The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Struck by movie amnesia

with 41 comments

Is there a set limit of how many movies you can keep in your head at the same time? I have a growing suspicion there is. For every new film experience I put in, an old one will dissolve from my memory into oblivion.

The amount of movies I’m able to discuss with any kind of insight and authority is abysmal compared to the number I’ve watched. The vast majority are just gone. All I remember is that I liked them (or in a few cases didn’t like them), but exactly what motivated this sentiment, I have no idea about and I would be unable to retell the film in any detail.

This causes quite a bit of frustration, as when I recently got into an argument over The African Queen with a fellow movie Swedish movie blogger – or rather: I should have gotten into an argument if I could. She called the movie horrendous and awarded it a 1/5. I replied something vague about remember liking it when I was a teenager and had the walls of my room covered with Humphrey Bogart posters. But exactly what was so good about it, I couldn’t say. I was just referring to a memory of a gut feeling, and how substantial is that? Besides – could I even trust the judgment of Jessica 25-30 years ago? I’ve changed my mind in a lot of areas since then, hopefully for the better.

The forgotten classics
Back in the days I watched ever so many movies that are considered “classics”, that are now just gone for me. Take the Godfather series. Hands on heart, what do I remember apart from the bad throat voice of Brando, the horse head in the bed and the theme song? Nothing. Do I even remember those fragments or are they just clichés I’ve had repeated to me through pop culture over the year until it’s finally stuck.  And under those circumstances, is it fair and honest to put it The Godfather on my top 100 list?

I feel more and more like a liar as I’m making lists or commenting on other people’s film reviews. Most of the time it’s  just fluffy dreams and vague memories of memories of memories:

I’m pretty sure I’ve said to someone that Tarkovskij’s Stalker is an awesome sci-fi movie. How do I know? I used to like it but I have absolutely nothing to back it up with. For all I know I might hate it now!

After all my capacity for the slow and artsy was way bigger back during my teens. I used to devour Sartre and Dostojevskij. If you let me choose now, I’d rather just enjoy a couple of hours in company with A Game of Thrones. After a long work week I want to be entertained. Not sort out the nature of our existence. You can call it weakness, I call it coming of age.

I keep telling myself and others that I want to revisit those movies I watched once upon a time, but I wonder if I ever will or if it’s just yet another lie. And in the end, isn’t it a lost cause anyway? Even if I wanted to educate myself about movies, I can’t. There seem to be only that many slots available. If I rewatch a forgotten movie, inevitably something else will go.

Making our own versions
It’s not just that I forget movies; I’ve also come to realize that I might not remember the ones I believe I remember. It could as well be a construction, something I’ve mixed up with other movies or books, dreamed or imagined. We make our own versions of the movies in our heads.

Mark Kermode talks about it in his book The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex as he shares a story about one of the first movies Dougal and the Blue Cat. He watched it as a child supported by a soundtrack album and some notes he had taken, he played the film in his head over and over and over again, oblivious of that the notes and the cut down soundtrack had led him wrong. Twenty years later he got hold of a copy of it and at a rewatch it turned out that the movie was quite different to what he thought. He had re-imagined a couple of key sequences and all this time he had “watched” a version of the film that didn’t actually exist. As he puts it:

“Lesson number one: the way anyone experiences and remembers a film may bear only a passing relation to the movie itself.”

It’s very true. It’s also why re-visits are risky.  It might be a warm, heartfelt reunion, where you fall into each others arms as friends meeting after many years of absence. But sometimes it turns out that you’ve turned into strangers for each other and looking back, you probably would have been better off sticking to your false but fond memory.

The cure?
The question is: is there any cure for this amnesia? Well, actually this very blog is an attempt to, if not cure, at least limit it. I write about more or less every movie I watch in the hope that it will help me to hold on to them a little bit longer. My words may be lost in the vast digital ocean, but at least they’re etched into my mind.

But enough about my faulting memory! A prolonged weekend is incoming. Time to watch more movies! Time to forget a few. The bad ones, hopefully.


