Personal/Memory Time: Past and Present Merging on the Screen (Wild Strawberries, Spider, Solaris, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

by Elisa Pezzotta Volume 18, issue 3 / March 2014 26 minutes (6314 words)

There are films, which cannot be categorized either as time travel narrative or alternative history, in which the protagonists’ personal time is different both from external time and from the other characters’ time. In these films the protagonists do not have the chance to travel in the future or in the past, but they experience a time that is different from our own time, from external time. For example, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) the protagonist (Brad Pitt) experiences a personal time that runs backwards in comparison with external time, story time, and the other characters’ time. Indeed, he was born as an old man and ages backwards, dying as a newborn baby. Significantly, at the beginning of the film, the spectators are shown the blind clockmaker Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas) who, in the new train station in New Orleans, assembles and inaugurates a clock that runs backwards. It is made to honor the memory of his son and all the other young soldiers died during the First World War. He explains to the amazed crowd before him: “I made this way so that perhaps, the boys who were lost in the war might stand and go home again, home to farm, to work, to have children, to live long, full lives. Perhaps my own son might come home again. I’m sorry if I offended anybody. I hope you enjoy my clock.” While they listen to Monsieur Gateau’s words, the viewers are shown scenes of soldiers in a battlefield, but bullets leave their wounds and cannon balls rocket backwards into their breeches. Dead boys come to their feet to live again, and the clockmaker’s son ends his adventure where it had begun, at the station, in the arms of his parents before leaving for war. Scenes are played in reverse, much like the clock in the new train station works backwards. This prologue seems a metaphor of Benjamin Button’s life. His inside-clock, his growth runs backwards, challenging our idea that men born as babies to die as old men, that time follows a straight line from childhood to adulthood. We directly experience the passage of time as a change and, unfortunately, as an ageing that brings to death. In the case of Benjamin Button the line that represents life is straight, but it runs backwards, from adulthood to childhood. But, in any case, the line ends with death. Our physical growth, which is to say time as everybody experiences it more closely, leads inevitably to death. This film is adapted from the short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald in which the opening scene about the clockmaker does not appear. It is interesting to note that the adaptation exploits the cinematic technique of playing scenes in reverse and, thus, of showing time in reverse.

There is another film that opens with an image of an unusual clock and which seems to link it to death. In Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, Ingmar Bergman, 1957) the protagonist Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) has an uncanny dream. He finds himself in an isolated, deserted street. A medium shot of him looking at a clock that hangs outside a shop, is followed by his point of view shot of the clock. Astonishingly, the clock has no arms. The spectators are shown a plain américain (medium long shot) of Dr. Borg who takes his pocket watch out from his waistcoat. There follows a detail of the pocket watch that has no arms, too. There is another medium shot of Isak who looks at the clock, takes off his hat and rubs his hand on his forefront. Another protagonist’s point of view shot of the clock closes this episode. There is silence everywhere, except for strong heartbeat that begins when Dr. Borg first sees his pocket watch, and which he takes from his breast pocket. Time is no longer kept by the ticking of a mechanical clock, but by the sound of the protagonist’s heart. Once more, it is life that becomes the measure of time. The volume of the heartbeat is accentuated in the next shot when the camera dollies in quickly from a medium shot of Isak to a close up. Similarly, when Dr. Borg goes to his mother’s, she shows him a pocket watch without arms that belonged to his father. A detail of the watch is followed by a close up of Isak, and by a protagonist’s point of view shot of the watch emphasized, this time by the mother drawing the pocket watch toward the camera, accentuated by extradiegetic music. The scene closes, as the previous one, with a close up of Dr. Borg. These two episodes are thus linked both stylistically and thematically. Time haunts the protagonist’s past, present and dreams.

