We’re shown a solitary building in a timeless Japan, an assortment of drab colors, all browns and greys, precise and uniform. The building is representative of no discernible era or architecture, the desks and tables plain as the housing structure, wood and concrete that may have been cobbled together yesterday or yester-century. Early morning sunshine sneaks through any available window and crevice, but the dark grained wood soaks it up. We’re left with a natural light, but a dark light, never giving the viewer too much, but never leaving too little either.
The building might be an old dormitory or perhaps an abandoned factory. Its current use, as evidenced by the workers—men in suits, women with sweaters and modest skirts—is that of an office building. The workers putter about in their morning labors, filing, making tea, before meeting with a middle-aged, middle-management guy, the Japanese equivalent of Williamson doling out the Glengarry leads.
“Last week,” the middle-manager explains, “we managed to pass all eighteen through. This week we have twenty-four clients.”
Front doors open. Morning fog threatens to invade, and shrouded sunlight illuminates the foyer. One by one, people filter in. A shy-looking man in his fifties. A teenage girl with a backpack, her hair in a youthful ponytail. A punk-looking man in his early twenties. An elderly woman so short she’d have to sit on a stack of phone books to look over a steering wheel. Each checks in with a clerk in front as if expected for a dental appointment. The waiting room soon fills up with the two-dozen expected clients, and the once serenely quiet building now echoes with introductory chatter.
New arrivals are called out by name to separate rooms. We see several of them, a montage of faces ranging the age spectrum, sitting apprehensively at a plain table. The workers remain offscreen, their voices soft and professional. Their routine is quite clearly ingrained. The camera remains on the subjects, stationary, table level, an eye-line shot from the workers’ view, waiting patiently for reactions.
From off camera, a worker states, “You died yesterday afternoon.”
Welcome to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, his 1999 masterpiece. Who knew the beyond could be so bureaucratic? Do not, however, let this muted, arcane opening fool you. While the film never seems in a hurry to take off, making frequent use of static camera shots and lingering takes, what is given to us on the screen is quietly and confidently engaging. Kore-eda’s pacing never waivers either; it chips away at our sense of how a film should operate until we too have settled into the cypress interior of the building, and have become silent workers in the process.
Everyone in After Life is dead, from the clients that come through the door to the dutiful caseworkers there to ease the transition. We realize this information early, as Kore-eda wants to ease us into this fact simultaneously with his characters. As it turns out, the building is a way station, existing in the nowhere between life and death. This isn’t an eternal purgatory. These souls are on a strict timetable; they will be housed for one week in which each will meet with an assigned caseworker whose job is to facilitate recalling a lifetime’s worth of memories. Much of the time, the worker is quiet, allowing the newly deceased to talk about moments in their lives, happy or sad, crystalline or murky. When they do speak, the workers nudge their clients along, coaxing more stories and more memories from them.
Monday and Tuesday are dedicated to the overwhelming act of remembering a life. By Wednesday, the clients must make a decision. They are asked to select one single memory, one that stands above all others. For most this might be the happiest point of their lives, but it could be a solitary moment of perfect contentment. One girl chooses a recollection of being very little, maybe four or five, and wrapped in a blanket in her mother’s arms, engulfed in maternal safety. One man chooses the moment he meets his future wife. When this memory is selected, the workers will go about recreating it, and then this will be all that remains—one lasting memory as sole irrefutable proof of life.
* * * *
I first saw Kore-eda’s film on a summer night in 2005. A subtle heat wave, the kind that doesn’t stifle but constantly reminds you of its presence, had settled on upstate New York. Unable to sleep, I stood in front of my film collection, considering what to watch (an act that can at times take the better part of thirty minutes until I tap out and don’t watch anything) before a burnt DVD in a nondescript jewel case caught my eye. A fellow cinephile had made me a copy of After Life, certain I would love it. I’m somewhat disappointed to admit that I am unable to claim the film as my own, a gem I unearthed to share with others. I was gifted this treasure, and in turn I try to do the same for others. I have watched the film five times total; my first time, twice with people, and twice in preparation for this essay.