Written by Jessica

April 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

41 Responses

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  1. This has been a major problem in putting together my Bondo Collection series. I have a general sense why I’m including movies but I have trouble finding any useful words to say about films I haven’t seen in over a decade, much less being able to truly vouch for their quality.


    April 27, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    • And yet you won’t give up on it! I think your collection is impressive. If you have a bad memory you certainly don’t show it.


      April 27, 2012 at 10:39 pm

  2. Oh I completely understand this, I have a similar issue with games. Generally a quick glance at a let’s play on youtube is enough to unlock the flood gates of those memories but not always. Before my laptop exploded I kept what I called the ‘Interactive Experience Diary’ where I kept a brief description of games, what I liked about them, and what I didn’t, mini reviews essentially. With me trying literally 40+ games a week it felt important to try to keep them straight, games, genres, etc. . . blur together in that kind of bulk and I didn’t want it to be said I didn’t give each game a fair chance.

    Since I got my new lappy I’ve not really had the time or dedication to start a new diary, though after some recent events the idea is appealing more to me. I’ve always had a terrible memory (I’m actually unable to tell you what I ate 2 days ago, though I can make what I hope are good, educated guesses.) Gamaes tend to last longer in my memory than most things, but as with you, they have a finite limit.

    Yet I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the games that really broke mold inside me, be it my first game, the first time I cried at a game, the first time I saw potential in gaming, games that helped me through hard times, etc. . . . games that enriched and changed my life.

    Anyway, enough rambling, be safe, have fun, and don’t lick living lobsters.

    Holly "Digit" Dotson

    April 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    • Hi there Holly! Nice to see you here! As you know my game experience is extremely limited so I think I can keep a fairly clear image of them in my mind. This said: a year after quittting WoW I’ve definitely started to forget the names of some areas, dungeons, bosses etc.


      April 27, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      • Well, I do try to pop in and give my two cents when I can relate it to what I know or have what I feel is a valid opinion. YOU’LL NEVER GET RID OF ME, MUAHAHAHAHAHAH. **two seconds later** I’m IP Banned? Noooooooooooooo.

        Holly "Digit" Dotson

        April 28, 2012 at 12:17 am

  3. Nice musing, Jessica.

    So nowdays we can only get to know the “Game of thrones”-Jessica, not the “Dostojevskij”-Jessica? 😉

    I have experienced the amnesia problem when I put together my yearly “best of”-lists. It is very hard to rank the old ones, some of which I have re-watched, some I have only seen once, a long time ago.


    April 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    • You totally took me for an active Dostojevskij reader, right?

      My bad memory is the reason why I haven’t yet even considered making backlog year lists.


      April 27, 2012 at 10:39 pm

  4. And I thought this only happened to me. Great post Jessica.

    Mark Walker

    April 27, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    • Thanks! We’re the founding fathers and mothers of the club for cinephiles with memory deficiency. We may forget, but at least we’re not alone!


      April 27, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      • I am so glad that my movie brothers and sisters share this, seemingly, common affliction. 😉

        Mark Walker

        April 27, 2012 at 10:46 pm

  5. Oh this is a huge issue for me. I can’t remember movies I saw a few months ago! One of the reasons that writing about movies is so important to me is that I can go back and remember what the heck [insert title here] was about and how I felt about it. It’s one of the dangers of watching so many films and rarely taking the time to RE-watch them. It usually takes two viewings for a movie to begin to cement itself in my brain.


    April 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    • Yes, I think you’re right Martin. You take your time to do some rewatching and that’s a good thing. I’m afraid I rarely do. I could do more to fight my lack of memories.


      April 27, 2012 at 11:16 pm

  6. For me it often depends on how many times I’ve seen the movie and how strongly it resonates with me. I recently joined Letterboxd and have been using it to try and compile a list of all the movies I’ve ever seen and/or liked. I’m closing in on 1,000 movies and there are so many that I only vaguely remember having seen and some I’m not even sure if I’ve really watched. Like the cheesy 80’s movie My Demon Lover, I remember enjoying the movie, vaguely remember some scene with him turning into his demon form on a church rooftop, but that’s about it. I find it equally likely if I look up the movie and re-watch it I would either find it a horrible mess, or full of cheesy goodness.