In the dream the heartbeat ceases with Isak’s close up. The next shot is a long shot of Dr. Borg, who walks first to the left of the frame and, then, to the right, and the camera tracks to accompany him. His loneliness is emphasized by the long shot, and by the noise of his steps that echo in the silence of the street. The protagonist sees a man and approaches him, but as soon as he lays a hand on his shoulders and takes a look at his face, he finds out that he is faceless. Suddenly, the strange creature falls upon himself as if he were an empty bag. The ring of a funeral bell begins with a medium shot, low angle of Isak, as if this image were a point of view shot of the strange man. This cuts to a medium shot of the creature from the protagonist’s point of view. We see the hat and waistcoat of the strange man, out of which a black liquid oozes out. This is what remains of the faceless man. The funeral bell does not only announce the encounter with the creature, but also the coming of a hearse guided by two black horses. The wild run of the hearse is soon stopped by a street lamp that blocks a wheel. The coffin falls and opens. Inside there is Isak’s corpse that seems to come alive, and grasps the hand of his frightened alter ego. This uncanny dream seems to suggest to the protagonist that his time is up, that there are no more arms of a clock, that there is no more ticking of a clock for him, but only his last heartbeats, the ring of a funeral bell, and his own funeral waiting for him. His dream suggests an uncanny, macabre Salvador Dalì’s painting with horses, clocks, and a dummy.

Time seems to be finished for Isak. He seems a man who lives more for his past than for his future. He confesses to Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), his daughter in law: “The last few months I’ve had the most peculiar dreams. It’s really odd. […] It’s as if I’m trying to say something to myself which I don’t want to hear when I’m awake. […] That I’m dead, although I live”. His flashbacks and dreams are always about the past. He is present in them, but with his current physical aspect, which is to say as a 78 years old man. His present merges with his past, without interfering with it. He is not a time-traveller who is able to change his past. Anguishing moments of his past are reenacted before his old eyes, and cannot be erased. It’s the cruelty of time that seems to be staged here. The past that cannot be either modified or forgotten, keeps coming back, haunting the protagonist’s present. For example, during his first flashback, he remembers Sara (Bibi Andersson), his secret fiancée when he was a boy. He does not evoke a pleasant moment of their love story, but a distressing experience. In Isak’s flashback, his brother Sigfrid (Per Sjöstrand) courts and kisses Sara. The protagonist was not present during that scene, he did not see it, but he probably imagined it. During this flashback he is in frame four times with the ghosts of his past. When the women of his family are laying the table and when everybody takes a seat at the lunch table, the old Dr. Borg hides himself behind the door, as if somebody could see him. Then, he is in frame twice together with Sara. She leaves the dining room crying because her two young twin sisters accuse her in front of everybody of having kissed Sigfrid. Sara complains about Sigfrid’s behavior with her cousin Charlotta Borg (Gunnel Lindblom). Sara also appears at the beginning of the protagonist’s second dream. This dream is introduced by Isak’s voice over that evokes, once more, the end of his time: “I have found that during the last few years I glide rather easily into a twilight world of memories and dreams which are highly personal. I’ve often wondered if this is a sign of increasing senility. Sometimes I’ve also asked myself if it is a harbinger of approaching death.” In the dream Sara tells the protagonist that she is going to marry his brother Sigfrid. She is in frame with the protagonist, holds a mirror, and asks him to take a look at himself, saying: “You are a worried old man who will die soon, but I have my whole life before me.” Isak does not hide himself, but he is compelled to look at his older self, and his lover refuses him. In another scene within this dream, through a window, he peeps at Sara and Sigfrid who are happy together, playing the piano and having dinner. He remembers the past, but in his memories he is not a protagonist, he remains a passive spectator, unable to cope with his own life. He, either in his flashbacks, or in his dreams, is unable to modify time and the past. Indeed, in this same dream, he knocks at a door, wounding his hand with a spike. Alman (Gunnar Sjöberg), the examiner, lets him in. As in everybody’s worst nightmare, Dr. Borg has to sustain an exam and is unable to answer the most basic questions. After having accused him of incompetence, the examiner tells Isak that he has to answer to his wife’s charges: “Indifference, selfishness, lack of consideration.” He has to look at his wife Karin (Gertrud Fridh) while she makes love with her lover. As in the past he passively witnesses this scene from behind a tree; he experiences this painful moment of his life again, from behind the same tree. Alman comments: “Many forget a woman who has been dead for thirty years. Some preserve a sweet, fading picture, but you can always recall this scene in your memory. Strange, isn’t it? Tuesday, May 1, 1917, you stood here and heard and saw exactly what that woman and that man said and did.” The most anguishing moments of Dr. Borg’s past haunt his present, and cannot be erased or changed. The great hope of a time traveller who is able to reach her past and modify it is impossible in a natural world. Time flows along a straight line and the past cannot become present.

In Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972), as in Wild Strawberries, the past haunts the present, but not through flashbacks and dreams, the past materializes through the presence of people that seem to directly come from the astronauts’ conscience. The astronauts live their present with people coming from their past. As soon as the protagonist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) arrives to the space station on the planet Solaris, a woman appears to him. She is Hari (Natalya Bondarchuck), his ex-wife, who committed suicide when he moved for a new job leaving her alone. According to Dr. Sartorius (Anatoliy Solonitsyn), another astronaut on the space station, “she comes from your past, you saw the materialization of the image you have of her. She’s part of you, of your past. The ocean extracted from us something like memory isles.” Dr. Sartorius and the other astronaut present on the space station, Dr. Snaut (Jüri Järvet), suggest Kris do a blood exam on Hari. The results will verify that she is made of neutrinos and is immortal. Curiously, unlike human beings, Hari confesses to Kris that she has no memories, no past: “It’s strange, I don’t remember anything about myself”. Then, she remembers the worst events of her past life. How her mother-in-law hated her, and her pain when her husband left her alone. As Dr. Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries is haunted by the most distressing episodes of his life, Hari remembers her most anguishing moments too. Or, better, hypothesizing that Hari comes from Kris’s conscience, it is he who is oppressed by his past actions, who feels guilty for his wife’s suicide. But in Wild Strawberries Isak’s girlfriend and wife remain ghosts who haunt the protagonist’s dreams and flashbacks. Although he is on screen with Sara and Karin, and his present life is oppressed by his past, his ghosts remain in his mind. On the other hand, in Solaris Kris’s wife materializes. They are not only on frame together, she becomes an independent being who also interacts with the other two astronauts. Hari asks the protagonist to help her in understanding where she comes from. She tells him that she is not his ex-wife, because the latter woman died. She repeats to him that she is he, his conscience. Dr. Sartorius and Dr. Snaut reply that she is only a mechanical copy, an alter ego. But she answers by saying that she is becoming a human being because she is able to love and suffer.


Kris reacts in different ways at the presence of his ex-wife. First he tries to eliminate her. He locks her into a space ship that he ejects into space, risking his life in the process. But when he wakes up the next day, he finds Hari lying next to him, and they make love. When he locks the steel door of his room an anxious Hari seriously wounds herself trying to crash through the steel door. In the end the woman tries to commit suicide (again) by drinking liquid oxygen, but she miraculously resuscitates. As Kris’ attachment for Hari grows stronger he wants to bring her with him back to Earth. The other astronauts tell him that this solution is unattainable because Hari cannot survive on the Earth, and the protagonist decides to remain on the space station with his ex-wife. But Hari disappears, leaving him a letter. Thus, at first Kris wants to forget his painful past, and erase the memory of his ex-wife’s alter ego. Then, he begins to deal with the ghosts of his past and adjusts to her presence. But, as soon as he attaches himself to his memories, they disappear, and Hari leaves him forever. Unlike Dr. Isak Borg, who is forever compelled to peer at his lover Sara while she happily flirts and lives with his brother, and at his wife while she is unfaithful to him, Kris manages to cope with his ex-wife’s suicide, to wait for her or for new miracles on the planet. But they both seem to remain prisoners of their past.

Indeed, Solaris ends with a scene that, for a while, lets the spectators think that the protagonist has returned to Earth. Kris is shown where he had appeared at the beginning of the film, in his father’s dacha. There is a long shot of the protagonist from inside the house. But inside it’s raining. Kris approaches a window and looks inside it. Through his point of view shot, the viewers are shown a plain américain of his father (Nikolai Grinko). This is followed by a close up of the protagonist, and a long shot of him and his father meeting and embracing outside the house. The camera cranes backwards and upwards. After the spectators have lost sight of the house due to the clouds, there appears aerial footage of the house and the lake nearby. But this small world is only an isle in the middle of the ocean Solaris. Kris remains entrapped in the world born from his own conscience, from his own past.

