The man and the movie: Kandel film surprises, touches

I admit to being somewhat biased about attending a limited run showing of In Search of Memory, a documentary outlining the life of Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate and brain science
communicator extraordinaire (see our previous coverage). Because I’ve known Kandel professionally for many years and have read his memoir of the same name, I thought the film would be an interesting but “been there, done that” experience.

I was wrong.  The movie was so much more.

I was surprised by how moved I was by Kandel’s life story, creatively told by the German filmmaker Petra Seeger. You don’t have to be interested in neuroscience to be captivated; even though his scientific accomplishments speak for themselves, they are only part of the tale. So we not only relive Kandel’s experiences as he searches for the workings of memory in the brain, but also his personal memories and self-exploration. Actually, it’s hard to look away; with Kandel, what you see is what you get. His personality is so infectious and genuine that he really could charm anyone.

His incredible journey saw him fleeing his birthplace of Vienna at nine years of age to escape the Nazis, to resettling in Brooklyn, to undergraduate studies at Harvard and eventually to overseeing his own lab at Columbia University. Researchers there enlighten us about the messy process of science—the all-nighters, experiments most often leading to nowhere, and the passion that drives those occasional “eureka” moments.

And we see glimpses of his everyday life—at temple; as a surprisingly spry and unassuming tennis player (his playing partner recounts that he knew Kandel was a researcher but didn’t know any details until he opened the newspaper one day to learn that about Kandel’s Nobel prize); and at a Passover seder at his home. We learn about the man behind the science, about the importance of his Jewish faith, about his passion for European art. His eyes swell with unanticipated moments of reflection and his infectious laugh engages those on camera and in the audience as well. We even see him wearing something other than his trademark slightly crooked bow tie.

As a bonus for those at the sold-out New York City showing, Kandel and his wife of more than 50 years, Denise (you learn from their banter in the movie that she is clearly the boss), made an in-person appearance. The couple shared their experiences and responded to questions from the audience, leaving only when the next scheduled showing forced an end to the session. Gracious as always, Kandel continued to give autographs and take photos with audience members for some time; then, after a few hardy group laughs, the evening was over.

If In Search of Memory comes to a theater near you, take an hour and a half to see it—it’s worth it.

-Barbara Best

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