Ten years ago, Christopher Nolan exploded onto the scene for most of us with his second film, and we’re still reaping the rewards. Here, Erik Jaccard revisits the revenge neo-noir that either blew your mind or infuriated you…or both.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Memento (2001), Dir. Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s endlessly satisfying neo-noir flick Memento is, quite ironically, one of the most memorable films of the last decade. This is ironic, of course, because the film is in the most literal way an examination of memory, or of memory’s “treachery,” as its everyman anti-hero, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) would have it. Leonard is a former insurance claims investigator on a mission to kill the man who helped rape and murder his wife (Jorja Fox). However, the attack also left Leonard with a rare form of retrograde amnesia, making him incapable of forming new short-term memories. Leonard can remember everything prior to the accident, since his old long-term memories are still intact; but his current attention span lasts roughly 15 minutes (and even less when he’s stressed or distracted), and in no case can any of these current memories be permanently implanted in his brain. Unable to experience passing time, his wife’s death is always immediate to him, filling him with a passionate desire to avenge her death. Using a series of written notes, Polaroid pictures, and a literal ‘body of evidence’ in the form of tattoos for the most vital clues, Leonard pieces his way through a fragmented landscape he can never fully remember, using (and being used by) shady characters whose motives remain partial or hidden, searching for an satisfaction he’ll never be able to relish.
The film’s narrative structure is famously multi-directional, with two distinct timelines, one running loosely forward in black and white, while another — the ‘main’ timeline — sequences its otherwise linear fragments of plot in reverse. As the movie progresses backwards we discover how he has come across the various pieces of his puzzle. From what I’ve been able to gather over the years, this narrative ploy is, for most people, either one of the best or worst aspects of the film’s presentation. Those who argue that there seems to be no artistic need to tell the main timeline in reverse may have a point. The presentation of an otherwise entirely linear plot in reverse or jumbled order is not new (see Alan Resnais’ Je’Taime, Je’Taime or Last Year at Marienbad, both of which similarly mess with linear narrative by incorporating elements of the French nouveau roman) and can seem like a bit of a gimmick. One could say, for example, that if one were to reassemble the narrative in a strictly linear fashion we would be left with a simple, unremarkable revenge narrative. Indeed, one early review of the film takes this position.
But such an approach seems to run on the logic that films of this sort ought necessarily to present us with a passive riddle to be solved in the form of plot, and that reaching the end of the plot thread is the key to the moviegoing experience (the surprise twist, the ‘Ahh!’ moment). Though this particular film-watching/reading practice is certainly encouraged by any number of Hollywood thrillers and suspenseful mysteries, and thus has its adherents (who I can’t blame), Memento’s sequencing seems to challenge this method of passive presentation and consumption by forcing us to closely read the plot (the content) and also the sequence (the form) against one another. Unlike most detective/cop thrillers, we know from the very beginning who the ‘bad’ guy is, or at least we think we do. In the first scene, we discover the identity of Leonard’s wife’s killer with him, watching him put two and two together, and then see him take his revenge. This is the pot of gold at the end of the narrative rainbow, the place where plots go to live happily ever after, or at least happily ever satisfied.
In a conventional mystery plot (which I agree has many permutations), this ending is legitimized by the triumphant accretion of facts, evidence, and logic. It caps a quest that has involved numerous travails and probably some tragedies. Even if there is a twist ending, we still end up knowing what happened. Even more importantly, in most cases the quest is character-building, consolidating individual identity. The hero proves his or her mettle, discovers who they ‘really’ are, or simply, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, finds it to have been ‘elementary’ after all. Things are settled, unified, and coherent (even if a bad guy escapes — capers must have sequels). Such endings reaffirm for us that stories make sense, that we need not question how or why they are told, or by whom, that somewhere behind the story is an author, a history, a mythology, an origin.
But this is simply not elementary, my dear, in the case of Memento. Leonard’s primary claim is that “the world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes,” that there is a guarantor of truth outside human perception, and that meaning exists before the ‘facts’ on which Leonard has dutifully trained himself to rely. Memory, as Leonard reminds us, is notoriously unreliable and only the methodical gathering of facts can ever tell us what happens in our lives. However, as we jerk backwards through his story, we learn that, as his acquaintance Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) contends, ‘facts’ can be unreliable, too, especially when you don’t know where they came from. Leonard’s ultimate downfall derives from this faith in ‘the facts’ and in the denial that his identity and history is fluid, social, arbitrary, and hence alterable. Facts are, though Leonard might deny it, also interpretations when collected and arranged in an intelligible order.
