Memory Box (2015)


Attendees at this year’s Fantastic Fest who checked out the delightfully surprising dramedy Aloys were in for a treat of a different sort before the film proper began—a tragic, beautiful little short called “Memory Box.” The simplicity of its’ title betrays the complex framework of the story. In a not-very-distant future, people can pay to participate in “boxes”—elaborate role-playing scenarios that let individuals relive past experiences, allowing them to literally relive their happiest memories, with companies and their employees painstakingly recreating places, events—and people.

Though it functions as a melancholy, open-ended short, Memory Box is, in fact, a glimpse at something that could—but might never—be. It was originally shot as a proof of concept by Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites (Until the Light Takes Us) around the time that Aites was diagnosed with cancer that would eventually take his life. “Aaron and I had finished 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, which we premiered at Sundance in 2013,” Ewell told CineDump. “So we had just come off of this really big, extended project, and we had already deferred making a narrative film, which is something that we’d wanted to do, actually, before Until the Light Takes Us. And it felt like Aaron was kinda, ‘Now or never.’ So we looked at the projects that we had kind of in a stable, and decided that what we should do is make a proof of concept for a feature. And Memory Box was this idea that I had quite some time ago… and we thought, well, that’s not a terrible one to go with, as far as the proof of concept. We had some remarkable elements that we felt could generate some interest in making a feature version.”

The short finds box employee Isabelle (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) being pushed to bend—and then break—the rules of the facility while recreating a romantic memory for a mysterious, unseen man (Shane Carruth). It turns out that these are more than just the demands of an irate customer, though, and the incident proves to have ramifications for both Isabelle’s personal and professional life.

Clocking in at just eleven minutes, the short covers an array of emotional ground, explicating just enough on its’ varied protagonists’ inner turmoil to give the viewer an understanding of their characters and motivations without turning any one individual into the villain or hero. Its’ a complex concept, one that sprang to life from Ewell’s own fruitful imagination. “I get a lot of images that seem to be part of stories… right before I’m falling asleep, right after spacing out, and I’ll see images of worlds or characters or people or whatever, and I won’t know what they are. And if I let my mind wander, the world will sort of start to grow, and these are never fully fledged stories… and that was the case with Memory Box. I had this image of this woman outside a factory, stroking a ferret, actually, (laughs) with a coworker. And then I sort of envisioned this factory set inside that was all of these sets, and a man in his home watching on his computer. And I didn’t know what any of that was. So I just built a story around that… I also had a lot of ideas in it that I wanted to work with, and that seemed to align themselves to a feature take on it, as well, like gender and power, and explore the roles of masculinity and femininity, and negotiating relationships.”

Indeed, rather than set up a him-vs.-her dichotomy, Memory Box uniquely presents both its’ male and female protagonist as figures both collectively and separately losing their minds, trapped in a mutually destructive, mutually obsessive relationship that subtly explores both established and changing gender norms in a way that doesn’t browbeat viewers of either gender.

“They’re obviously engaging in some pretty unusual behavior,” Ewell says. “They’re not doing what couples normally do in a relationship, and she’s acting out these fantasies or memories in this place and he’s directing them, and there’s obviously also a power dynamic going on between them, who’s really directing the action and who’s pushing this thing forward. Mackenzie Davis is a very strong actor, and I also think she has a very strong presence as a woman. And I think that really comes out in her portrayal... she definitely has a vulnerability but she also has a core of strength. And whereas on the other hand, now (laughs) that’s not to say her husband doesn’t have that, but, you know, we put him in a wheelchair. Which is a pretty straightforward way of saying there’s a power differential just when they’re standing in the room together. You just have that physical, visual differential there. And then also there’s just the dynamic in how they interact with one another.”

Though it can be viewed as a standalone piece, there are just as many questions as there are answers at the end of Memory Box, and the short only scratches the surface of the motivations and inner workings of its’ characters. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth.” Unfortunately, due to Aites’ tragic death last May, those are caves which the world may never get the chance to explore.

“The idea was that we were going to make this short as a proof of concept and then see if anybody was interested in expanding it into a feature with us,” Ewell told me. “After we finished the short, we were working on a feature script then, and we were also working with other parties who were interested in making a feature version. So it did function as it was meant to, in the sense that it did generate interest in making the feature version, but I’m not going to continue with that project, after Aaron’s death. It’s not something that I want to do without him. Aaron and I worked on that film together for so long, we worked on the script… the script was really difficult. It was a really pretty messed up script in a lot of ways…  it was going to be a pretty fucked up movie that was gonna push a lot of buttons, probably, and, I would be the wrong person to direct this film at this point. It would be too much—too many memories.”

It’s a poignant assertion and one that serves as an appropriate coda to the haunting conclusion of the short. The world of Memory Box is, notably, one without light—all of its’ scenes take place either outdoors at night or in rooms whose artificial lighting only serves as a contrast to vast expanses of blackness hovering just in the background. The film is, in itself, a sort of memory box of its’ own—vivid in places, incomplete in others, hovering out in the blackness of space like the glimmer of some half-remembered moment in time. While it would be appropriate to leave Memory Box there, preserved just like that, Ewell isn’t completely averse to someone else picking up the reigns one day and—much like the characters in her story—recreating it to fulfillment.

“It would really depend on the person,” Ewell says. “This is the kind of thing that could slide exploitation without a very conscious hand at the helm… you really need to know what you’re doing in terms of gender dynamics and power not to have this be exploitation. It’s walking a line, and that’s a line I feel comfortable navigating, but—certainly not Hollywood. Hollywood doesn’t get this right too often. There are some independent directors who I would feel comfortable doing this, if I had the opportunity to speak to them and felt they were going to handle things in a smart and respectful way.”

Until such a day arrives—if ever—Memory Box can be viewed on Vimeo HERE. Just like the characters in the film, it’s an experience that will allow the viewer to live-- for just a moment-- inside of a memory.

Preston Fassel