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What Sharp Objects Understands About Memory

Photo: HBO

HBO’s Sharp Objects is the best-edited series on TV right now. It’s certainly the one that goes the farthest beyond standard TV storytelling, where the main goal is to advance plotlines and feed data to the viewer. It’s not wrong to describe it as a small-town murder mystery — each episode ends on a cliffhanger, a standard technique in both TV and literature to entice us to experience the next chapter — but if you were to make a list of things that Sharp Objects cares about, getting from plot point A to plot point B wouldn’t rank too high. It’s more of a show about how, to quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

The same-titled source novel, by Gillian Flynn, is already a memory piece, delving into the tangled backstory of Wind Gap, Missouri, and the pain of its prodigal daughter, reporter Camille Preaker. Played on the show by Amy Adams, Camille is in town to investigate what turns into a series of abductions and murders of teenage girls, but her editor Frank (Miguel Sandoval) dispatched her there to come to terms with her own demons. Sharp Objects proves to be less of a procedural than a psychological detective story, rifling through the contents of Camille’s mind and exploring the suppressed past of her blood family and the town.

The series, a collaboration between Flynn, creator-producer Marti Noxon, and director Jean-Marc Vallée, adopts a dreamy, third-person omniscient perspective. It often puts us inside Camille’s mind as she trips into the past during the course of her everyday life, like we all do. Periodically we encounter significant (though not always defined) words, carved by Camille into her own skin and appearing out in the world, on the sides of buildings and objects. The briefly glimpsed words and briefly flashed images drive home the sensation of hallucination, or maybe even the déjà vu feeling of being plunged back into the past even as your body continues to exist in the present. (My colleague Kathryn VanArendonk is cataloguing all of the words here.) Camille’s memory flashes are triggered by connections to deep trauma, including her dysfunctional childhood with a domineering, censorious mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson); the loss of her younger sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson); the suicide of her rehab roommate, Alice (Sydney Sweeney); and her teenage sexual experiences in the woods, which she insists on describing as consensual. (Her soon-to-be lover, Kansas City cop Richard Willis, played by Chris Messina, isn’t so sure.)

The editing is carried out by what looks, based on the credits, to be a small army of editors and assistant editors under Vallée’s supervision. Despite the complexity of what’s being attempted — a nesting-doll memory piece, with Camille at the center, the family around her, and the town enfolding all — Sharp Objects articulates itself clearly. We’re rarely confused about what we’re looking at or why we’re seeing it at that moment, though there may be instances when we don’t have the entire story just yet (as when the teenaged Camille looks up at the crack in the ceiling for the first time, or when we see a brief flash of an oddly framed insert of a toilet bowl, or insects crawling over a forest floor).

Here’s one of my favorite examples, though it’s a fairly small one in the greater scheme, from episode four, “Ripe.” Camille enters her mother’s house, goes upstairs, and looks at the preserved diorama that is her dead sister’s room, and this trips her into the past, remembering her younger self looking through that same doorway and seeing her mother on the bed crying. Then her stepfather Alan (Henry Czerny) calls her downstairs, and she sees him and their maid, Gayla (Emily Yancy), holding her birthday cake. She leaves without blowing out the candles. The maid blows them out for her, and there’s a cut on that action that returns us to the present, where Camille is exhaling cigarette smoke.

I love how the editing takes us out of one moment and into another, in a way that suggests that Camille got lost in thoughts triggered by objects (the doorway, the stairs, and her sister’s bed). You could even read this entire succession of images as a memory of a memory that occurs while Camille is sitting by the window smoking a cigarette. Perhaps she isn’t just remembering her mother crying and that moment with the birthday cake; perhaps she’s also remembering going up the stairs of her mother’s house earlier that day, looking through that doorway, and thinking about how those simple actions jump-started a deeper memory. Camille is a writer, after all.

Sometimes we don’t merely think. Sometimes we also think about why we thought about something.

This is a different kind of detective work. It’s the basis of psychotherapy as well as certain forms of fiction. We care about what happened to us, but we also care about what it meant, why it meant that, and how we assigned meaning.