Kore-eda is, among movie-lovers and critics, a key component of the current Asian New Wave, a field being mostly dominated by the Koreans and Thai, and to an extent the Chinese. Japanese cinema, in some broader respects, has lost the luster it rightly held for many decades. Even new Japanese films seem out of step with what everyone else is making in the world, giving the sense that the nation’s film industry just keeps plugging along in that same slower gait. The films feel old even as they are released. Part of this stems, I believe, from Japanese cinema being so rudimentarily founded in tradition. The nation’s film industry is almost as old and established as those of France or the United States. Nikkatsu, the first of the Japanese studios, was created in 1912. Others came shortly thereafter, before a major setback in 1923, when a massive earthquake destroyed many of Tokyo’s film vaults. While one can recite a long list of legends of American cinema—Huston, Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock (imported), Coppola, Scorsese, and on and on—Japan tends to be saddled with a “Big Three” consisting of Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. If you want historical epics, grand action, and melodrama, you turn to Kurosawa. If quiet, meditative family dramas infused with nature is what you want, then Ozu is the guy for you. If you want a combination of the two rolled into a darker philosophic package, then Mizoguchi’s the man. So towering are these three that even today a burgeoning Japanese filmmaker will inevitably be compared to one or the others. Sometimes this projected emulation can kick-start a career, but other times it can damage a neophyte filmmaker, leaving them shoehorned into a space they never wished for.
Kore-eda has forged an elusive career, slipping free from the restraints of the Big Three. Some of his films have drawn comparisons stylistically to Ozu with those long static shots, the camera a silent presence in the room, intermittent moments of nature placed between stretches of dialogue, and meditative takes that seek to capture the essence of its subject. But Kore-eda has also seemingly jumped from one unconnected project to another. He has made the Ozu family drama in Still Walking and he has made his samurai film in Hana. But he’s also made a film, Distance, dealing with the consequences of a mass murder by a Japanese sect, reminiscent of the ’90s Tokyo subway gassing by the Ohm Cult. In another film, Air Doll, an inflatable sex doll comes to life, explores Tokyo, falls in love, and accidentally kills a man. (I highly doubt Ozu had notes for a plot like that.) Before this array of films, Kore-eda made his mark as a documentarian, making several films for Japanese television. Even with such seemingly disparate subjects, some threads tie his oeuvre together, namely his need to highlight social issues, sometimes in a straightforward manner and other times abstractly. Kore-eda is interested in results, the afterlife of a major event; he quietly allows the ramifications to unfold and the camera to capture it.
To an American audience, his films are unknown and difficult to market. The more popular Japanese cinema is grounded in genre—martial arts epics, Yakuza flicks, and ghost stories like Ringu or Ju-On. Only three of his films have received any sort of moderate American theatrical release that I know of, and he has at least four films not even available on Region I DVD. My personal copies of Distance and Air Doll are Asian bootlegs. Still, this is the filmography of a multi-time winner/nominee from the Cannes Film Festival. The distribution oversights are egregious, but ultimately not very surprising.
* * * *
“You died yesterday afternoon,” the workers say, pausing to add the appropriate amount of solemnity, before continuing, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
These words are ubiquitous, yet I can’t recall ever seeing them delivered this way, as condolences given to the person who has been lost. Does this suggest that we lose some essential part of ourselves when we die, that “sorry for your loss” really meaning sorry you bit the dust, you’ll never be the same? Or is the loss not that of the body or soul but the loss of things, of objects and experiences? I’m sorry you cannot enjoy the world as it stands anymore. Or is it simple a formality, the polite actions from culturally polite people?
In the film, one new arrival seems as confounded by this version of the afterlife as the viewer might be. “So wait,” the arrival, a man in his mid-twenties, asks, “you’re saying that everyone comes here in the end? No matter what you’ve done?” He pauses as if to consider this next part with fearful trepidation. “Or where you’re going after?”
This realization is a rather disturbing piece of metaphysics. It’s also a generous one. Kore-eda levels the hierarchy between heaven and hell in true Buddhist fashion. All new inhabitants start in the same place. The heaven group isn’t given a head start. They’re not sitting in first class sipping on champagne while the hellions fight for foot space in the rear. Each arrival is given the same privilege; select one memory and one memory only, and you may bring it with you. Might this suggest that ultimately, there is little difference between the two places? Or even that there might not be two possibilities, heaven and hell, but one that’s completely different?
If there is a heaven and hell, could the selected memory serve possible utilitarian purposes for each? By this I mean could a memory’s purpose in heaven be to cherish and cradle, the photo on the living room wall that serves as a reminder a life lived? On the other hand, maybe the hell-bound need the memory more, that in the depths of pain and despair, memory eases the suffering. I can imagine Judas Iscariot hiding within in his selected vision, a fleeting memory of childhood innocence maybe, while being chewed upon in the mouth of the beast.
