Wonderful Life and the Meaning of Memory

Wonderful Life (1998) explores an interesting concept in ways you won’t expect. Released here as After Life, it follows an organization dedicated to shepherding the deceased into the next life. When you die, you get to select one memory, and only one, to remember for eternity. The viewer becomes more familiar with the spiritual bureaucracy alongside one crop of dead people, who arrive on Monday and are gone on Saturday. The rules are: each person has three days to choose a memory. Then, the staff at the facility re-creates it. On Saturday, after watching the memory, each deceased person disappears.

This is a good concept, but the movie comes alive in the second half. We learn more about the people running the facility, what they’re trying to do, and how they achieve it. Wonderful Life has something incredible to say. About why we remember, what we remember, and what we’re doing when we remember. The staff films re-creations of the memories, acted out by the employees of this after life center. A full film crew brings the memories to life, complete with movie lights, props, and background paintings. Yet they have access to the original memories, which can be copied to tape with just a phone call and a day’s wait. So why re-create them?

A memory is not the permanent record of a moment. It is re-created and destroyed every time we recall it, and never quite the same each time. The most mundane memories can become the most significant ones we have, all through the passage of time and the gaining of experience. If a memory was the same as the original experience, then we would feel exactly the same every time we returned to a significant place. But it never works out that way; we’re always older and wiser and bogged down with new thoughts we try to fit into the joyous past.

Wonderful Life does all this through the medium of film, intentionally. No movie, not even a documentary, is a literal conveyance of events. Cinema is how we remember what never happened. The simple act of choosing what to film and when to cut puts the creator’s mark on it, let alone the introduction of story and actors. The movie crew within this movie is putting their spin on every memory, and the remember-er is on set too, offering feedback or saying it’s just like they remember. But how can you perfectly remember something from 70 years ago? Why are they not yelling “cut” when the clouds are made of cotton and not water vapor? There is something in a memory that is more than the physical matter that was there that day.

Wonderful Life has given me a lot to think about. I don’t know what I would pick.