"Can't we resist a demagogue by trying to make beautiful things?" Rememory writer-director Mark Palansky recently asked me. He posed the question as a gentle challenge, intimating that he wanted the answer to be yes. But, as I sat next to Palansky and star of the film, Peter Dinklage, in Park City last week, I realized that, for the first time in my life, I wasn't so sure I agreed. Sundance exists, ostensibly, because artists and audiences alike believe that art matters, both personally and politically. But Palansky's question articulated what many of us who attended Sundance had been asking ourselves throughout the festival, which was, in the face of a week that confirmed the worst fears of those who stand in opposition to Trump, does art matter enough? Rememory provides a theory on why, even in the darkest days, art still matters by forcing viewers to meditate on the value of self-reflection in the face of grief and anger.
Alongside Dinklage, Rememory stars Julia Ormond, Martin Donovan, and the late Anton Yelchin. The plot is set in motion when Gordon Dunn (Donovan), the inventor of a machine that can record memories, is found dead. Dinklage, as Sam Bloom, investigates Dunn's death after initially seeking him out in an attempt to remember more clearly the details of his own trauma. Dinklage befriends Dunn's widow (Ormond), whose new grief is layered by a past loss, and interrogates members of the machine's trial group, two of whom (Yelchin and Orphan Black's Evelyne Brochu) have motive to murder Dunn. The memory machine's primary value comes from its ability to play back one's memories in perfect detail, allowing the user to cathartically heal from traumatic events by becoming, as Dunn explains, "audience to the theater of the mind." The film productively complicates this hopeful premise, and, to my surprise, Palansky and Dinklage, who've been close friends ever since working together on the former's first film Penelope, also slightly differ on the value of reliving one's past.
"The saddest, most narcissistic people deal in the past," argued Dinklage. "They deal with what's been said about them. We all come from pain, and it's what we do with that pain moving forward that matters. I really do feel like I have to immediately get beyond something difficult; otherwise it clouds the present and future. We all have to grow constantly."
"But there's a difference between getting stuck in the past and reflecting," Palansky added, turning to his friend. "Oftentimes, we're not self-aware until we see something reflecting back at us that we recognize. When I was a kid, there was a man who worked for my parents, and he always took care of me and was really cool and gave me skateboards and he died of AIDS. Years later, I saw a film that dealt with AIDS, and I'm watching that film and I was a mess. I'm not dealing with that pain every day, but when I saw it on the screen, I was bawling my eyes out. I think good art shows you who you are if you can't find it yourself. I hope."
"We're alone, and we don't want to be alone. But art doesn't want us to feel that way. Art does the opposite. It allows us look and say, 'Wow, I share that. Great, I'm not alone.'"—Peter Dinklage
The film achieves Palansky's definition of good art most convincingly in scenes between Ormond and Dinklage, where deception, guilt, and grief run around the current of every line of dialogue. Palansky puts a tremendous amount of trust in Dinklage's ability to draw in the viewer, even as we're unsure of his character's intentions. This trust is fully justified as Rememory further confirms what we already knew: Peter Dinklage is simply one the best actors alive. "I wrote this role for Peter," Palansky said. "There's a gentle openness to Peter that allows you to come close to him even though he's lying to everyone in the film, and I don't think another actor could do that. We withhold so much information for so long, you'd lose patience with another actor."
For better or worse, the primary effect of Rememory will likely be a reflection into the interior of your own mind, as it is hard not to sift through your own formative memories as the characters are sifting through theirs. The visual representation of memory constitutes film's biggest risk and greatest artistic success. Palansky leans on his fine-arts background to create stunning tableaus that tell the stories through meticulous sensory details like the sound of skateboard wheels echoing through a tunnel, the roughness of sand between one's fingers, the close-up claustrophobia of being lost among tall hedges, the small light given off by candles on a cake. These images reveal not just the characters, but also the director himself, showing who he is as an artist, and what he's capable of giving to an audience. Lost in these scenes, I tunneled within myself, locating the details of what mental images I've clung to most and what that might say about who I am now. "That's the best response I could ask for, just that you'll walk out the theater thinking instead of just wanting Chinese food," joked Palansky when I recounted my experience to him, then continued, saying, "The movies we remember the most are the ones where you are sort of just slammed into self-reflection. What's it all for if you can't start to think about your own existence and how you deal with things?"
In another time, the fact that Rememory allowed me to rethink parts of myself, to dredge up and re-feel with startling clarity sensations of my life, would have been reason enough to be grateful for this film. But in this uncertain political moment, I needed more. Unfairly, I looked to Dinklage to defend art and its current value, and he didn't disappoint. "We're alone, and we don't want to be alone," he said, smiling at me. "But art doesn't want us to feel that way. Art does the opposite. It allows us look and say, Wow, I share that. Great, I'm not alone."
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