Maybe none of this happens. I actually doubt it in fact. If anything, all I’ve done is Christianized Kore-eda’s original intent. In fact, we should be mindful of the fact that he never tips his hand as to what he thinks lies beyond the way station.
Personal conceptions of heaven and hell have long been depicted in cinema, the visual medium the perfect mode to encapsulate imagination, the filmmaker using film to encroach on the theologian’s turf. In 1998, New Zealand painter Vincent Ward made What Dreams May Come, a sincere but saccharine Robin Williams vehicle based off of a Richard Matheson novel. In that film, Williams’ character loses both his children and, later, his suicidal wife. Grief stricken, he is brought magically to the afterlife in hopes of saving his wife before her soul goes to hell (in the Christian tradition of suicides). His Virgil-esque guide for this journey is Cuba Gooding Jr. (I doubt Dante would ever have had anything like Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire in mind, whatever the Medieval Florentine equivalent of that is, but this is Ward’s film, so to each his own.)
Sadly, Ward’s film remains firmly entrenched in my memory, if only because it played a part in the most awkward date I’d ever been on. I was an undergrad when Dreams came out and at the time dabbled in a little acting. I had just landed the role of Francis Nurse in the campus production of The Crucible. With limited acting skills on full display, I still managed to score a date with Becky, a sweet technician with a gargoyle tattoo on her forearm. We went to see Dreams, and about twenty minutes into the film, the moment where Williams’ children die in a car crash, Becky broke out into a deluge of tears, her sobs filling the theater. I ushered her out through the emergency exit into the fall air and asked what was wrong. Sure, the movie was sad (I guess) but hardly enough to cause this total collapse. Struggling to talk, Becky informed me that her sister had just died in a car accident weeks before. She didn’t want to tell me when we first met in case it scared me off. And while there was no way for me to know this rather pertinent information, in the words of Nicholson in A Few Good Men, didn’t I feel like the fucking asshole. Amazingly enough, we had a second date a few days later.
There are far better films, and none linked to personal embarrassment, that have depicted heaven and hell. The great British director, Michael Powell made the old David Niven film, Stairway to Heaven (where else have I heard that title?) in which a fighter pilot doesn’t die when he’s supposed to and convinces the angels above that he deserves a trial in order to be sent back down to earth. Powell creates his heaven in the old-fashioned way of fluffy clouds, Greek architecture, and white-robed celestial beings. It’s not completely unlike an old Looney Toons cartoon with Bugs Bunny defying gravity as he stands in the clouds before a Pearly Gate that actually is . . . well, a gate.
Other greats have taken their shots. Ingmar Bergman made The Seventh Seal, where a knight returning from the Crusades is forced to play a game of chess with Death himself, with his soul on the line. In traditional Swedish cinema tradition, the afterlife is bleak, a barren countryside where the dead roam. Kore-eda nods to Bergman in After Life: at one point in the older film, a host of characters dance towards death across a hillside while one plays horn music; and the workers in Kore-eda’s film, when not working with clients, practice as a band, culminating in a scene where they dance around in a garden, playing their instruments. (Another not-so-classic film made some thirty years later played off the same “games with Death” motif. This was Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Evil Bill and Ted kill good Bill and Ted in that one. In order to come back to earth and stop them, they must play Death in a series of games, including but not exclusive to “Twister” and “Battleship,” which gives us the great line by Death, who with an inexplicable German accent, says, “You sunk my battleship,” before throwing a loser’s tantrum.)
Kore-eda’s beyond isn’t filled with religious imagery and cartoonish depictions, for Kore-eda has little interest in theology and deities. Instead, he places immense weight on memory—it is everything. These are the angels on our shoulders, our guides through heaven and hell, our ties to the world we live in. After Life isn’t the first time Kore-eda tackles issues of memory: in his 1996 documentary, Without Memory, he follows the story of an elderly man who loses his ability to create memories due to a botched medical procedure. The film serves both as a political statement against government disregard for health care and as a meditation on this essential presence in all of our lives.
* * * *
Memory loss remains a great fear of Kore-eda’s. In a statement for the DVD of After Life, he explains:My grandfather became senile when I was six. The word Alzheimer’s did not yet exist and no one in my family or community understood what had happened to him . . . I comprehended little of what I saw, but I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died. I now understood how critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self.