    April 27, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    • I’m just as bad! Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve actually watched a movie or if my vague memories are constructed out of me reading about it, watching excerpts at school etc.
      Can it even count as if you’ve seen a movie if you don’t remember a thing of it?


      April 27, 2012 at 11:18 pm

  7. This is why I get annoyed by people who say condescendingly that they prefer to watch new films instead of re-watching films. Watching new films is great and rewarding, but re-watching films, and ruminating on them more and finding new details and having them further lodged in your psyche can be just as rewarding if not more so. Watching a movie once usually only takes you so far. It gives you the surface, and maybe allows you to read some more into it. But watching a film multiple times peels away the layers. Sometimes that helps you like a film more, sometimes it makes you like it less, but at least you know it better. Had I only seen No Country for Old Men the one time I’d have considered it great but baffling and that’s it. Watching it five times in the cinema cemented it as one of the very best films I’ve ever seen.

    Corey Atad

    April 27, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    • I totally agree on this one. No Country for Old Men is the perfect example of this. I felt disappointed in the ending but on repeat viewings, it was fitting. I don’t think you can ewe really judge a film unless you have seen it at least twice. There are exceptions though. Michael Bay’s mOvies tend not to require repeat viewings unless your masochistic.

      Mark Walker

      April 27, 2012 at 10:35 pm

      • Deep down you’re probably right, but you don’t watch every movie you write about twice, do you? If you do, it’s very admirable.


        April 27, 2012 at 11:20 pm

        • No, I can’t honestly say I do. I’d love to be able to though. My recent reviews of A Scanner Darkly and Heat where actually done by memory. I find it difficult but I’m trying more of them recently, so I don’t have to rewatch stuff all the time, yet still get my thoughts across. That why I was drawn to your original post Jessica. It was perfect timing. 🙂

          Mark Walker

          April 28, 2012 at 12:59 am

    • Five times, wow! But it helps to be in the business, doesn’t it? I have a gold level card at my theatre but I couldn’t motivate myself to pay for watching the same movie five times in a theatre, regardless of how good it was.
      This said, you’re doing it right. I should really do more rewatches than I do.


      April 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    • I’ve only got so much time. If I watch the same movie five times, that could be 5 different movies that I’ve seen.

      I watch a movie once and if it’s good enough, I’ll end up watching it again five years later.


      April 29, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  8. Great post, Jessica! I can completely identify with what you had to say, especially with paragraphs 1, 2 and 11. Those things happen to me all the time and I thought it wasn’t normal.


    April 28, 2012 at 1:01 am

    • Thanks! Normal or not, I don’t know, but at least there are two of us!


      April 29, 2012 at 10:58 pm

  9. I guess I’m lucky. I can usually remember key things from films I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few. There are always exceptions, of course. I ended up watching Vertigo twice in two years back in the late 80s because it had made so little an impression on me the first time that I didn’t even remember seeing it. I was about 50 minutes into (the tree ring scene) before it clicked that I had already seen it.

    Recently I was watching 1996’s L’Appartement and even though I had a vague sense of familiarity it wasn’t until a particular plot point about an hour in that I suddenly realized that I had seen the American remake of it named Wicker Park.

    Almost all of the reviews I post are written long after I have seen the films. This is due to my format, where I group together a set of films by some common characteristic. I do always refresh my memory on the cast, trivia, etc before writing, though, because I want to ensure I am not providing bad information.

    I used to work with a person who couldn’t remember a film she had seen two months earlier. I would recommend a film to her based on a prior one she had told me she had liked. She would sometimes ask me why I was recommending it and I would have to remind her she had seen the other film similar to it.


    April 28, 2012 at 1:08 am

    • You’re lucky to have such a good memory. On the other hand you could say that we who forget movies are lucky too in the regard that we can enjoy a movie just as much when we watch it a second or even third time as we did the first time since we don’t remember it. If we buy films, that means that we get a lot of return on our investment!


