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iStill frame from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.

A mnemonist in the time of Ejzenstejn #01

The memory as a place where time is confused

Mister S's memory is infinite and indelible. Supported by a unique synergy of the senses, it creates a story for each scene viewed or told. Sensory worlds grow around each word, even every letter, as if he produces a film for every memory, by mounting a story in his own inner theatre. Like the memorisation techniques handed down by Cicerone and henceforth used, or in the images of Robert Fludd's work (Utriusque Cosmi […] Historia,1620 ca.), in which the eye of the imagination, is pointed towards “the back” towards the inside of the head of the human figure, a behind/inside where a grid is projected with the places and the figures to be positioned and connected.

«Why did you skip the word pencil? Tell me that you forgot it!»
«I have not forgotten anything… I had simply put the pencil next to the fence, it also happened to me once with an egg. How could I have distinguished a white egg next to a white wall? […]».

Each word is also a sound, which makes it tactile, visual, flavourful, and the grafting of the sensations triggers an inner editing, with incalculable variations dictated by every external modification.

«When I passed by the pencil… I did not see it, I confused it with the fence. When this happens it is because I place a picture next to something at a point which, then, when I have to retrieve it, it is difficult for me to see it. Now, since I have magnified things, it is going better, much better».

In the exchange between professor Aleksandr Lurija and Solomon Veniamovich Seresevskij you can make out the idea of «thought sensitive» of Ejzenstejn. A thought that he considers necessary to the method developed in his aesthetics of film-making, to ensure access to that proto-logic condition that we know and use before the logical analytical thought, before the acquisition of the language with which culture is transmitted, the model in which our brain is formed and with which we learn to think. This is not a coincidence, Ejzenstejn knows Seresevskij and he «epeatedly mentions him in his direction classes, contending that his memory, is supported by an acute synesthesia, it is a clear case of survival of a form of thought belonging to previous phases. The development of both the individual conscience, in children, and the culture in the historical development.» (1) The great film director «itogether with the linguist Nikolaj Marr and the psychologists Vygotskij and Lurija, who had already met at the end of the 1920's and who shared the evolutionary and cultural-history approach, form a study group in which is discussed the survival of the forms of the pre-logical thinking in the different linguistic stratifications within the society, in the «inner language» of adults, in the forms of physic and linguistic regression caused by traumas and brain injuries, or in people with exceptional cognitive functions as in the case of Solomon Veniamovich Seresevskij, an individual provided with an extraordinary memory whom Lurija would later devote an entire study on». (2)
It is as if Ejzenstejn would claim that to mount a sequence of images it is necessary to tap into that childlike attitude of spontaneous association of ideas and forms that rekindle the first human experience of knowledge, the first form of exploration of the world, made of fragments to be put in relation with each other and so reawaken the same intense activity that stratifies conciousness while the experiences are asimilated, transformed, translated and betrayed… as happens in film-editing, where, a story changes shape, dragged from the form of the stories.
The continual multiplication that it gushes, frustrates the consideration of linear time, it annihiliates the unfurling that we consider natural, it makes it a crazed cursor in pursuit of the connections and of the mnemonic suggestions with which a smell, a gesture, a sound can bring back present experiences and distant sensations. The time is the category with which Mister S. cannot get along with, «it confuses him». Too much narrative articulation and emotion that each small circumstance implies in his recall.
The impossible atlas of the memory of Mister S. makes Aby Warburg think that the theory of editing of Ejzenstejn suggests the paradigm of thought of Warburg, in building Mnemosyne; in her search for a collection system and and exploration of forms that explain how they are deposited and, albeit buried, remain persistent, ready to re-emerge, a procedure that reconstructs the process without the need to solve the puzzle. (3) The Warburg puzzle, Mnemosyne, is based on a mechanism of editing near to the sensitive thought of Ejzenstejn: a combination of images that, in synchronic vision, clearly show what supports their proximity. «Now only the editing – as a form of thought pressed to spatialise thisi “deterritorialisation” of the known objects» (4), because as Warburg says «thoughts pass the frontier ignoring the customs». And this ignoring the customs becomes a creative and narrative element precisely in the syncopated form, in the haltingly flow that is so charateristic of the twntieth century language (5), made up of photo frames that come in succession in front of the eyes or, like fragments that (re)constitute the perception of continuity.

[ Laura Marcolini ]

(1) - Antonio Somaini, La forma cinematografica e il pensiero prelogico, in Ejzenstejn, il cinema, le arti, il montaggio, Einaudi, Torino 2011.
(2) - Ibidem.
(3) - Georges Didi Huberman, Limmagine insepolta, Bollati Boringhieri 2006.
(4) - Ibidem.
(5) - Kurt W. Forster, Katia Mazzocco, Introduzione ad Aby Warburg e allAtlante della Memoria, a cura di Monica Centanni, Bruno Mondadori 2002.


original title Il Mnemonista
nationality ITA
production year 2000
rating film per tutti
duration 90 minutes
director Paolo Rosa
plot Lara Fremder, Paolo Rosa
screenplay Lara Fremder, Paolo Rosa
photography Fabio Cirifino
editing Jacopo Quadri
special effects Andrew Sebok
music Luca Francesconi
sound Claudio Morra
setting Stefano Gargiulo, Esther Musat

