Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I 've been forgetting to remember

I woke up gasping for breath, my pudgy adolescent fingers clawing into the darkness. For weeks after seeing Total Recall I had a recurring dream: I was on the surface of mars and my body was going through the tell-tale signs of rapid pressure change. My eyes bulged from their sockets, chest and lungs simultaneously expanded and collapsed and my brain bursting within skull. The overwhelming message that my 12 year old self gathered from the film is that humans are frail and fragile creatures.

Rewatching Total Recall after reading “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” has reinforced that message although in a far more unsettling way. The stories focus on the malleability of memory and the overwhelming power of our passions. When read in comparison I was left with the feeling that I am at the will of an arbitrary memory and an equally arbitrary ambition – leaving little room for conscience or control.

Even from the onset I found Dick’s short story unsettling. Douglas Quail, our presumed (anti?) hero, is always already lost in reverie only vaguely informed by reality. In the third paragraph we are told that Quail needed a daily rush of nicotine which “woke him up and allowed his dreams, his nocturnal desires and random wishes, to condense into a semblance of rationality” (102). To imagine one’s waking reality as little more than an amalgamation of “nocturnal desires and random wishes” suggests that there is no single, stable shared reality but rather a host separate and occasionally overlapping worlds. This theme is repeated later when McClane, the memory salesmen, convinces Quail that real memories are necessarily incomplete, “You're not accepting second best. The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions-that's second best” (106). Dick suggests that our reality is a less fulfilling version of dreams. And yet Dick simultaneously argues that our dreaming state is informed by and a product of very real events. As we discover that Quail’s innermost dreams are actually memories of past events – willfully obscured by all powerful and somewhat incompetent government bureaucracies – we are left to wonder about the persistence of memory, passion and desire and how they overlap. The film, however, leaves little for us to wonder.

The final scene of Total Recall is terrifyingly ambiguous. Throughout the film we are led through a series of “mindfucks” which ultimately leave Quaid as an unreliable narrator. Quaid, it turns out is, is a memory implant in the mind of the ever-duplicitous Hauser. After narrowly avoiding combustion in the Martian atmosphere by terraforming the planet using ancient alien technology Quaid/Hauser stands atop a mountain (how he got there after having just fallen down one is left unexplained) and holding hands with his “athletic” and “slutty” companion Melina. In his last line of the film Quaid/Hauser says, “I just had a terrible thought... what if this is a dream?” Melina quickly responds “Well, then, kiss me quick before you wake up!” as an overwhelming orchestral arrangement builds while the scene fades to white. With a certain literal-minded reading the films’ end – while in some ways is a clich├ęd Hollywood ending – actually is quite depressing. It is hard to view the previous 90 minutes of shootouts, ridiculous chase scenes and improbable escapes as anything more than the delusional fantasies – or “extrafactual memories” of a man lost in dream. The film suggests that there is no stable reality at all; that memory is little more than a dream purchased after a hard day’s work.

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