      April 29, 2012 at 11:00 pm

  10. I understand what you’re saying. There are a lot of films I can’t remember seeing for various reasons. Most shockingly is Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, which I only saw less than a year ago and I can’t remember a single second of it, even though I think I liked it.

    Definitely see Stalker again. It’s slow but boy is it amazing to look at.


    April 28, 2012 at 8:09 am

    • I definitely do want to revisit that one. Apart from you I don’t see that many people talking about Tarkovskij anymore. He seems a little bit forgotten. I remember liking him a lot, and I would like to see if it’s still the case.


      April 29, 2012 at 11:01 pm

      • He’s a great director. Back in January I did a marathon of all his films on my site, watching and reviewing them all. My favourites are Solaris, Andrei Rublev and Nostalghia. I’m quite confident you’d like Solaris and The Sacrifice particularly, as they are two of his more accessible movies.


        April 30, 2012 at 5:28 am

        • Yeah, I remember loving Solyaris as well as Nostalghia, Stalker and The Sacrifice. I haven’t yet seen Andrei Rublev. It’s in my queue. I definitely want to get back to this director.


          April 30, 2012 at 11:56 pm

          • Since you’ve seen all those, you don’t really have much left. Ivan’s Childhood was Tarkovsky’s first film, but I don’t like it a whole lot. The only other two are Andrei Rublev (which is essential) and The Mirror (which is interesting but not great though it has its moments).


            May 1, 2012 at 6:04 am

            • Ivan’s Childhood and The Mirror are both terrific.


              May 1, 2012 at 7:02 am

            • Well, as I said: I don’t remember much of those I watched. So in a way they too “remain”.


              May 1, 2012 at 5:37 pm

  11. Well, there is a simple cure for this: Choose, say, 300 movies. See 100 of them a year for three years. Rinse and repeat. I can’t see any other way of not only remembering what they are about but also feel secure in your judgement of them “here and now” 😉

    And how much fun is that?! I think it is a natural thing with all experiences, be it books, plays, operas, kayaking or mountain climbing. If you do it often enough some things are bound to get misplaced as the years go by.


    April 28, 2012 at 8:24 am

    • I actually gave it a thought. Perhaps I should stop going for quantity and rather go for quality. Why always chase for new movies rather than watch movies I know I like but have started to forget about over again so they stay fresh in mind?

      This said: nailing it down to 300 movies and nothing more might seem a bit limited.


      April 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm

  12. “I used to devour Sartre and Dostojevskij. If you let me choose now, I’d rather just enjoy a couple of hours in company with A Game of Thrones.”

    Well, George R.R. Martin is on the same level as Dostojevski as far as I’m concerned.

    Overall however, I get it. If I arrive at home in the week I’d rather just see a simple movie. More difficult movies are for the weekend.

    As to what makes a movie stick, it’s difficult to tell. The really good movies tend to be remembered. But some not so good movies stick in my mind because they’re horror movies a la Saw.


    April 29, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    • … and some movies stick even if you haven’t watched them. My daughters retelling of The Human Centipede was enough to make me feel sick and I just couldn’t get that movie out of my head for ages after. 😦


      April 29, 2012 at 11:08 pm

  13. Love your posts about film-loving-related sicknesses 🙂
    And as for your “movie amnesia”, I know exactly what your talking about. I had the same problem when trying to put together my favourite movie list for the first time – actually, when I’m commenting on other people’s blog too.

    But there is one cure, I’ve found, namely re-watching. The more often I’ve seen a movie, the longer I remember it. Of course I’d only rewatch movies I remember liking…

    Oh, and by the way, sometimes a movie is better than you had thought when you watch it the second time.


    April 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    • That is true. I tend to stay away from re-watching, mostly because my to-watch-list is insanely long, but also because I sometimes might be vary to spoil a fond memory. But actually the opposite might be the case: that a movie is not just as good as you remembered it, but even better at a second viewing.
      I probably should re-watch more than I do.


      April 29, 2012 at 11:10 pm

  14. […] One thing that is apparently not proof of Alzheimer’s is if you have movie amnesia. For an introduction to this concept, we turn to The Velvet Café (Jessica, 2012): […]

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