Similarly, the protagonist of Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) is a prisoner of his past. Spider’s (Ralph Fiennes) present influences his past and vice-versa. Present and past are co-present, the present re-imagines the past, re-lives and re-imagines it. In several scenes an older aged Spider is in the same frame with a younger aged Spider (Bradley Hall). More significantly, an older protagonist is often present during scenes that happened in his past, and during which he could not have been present as a young boy. For example, old Spider is in the frame when his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father (Gabriel Byrne) are in a pub, and his father first notices Yvonne (Miranda Richardson). He is in frame when his dad Bill Cleg goes to Yvonne’s, and when he walks with her along the embankment. During this scene a medium shot of the woman and Bill flirting is followed by a medium shot of Yvonne who throws the man’s semen into the river. The woman’s figure covers the man’s body, but when she moves there is old Spider instead of Bill. Both of them behave as if Spider was his father and Yvonne calls him “Bill”. A tracking forward in to a medium close up of Spider emphasizes the exchange of identity. The protagonist’s present evokes and modifies his past, and the viewers have the impression of sharing the world created by his schizophrenic mind. Indeed, the spectators cannot distinguish between what is true for the other characters and what happens according to Spider.

The protagonist is present when his father goes to the pub to meet Yvonne, and when his mother goes to the same pub to look for his father. After that Mrs. Cleg surprises her husband while he is having sex with his lover in the tool shed in the vegetable garden; Bill hits her with a shovel and kills her. Spider appears in the frame outside the tool shed while his father digs a grave and buries his mother. He appears in the frame alone or together with Yvonne and Bill. At the end of the film a young Spider decides to kill his foster mother. Creating an elaborate web with a cord, he manages to turn on the taps of the kitchen gas stove from his bedroom. His father runs into his bedroom to bring him outside the house, saving him. He then goes back into the kitchen to turn off the taps, and realizes that his wife is dead and it was his son who orchestrated the death. When the boy is waiting for his father outside the front door, a detail of his feet is followed by a detail of his father’s feet and the corpse that he drags outside the house. A medium close up of Spider is followed by a medium close up of Bill who cries and shouts for help. The next shot is a plain américain of the corpse, which has not yet been shown to the spectators. A track forward seems to emphasize the viewers’ bewilderment, or to confirm their suspicion. It is Mrs. Cleg who is dead. The fact that both Bill’s wife and lover are played by the same actress (Miranda Richardson) is prove that Spider is an untrustworthy character. Indeed, the viewers know from the beginning of the film that the protagonist is mentally unbalanced due to several reasons: he is in a guest house together with other people with psychic problems; he comes from a mental hospital, and he behaves in an unusual way (e.g.: he puts on several shirts, he obsessively writes in his diary, and constructs complex webs with cords).

What is peculiar in this Cronenberg film, in comparison with other films in which the main characters are insane or mentally ill, is that the story is restricted to Spider’s point of view. The viewers cannot know how his mother truly behaves. Is she the drunken, alluring, vulgar Yvonne? Or the sweet, humble, elegant Mrs. Cleg? Present and past are intertwined, they influence each other, and it becomes almost impossible not only to distinguish between them, but also to distinguish between a real and an imaginary present, and between a real and an imaginary past. The spectators cannot understand whether what they are shown is imagined by Spider, or if it is lived and shared by all the other characters. As in some complex films, for example in Cronenberg’s Videodrome _ (1983) and _eXistenZ _ (1999), different diegetic levels are intertwined and bound up with each other. In _Spider past and present, memory and imaginary time become indistinguishable.

The film’s screenwriter is Patrick McGrath, who adapted his own novel Spider (1991). In the book the focalization is internal and fixed, anchored to the protagonist. Therefore, in the novel, much like in the film, the readers cannot distinguish between past and present, and between a past imagined by Spider and a past remembered by the other characters. The stylistic features used to obtain this goal are obviously different in the cinematographic and in the written medium. In the first case, as already discussed above, the older protagonist appears in frame with the characters of his past. He often appears in scenes of his past where he could not have been present as a young boy, or he appears together with his younger self, or he mutters the words of other characters before they pronounce them. In the written medium the mix between present and past is explicit.

