Memory and Memento

#95 – Memento – 2000 – dir. Christopher Nolan              

I was born in 1994 so when Memento was released, six year old me was in no way prepared (or interested) in seeing it. Four years later, nothing was cooler to ten year old me than Batman; so despite my parents resistance I found a copy of Batman Begins. I loved it. I wasn’t quite at the point in my film obsession where I was searching through filmographies, but I knew that Batman Begins was a fantastic film. Three years later, coming up to the summer release of The Dark Knight, I was verging on obsession with each new trailer. In waiting, I found Nolan’s films Insomnia and The Prestige and my appreciation for the artistry of a true auteur was developed. Following The Dark Knight, I had heard so much about Memento that I went to Blockbuster and got a VHS copy. It wouldn’t be until my third or fourth viewing that I would truly appreciate the film in all of its complexity and narrative brilliance.

The story is actually incredibly simple (if you can find the limited edition DVD you can watch the scenes in chronologic order). Leonard Shelby has anterograde amnesia. A burglar broke into his house, raped and killed his wife, and during the struggle seriously damaged Leonard’s head causing the condition. He wants to find this individual and kill him. To keep track of clues in his search he takes meticulous notes, photographs, and occasionally tattoos vital information on his body. He meets various individuals in his search for vengeance: like I said, the plot is simple. However, the reason this film became the critical and popular sensation that it is today is the manner in which the story is told.

Spoilers after the jump

The opening shot of the film is a) in colour and b) of a man holding a Polaroid photograph of a dead man which as he shakes the image fades. This introductory sequence is actually the final scene in the film’s chronology and, as implied through the Polaroid, is played in reverse. The sequence plays through until we see Leonard kill the man from the Polaroid. The next sequence is in black and white and features Leonard waking up in his motel room not remembering where he is or how long he has been there.  Then we return to colour stock and see another Polaroid of the same man from before except alive and smiling. The sequence continues until again we see Leonard kill this man. As the film continues to switch between black and white and colour stock it becomes apparent that each segment in colour is being played in reverse chronologically while the black and white segments are being played in order.

According to Christopher Nolan, the way the film is structured is meant to mimic Leonard’s condition. He wanted the audience to feel like Leonard did every time his memory lapsed. However, the genius of the film (and the reason for its placement on my Top 100) is how the film’s narrative interacts with the narrative frame to completely mess with your mind. Nolan could have just let the plain story I described earlier play through the structure he devised and it would have been a good movie. But by adding in a few pieces of information and a few visual cues Nolan brings a truly compelling message together about the fragility of memory and the human experience.

The first big question in the film is how Leonard remembers that he has Anterograde Amnesia each time his memory lapses. A vigilant viewer would remember that he has tattooed that piece of information on his body and they would be right. However, with all the memory lapses we see in the film you begin to notice that he doesn’t always have the chance to see that particular tattoo. Nolan then sets another little trap for the viewers through a second of Leonard’s tattoos and the story behind it. On his wrist (and seen in almost every stretch of memory) are the words, “remember Sammy Jankis.” Sammy Jankis is someone from Leonard’s former life who had the same condition. Huzzah! That connection allows for Leonard to easily remember his condition. This could almost work through the entire film except for one scene later on when Leonard is recounting Sammy’s story. Sammy is sitting in a chair in the hospital as people walk by him. Then, right before the cut, the image of Sammy is changed to an image of Leonard for a split second, changing everything. Was Sammy Jankis real? Is anything that Leonard has said through the entire film reliable? Who really killed Leonard’s wife?

Nolan reinforces his message of the fragility of memory by making everything we’ve seen potentially unreliable. Based purely on the story of the film, there is little good reason for it to exist. But the story isn’t important. The style communicates the message of the film and in doing so introduced the genius mind of Christopher Nolan to the world.

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