Despite his fear, Kore-eda depicts loss of memory in stoic fashion, letting us understand the horror of the situation without being horrified by it. This is different than, say, something like Austrian director Michael Haneke’s recent Oscar-winning film, Amour, the story of an elderly couple that has been married seemingly forever, as the wife slides deeper and deeper into dementia. Wheras Kore-eda focuses on the deep sadness that comes with loss, Haneke turns the same premise toward horror. The argument can be made, of course, that Haneke is a realist, his intent to show the end as it truly is, the horrors of a husband watching his wife slip into a mental oblivion, pissing and shitting herself, and ultimately forgetting how to breathe. Kore-eda sees real horror, not in the physical but the mental; his is a vision that doesn’t truck with showing the later indignities.
One of the new arrivals in After Life is a tiny elderly lady, all of four-ten, shuffling aimlessly around the building. She’s unresponsive to questions, staring out the window. On a break, the camera watches her from a distance as she picks up random objects and places them gently into a plastic bag. This is another one of those Ozu-shots, what critic Donald Richie would call a “pillow shot,” a scene that seemingly has little to do with anything else, a moment allowed to unfold for the audience. Later during an interview, she empties the contents of the bags, all leaves and acorns, organizing them in neat rows on the table. Her only words are a question about whether flowers bloom in the yard.
Later that night, as the workers meet to discuss their cases, we come to find out that this client could not form any memories after the age of six. It becomes evident that she had Alzheimer’s during her time on earth. I find it odd that Kore-eda chooses for this woman to have her ailment pass over along with her body. It doesn’t seem quite fair and it’s a moment I’m not sure I entirely buy. After all, isn’t the body to be freed of its earthly restrictions? Or to be more precise, isn’t the soul supposed to be freed of the body? Why limit this poor lady with her memory selection?
I believe this drives Kore-eda’s point home; the power of memory transcends the body in all facets. Another client, Kenji, is pleased to learn that once he chooses a memory and passes on, all else is forgotten. The pain of a life filled with wrong choices pushes at the edges of his voice. By selecting a childhood memory of innocence, he can be relieved of everything else. “Wow, this really is heaven,” Kenji says.
Yet another client, Ichiro, has difficulty selecting a memory. “My life was unremarkable in all ways,” he claims. All he wants is a memory that proved his existence. This too, like losing the ability to remember, is a primal fear that every person must come to terms with. We all want a mark that notates our existence after we’re gone.
This recalls for me the late 19th century theorist Henri Bergson, who spent the better part of his career considering memory. In his 1896 book, Memory and Matter, Bergson created this following diagram:
He called this the memory cone and used it to explain how all memories worked within the human mind. The inverted cone balances on a flat plane, the current plane of existence. Imagine yourself at this very moment—this is your current plane. Of course the thing about a current plane of existence is that by the time you finish reading this line, your location on the plane of existence has already shifted again. Even now, as you read this sentence, you have begun to remember the beginning of this paragraph. The point of the cone, marked as S, is the beginning of memory, from birth, perhaps even pre-birth, first memories and maybe even first dreams. In other words, S is the beginning of conscience and recognition. And to Bergson, memory works outward from the plane of existence. These first memories are pure, unlinked to any image. From pure memory, the mind grows steadily, collecting memories, often as images, widening with more life events. The cone also works in reverse. This is to say that we are capable of calling upon past memories as well. Bergson sought to create continuity, a fluid motion of memory heterogeneous in nature. All memory is one non-stop, continuous motion.
“Our memories are not fixed or static,” Kore-eda, once stated. “They are dynamic; reflecting selves that are constantly changing. . . . The act of remembering is by no means redundant. Rather it challenges us to evolve and mature.”
Sounds a little Bergsonian doesn’t it? I’m unsure if Kore-eda has read Bergson, but I find myself agreeing with both men. Film, like history, is fluid, continuous. The idea of measuring units of time, epochs, and eras as a closed set of variables doesn’t make sense to me. A moment in time is only that, a blip on the radar that continues to move. Barthes, in Camera Lucida called death the inevitable conclusion to an image. The photograph serves as proof of existence, but death is the final inevitability. From the second that the flash pops and the photograph is retained, the moment is gone; it is a memory, and with every second afterward the memory becomes something different. In the end, the memory is anything but the actual moment in time.