No, I prefer the streets, for I grew up in this part of London, in the East End, and while in one sense the changes are total, and I am a stranger, in another sense nothing has changed: there are ghosts, and there are memories, and they rise in clusters as I catch a glimpse of the underside of a familiar railway bridge, a familiar view of the river at dusk, the gasworks—they haven’t changed at all—and my memories have a way of crowding in upon the scene and collapsing the block of time that separates then from now, producing a sort of identity, a sort of running together of past and present such that I am confused, and I forget, so rich and immediate are the memories, that I am what I am, a shuffling, spidery figure in a worn-out suit, and not a dreamy boy of twelve or so (Chapter 1).

When Spider imagines the past, as when his father first sees Hilda (Yvonne in the film) in a pub, he claims:

As regards my father’s first glimpse of Hilda Wilkinson, my guess is that he heard her before he saw her—she was a loud woman (especially when she had a drink in her hand), and there was a slightly hoarse edge to her voice, a sort of huskiness, that some men seem to find attractive. I see my father sitting stiffly in the Dog in his hard-backed chair by the fire, while on the far side of the room Hilda stands at the center of a lively group of drinkers. Up comes that laugh of hers, and for the first time he becomes aware of it. I see him startled, I see him turning, I see him frowning as he seeks the source of the noise—but he cannot locate it, for the Dog is crowded and he is not wearing his spectacles (Chapter 3, my emphasis)

The mix between memory and imagination becomes a dangerous, complex puzzle, much like the puzzles that the protagonist (in both media) unsuccessfully tries to do during his staying in the guest house. He strives to keep a diary to reorder his memories, but in vain.
bq. I’d been writing about the death of my mother. I’d been sitting at my table describing the events of that terrible night and the day that followed, and in the process the memories had somehow become more vivid than the immediate situation— that familiar running together of past and present had occurred, and I must have gone into some sort of a trance (Chapter 15).

Spider strives to remember the places of his childhood. The puzzle seems to be unsolvable.

Scraps of paper drifted across this waste-ground as I turned in every direction looking for the Slates. Had they gone? How could they have gone? Or was my memory playing me false again? Arduously I made my way back up the path to the allotments, then along to the railway bridge again. Had I completely misplaced the Slates in my mind? And if I had, was the rest of my “map” similarly faulty? Oh, this was worrying, this troubled me sorely. (Chapter 15)

In the novel the use of verbs and expressions that express doubt such as “my guess is”, and the repetition of “I see” to introduce what Spider imagines about the past, of sentences in which past and imagination are explicitly cited and mixed to introduce the protagonist’s thoughts, let the reader wonder about what is true for Spider and the other characters. Therefore, both in the written and in the cinematographic medium, peculiar techniques are used to adapt the puzzle between present and past in the protagonist’s mind. In the book, at least three times, the readers are allowed to know what the other characters think about the death and identity of Spider’s mother. Both the male nurses and the doctors of the mental hospital think that the protagonist killed his mother. And the owner of the pub “Dog and Beggar”, where Bill Cleg and his lover used to spend their nights, together with one of his customer’s, claim that Spider killed his mother Hilda. That is to say, according to them the protagonist’s mother is the woman that he identifies as his father’s lover.

With the exception of these brief moments, both the novel and its film adaptation create an anguishing puzzle through Spider’s memories and imagination, between his past and present, and between his past and the other character’s past. The protagonist, much like the astronauts in Solaris and Dr. Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries, remains entrapped in his own memories, which are filtered by his schizophrenic mind.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) the characters, unlike those of the films discussed above, have a chance to free themselves from their past, to erase the most painful moments of their life. The protagonist Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), after the end of her love story with Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), decides to remove all the traces of her ex-lover from her memory. When Joel learns of this he asks Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) to also delete this past from his memory. During the process, when the Doctor’s assistants track down all the memories of Clementine in Joel’s mind to erase them, the protagonist changes his mind. But he falls asleep due to a powerful sleeping pill, and he is thus unable to wake up. Therefore, he tries to reach his ex-lover in his mind, and to hide her where Dr. Mierzwiak and his assistants cannot reach her, for example in his childhood. Nevertheless, the technicians manage to complete their task. But Joel and Clementine meet and fall in love once more. The same happens to the Doctor and his secretary Mary (Kristen Dunst). They were lovers, and she decided to erase the memory of their relationship because he was married and did not want to leave his family. But Mary falls in love with Dr. Mierzwiak once more, tries to seduce him, and kisses him. Although the characters of this film have a chance to free themselves from their past, and to begin a new life, they instead endlessly repeat their past mistakes. The film seems to suggest that because we are the sum of our past experiences, we cannot avoid repeating them, otherwise we would become different people.

