My first epileptic seizure happened on a Saturday morning when I was nine years old. I remember the sudden, painful oppressiveness of light and sound and a sharp headache that had me looking towards the ground and wanting to bury my head under a pillow or blanket. Feeling lethargic after breakfast, I went back to bed. Something was off, something that could not be articulated. I felt alien to my surroundings, as though my body and brain were at war with one another. I remember the uncontrollable convulsions that took hold of me as I began foaming from my mouth; I had lost all spatial awareness aside from feeling that I was close to falling out of my bed. I wanted to scream “Help!” to my parents in the next room but I could not speak. After that, I remember nothing.
Characters with epilepsy are typically presented from the perspective of those surrounding them, who view their condition as a burden or an eccentricity.
Few representations of epilepsy exist in film; of those, Zia Anger’s compelling and nuanced experimental short I Remember Nothing (2015) easily stands out as one of the best. The short is broken up into five chapters representing the stages associated with an epileptic seizure—preictal, tonic, clonic, postictal, and interictal—as illustrated through the experiences of a teenage tomboy athlete named Joan, played by multiple actors throughout the film. In this way, universal themes related to the struggle of growing up are interwoven with Anger’s portrayal of the neurological disorder.
In film, seizures often symbolize moral weakness. In some instances, characters who have seizures are quite literally demonized (The Exorcist, 1973; Requiem, 2006; The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2005); in others, the accompanying loss of control renders them inhumanely violent (The Terminal Man, 1974), or puts those around them at risk (The Andromeda Strain, 1971). Characters with epilepsy are typically presented from the perspective of those surrounding them, who view their condition as a burden or an eccentricity: Wide Awake’s(1998) Catholic school boy protagonist experiences a crisis of faith after seeing a friend go into an epileptic seizure; Harvey Keitel’s character in Mean Streets (1973) is ostracized by his community for being unable to control his girlfriend’s epilepsy, resulting in significant disruptions to his life; whereas in Garden State (2004), the condition is merely one of a multitude of quirks that make Natalie Portman an enticing alien-eccentric love interest for Zach Braff.
Experimental and avant-garde films can be equally frustrating: with their liberal use of strobing images, experimental works are often minefields of seizure triggers. For example, Paul Sharits’ Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976), which relies heavily on a strobe light effect, presents side-by-side cases of two male epileptics entering convulsive states. The result is one of the most intense, off-putting and exploitative depictions of the disorder—one which succeeds at destabilizing the viewer at the expense of the subjects, who come off as little more than human lab rats or guinea pigs.
What differentiates I Remember Nothing from these other works is the fact that it does not exoticize epilepsy or make the disorder alien to the viewer. Instead, Anger immerses the audience in the headspace of its protagonist, Joan, as she experiences the symptoms and stages of the disorder. Most known for her music videos with artists like Jenny Hval, Mitski, and Angel Olsen, Anger builds on this aesthetic to create a dreamlike altered state, the camerawork turning jagged and off-kilter at a moment’s notice. Joan becomes alienated from her surroundings as characters grow distant, their voices seeming to come from afar even when they are next to her, while the ever-encroaching soundscape evokes the looming dread of something that cannot be undone.
The theme of chaos and transition—the unpredictable, the switch—is effectively conveyed through the changing Joans and speaks to the very nature of epilepsy: loss of consciousness and control.
To have epilepsy is to be confronted with the surrealism of the condition and its encumbering, dissociative aspects. I Remember Nothing throws viewers into a state of confusion by having five different actors play Joan, each with a short bob haircut and a softball uniform, providing the only consistency in her appearance. The film begins in a poetry class. An elderly professor writes the ancient Greek spelling of the word “chaos” (χάος) on the chalkboard as he leads a discussion on the word’s meaning in relation to silence and the abrupt disruption of the natural flow. The students are engaged and attentive, with the exception of Joan (played, in this section, by Audrey Turner), in a red baseball cap and black sports jacket asleep at her desk, who is awakened by the professor and asked to fill in the blank in a line of poetry that has been abruptly cut off. Her response, unable to really take in the question, is simply, “I don’t know.” Another classmate smirks at what she perceives as Joan’s disinterest: “Like Joan, I remember nothing. Right, Joan?” Joan, her eyes still glazed, does not respond. Abruptly, she gets up to leave for her softball game; an earlier, siren-like wailing loudly resumes as she lumbers through the halls with her gym bag and equipment.
