Although I think that all three are brilliant in their own ways, my favorite of the short films released as the anthology Memories is Koji Morimoto’s Magnetic Rose. The script foreshadows the genius its writer, the late Satoshi Kon, would go on to display in his treatment of the distinction (or lack thereof) between the real and the unreal. In this post, I will discuss a scene that occurs inside the mind of the main character, Heintz Beckner, and takes place near the end of the movie. It is unquestionably the most emotionally powerful scene in Magnetic Rose, but I argue that it is also the scene which delivers philosophical consequences which, if true, are extremely challenging.
I would give the usual spoiler warning, but I actually think that knowledge of what happens in this scene does not in any way diminish its power nor the impact of the film as a whole.
Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Fleet Foxes “White Winter Hymnal”
To set the scene, Heintz and his colleague Miguel are investigating an SOS signal coming from what looks to be an abandoned space vessel. They get drawn in to the mystery of the ship’s former (long dead) occupant, an opera singer named Eva Friedal, and soon discover that seemingly otherworldly phenomena are occurring aboard the ship. Heinz and Miguel have been separated, and somehow Eva has trapped Heintz within an illusion in an attempt to seduce him into remaining on board the vessel with her forever. She forces him to relive his young daughter Emily’s accidental and tragic death, only this time Emily doesn’t die. The little girl tumbles off of the roof of her house, just as she did years ago, but then Eva helps her up off the ground. Emily smiles at her father and plays and giggles as if she had a routine accident. She grasps Heintz’ hand and chatters to him about things little girls chatter to their fathers about , all the while tugging him toward a beckoning Eva.
Eva Friedel is not re-writing history; she is attempting to alter the memory of that history within Heintz. She believes that if he will live within her version of the unreal as if it was, in fact, real, then he will be content to remain with her. Either that, or she believes that the mental (e.g. memories) are all that constitute the real and by modifying Heintz’ mind she is, in some fashion, altering reality. Regardless, the temptation that Heintz feels to succumb to this sweet dream is overpoweringly immense. Actually, to call what he experiences “temptation” might even be misdiagnosing it. In all likelihood, Heintz’ is so struck and shaken to the core by what he sees that, at least for a moment, he becomes totally passive, as if he is viewing the scene from outside of himself. In certain moments of what I call existential shock, it’s almost as if one’s will is being bypassed like a defender being nutmegged. Yet, I believe, once beyond that initial moment, Heintz accepts Eva’s unreality as reality. At the very least, he begins to do so. During the brief time we have gotten acquainted with him, we have learned that Heintz loves his family more than anything else, and he feels Emily’s loss deeply. So, he assents and chooses the fantasy. Then, something unexpected happens.
Earlier in the scene, when Heintz is on the rooftop of his home, watching his daughter tumble to her not-death, he drops his wallet. This incident may not catch the first-time viewer’s attention; it certainly doesn’t catch his. The wallet slid off the roof and fell into the path on which Heintz walks with Emily minutes later, the path that is leading him towards choosing dreams over reality. Unintentionally, he kicks the wallet, and, for the first time, stops his slow march forward to look down at the photograph open before him. Heintz’ wife, their daughter and a slightly-younger version of himself stare back at him. They are all smiling. He picks up the wallet, and realizes, knows, that Emily is dead. That photograph, a physical object which links Heintz’ mind to the pain in his own soul, is an anchor for him. It provides him a place to plant his “metaphysical feet” (to borrow a phrase from Austin) and dig his heels in to resist the ghost of an opera singer.
So, what is this scene trying to communicate to us? Something, I think, that is very important but also very difficult. I’m not even sure if the message is true, but I find it edifying to ponder.
The first thing to note is that the film is telling us that pain is real. Not just real like cheeseburgers, a chill wind or a sweet caress (though pain certainly is like those things), but real in terms of ontology. If you wrote out an itemized list of stuff that you believe actually exists, that list would be your ontology. Things such as unicorns, the present King of France and the round square would not be on such a list; however, according to Magnetic Rose, suffering is on that list. It is what, for Heintz, allows him to distinguish between the real and the unreal because pain is rooted in reality. Now, this may seem like a trivial truth, but there exist a gaggle of Platonisms, Gnosticisms and other -isms which promote the idea that the body is illusory because of its impermanence. Though we can sense the body and lots of other stuff, those items aren’t Real with a capitol R because they fade away in time. Some would argue that suffering is not truly actual because your body and brain (mind), the things that suffering happens to, aren’t really real. “The spirit is truly real, so just worry about the spirit.” Morimoto and Kon seem to be opposing this sort of thinking by anchoring Heintz to reality through his re-encountering of his pain. Earthly pain is just as real as heavenly bliss and, I think, just as important.
I believe that the film is making a universal claim, that pain anchors not only Heintz but all human beings to reality. Heintz’ suffering is bound up with his person, his soul, such that accepting the unreality offered by Eva would be akin to accepting a new personhood. Whoever was living in that house with Eva and “Emily” wouldn’t be Heinz anymore. As horrible as our pain is, as much agony as death and grief can bring to our lives, there is something about it, our it, that is essential. Our pain makes us who we are. It vines its way through us, and, yes, it can potentially destroy us. However, accepting loss and its associated sufferings will slowly usher in a set of feelings and beliefs that is quite different from those of one in the throes of grief. Acceptance allows us to hold those precious things close to our hearts and think on them in quiet moments. We cling to them. Those things change the trajectory of our lives (hence the change in personhood entailed by accepting Eva’s unreality) and, thus, play a large part in who we become. Suffering is horrible; but, it is our suffering.
All of the above implies a value judgement: that life with pain is superior to fantasy that lacks it. Pain should not be ignored, forgotten or dismissed. I don’t want to say, and I don’t believe Morimoto and Kon are saying, that it is a good thing that particular tragic events occur. Heintz is broken by his daughter’s death. Such things are objectively awful. Rather, I believe that the claim Magnetic Rose makes is that the general experience of pain (as such, abstracted from its causes) that accompanies the tragedies that befall us…this experience is vital. Loss is part of reality, so pain is part of reality and it plays its part in shaping one’s own personal reality. And reality is where we humans do and should live, not in dreams without pain.
Memories aren’t just an escape.