Dementia And Memory Loss In Movies

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Comic Book Characters Transformed By The Movies

By Jess Devonport.

Logan provides a grown-up and fitting end to Wolverine’s story, seeing the last of the X-Men at his most human, succumbing to old age and poor health. The film is as sad and weary as it is brutal and bloody – the fraught yet tender relationship between Professor X and Logan providing a welcome contrast to the graphic bloodshed.

Echoing the common and natural development of a father and son relationship, Logan is now Charles Xavier’s reliable but often resentful caregiver. Their relationship is played out with heartbreaking humanity – Charles, once able to bring society to its knees with just his mind now is now a quarrelsome old man being hauled onto the toilet by Logan, complaining all the way. The implication that Charles has dementia only adds to the gut-wrenching indignity of his situation.

It’s one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine that we’re all living longer, but with that comes the increased likelihood of progressive and fatal conditions like dementia. People now fear dementia more than any other health condition and it’s no coincidence that film and TV are increasingly using it as a plot device.

Fiction, particularly science fiction, reflects the anxieties of the time. In 1968, Planet of the Apes ended with Charlton Heston facing the devastating realisation that he’s actually on Earth following the destruction of the human race by a nuclear war. 20 years after the end of the Cold War, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, offered the search for a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease as the cause of mankind’s downfall.

As dementia becomes more prevalent, so too are stories of forgetting and loss of identity. Often, these serve as cautionary tales, admonishing society for interfering with the mind.

Black Mirror - Playtest

Black Mirror – Playtest

Always one to throw our own existential dread back at us, Charlie Brooker in Playtest asks “what do you fear the most?” and then plays it out to the grim extreme. It’s not exactly nuanced – we quickly learn that Cooper, the main protagonist, recently lost his father to younger-onset dementia. As Cooper enters the virtual reality game, he is faced with escalating fears that suggest the game is digging deeper into his psyche until we find that losing his cognitive function and sense of identity is what truly terrifies our hero.

As always, Black Mirror grimly imitates life and draws the line between both dementia and VR technology in their capacity to interfere with your perception of the world and sense of self. The bitter punchline in Playtest is that it’s interference from Cooper’s phone that destroys his mind, rather than dementia itself.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on the other hand asks whether it is desirable to forget the things that cause you pain – is ignorance really bliss? In Charlie Kaufman’s story, technology exists that allows the main character, Joel, to forget that he ever met Clementine or fell in love with her. This alone induces fear; when deciding to proceed he asks if there is any danger of brain damage, “technically speaking,” the inventor replies truthfully, “ the procedure is brain damage.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

As the process takes Joel back through his memories of Clementine, he is reminded that their relationship wasn’t all bad and he falls in love with her again. With his memories erased, Joel finds himself compulsively drawn to the places that held significance for their relationship. Eternal Sunshine shows that even without memory our emotional ties and instincts remain, concluding that the spotless mind is not necessarily sunnier.

Movies that examine the fragility of memory often carry a dark sense of dread of being easily manipulated. Dark City is a terrifying conspiracy where an ideal society is being engineered through the nightly rearrangement of everyone’s memories. Our sense of identity and reality are tied up tightly with our memories, that anything that interferes with that is horrifying.

Unfortunately, dementia is as frequently used as a convenient and contemporary alternative to the dead parent trope, often with little examination of the condition itself. In movies, people experience a picturesque form of dementia where the main symptom is perfectly-timed moments of lucidity that allows them to deliver wise speeches. Friends with Benefits hinges on this, with Richard Jenkins inexplicably taking his trousers off in an airport restaurant before urging his son to pursue the love of his life. Equally, Joan Allen’s character in The Notebook is allowed clarity long enough to remember her past romance with her husband.

Rather than providing a discussion of the condition or people’s experiences of it, dementia in movies often focuses on what has been lost. As with other disability tropes, movie dementia shows the affected person as incomplete, robbed of their memories and personality, only becoming whole in their moments of clarity. Similarly, their carers, friends and family are shown as complete in comparison, adding to the sense of grief by demonstrating their wholeness and sense of self.

As we are warned of the growing threat of dementia, it’s also increasingly likely that it will become more prominent in fiction. When used well, dementia in movies can help to examine our anxieties about a condition we still have limited knowledge of and ever fewer treatments for. Unfortunately, it also seems likely that there will also be an rise in work that reinforces worrying assumptions about the condition and will serve only to increase stigma and shame surrounding it.

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