The theme of chaos and transition—the unpredictable, the switch—is effectively conveyed through the changing Joans and speaks to the very nature of epilepsy: loss of consciousness and control. Prior to experiencing the onset of symptoms, an aura looms like an ominous cloud. By explicitly citing cosmogony and the origins of the term, wherein chaos serves as a place—be it a void, a gap or some primordial in-between—Anger makes tangible an often harrowing and alienating aspect of the disorder.
The first switch of Joans occurs: Eve Alpert takes over for the preictal stage—a stage of aura, before the onset of a seizure. The softball field at night creates an orb of light over Joan and her teammates, an aura of uncanny. As she stands for the national anthem, Joan appears somewhat debilitated and her teammate must tell her to take off her hat. Yet none of Joan’s teammates sense that something is off with her—her inner chaos remains contained. Anger escalates the uncanny quality of the scene with deliberate, off-kilter shots of the anthem singer who is clearly lip-syncing; as the acappella song transitions into a slow musical montage, the unreality is heightened. Joan’s mind is on other things: she eyes a young woman in the stands and begins to fantasize about her, her mind bouncing through memories and reveries.
The anthem ends. Cut to the tonic stage (the onset of an attack), a team huddle during which Joan (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) seemingly barely retains consciousness as her teammates prop her up in a closed circle, chanting encouraging affirmations. Interdependence and community coalesce with isolation and alienation. Joan’s teammates tell her to say “I wanna win!” She complies as her eyes roll back. The film moves into the second stage of the attack (clonic, noted for the repeated jerking of the body) as Joan (Adinah Dancyger) plays softball and once again stares at the woman in the stands and the man seated behind her.
Later, Joan (Lola Kirke) joins the couple in their van. She and the young woman smoke pot and flirt while the man stays silent. The man is played by Michael Cavadias, who also plays the national anthem singer and the poetry professor’s teaching assistant, further contributing to the surrealist atmosphere and the theme of fractured or chaotic identities. Joan, now in the postictal (post-seizure) stage, characterized by confusion, assumes the man is the woman’s brother; when the woman laughs off this notion and begins making out with the man, Joan proceeds to disassociate and convulse into an epileptic fit. Her attraction and connection to the woman feel simultaneously close and frustratingly out of reach. The scene is very much a blow to the young protagonist—she is denied the normality of a teenage romance, and any potential respite from her clouded life continues to elude.
The film’s coming-of-age narrative reflects a quietly heartbreaking and tragic truth: some of the important moments we are supposed to remember and cherish from our youth simply disappear.
Anger’s decision to show the widely characterized convulsive aspect of epilepsy during the postictal chapter of the film adds to the viewer’s sense of disorientation and makes thematic sense. Describing her portrayal of the disorder, the filmmaker states that the nature of epilepsy is “slippery” and varies from person to person: “Each scene was informed by each epileptic stage and are [sic] meant to be in dialogue with this research, and not a literal representation of it.”[i] It is worth noting that up until the scene in the van, each instance in which one Joan is switched out for another occurs at the precipice of a moment where, were it not for the switch, a full-blown seizure would otherwise have been on full display. People who don’t have epilepsy usually only see the end result of a seizure and not the build-up—the before. But by the time the scene in the van takes place, the audience has built a relationship with Joan’s character and witnessed her symptoms gradually intensify. Every stage in the film shows how epilepsy can envelop a life.
In the final scene, Joan returns to square one: the interictal, “the beginning again,” as Anger incisively notes in the introductory screen title. Audrey Turner returns as Joan, signalling the completion of a cycle. Joan ends the film in a kind of limbo of consciousness, unable to retreat into her own thoughts. After awakening alone in the woods, she is driven back to town by a good Samaritan in the form of the teaching assistant from her poetry class, with the professor in the front passenger seat. Glazed-eyed and seemingly aloof, Joan cannot answer questions about what occurred the night before. “I remember nothing,” she says. Her professor notes that he wishes he could “remember nothing” given the burden of his memory; he seeks the silence “at the end of the line.” Joan does not appear to absorb this as she moves back into the stages that burden her own life—an ever-widening void.I Remember Nothing creates an empathetic portrait of epilepsy in the form of a composite embodiment of the disorder. The film’s coming-of-age narrative reflects a quietly heartbreaking and tragic truth: some of the important moments we are supposed to remember and cherish from our youth simply disappear. Ultimately, it is not so much the violent convulsions but the series of ellipses, where one is present in body but not in mind, that continue to linger, frustratingly beyond reach.