July 26, 2005
118 minutes

What Is The One Memory You Would Take With You? — AFTER LIFE.

After they die, people are processed by bureaucrats who allow them to take one memory of their life, in the form of a film re-creation, into eternity.

An absolute gem. Sweet natured through and through.

The story is simple. In a run-down, though still somewhat charming building, Monday mornings are the days that all the people who have died the previous week check in at the front desk and are assigned a sort of “memory counselor” to help them pick the one thing that they want to remember for all of eternity. They must pick this memory by Wednesday. The memories are filmed on Thursday and Friday, and on Saturday, the dead people watch this film before they are taken away to the “next step.” The following Monday, it starts over again.

What makes it great is the matter-of-factness of the surroundings, coupled with the description of the memories, during these lengthy interview processes, which are so heartfelt that they make me think (prior to looking it up online) that many of the participants were amateurs simply recalling a time in their past that made them happy.

The clients are mostly old, but there are a few who died too young, perhaps before any specific meaningful memories could be experienced. The older ones remember things you might expect, but they are all so sweet. A World War II veteran remembers the kindness of an American soldier who gave him a cigarette, rice, and some chicken when he was all but starving to death. An elderly woman who never married simply wants to remember cherry blossoms falling in the wind. Another older woman remembers the day of a big earthquake, sleeping in a bamboo forest and swinging between two bamboo trunks while her mother served her rice balls. These memories are so vivid to them–all but written on their faces as they recall them for the counselor. A woman of 85 or so remembers specific parts of her life when she was six and had a new red dress and how she performed a dance for her brother and other friends. She remembers it like it was yesterday.

These interviews take place in rather cold rooms, which hold only chairs and a table. And a couple of plants on the window sills. This building doesn’t look like its changed from the 1950s. Each dead person is given a single room in which to stay, with just the bare essentials–a single bed, sink, desk. No one seems to mind. The counselors can spend a lot of time with the dead person, making sure they pick something meaningful, asking questions, getting deeper into their lives. One teenage girl starts out by wanting to remember a day at Disneyland, but after her counselor tells her that more than 30 others have picked the same memory, she re-evaluates what she wants to take with her to eternity.

There is a boastful older man who speaks of visits to brothels and a woman in Northern Japan who knew exactly how to make porridge. He would often forget to call his office in Tokyo, so smitten was he with her. Will he take the memory of a sexual conquest with him to eternity?

But what if you can’t or won’t pick a single memory to represent the entirety of your life? A man of 71 doesn’t think he has any memory “good” enough to take with him. His counselor gets on the phone and orders a videotape for each year of his life. He sits down to watch. As a youth, the man is afraid his life won’t amount to much. He wants to leave proof of his existence behind. He sort of goes through his entire life afraid of not making an impact and in the end, this is what happens.

The fact that the counselor can pick up the phone and call someone and have them duplicate a person’s life is one of the joys here. It isn’t a futuristic place where every wish is fulfilled. The counselors refer to a small library for reference about the hotel in which a former beauty remembers having a romantic rendezvous. There isn’t a computer to be seen here. Nor a TV or any other modern convenience. You can believe that the memory counselors have been using this facility for years.

Once a memory is chosen, a team of filmmakers sets about to recreate it. Again, this isn’t ILM making a perfect copy of a memory. It’s carpenters and craftsmen doing their best with limited resources. A man remembers a flight in a Cessna, but all the staff has is a Piper and they must make changes to the wing design.

However, the smile on the faces of each participant when they see the recreation is fantastic. A man smiles after the filmmakers play him a cassette of his memory’s background noise, which takes place on a street car saying “Yes, it’s perfect”. The pilot’s memory looks a bit rinky dink to us, with the cotton balls being pulled on wires past the windshield, but to him it couldn’t be better. Again, either these dead people are just off the street amateurs, or maybe they’re real actors asked to recall a memory. Their faces don’t betray how happy they are to see a memory they didn’t think they’d see again.

It got me to thinking about what single memory I’d take with me. I don’t have an answer. It also discusses when people have their first memory–could it be in the womb?

What of the staff at this facility? Why are they there? They are also dead, but in a kind of purgatory. They need to be supportive with their clients, but can’t get too attached. Come next Monday, they’ll each be given 3 or 4 more dead people to help through the process.

The pace is slow. A member of the staff remarks that she’s reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, because now she has all the time in the world. Everyone wears the same clothes every day. The rooms are run-down, but everyone is satisfied. The dead people interact with each other–discuss the difficulty in picking a memory.

Just dream-like and perfect. Quiet and uplifting.

Start picking your memory. You may be asked to choose sooner than you think.

**** Halliwells
**** Ebert
***^ Maltin
*** Berardinelli


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Written by Michael W. Cummins