This may sound counterintuitive — considering how many times I’ve advocated for more “cinematic” or picture-and-sound-driven storytelling — but I think the editing of Sharp Objects ultimately gets us closer to the sensation of reading deftly written fiction that jumps around between past and present, or between reality and imagination or memory, within the space of a paragraph or a sentence. That most TV and film storytelling (and most criticism of it) feels tediously prosaic isn’t a reflection of the diminished possibilities of either literature or cinema. On the contrary: to read and view a wide array of work is to realize that, much of the time, the storytellers we consume rarely avail themselves of the full range of expressive possibilities available in their chosen medium.

There is more to television than most television shows us, more to movies than most movies show us, and more to fiction than most fiction shows us. Simply showing and telling what happened to a group of characters, in more or less linear order, is a valid means of expression, but it is not the only valid means. It’s thrilling when a handsomely produced series like Sharp Objects comes along and tries to tell a story in a different way.

But it’s not unprecedented. The editing of Sharp Objects comes out of a long tradition of art cinema that dates back to 1959, when Alain Resnais released Hiroshima, Mon Amour with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. The film is a memory piece that intertwines the present-tense romance between a French woman and her Japanese lover with flashbacks to the traumas that created them. The “flash cut” — the brief glimpse of another scene or moment interpolated into an ongoing scene without warning or explanation — was perfected here, although experimental short filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, and Salvador Dalí had been using their own versions of it for decades.

Throughout cinema history, many other features have experimented with some form of flash cut or nonlinear editing, including The Pawnbroker, Point Blank, Lenny, All That Jazz, Natural Born Killers, A Cry in the Dark, Six Degrees of Separation, The Virgin Suicides, The Limey, and pretty much every film directed by Terrence Malick.

They don’t all have the same objective, of course. In some cases, such as All That Jazz, we seem to be looking at a story that’s organized around a single character’s consciousness. In Malick’s films, the editing treats the community itself — either the geographical space where the story takes place, or the various main characters who inhabit it — as a hive mind or collective entity. Other times, editing serves a more conceptual function. Natural Born Killers expresses the moral destabilization of the main characters and their culture by pulverizing the story into Cubist clumps of sensation. Christopher Nolan’s films, be they superhero movies, crime thrillers, or science-fiction dramas, are less about the particulars of any one person’s consciousness than the relative perception of time itself. That’s a concept Nolan articulated most daringly in Dunkirk, which cross-cut between three main stories that unfolded over the course of a week, a day, and an hour, all climaxing at the same moment.

But no matter how the artists personalize it to suit their purposes, there’s always something simultaneously freeing and challenging about seeing a story that’s edited this way. The viewer’s brain is in sync with the free-associative, chain-reaction imagery, working the way the mind naturally works rather than trying to untangle or “organize” it and make things more linear. This kind of storytelling is more expressive of the relationship between experiences and feelings. It can also be off-putting to some viewers, because it’s not a style that is attempted often, even in so-called art-house movies. It’s often written off as pretentious, even though variations of it have been practiced in commercial cinema for almost 60 years.

You could say that this kind of storytelling forces our brains to function differently, and it would be true.

But you could also say that the way we’ve been conditioned to believe that stories ought to be told — A leads to B leads to C and finally to Z, with maybe a couple of flashbacks — is itself unnatural, at least in relation to the workings of the mind. The kind of storytelling practiced on Sharp Objects (and, to a lesser degree, in the third season of Hannibal, sections of Twin Peaks: The Return, Showtime’s The Affair, and on Vallée’s previous HBO outing, Big Little Lies) gets us closer to what it’s like to inhabit a body powered by a consciousness that roams where emotions take it.

It also approximates the sensation of suppressing memories, which is a huge part of the story of Sharp Objects. It’s not just about Camille refusing to face what happened to her. It’s about her family’s denial of its history of trauma, and traumatizing others, and Wind Gap’s complicity in lies and cover-ups. Fragments of information emerge, each flash giving us another detail, another piece of context. Eventually a fuller picture of Camille, her family, and the town forms — but not necessarily a complete one.

We don’t go about our days living only in the present moment. We might half-remember a fragment of some embarrassing childhood memory while visiting the post office, and that memory might have been triggered by standing in line behind a family whose youngest child reminded us of whatever happened on that day so many years ago. Or the memory may have been triggered by word or phrase in a casual remark, or a bird call, or a snippet of a pop song overheard at a restaurant. Sharp Objects doesn’t just give us something to think about, it helps us think about thinking.

How fitting that the character who dispatched the heroine on her journey is an editor.

What Sharp Objects Understands About Memory