In the introduction to Millennial Cinema: Memory in Global Film, Amresh Sinha and Terence McSweeney make a case for their anthology’s unique contribution to film studies and memory studies. Noting the rapid growth of ‘memory studies’ as a transdisciplinary field since the 1980s, alongside a global ‘boom’ in the popular fascination with history and memory, they argue for the particular significance of a group of films released at, or following closely upon, the turn of the millennium, all of which reflect upon aspects of memory. Here, they claim that despite the ongoing scholarly interest in memory and trauma, ‘no single volume has yet explored the centrality of memory to films of this era in a global context’ (p. 5). Although they are perhaps overly emphatic in their assertions of originality (since many of these films have already been discussed elsewhere in relation to memory and/or trauma), this work is a welcome addition to the field. Certainly, there is ample room for a concentrated survey of memory in contemporary international cinema.
The works in this volume take the form of close analyses of selected films buttressed by relevant theoretical discussions. Its twelve articles are divided among three sections, each dealing with distinct (but overlapping) areas of concern within the field of memory studies, namely: 1) Virtual and Prosthetic Memory; 2) Traumatic and Allegorical Memory; and 3) Historical and Cultural Memory. In broad terms, this structure works well as a way of highlighting shared connections among the essays themselves, as well as the filmic works and theoretical approaches they investigate. The selection of films incorporates some of the most significant (and most discussed) examples of international ‘art cinema’ and off-Hollywood cult cinema from recent years, the bulk of them released between 2000 and 2006; examples include In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000), Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), and Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005).
Despite Millennial Cinema’s structural clarity, it is shadowed by a fundamental ambiguity, hinted at by its very name: is this book primarily about a formally/thematically unified group of films designated by the term ‘millennial cinema’ (a term which supplies the collection’s primary title), or is the focus rather on the intersection of memory and global culture (as indicated by the secondary title, ‘memory in global film’)? If these two questions are to be considered together (as Sinha and McSweeney are clearly suggesting), then what justifies the characterisation of ‘millennial cinema’ as primarily concerned with memory? The films discussed here, all of which engage in various ways with questions of time and memory, have undoubtedly been impactful and influential, but the editors neglect to demonstrate how they are indicative of a general tendency in cinema around the turn of the millennium. For the most part, it seems that the book is largely concerned with contemporary (as opposed to ‘millennial’) art cinema in which memory is a core narrative or thematic concern.
What would have been helpful to the framing of the project is a fuller consideration of how the popular ‘memory boom’ of the past three decades is related to the apparent intensification of global cultural, demographic and economic flows. The editors make brief reference to Andreas Huyssen’s diagnosis of a contemporary ‘global memory culture’ (p. 2), but quickly hurry on to other observations rather than developing the point further. If, as Huyssen suggests, ‘the form in which we think of the past is increasingly memory without borders rather than national history within borders’ (1), then how does contemporary cinema register and reflect upon the operations of this borderless memory? Although ‘globalism’ is placed front and centre in the introduction, the articles in this collection reflect only intermittently on this question.
Russell J.A. Kilbourn’s chapter goes the furthest in tying together memory and the global. In it, Kilbourn discusses the Brazilian film City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002), showing how it makes use of the stylistic lingua franca of ‘intensified continuity’ (ie. ‘the dominant style of contemporary American mass-market film’ [p. 82]) in order to ‘represent and comment upon a highly specific past time and place’ (p. 89). Here, Kilbourn both draws upon and qualifies Alison Landsberg’s influential notion of ‘prosthetic memory’ (which refers to the adoption of artificial, media-enabled images and narratives as part of one’s own experiential archive), suggesting that the film’s adoption of a contemporary ‘global’ style (including generic signifiers of nostalgia) is in tension with its references to Brazil’s socio-political and cinematic history. In less direct ways, the connections and contradictions of global memory are also addressed in Amresh Sinha’s chapter on The Namesake (Mira Nair, 2006). Enlisting Derrida and Hegel to investigate the relationships among memory, mourning and language, Sinha offers an intriguing but rather too densely knotted analysis of The Namesake’s tale of transcultural identification (in which an Indian character grapples with the name he has inherited from a Russian novelist).
A number of other pieces are more tightly focused on memory within the borders of a given region, territory, or nation-state. For example, Terence McSweeney’s detailed reading of Old Boy (Park Chan-wook, 2006) places its main character’s doomed quest for vengeance, and the tragic forgetting that underpins it, in the context of South Korea’s national history. ‘Memory’, argues McSweeney, ‘and frequently the trauma it contains, is an integral part of individual, or indeed national, identity’ (p. 235). Similarly, Jonathan Ellis and Ana María Sánchez-Arce explore the intertwining of history and fantasy in Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006), which provides a darkly imaginative perspective on Civil War-era Spain. Although the allegorical interpretations of the film sometimes appear rather too literal-minded, and some of the theoretical connections are clumsily articulated, Ellis and Sánchez-Arce’s contribution highlights the critical potential of memory as a way of approaching contested and traumatic national histories.
