Elizabeth Gill’s ‘Goldfish Memory’ (2003)

14Jan09

And they say goldfish have no memory
I guess their lives are much like mine
And the little plastic castle
Is a surprise every time
And it’s hard to say if they’re happy
But they don’t seem much to mind
–Ani DiFranco, “Little Plastic Castle”


Goldfish Memory
is a surprisingly charming little independent film from Ireland that follows many romantic relationships through a vignette-style of storytelling. The title refers to the oft-quoted though scientifically fallacious fact that goldfish have a memory of about three seconds. Writer-director Elizabeth Gill compares this idea to how people act in regards to love, quickly forgetting their latest heartbreak when they meet someone new, which is the central idea of the film. Goldfish Memory begins with about three core characters: Tom, an English professor who seduces his students; Angie, a television reporter and a lesbian; Red, Angie’s gay best friend who avoids commitment. Angie begins to date Clara who had just broken up with Tom, Tom moves on to a new student, Red fixes his eye on a man who has a girlfriend, and those are just the first relationships of the film. Most of those relationships end and give way to new ones, some of which end and give way to new ones, and so forth.
Goldfish Memory
The storytelling style that Gill chooses, greatly influenced by both Robert Altman and Richard Linklater, facilitates her goal of exploring “goldfish memory” in love by allowing Gill to progress quickly through time and relationships and to manage her large ensemble cast. However, the quick cuts between scenes muddles a sense of time and inhibits the audience from really bonding with the characters. In the end, I felt as though the characters introduced early — Tom, Angie, Red, Clara, David, Isolde, even Renee — had been well-developed and I felt a connection with them. People introduced later in the film did not have the same emotional complexity, and I didn’t really care about Rosie and her subsequent relationships with Larry and the groom. Gill could have dumped a couple of the relationships to spend more time on the others, or she could have made the film a bit longer. Goldfish Memory has a running time of only 85 minutes, and Altman regularly made 2-hour+ films to deal with the large ensembles that he preferred.

Alice Pieszecki would be happy to know that Gill also explores connectivity, in addition to this concept of “goldfish memory.” Angie recites to Red the overlapping love lives of some of her lesbian friends, and the relationships of the primary characters intersect as well. With the exception of one, all of the relationships portrayed in the film become sexual at some point, even a friendship. Clara provides the bulk of the connectivity, sleeping with Tom then Angie then Isolde, who dated Tom after she did, and finally hitting on the ex-fiance of Red’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. Through this connectivity, Gill also looks at how former relationships influence current ones.

Peter Gaynor & Keith McErlean in 'Goldfish Memory'

Gill proves herself to be quite a talented writer. She really knows how to draw characters and uses small moments to reveal them, such as Tom pouring the drink he had prepared for Clara into his own after she breaks up with him. And scenes like the one in which David and Red shopping for a stroller exhibit Gill’s ability to accomplish multiple things within a scene, providing a window into their relationship and demonstrating how they are handling Angie’s pregnancy. The film also has several funny moments with most of the humor stemming from and forming character. For example, the argument between David and Red after David learns that Red got Angie pregnant:

David: If I wanted a wife and kids, I could have stayed with Rosie, you know.
Red: Why didn’t you? You said you weren’t gay.
David: I’m not! You said you were gay.
Red: I am!

However, Gill does resort to some slapstick comedy toward the end that I don’t particularly like. A man is tackled and another man runs into a telephone pole in a span of less than five minutes. I enjoyed the performances as well, especially Flora Montgomery’s portrayal of Angie and Jean Butler’s of Renee. Both of these women lend their characters a lot of depth and warmth, combating the choppy editing to create a lasting impression on the audience. I also really enjoyed Demien McAdam, who managed to make Conzo, a very cheesy and relatively inconsequential character, remarkably funny.

Gill earns some queer-friendly inclusion points by having both a gay man and a lesbian as central characters. While they suffer through confusion and heartbreak just like all the others, the gay and lesbian characters conclude the film in seemingly stable relationships. However, the bisexual characters do not fair so well. Three characters do not fit neatly under a gay or straight label: Clara, Isolde, and David. Gill’s characterization of Clara and Isolde perpetuates many of the stereotypes associated with bisexuality. They are both young, attractive, college-aged women who date a lot of people not very seriously, and their relationships with women could easily be written off as “experimentation.” Neither of the women seem to be in long-term relationships when the film ends. David perhaps balances Clara and Isolde to an extent, as he seems to prefer monogamous, long-term relationships and he concludes the film paired off with Red. However, David never identifies himself as bisexual, gay, or queer. Only Clara uses the ‘B’ word, which maybe makes her characterization most significant in this context.

Goldfish Memory
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