Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Kandel’s Memories

This film will physically alter your brain and its subject will clearly explain how it happened. He is Nobel-Prize winning neuroscientist Dr. Eric Kandel, the world’s leading authority on the molecular changes that occur during the learning process. Forced to flee Nazi occupied Austria as a young boy, Kandel’s eventful life and pioneering work are lucidly documented in German director Petra Seeger’s In Search of Memory (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

With his quick wit and infectious Horshack-like laugh, Kandel is arguably the successor to Richard Feynman as science’s reining “rock star” in the words of the adoring fans standing in line at his book signing. Yet, he is always keenly aware how fortunate he and his wife were simply to have survived the war. A witness to the crimes of Krystallnacht, he himself makes the explicit connection between his field of scientific inquiry—memory—and the common vow of postwar Jewry to “never forget.”

Though he does not appear to be one to live in the past (with good reason), for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, the Kandels returned to Austria and France with their grown children to revisit key sites from their dramatic youth. While these scenes are certainly interesting, the film really takes off when Kandel enthusiastically elucidates his groundbreaking work on human memory, in terms easily grasped by the layman. Involving synapses in the brain, it is a subject best left to Dr. Kandel because it all makes perfect sense coming from him. Indeed, Seeger handles these sequences very well, successfully capturing the passion of Kandel’s research team, while making their concepts and experiments surprisingly cinematic.

Throughout Memory, Seeger’s obvious affection for her subject veers awfully close to outright adulation. Occasionally, that creates certain blind-spots, as when Kandel accepted the Nobel with two other colleagues (Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard). The film never bothers to address what exactly their contributions were. Still, there is no denying Kandel’s brilliance as a scientist and charm as a raconteur. He is quite pleasant company during the documentary’s entire hour and a half running time.

A relative rarity in documentary filmmaking, Memory will actually teach most audiences something new in a variety of fields, including microbiology, psychiatry, and history. To Seeger’s credit though, it never feels dry or technically dense. Rather, it is an entertaining celebration of the scientific pursuit. It opens this Friday (1/8) in New York at the IFC Center.