Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Persistence of Mr. Memory

If you were to ask my friends, I’m sure all of them would say that I have an excellent memory.  There are notable areas of deficiency, however.  For some reason, I can no longer remember song lyrics in the photographic way that teenagers all seem able to do.  And embarrassingly, a long time ago I developed a complete mental block that totally prevents me from remembering the names of anyone my parents introduced me to.

Recently I’ve been engaged in a course of exam preparation study that most people would find hideously boring, but one positive thing about it is that I find my ability to memorize large amounts of material fairly quickly seems largely intact.  That came as a relief because the last few years have been such a swirl that there are times when I can’t tell whether I’m overtired, diminished or nearly finished.

Things mysteriously related to memory do come to visit nightly, however, in oddly assorted dreams, and I’ve been dreaming pretty vividly for what seems like forever now following a long barren period.   

My dreams tend to take the form of my current practical and psychological (these are easily conflated) problems, which are re-rendered in new versions of genre movies from 1930s or 1940s (or amalgams of these pictures) containing key elements of the original photoplays that have gotten mixed up in sinister ways with the circumstances of my life.

Because they say that dreams are where we work out our problems, I usually play the role of victim in these reveries (and I'm not always the lead).  Fortunately, I haven’t died or nearly died lately in any of these interludes for quite a while.  During adolescence that happened all the time.

I have a good visual memory and can recall frame-by-frame a vast number of movies from my dream era – pictures I liked as well as ones I was indifferent to.  When I was growing up, Channel 9 (WOR) in New York City ran a regular afternoon and evening film show called Million Dollar Movie. MMM would show each old movie they featured at least a dozen or so times a week, sometimes continuously during the course of an afternoon.   

Here Comes Mr. Jordan, It Happened Tomorrow, D.O.A., The Third Man, White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Top Hat, Ceiling Zero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Tale Of Two Cities, Captain Blood, Zorro, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and so many more.   

It was a great way of memorizing films and so much better, I think,  than what is being offered to kids on television today, which tends to be smutty, sarcastic "comedy junk" where the only historical or cultural references they might ever be able to pick up are to other examples of smutty, sarcastic comedy junk.     

No one dresses nicely in those new Disney or Nickelodeon shows, the scripts are consistently hackneyed, derivative and repellent, the line readings static, the acting all posing, and they present the world in ugly, uniformly lighted color, rather than beautiful black, white, silver and gray, which is how the world is meant to be seen.

A friend of mine recently spoke disparagingly, but correctly, about the limits of Salvador Dali’s artistic talent, calling attention to its essential slickness, hollowness and superficiality.   I have always liked the painting title La persistencia de la memoria (The Persistence of Memory), however. It's a phrase that rattles around my brain (like "time's arrow").

Years after I became interested in Surrealism, I was surprised and delighted to learn that Rene Clair, who directed the short, legendary avant-garde film Entr'Acte (which featured cameo appearances by Francis Picabia, Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray) had also directed as his first English-language feature one of my favorite dream-memory pictures, The Ghost Goes West, a film I really loved growing up and still do.  I first saw it as a Saturday evening “special event” program on Channel 11 (WPIX) in New York, another local broadcast outlet.  By the time I saw the picture, which was made in 1935, it was already ancient history.  Although it is terrific (Robert Donat is, as usual, unforgettable, and the movie features fine performances by the beautiful Elsa Lanchester and Jean Parker) and was the UK's biggest 1936 box office success, it wasn’t a US commercial success or even an Oscar-nominated title.  

One can't imagine anyone making a big deal of The Ghost Goes West in today's television world (as I recall, Channel 11 promoted it for at least 10 days in advance), for all of the 50,000 multiplexed channels they make available to us.  Television certainly has changed, I would say for the worse.


  1. I am intrigued by your blog entry on dreams. I have spent many nights in a deep slumber and when I wake up I don't remember ever having a dream. When I told this to a dream therapist once he told me that we all dream and our subconscious is highly activated in sleep state. What does that mean for me? I have no idea.

    To sleep, perchance to dream...

  2. Thank you. As Mrs. Perini Scleroso, the strange Middle European character Andrea Martin played on SCTV used say, "I don't know....maybe". I'm not sure whether I'm on a good run or a bad run lately. Curtis