Arts preview: “All the Memory in the World” examines relationship between identity and photographs

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From the October 3, 2013 edition

Mike Olenick's been fascinated by pictures, particularly those in movies, almost as long as he can remember, and that's sort of the problem. Or at least it is for the insomniac narrator who's having trouble separating reality from his dreams and the movie images he obsesses over in Olenick's latest film, "All the Memory in the World," which he narrates and which premieres Friday at the Wexner Center.

It’s a problem Olenick can trace to the first picture he recalls seeing as a child. The image was from "Back to the Future," and contains its own shifting perspective as Marty McFly and his siblings fade in and out due to Marty's re-writing of time. The image stuck with Olenick throughout childhood because it was unlike any photograph he'd ever seen.

"I now look at the movie as not so much [being about] making his parents fall in love, but as bringing the photograph into existence," he said during a recent phone interview from the Wexner Center, where he works as a studio editor in the Film/Video Studio Program.

Those shifting perspectives (on truth, mortality, life) are at the heart of "Memory," a 72-minute experimental video essay that focuses on photographs and photographers in thousands of narrative films. The essay latches on to this subject with a ruthlessness that suggests our identity and life itself depends on pictures filling in the spaces our memories have forgotten. Or as the narrator says, "Life without memory is no life at all," and, later, "We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are."

Though "Memory" feels like a project he's been attached to his whole life, Olenick's only been working on the film for about eight years, the first three of which were spent collecting scenes from more than 3,000 movies. Everything from silent films to Batman movies, from "Memento" to "Titanic" is included in the final product, which contains scenes from more than 400 movies. The sheer volume of source material at times feels overwhelming, especially when scenes are grouped together by subject (digital photo manipulation, violence, childhood nostalgia) as if they were movements in a symphony. 

The mood fluctuates too, shifting between awe and reverence, confusion and madness. It feels nakedly personal and remarkably impersonal. The pace of scene-cuts is often frenetic, but the weary narrator speaks slowly, pausing often between his almost zen-like sentences, providing space for the audience to reflect and unload their own memories onto the film's canvas.

Lines of reality are further blurred when the narrator repeats dialogue from movies, mimicking the actors onscreen, who are often female. Photos are ripped and taped back together, mirrors crushed. The movie begins anew multiple times, the narrator asking the audience to start again from the beginning. But where was the beginning? The camera's lens zooms in, pulls back, hiding, obscuring, bleeding into one scene from another.

It's disorienting, but exhilarating. Your mind feels confused and hazy, as if covered by clouds, but the rapid firing of memory synapses is ever present as you recognize scenes from movies you cherish, hate or had forgotten. 

When, toward the end, the narrator says that looking through a lens has trained his eyes, you can relate, as if the repetitious movie scenes have permanently altered your outlook. But "Memory" also begs the question, Do you trust what you see? Or more terrifyingly, Do you trust what you remember? 

Photo by Meghan Ralston