«Sounds, images, colours, tastes. Everything in his prodigious mind is transformed into a world where there is no boundary between reality and image». First violinist in the orchestra of a big city, ‘S’ is gifted with an extraordinary memory which enables him to remember every single detail of everything that he sees happen. He decides to consult ‘L’, an internationally-renowned psychologist, when one day he is unable to read a music score because all the notes on it, as he looks at them, just explode into brightly-coloured moving dots. The relationship between patient and therapist evolves over thirty years, going through highs and lows, during which ‘S’ also goes on stage in theatre and cabaret shows of the time as a Mnemonist. Inspired by a real case study described in 1965 by the neuropsychologist A. Lurija, the film is a fascinating journey through the mysteries and gifts of the human mind.

iStill frame from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.

iA page from the chapter dedicated to the art of memory by Robert Fludd, part of the treatise Utriusque Cosmi, maiores scilicet et mionores, metafiphysica, physica acque technica Historia, published in Germany, 1617-21. This text has inspired the design phase and the storyboard of the film Il Mnemonista. iStill frames from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.


The Mnemonist
is a film from Studio Azzurro, directed by Paolo Rosa, inspired by the book that the physchologistAleksandr Lurija wrote about a man with a prodigious memory which follows his life and experiences for thirty years. (6) Lurija did not consider him a patient or a sideshow case, but a man whose mind revealed associative structures and storage mechanism amplified by a complex sensibility which crosses the senses by weaving them. The film tells of Mister S.'s case and the apprehensions of Professor Lurija, it gives a demonstration of formal rigor in the direction of the photography, and a freedom of invention of the scenes and of their editing that, where possible makes use of licenses and stratagems typical of the theatre, putting the audience in an unusual condition to the point of taking them inside the theatre of Mister S.'s memory like on a set in which the theatrical machine overcomes the forces of the main character.

(6) -
A. Lurija, Una memoria prodigiosa (1968), Roma 1975.
iStill frame from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.

A mnemonist in the time of Ejzenstejn #02

The memory as a place where time is confused

But we will finish right from the beginning: The musical performance is interrupted. Mister S. is no longer able to play. And this is the reason why he is forced to turn to Professor Lurija:

«The fact is that for sometime I can no longer play. Do you have a good knowledge of music? Try to think of how many D sharps there are in a symphony. To drive you mad. The D sharp has become yellow, without telling me anything. So suddenly, without warning. It has never happened before».

And it is precisely with the yellow sound that you go back to tsarist Russia, where between 1908 and1914 Vassily Kandinsky was trying represent colour through sound. Der Gelbe Klang (originally thought of Riesen, Giants), an experiment completely on the work of art within which the visual and audio elements blend, caught in their primordial state, in the binominal colour-voice. But there is also Jazz (1946 - ’47) by Henri Matisse, the series of illustrations where the artist actually entrusts yellow stars on a blue sky to reach the upper level of the musical scale. He does so with papiers découpés, so with coloured paper, then cut and then pasted on another sheet. Like children do.

«Even letters, sounds have a taste and a colour and they can transform naturally; they can become stains, spray, steam clouds, rays of light. “Star”, you can hear it, can't you? It is all a twinkle. Be careful though: this sparkle does not come from the word, but from the letter “s”. Sssss, s, sss...»

The entire spectrum is not enough to connect the memories of an entire lifetime and, furthermore according to Mister S., it may not be enough to mesh those ties to the memory, to use Saussure, between “meaningful” and “meaning” too closely tied to a specific culture. With sound you search the universe, like those ssss, s, sss of the stars they are so inseparably linked to their sparkle, to their splendour.
A stimulus after being detected by the senses, travels under the form of nerve impulses until reaching the brain and there it is deposited. It can be associated with feelings, to relive memories or be forgotten there.
This does not happen in the senses and the mind of Mister S. his senses are more receptive, more sensitive, it does not only have two eyes, but three, four, five, like those that appear – mindful of the Russian avant-garde cinema (7) – within the telescope used by the doctors to examine him.
You can attempt to understand if the mnemonic game of references functions thanks to existing configurations, ante rem, to be embedded like the tiles of a mosaic:

«One, for example, is a tall, slender man; two is a smiling lady; three, I don not know why, is a gloomy man; seven is a man with a moustache; eight is a fat lady. Eighty-seven? Is a fat woman next to a man with a moustache».

«Can I call you Olga?»
«But my name is Josefine.»
«That is not possible. Josefine is pale, she has blonde hair, blue eyes, thin lips and a mole on her shoulder.»