Although the protagonists of the films discussed above are not time travellers, their personal time is unique to themselves. This is why we need to speak of personal time, to distinguish it from external time and from the other characters’ time. Their present is mixed on the screen with their past in a peculiar way, through particular cinematic features. The past is not represented through classical flashbacks. The strength of past events is rendered thanks to characters who appear in their own flashbacks and dreams of the past with their present physical aspect, as Dr. Isak Borg. Or through the materialization of characters coming from their past, as when the astronauts on the space station on the planet Solaris live with the alter egos of characters coming from their conscience, from their past. Or thanks to a schizophrenic protagonist, as Spider is, who appears in frame with his younger self and with the characters of his childhood in the places of his past. Or through a character who runs in the maze of his memories, as when Joel tries to reach and hide Clementine in his past. The past and present of these protagonists are mixed, much like in a puzzle. The present modifies the past and vice-versa. The protagonists are unable to cope with their past which haunts them. Dr. Isak Borg cannot forget, much like Kris. The latter seems unable to distinguish between his past and the materialization of his conscience. Spider cannot divide his past from his present and imagination. Joel moves among his memories, as if walking from one place to another, and he cannot avoid repeating his past in his present. We could call this particular personal time ‘memory time’.

It is interesting to note that Tarkovsky, in Sculpting in Time (1986), comparing the present with the past, underlines that the past lives in the present, and erasing the past is impossible: “In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection” (58). “Time cannot vanish without trace for it is a subjective, spiritual category; and the time we have lived settles in our souls as an experience placed within time” (58).

The Russian filmmaker asks himself: “What is the essence of the director’s work?” And answers: “We could define it as sculpting in time” (63). According to him, the rhythm of a film is not determined by editing, but by the course of time which is present in the shots. Unlike in Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, in Tarkovsky’s idea of sculpting in time it is the pressure of time within each shot that guides montage. “Editing cannot determine rhythm (in this respect it can only be a feature of style); indeed, time courses through the picture despite editing rather than because of it”. “The consistency of the time that runs through the shot, its intensity or ‘sloppiness’, could be called time-pressure: then editing can be seen as the assembly of the pieces on the basis of the time-pressure within them” (117). The theories of Gilles Deleuze and Henri Bergson can help link Tarkovsky’s ideas of sculpting in time (or imprinting in time) with his statements about the power of a past that cannot be erased. According to Deleuze, the crystal-image “is a shot that fuses the pastness of the recorded event with the presentness of its viewing. The crystal image is the indivisible unity of the virtual image and the actual image.” Whereas the actual image is objective, lives in the present and is perceived, the virtual image is subjective, stays in the temporal past and is ready to be recalled by an actual image. “The crystal-image always lives at the limit of a indiscernible actual and virtual image” (Totaro 1999). Bergson distinguishes between spatialized and real time. The former is “conceptualized, abstracted and divided (clock time)”. The latter, also called duration, “flows, accumulates and is indivisible”. The philosopher adopts the metaphor of consciousness to explain duration. “Duration rests within the consciousness of a person and cannot be ‘stopped’ or analyzed like the mathematical conception of time as a line. Our true inner self, our emotions, thoughts, and memories do not lie next to each other like shirts on a clothesline but flow into one another. Our consciousness is not a succession of states but a simultaneous overlapping” (Totaro 1992: 25).

According to Donato Totaro, for Tarkovsky time and memory are two sides of a medal or coin, and “Time as memory is similar to how Bergson explains duration: the flux of states within consciousness” (25).

Totaro discusses how in Bergson’s philosophy there are two types of memories, habitual and pure memory, the former is stored in the brain and allows us to act, the latter rests in our consciousness. The scholar then notes how Bergson discusses a third type of memory, a concept further expanded by David Gross. The involuntary or unsolicited recollection, which is not linked either to immediate action or perception: “A person dominated by these unsolicited recollections would be overwhelmed by the flood of images and hindered in their ability to cope with reality.” This third type of memory dominates Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. According to Totaro, unsolicited memory has “interesting possibilities for cinema. For example, involuntary memory is a key textual device in three of Tarkovsky’s films: Solaris, Mirror, and, most prominently, in Nostalghia.”

