guiry), the hero of coming-of-age film The Sandlot reminisces about his youth spent playing baseball, time folds in on itself. The movie begins in the 1990s present; Scotty, now a baseball commentator, enters a journalist booth. A brief anecdote about the legendary batter Babe Ruth leads straight in to personal reminiscences. Photographs of the Great Bambino give way to family snaps. We are taken back in time. Past and present collide as the adult Scotty narrates over scenes from his own childhood. He explains how he had just moved to a new town and was struggling to make friends. We watch him skulk the suburban streets, eventually coming upon a sandlot where a group of kids are playing baseball. “It was like their own little baseball kingdom or something”, says the narrator.

” When I finally got up enough guts to go out there and try to make friends, I found out that  they never kept score. They never chose sides. They never even really stopped playing the game. It just went on forever. Every day they picked up right where they left the day before. Like an endless dream game.”

A game without beginning, without end – Scotty’s comments are apt, for the “endless dream game” of which he speaks becomes a bit of a cheesy metaphor for life: unceasing, repetitive, circular. Boys come-of-age on the baseball diamond; men revisit their childish selves. The ghosts of past, present and future sit side by side. “The one constant through all the years … has been baseball”, says a character in another baseball-themed movie, Field of Dreams.  And I’d say that the one constant of baseball films over the years, has been the idea that the past and present bleed in to one another. The past is always present just as the present is always past. The ghosts of Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson consort with little kids about to begin their life’s journey; adults retrace their childish footsteps around the diamond’s hallowed turf.

I’m not sure how much philosophical gravitas we’re supposed to ascribe films like The Sandlot and Field of Dreams. Their representations are, to put it mildly, nostalgic. But I like the idea of viewing memory as a metaphorical baseball diamond. Travelling in a circle means never leaving your past behind. Wherever you stand, your former selves, experiences and histories remain in view. And, hell, if you get caught in a rundown – baseball talk for being stuck between bases – then moving backward may very well be as essential to progress as, well, moving forward. Quite Santayana-esque, when you come to think of it.

Baseball may not explain the mysteries of remembering, but it’s helped me think through my own confusion – a little bit, at least. The past, in all its complexities, may well be elusive, never to be retrieved. But perhaps enough of it remains for us to learn something from it; to respond to it – emotionally, psychologically, physically, morally.

And if nothing else, the idea of tossing a baseball around with George Santayana has entertained and sustained me on more than one occasion this autumn. It’s become a kind of fake childhood memory: me standing there with a runny nose, cut elbow and muddy shorts waiting for him to throw the ball. George, dressed in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, winding up to pitch. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, he shouts before popping a yakker in my direction. As the sun goes down we’re still out there, absorbed in that timeless ritual, putting memory to rights. Every curveball a reminiscence; every fastball a flashback; every thwack of cork on leather strikes another blow for truth.


It’s with these thoughts in mind that I want to finish this post, but also prepare for the next. In many ways, my own attempts to explore memory up until now have always been absent one key ingredient: my own recollections. When I look at the 1960s, or World War II or Vietnam in collective memory I always do so as an outsider. Perhaps it is easier to take a cynical tack when your examination is not clouded by personal reminiscences. Thus, next up I’ll be looking at cinematic memory of an era very much in my own lifetime. It’s the first decade that I can really say I was old enough to be conscious of events happening around me. It’s my Sandlot decade; when I grew up and watched the world go by.

N Is for Nineties.


Ankersmit, F.R. “Historiography and Postmodernism”. In Keith Jenkins ed. The Postmodern History Reader (London: Routledge, 1997).

Goldwater, Barry, “A Conservative Sets Out His Credo”, New York Times, July 31, 1960, p. SM16.

Santayana, George, The Life of Reason (London: Prometheus, 1998).

Shudson, Michael Watergate in American Memory: How we Remember, Forget and Reconstruct the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1993)

Schwartz, Barry Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Zolotow, Sam, “‘Place of Our Own’ to Arrive Tonight”, New York Times, April 2, 1945, p. 16.


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