It has the taste of a study on physiognomic features, like those collected in De Humana Physiognomia, licensed by Giovanni Battista Della Porta in 1587: «The aquiline nose shows that its owner is as noble as an eagle, the beefy face betrays a placid nature» (8). But here the connection between the two figurations (those animal and those human) seems to anticipate more Lombroso's theories. How on the other hand can abstract elements, such as numbers, recall to a memory a complex figure? In reality the studies developed by neurophysiologists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel (which earned the both of them the Nobel prize in 1981) have revealed a change of “vision” from the neurons of the retina, which focus the image in detail, in order to reach those present in the cortex where the visual stimulus is translated mainly through its contours, like signs. «Therefore it seems that the signs are a primitive language of our own nervous system, a characteristic that originates from the properties of the brain-machine, from its connections, from its intrinsic anatomical and functional characteristics» (9).
But that still does not help us anyway to understand how Mister S. can remember even the most minute details. In fact the images in his brain do not use existing patterns of perception: in him the images just as the memories exist in re, in a time dimension that does not allow the past but from the moment it is generated continues to live in his mind in the present. All this seems scientifically inexplicable, so much that it could deter scholars, but for Mister S. everything is very simple:

«It has always been this way for me. I can try with an example. It is probably better, perhaps it is the only way. Here yes, lets try with the beetle».

[ Elisa Bianchi ]

(7) - L’uomo con la macchina da presa (D. Vertov, 1929),it is not a coincidence that it is cited in the film with a poster hanging on the wall at the end of the corridor of the institute.
(8) - Ernest H. Gombrich, Julian Hochberg, Max Black, Arte, percezione e realtà. Come pensiamo le immagini (1972), trad. it. Einaudi, Torino 1978, p.40.
(9) - Lamberto Maffei, Adriana Fiorentini, Arte e cervello, Zanichelli Editore, Bologna 2007 (I ed. 1995), p.48.

Il Mnemonista (2000, 35mm, colore/colour, 90’).

Il Mnemonista (2000, 35mm, colore/colour, 90’).

iStill frame from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.

iStill frames from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.

Il Mnemonista (2000, 35mm, colore/colour, 90’).

Il Mnemonista (2000, 35mm, colore/colour, 90’).

iStill frame from the movie Il Mnemonista by Studio Azzurro. © Studio Azzurro.

Remember not to forget

«Memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the colour of a car. and memories can be distorted. they're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts...»*

What would happen if every time you woke up you couldn't remember what happened the day before? What would happen if every time you woke up you couldn't remember what happened the day before? It means you are suffering from anterograde amnesia. And if your last memory is the violent death of your wife? Then you are Leonard Shelby, the main character in Memento, movie written and directed in 2000 by Christopher Nolan and inspired by his brother Jonathan's short story (Memento Mori).
Leonard has been hit on the head during an aggression in which his wife probably gets killed too. From that moment on he develops a memory disorder that impedes him from remembering any recent event. To face this problem, Shelby begins to note down sentences and suggestions on post-its, Polaroids and his skin in order to begin the search of his wife's killer: Johnny G.
The movie plays in reverse scenes, and then plays subsequent scenes that are alternatively the last in chronological order (black and white) and then the first (colour), then the scene before the last and so on. This way the point of view of the protagonist is represented and his continuous reconstruction of the past and the present thanks to his notes.
The inability to rely on the chronological order of the events conveys an alienating experience where the audience is thrown into Leonard's life; a life in the continuous present and the past tense which distances itself even more, a life where yesterday becomes a big black hole made by undetermined days, events and people.

[ Gualtiero Tronconi ]

(*) - Leonard Shelby/Guy Pearce.

i© Lions Gate Entertainment.

original title Memento
genre thriller
nationality USA
production year 2000
rating all ages
duration 113 minutes
director Christopher Nolan
plot Jonathan Nolan (short story Memento Mori)
screenplay Christopher Nolan
photography Wally Pfister
editing Dody Dorn
special effects Andrew Sebok
music David Julyan
settings Patti Podesta

i© Lions Gate Entertainment.

There are Blu-rays and DVDs of Memento where the second disk presents an alternatively edited version of the movie, with scenes in chronological order. It is not a version created by Nolan but it has been put together by the distribution company which wanted to create something special and interesting for the audience.

i© Lions Gate Entertainment.

Here, the visual map of the structure of the movie Memento.
The orange bar shows the scenes in colour, the grey bar shows the black and white scenes. The white bar indicates the progression of the movie as seen from the audience's point of view. The true story can be read in chronological order by following Story Sterts along the curve. © Greg Bruney.

Christopher Jonathan James Nolan - Christopher was born in London, UK, the 30th of July 1970. His first movie, Following, was released in 1988 and it is largely referenced in Memento in 2000. In 2002, Nolan takes part in his first big budget project directing Insomnia with Al Pacino and Robin Williams. In 2006, he directs The Prestige with Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine and Christian Bale, with whom he had already begun a fruitful collaboration with the first chapter of the trilogy of the Dark Knight: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Before working on the last chapter of the Batman saga, Christopher found the time to direct Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception (2010), which shows another exploration of the human psyche where dreams, memories and nightmares merge with reality. The latest production of the director is the blockbuster Interstellar, a futuristic psycho thriller based on an essay of the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne.
Photo: Director, co-screenwriter and producer Christopher Nolan on the set of INTERSTELLAR from Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Entertainment. © Melinda Sue Gordon/2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. and Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.