Kore-eda sees the power in these infinite possibilities of memory. A single memory can encapsulate an entire life. When Ichiro cannot choose a memory from an unremarkable life, the workers make a phone call and order a lifetime of home video: seventy-two tapes, one for each year of his life. Ichiro is forced to watch his life unfurl on a nineteen-inch monitor, searching for the one elusive moment that transcends unremarkable. Of course, this leads to questions: Who the hell were the workers calling? Where did these videotapes come from? And why did they have to be delivered? Is there UPS in purgatory?
This isn’t the only coercion the staff plays on unsuspecting clients. One teenage girl, Kana, talks on and on about a trip to Disneyland, prompting one of the workers to explain that too many other girls have also chosen Disneyland as their favorite memory. The lesson: be original. I wonder if this is more a self-serving gesture on the part of the worker, a plea so they don’t have to go about recreating Disney for the umpteenth time. Still, why can’t people choose a shared experience? Memory is individualistic regardless of how many people share it. Ultimately, each will have his or her own version, sculpted by his or her own experiences.
* * * *
After Life creates an active audience in the sense that it should trigger the viewer to choose his or her own memory. Kore-eda wants us to imagine ourselves at the table, mulling over our own lives—I certainly did after my first viewing. It ended late, three or four in the morning, and I sat outside on the porch, listening to the crickets and watching as the summer sky striated into black, with bars of dark and light blues. I played the game and considered my own memories without coming to a conclusion. If I had chosen one, I’m sure I would have already changed it a thousand times.
Oddly enough, I’d be hesitant to choose a memory now. Where would I begin? In the film, one client claims to remember the womb. My earliest memory is at three, when a neighbor’s beagle bit me on the face, almost taking out my eye. I remember my aunt driving to the hospital as I lay in my mom’s lap, blood staining a blanket and her jeans. Safe to say, I wouldn’t go with this one.
What if the memory I selected slighted a loved one? Do I not get to remember my great love in heaven if I don’t choose her?
I know one thing though. I would need to separate into two categories: memory-memory and film-memory. Just as memories mark time, so do, the films we watch or the books we read. I have an ability to remember every film I have ever watched, where and with whom I watched it with. I make this claim with no known exaggeration. If I have had a forgotten film experience, I don’t know what it would be (I suppose if it’s forgotten, then I wouldn’t know it.) Still I remember every film I’ve seen in the theater (starting back in 1985 with the Care Bears movie. Don’t judge—I’m not ashamed.).
Films mark time. My wife and I split in 2008, only months after we married (suffice to say, along with nearly losing an eye to a dog, this rounds out the bottom five of my memories.) We had been dating for two years since our time in grad school, in a relationship that hummed along in a contractual sort of way—she planning on vet school and me chipping away through graduate English programs. Our attention devoted to most anything but each other, we ignored major personal differences and agreed to marry based on some concept of adulthood momentum. Marriage was an item to be checked off the list. It only took a few months for me to realize what I had probably known all along. We got along okay, but bigger issues were always looming; problems I had with her and problems I suspected she had with me, and problems that I knew to be coming down the pike. We looked good together, but we never worked as a unit; our lives even in marriage never fully intertwined. We were working jobs for a few years before applying for schools, me as a residence hall director at a Rochester college and her as a vet tech specialist. It became increasingly clear that neither of us were prepared for the possibility that one might have to put their own dreams on hold for the other, that life would soon lead us toward different options. We argued in circles after returning from our honeymoon. I spent my time scrutinizing every aspect of our rushed marriage until I finally pulled the trigger. It was an ugly scene (is any scene of its kind ever not?); she ripping apart our photo album, me standing there taking it, knowing that I should have never let it get that far to begin with. A few days later, she found an apartment and asked me to leave for the weekend so she could move out.
That Sunday night I came home to half of my life missing. Kitchen items gone, towels and linens, a set of old bed sheets I’d never seen on top the bed (why did she make the bed before she left?); I wondered if the missing items were ever supposed to be part of me or if they had sat there before as fraudulent reminders of what we pretended to have. One thing that was left was my film collection. Back then the collection amounted to around a thousand DVDs and Blu-Rays (today that number is somewhere over three thousand) carefully categorized on shelves in the living room. My collection began long before I met my wife, started with VHS, transferred with new technology and was as part of me as my own limbs. Throughout the years I had come to be associated directly with my film collection. The wall in our apartment became the focus of conversation with guests, people standing in awe, reading through the never-ending titles, questioning how I had come to accumulate such a collection. Remembering how she had torn up the wedding photos, I came home half expecting my films to be in a giant crushed pile of plastic. Thankfully they had been left alone and I stared at the collection in my still apartment. I stood there, weighing what to watch. Did I want to escape, hide under a cinematic blanket? What film best encapsulated “I just ended my marriage?”