Some of the best essays in the collection produce illuminating insights into works that have been less extensively discussed. Alanna Thain offers a sensitive and sophisticated account of ‘virtual memories’ in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998). In this fanciful but sombre film, a group of deceased people are welcomed to a kind of posthumous halfway house, where each of them is invited to choose a favourite memory from his/her life. This memory is subsequently reconstructed and recorded, in amusingly makeshift fashion, by an amateur film crew. Having viewed these reconstructed memories, the dead are then permitted to move on permanently. Importantly, Thain takes the time to elucidate the conceptual material she is incorporating from Bazin and Deleuze, before carefully threading this material into her discussion of the film. Her analysis focuses on the generative potential of memory and the way that it mediates between difference and repetition: in After Life, the filmic reconstructions of the characters’ memories are not perfect reproductions, but are shot through with fabulation and shaped by social interactions in the present. According to Thain’s account, this film suggests ‘the impersonal nature of the most personal memories… and the infidelity to the self that the ungrounded force of memory produces’ (p. 68).
Another useful contribution is provided by David Murphy in his discussion of Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004). Engaging sparingly with theory, Murphy lays out a refreshingly clear context for the film (both within the filmmaker’s oeuvre and African cinema more generally), demonstrating how Sembène’s work generates ‘alternative histories’ (p. 160). Moolaadé, suggests Murphy, not only makes a convincing rebuttal to Western accounts of Africa as ‘outside’ of history, but also engages thoughtfully and critically with collective and personal histories amidst ‘the ongoing project of African modernity’ (p. 169).
Elsewhere, a number of the essays in this collection suffer from a tendency to get tangled up in theoretical discussion at the expense of clarity. In his discussion of Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, Paul Atkinson engages in detail with the ideas of Bergson, Deleuze and Husserl while foregrounding the film’s complex formal and narrative structure. Finding elements of both reversibility and irreversibility in the film, Atkinson argues that ‘the viewer’s memory serves as an intermediary between plot and story’ (p. 29). Yet despite such promising material, the theoretical discussion often seems to swamp the argument, causing it to lose focus and definition. The essay ends with a fairly diffuse and inelegant conclusion, which fails to provide sufficient justification for its theoretical convolutions. Steven Rawle’s discussion of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also struggles to maintain a balance between theory and close analysis, devoting the first two pages to an unnecessarily detailed plot description before plunging into a dense, Deleuze-inflected discussion of the film’s ‘virtual visuality’ (p. 39). Given the body of existing work on this film (including Deleuzian accounts), it is hard to see this essay’s unique contribution.
Indeed, despite the editors’ claims, the volume as a whole is not quite the breakthrough text implied in the introduction. There are certainly a great many productive insights to be found here, but a number of the chapters (including those focusing on Memento, Mulholland Drive and Caché) do not build substantially on previously published analyses of the same films. Conversely, some contributors manage to find a distinct ‘angle’ on well-covered films. Lynda Chapple, for example, launches an extended discussion of the role of the qipao (a tightly-fitted Chinese dress, also known as a cheongsam) in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Chapple arguably overstates the extent to which these garments produce ‘corporeal absence’ in the film, contributing to the ‘erasure of Li-zhen’, the female lead character (p. 216). However, in her conclusion she brings together vision, touch and nostalgia more convincingly, suggesting that the ‘textures of the qipao’ serve, in their spectacular visual excess, to ‘mourn a tactile plenitude, feminine in nature, which is forever lost to us in the cinematic experience itself’ (p. 219).
In sum, this is an intermittently rewarding volume, which correctly identifies, and attempts to address, the need for an extended consideration of memory in contemporary film. However, if the editors are right to suggest that memory has taken on a more pronounced global dimension in recent years, then it would make sense to pursue this question further. Sinha and McSweeney ask: ‘how does memory become cinematic, and has this process changed in the era of so-called globalisation?’ (p. 3). As it stands, this collection only goes partway towards answering that question, because it provides little context for understanding globalisation and how it relates to memory. Millennial Cinema also falls a little short in relation to the editors’ claim that it is ‘specifically designed for teaching’ (p. 5). Much of the theoretical discussion (which is dominated by Bergsonian and Deleuzian concepts) is too convoluted and overwrought for the book to serve as a front-line teaching text, whether in film studies or memory studies. The quality of the work, moreover, is also rather variable.
Yet Millennial Cinema, despite such reservations, offers an array of productive insights and concepts, and there are cumulative conceptual dividends to be gained by placing these articles alongside each other. Together, they invite reflection on the aesthetic, philosophical and political underpinnings of memory in contemporary film, and suggest a space for further work.
Millennial Cinema: Memory in Global Film. Ed. Amresh Sinha and Terence McSweeney. London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2011, 248 pp.