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Near the end of the director's cut of Giuseppe Tornatore's exquisite "Cinema Paradiso," a character who is a successful fortysomething filmmaker sits alone in his boyhood bedroom projecting a reel of grainy old footage on the wall. There, in the imperfectly focused home movies of an amateur, is the image of a young woman, a high-school student called Elena. She was the director's first crush and as he (and the audience) have come to understand, she is the only woman he will ever truly love.
The scene is a heartbreaking collision of past and present, an indelible account of what was and what was lost and what can only be preserved in memory, or, more accurately, in memory and in film.
The "Cinema Paradiso" scene is like numberless others in the movies that present a convergence of layers of consciousness. Here is the visual manifestation of Tornatore's experience as reimagined through the invented past of his semi-autobiographical character, Salvatore, which merges in the ether of the cinema with the memories of audience members who bring to the theater shadowy specters of their own first loves. The scene is not a flashback; it is a willful return to the past in which the film in the mind's eye becomes the film on the wall. "Cinema Paradiso" is a movie about unspooling the past that finally offers up something that could be the literal film of memory, the reel that never quits.
Tornatore's scene, apart from being a quietly devastating moment in "Cinema Paradiso," functions as a dissection of any film's relationship to human memory, laying bare the link in the artistic process that turns one into the other and making flesh of what is fog and vapor.
More than any other visual medium, film has the capacity to preserve, re-create and reanimate the past with a fluidity that verges on verisimilitude.
It can be argued that painters and photographers wrestle with memory in single frames. The theater also welcomes transverses of time: Lights go down on one corner of the stage and go up on another; a voice from the past whispers over the sound system; or, as in plays such as Shakespeare's "Hamlet," a ghost walks in.
But it is only on celluloid and in the enveloping dark of the movie house that these tricks of time and mind achieve the seamless, trippy aspect they possess in real life.
Over the years, filmmakers have expanded the vocabulary of cinematic memory to include all sorts of flashback techniques and stylistic shifts to manifest in visual terms that which is past.
Flashback sequences are often filmed in black and white, or on grainy stock or with the herky-jerky quality you get with a hand-held camera. "Home movies" are sometimes used. They are edited in, with or without transitions. Music might provide the connective tissue between now and then; a door can close in the past and open in the present; or it can simply be there, part of a continuous uninterrupted reel.
Where transitions of thought and time are conscious, they surface on film in a variety of different visual cues.
The act of writing or putting down a story on tape sets the mind reeling backward in films such as "Double Indemnity" and "Out of Africa."
A drive in the car becomes a meander along Memory Lane in Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries."
An innocent question opens a Pandora's box of guilty memories in Milos Forman's "Amadeus."
A phone call summons a lifetime of memories in Tornatore's "Cinema Paradiso."
Seeing someone on the street reawakens the past most memorably in the Barbra Streisand-Robert Redford vehicle "The Way We Were" and in the more recent "Enigma."
A cemetery visit becomes a gateway to the past in "Saving Private Ryan."
A voice won't leave characters alone in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Psycho" and Paul Schrader's "Affliction."
A ghost walks abroad in any version of "Hamlet." Sometimes ghosts narrate their stories from beyond the grave as in "Sunset Boulevard" and "American Beauty."
Sometimes, the act of reading a letter opens the past lives of others to those who would otherwise never know the details, as in "Possession" and "The Bridges of Madison County."
Memory is selective and private. Among the characters in Akira Kurosawa's great "Rashomon," each remembers the circumstances of a rape and murder differently. What is remembered and what is not becomes revealing of character.
On film, memory is the shifting sand inside our heads. Time slides back and forth without bidding, or it can be reduced to bits and pieces. A character in Tom Tykwer's "Wintersleepers" uses Polaroids as a substitute for his deficient short-term memory. The same device is the key to the disjointed narrative in Christopher Nolan's "Memento." Memories can appear in a rush of guilt and fear as they do in "Sexy Beast," when the character played by Ray Winstone is nearly overcome by images of a murder in the recent past, or in "The Bourne Identity" when Matt Damon's assassin suddenly pieces together the events that nearly caused his death.
Memories need not always be fully realized for an audience to feel their effects. "We'll always have Paris," goes the line in "Casablanca," and if we don't see the scenes from long ago in the City of Light, we have a real sense of what happened there because Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa are compelled to "play it again." Likewise in "Sexy Beast," a quartet of associates dreads the arrival of Ben Kingsley's toxic Don Logan. We don't see what Logan did in the past, but it's written all over the four frightened faces.
Bill Condon's Oscar-winning 1998 film "Gods and Monsters" played tricks that blurred flashback and hallucination in the fictional account of the life of director James Whale ("Frankenstein," "Bride of Frankenstein"). Ian McKellen plays the director whose mind has begun to slip and take him places he would rather not go.
The ability to create a filmic manifestation of a disintegrating memory lends "Iris" some of its most powerful moments. The real-life advance of Alzheimer's on the British writer Iris Murdoch is re-created on celluloid (and in a superb performance by Judi Dench), essentially enabling the audience to experience the confusions of thought suffered by the film's protagonist.
The capacity of film to mimic human memory has also come to be evidenced in the reverse. Ronald Reagan, who suffers from Alzheimer's, was known to confuse movie events with historical events. And films about historical events that manipulate circumstances for dramatic effect have left audiences confused about what really happened.
Memories slip and slide.
Memories become movies, and movies can become memory.
Memory is the ultimate moving picture.