In his Oscar-winning performance as Truman Capote (in the movie “Capote”) Philip Seymour Hoffman says: “I have 94% recall of all conversation. I tested it myself.” I say, as a joke, but not always inaccurately, that I can go 1% better than that: I have 95% conversation recall. Friends comment on it. It’s not something that I work on, but it seems to happen. (I don’t have much visual memory though – I rarely remember what anyone was wearing when I spoke to them.)
[Incidentally, have you seen “Capote”? I don’t know anyone who has. I have discussed conversation recall many times, with many people, usually referring to that quote from the movie, but nobody I’ve talked to has seen it. I probably wouldn’t have seen it myself if it wasn’t for my Oscar Winners project.]
I have only met one person who had the same level of conversation recall, enough for me to say “So that’s what it feels like”. I have learnt not to expect people to remember conversations. I have learnt that people will tell you the same things, repeatedly, without realizing that they have told you them before. (And I’m talking here about regular, neuro-typical people, untroubled by dementia or memory loss.) There may be a year or two, or twenty years, between the conversations but I’ll probably still remember. If I do have 95% conversation recall then that means that I will only remember 19 things out of 20. And I am fully aware that the one thing that I forget could be the most important part of the conversation.
The person who had this same level of conversation recall was Oscar Moore, the writer and magazine editor, who died in 1996. We knew some of the same people at university (he was two years above me) and I was introduced to him in the bar of the ICA just before Christmas 1984. I had spent the afternoon at a triple bill of Robert Bresson films at a cinema near Russell Square (it’s called the Renoir these days, back then it was the Gate Bloomsbury). We chatted about films and theatre. Oscar was editing a trade magazine called The Business (short for “The Business of Film”). I spent most of my spare time watching movies back then and was about to start working for a Film Festival. At university Oscar wrote theatre reviews and acted. He was in a notorious production of Marlowe’s “Edward II”, staged during my first term at university. It starred Tony Slattery in the title role and also featured Simon Beale (now better known as Simon Russell Beale).
Our conversation (which lasted 10 minutes or less) was mainly about film versus theatre. The frustrating thing about theatre for me back then was that by definition you could never see everything. I could never see Laurence Oliver playing Hamlet on stage. But this is also one of its great strengths: you see unique performances. You have to be there. I get it, but it’s still frustrating. I like the fact that you can see every film by a particular actor or director. After my afternoon’s film-watching I had seen all but two of Robert Bresson’s works. (It took me until 1995 to catch up with them, “A Man Escaped” and “Lancelot du lac”.) Oscar stood up for theatre. It was a conversation, not an argument.
I met Oscar again some years later (one lunch-time, in May 1987, at Le Petit Carlton Bar in Cannes, during the Film Festival). Someone from my old school was working for that same magazine (The Business) and reintroduced us. The magazine had a daily edition during the Festival and Oscar was still editing it. I didn’t recognize him immediately. His face had changed, or my visual memory was faulty. I remembered him having a fuller face, like pre-heroin Boy George, but now he had cheekbones like Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Beautiful Laundrette”. He said “I remember you. We met at the ICA just before Christmas in 1984. We talked about film and theatre.” He said (as I remember it) that he wouldn’t defend theatre quite so strongly these days. I said that I wouldn’t defend movies quite so strongly either. And I thought, “So that’s what it feels like, to have a conversation played back to you, years later, out of the blue”. It hasn’t happened since then, but I’ll let you know if it does.