The answer: Cool Hand Luke. And what better symbol of male independence (or is it loneliness) than Paul Newman bucking the penal system, knocking over parking meters, and scarfing down scores of hard-boiled eggs? When Strother Martin, in his intimidating effeminate voice utters, “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” I thought to myself how cutely symbolic my choice was. Watching the film didn’t completely get my mind off of my situation, nor was it the impetus for some form of healing. Quite simply, I had a moment of suffering and turned to film, the oldest friend I had. Cool Hand Luke is permanent; the images remain, confirming its existence. My marriage was not. And my memory of the ending marriage is no longer complete; I’ve already added five years to the memory cone. But to draw upon the memory to the best of my recollection, all I need to do is focus on that one viewing of Cool Hand Luke.
I offer this anecdote not to suggest a redemptive power in film. This isn’t to say I don’t believe that one can be transformed by film. I’m just not entirely sure it happens as a spontaneous moment, a flurry of synapses firing between art and viewer. To think of the history of theories of film is to discover history itself. Eisenstein saw film as an art and language that could literally move masses to action, a way to rise up in revolution. It was a political instigation, but one still rooted in emotional investment and historical context. Heidegger saw art’s value in a similar historical context. He believed that at its zenith art “grounded history by allowing truth to spring forth.” So many believe that art has to hold a truth in order for it to be qualified as art. My response to this is “what truth?” An emotion is true no matter how compromised it may have been in its elicitation.
But to be moved is not to be transformed, and a film can also lead to a completely innocuous moment being locked into memory. I once watched the 1990 Penny Marshall film, Awakenings on a hot summer day during college. That movie follows the real-life accounts of the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks (played by Robin Williams,) and his patient, who has locked-in syndrome (Robert De Niro.) I watched the film in my stifling apartment with the volume cranked up so I could hear it over the fan blasting a foot from my head. A strange feeling came across me as I watched, one as incontrollable as a person slipping into locked-in syndrome. I did not like Awakenings. I was onto its manipulation. Yet, I couldn’t keep myself from succumbing to its effects. By the end, as De Niro’s character reverts back into being “locked in,” the experimental medication no longer working, I felt tears mixing with sweat on my face. For whatever reason, director Marshall beat down my defenses, and for a moment I felt an emotion. Was that emotion true? As embarrassing as it is to admit, yes it was. Shit, De Niro, I thought, did you have to leave us again? Was I a transformed individual, from that moment on a different, better person? If I am, I would suggest it isn’t from the movie Awakenings.
I believe Kore-eda understands the interlocking importance of film and memory, that both are natural lovers with limbs intertwined. If he didn’t know film’s full power, then After Life would end with people selecting their memories, hugging the workers and heading on down the supernatural road. Instead, the final act of the film centers around the workers becoming a de facto film crew; building sets, writing scripts and acting out the memories for their clients, all the while capturing this interpretation on film. Only after the client sees the memory up on a big screen can he or she move on to the true afterlife.
Like the memory itself, the film cannot be perfect. One man chose the memory of flying a small Cessna plain through the clouds. The workers set out to rebuild the plane out of cardboard and whatever else was handy, suspending it from the ceiling by obvious wires. When asked to describe the clouds, the man claimed that they were pure white and fluffy like cotton candy; this is the imperfect memory by a man who, unable to recreate it in actuality, chose the most romanticized version. Anyone who has stared out the window of a plane going through clouds knows that they are anything but like cotton candy. Still the workers built the plane and dangled large chunks of cotton around it. And this is enough for the man. He sits watching, a huge smile on his face. The memory doesn’t need to be perfect. It only needs to move, to create a snapshot of a moment. That moment was gone long before, but the feeling of the moment lingers. That feeling is cinema.
One of the final scenes in After Life takes place in the theater with all the workers and all the clients sitting down to watch the show. One after another, memories are projected up on the screen. When the last memory is screened and the lights come up, the clients have disappeared from their seats and only the workers remain.
Michael Sloyka is currently working on his Ph.D. in English at Oklahoma State University, focusing on creative writing and film studies.
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