Scenic recall

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I’m at the start of a new project where I’m using sci-fi films as inspiration for improvisational quilts. As I was sifting through memories of my initial experiences with Star Wars, I noticed something interesting about what I recalled. The scenes I most strongly remembered were tied to the place where I first saw the movies.

I was young, seven or eight, sitting in a neighbor lady’s basement rumpus room with a crowd of other kids from around the neighborhood. I sat on the floor and the screen was very square. I only have memories of two scenes from the Empire Strikes Back: the wampa monster ice cave (and its bloody dismembered arm) and Luke’s swamp confrontation with Darth Vader, where he cuts off Vader’s head and sees his own face.

I ran these memories through my head and wondered how many of my other memories of movies had that level of situational context to go with them.

  • I was at a slumber party in a sleeping bag on someone’s living room floor. I was nervous about being there as it was probably one of my first slumber parties. On the television was the scene from Never Cry Wolf where the researcher is eating mice from a mug and scaring away other invading mice with each bite.
  • My family was visiting second cousins I hadn’t met before and we’re in a wood paneled living room. The Ewok battle from Return of the Jedi is on the television. On the floor in front of me are Ewok figurines and an Ewok Village play set that I’m not sure if I can touch. There are large sliding glass doors to my right that open onto a wooden deck that overlooks a dense dark forest.
  • I’m sitting in my family’s living room, leaning on an orangey-brown vinyl upholstered footstool. Playing on the television is the scene from The Last Starfighter where Robert Preston’s character is pulling off his face. I hide my eyes in my crossed arms at the first glimpse of his alien slime face underneath.
  • I remember the lurid blue and green and purple of a scene from Swordfish framed by red velvet movie theater curtains. I was watching it with a group of high school almost-friends in our town’s dollar movie theater, wondering if I was supposed to pretend to like the movie with them after the show.
  • I’m at a friend of a friend’s rich parents’ home during college. A crowd of people I don’t really know are watching Copycat in a warm beige den. I watch until the scene where an e-mail video of a woman turns into a red death’s head, and I leave the room. I get lost down a series of narrow hallways that seem over filled with bookcases and short flights of steps.
  • I’m in an art house movie theater in Brisbane watching the Dogme 95 film Open Hearts. The room is dark and I’m sitting in the third or fourth row of the theater, alone.  I remember a lot of dreamy cold blues and bokeh streetlights and a terrible car crash. I am crying because I am a handful of months away from seeing Matt and I’m sure something this horrible will happen to one of us before then.

I noticed most of my memories of films from elementary school and younger included the situational context. I wonder if the emotional intensity of films made me anxious as a kid, and being in uncomfortable circumstances made those movie memories stickier in my mind.

Remembering the situational context with movies seemed to diminish as I got older. After high school, memories of films were more likely to be of the films themselves instead of a fuller memory of the setting and my experience watching it. I think that over time, I got used to the immersive style of storytelling in movies and allowed myself to become completely absorbed in the story to the exclusion of my surroundings. The context typically became part of my memory only when the film was amplifying anxious feelings from the rest my life.

I haven’t watched any of the films I listed above, save the Star Wars movies, again. I wonder if the scenes I remember bear any resemblance to the images inside my head. I wonder as well if I would sense any echoes of my first feelings watching them, or if those feelings can only be remembered.

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