Deleuze’s theory of memory and the time-image can be linked to Bergson’s idea of unsolicited memory. Totaro explains: “According to Deleuze the proper equivalent for the time-image is not habitual or pure memory, but rather ‘the disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition.’” And adds that, although the French philosopher’s distinction between action-image/American cinema and time-image/European cinema, “is not that clear cut,” “if one considers Bergson’s involuntary memory as the equivalent of Deleuze’s ‘disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition,’ then habitual memory and pure recollection can be seen as paralleling realist, movement-image and the involuntary memory paralleling modernist and art film” (Totaro 1999).

Deleuze’s idea of “disturbances of memory and the failures of recognition,” Bergson’s concept of real time or duration, which “flows, accumulates and is indivisible,” and his idea of unsolicited or involuntary memory, are not only helpful to better understand Tarkovsky’s cinema, as explained by Totaro, but also offer an invaluable perspective to discuss all the films mentioned in this article. The protagonists’ recollections in these films invade their present with such a strength that they endure a life of mixed present and past. The past appears in frame together with the present. The past is not represented to the spectators through classical flashbacks, but through characters and places coming from the past directly into the present. And the present becomes a complex web of different time periods that often cannot be separated. In these films shots become a metaphor of our consciousness. As in the images where present and past are intermingled and co-present: “Our consciousness is not a succession of states but a simultaneous overlapping” (Totaro 1992: 25). George Menard, discussing Tarkovsky’s theory of sculpting in time, claims that the Russian director “achieves a separation between authorial intent and spectator participation. Films such as Solaris and Mirror top into the time-memory elements of the viewers’ personal histories, allowing each individual to develop his or her variant forms of understanding to what he or she perceives” (2003). The spectators are free to interpret the indivisible links between past and present, much like they freely travel in their consciousness. These films are the example par excellence that not all films are set in the present only. An idea already disproved by Deleuze: “The tracking shots of Resnais and Visconti, and Welles’ depth of field, carry out a temporalization of the image or form a direct time-image, which realizes the principle: the cinematographic image is in the present only in bad films.” Similarly, Jacques Aumonts claims that “the cinematic apparatus implies not only the passage of time, a chronology into which we would slip as if into a perpetual present, but also a complex, stratified time in which we move through different levels simultaneously, present, past(s), future(s) – and not only because we use our memory and expectations, but also because, when it emphasizes the time in which things take place, their duration, cinema almost allows us to perceive time” (Totaro 1999). The films discussed in this article evoke these philosophical ideas about time, where past and present merge on the screen and become (for the viewer or character) indistinguishable.


McGrath, Patrick. Spider. USA: Poseidon Press, 1991. Print.

Menard, David George. “A Deleuzian Analysis of Tarkovsky’s Theory of Time-Pressure, Part 1: Tarkovsky’s theory of time-pressure as ‘cine-physics’.” Offscreen. 31/08/2003.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting in Time. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. Print.

Totaro, Donato. “Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonian Film Project.” Offscreen. 31/03/1999.

Totaro, Donato. “Time and the Film Aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol.2 , no. 1 (1992): 21-30.


Bergman, Ingmar (1957) Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället), Sweden.

Cronenberg, David (1999) eXistenZ, Canada and UK.

Cronenberg, David (2002) Spider, Canada and UK.

Cronenberg, David (1983) Videodrome, Canada.

Fincher, David (2008) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, USA.

Gondry, Michel (2004) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, USA.

Andrei Tarkovsky (1962) Solaris, Soviet Union.

Personal/Memory Time: Past and Present Merging on the Screen (Wild Strawberries, Spider, Solaris, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Elisa Pezzotta received her PhD in Film & Television Studies, Roehampton University, London, in 2009 and is Cultore della materia of History and Critique of Cinema at Bergamo University. She has published essays in Wide Screen, Alphaville Journal, Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance, and on Ai confini della comprensione (2012), Stefano Ghislotti ed., Bergamo, Lubrina Editore. She is the author of Stanley Kubrick: Adapting the Sublime (2013), Atlanta, Mississippi University Press.

Volume 18, issue 3 / March 2014 Essays   andrei tarkovsky   ingmar bergman   memory   temporality   time