This realization is consistently driven home by the ways in which things besides the signs Leonard takes for facts intrude upon his own seemingly consistent version of events. By the end we have learned that Teddy has been manipulating Leonard’s facts for some time, following him from place to place and inducing him to investigate, ‘discover,’ and kill numerous men with the initials of his wife’s supposed killer. Likewise, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who is originally indexed as a sympathetic character thanks to Leonard’s handwritten caption on her Polaroid, is revealed to be as conniving and duplicitous as Teddy. As he sits in his hotel room in the film’s forward-moving black and white sequence, the phone continuously rings, promising continuous intrusions into Leonard’s developing narrative (notice that, while he spends the majority of his phone-time detailing the story of Sammy Jankis, he often stops to write down important facts that will later lead him to the final/beginning murder of Teddy).
The seemingly stable ‘fact’ that Leonard can remember everything before his injury perfectly is also thrown into question, as we see him recall overlapping memories which lead us to the conclusion that the man whose story he compulsively tells in order to explain his own condition may in fact be Leonard himself. That Leonard is playing an active part in the telling of his own story is hardly up for debate after we see him rationally conclude that altering his ‘facts’ will give his existence meaning and allow him to continue his ‘romantic quest.’ But to say that this realization — which seems so much like a falsehood — somehow undercuts Leonard’s identity, identity in general, or our ability to tell stories, is to miss the point.
Leonard has an identity, but it’s more than the simple “My name is Leonard Shelby, I’m from San Francisco” platitude which is his constant refrain. As the otherwise dubiously intentioned Teddy responds, “that’s who you were, not who you are,” implying that the story of one’s life is never only that which they would offer up through fragmented, isolating memory. Nor can it be reduced to facts such as where one lives, what job they hold, what their nationality is, etc. Leonard lives in a world of his own design, but it is a design that must foreclose on all the ways the world operates on and within its confines. In a way, it denies that many of the ‘facts’ we take for granted are social facts, determined as much by our relation to others who influence our stories as by any kind of mythical, ahistorical self. To see that particular reality as anomalous (just a story), biologically produced (head injury) or ‘crazy’ (psychological delusion) is to stigmatize and deny a process in which we all to some degree participate. On a larger scale, it also acts as a denial that we are constituted by the larger social narratives within which we operate, whether they be of family, class, race, gender, or so on. In the ironically final analysis, one must admit that Memento generates more questions than it does answers. But this is why we love it, and why, on repeated viewings, it continues to indelibly affect us.
– Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano in another film together so soon after The Matrix?
– Perhaps there really is nothing better to do with the violent drug-dealer character Dodd, but I’ve always been a fan of Callum Keith Rennie and every time I watch this film I find myself wishing he had more than two or three droll lines. I mean, between his turn as the spiritual cylon Leoban in the reborn Battlestar Galactica and his rock mogul buddy to Hank Moody in Californication, the guy has proven he can do some quality work.
– A sticker on the inside window of the Discount Inn lobby says ‘Carte Blanche’. Ha. Ha.
– Kudos to all the people who took the time to chart out the plot progression of the film in numbered and lettered sequences. Saved me a lot of work.
– Seeing as Leonard has already compared his condition to that of Sammy Jankis, does anyone wonder what he’s watching on television during his stay at Natalie’s? I mean, is he just flipping through, watching commercials, like Sammy? Do you think he favors some commercials over others?
– I’ve read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon since seeing Memento last and I couldn’t help but read Leonard this time around as a direct descendant of Sam Spade, the original ‘blonde satan’.
– Worst Joe Pantoliano haircut ever? Possibly.
– Best Carrie-Anne Moss haircut this side of Models, Inc? Possibly.
– The film’s funniest line, as far as I’m concerned: Teddy: Was he scared? Leonard: Yeah, I think it was your sinister moustache.
– The film’s final scene (which is the first of its color scenes) is pretty awesome. Maybe you noticed it, maybe you didn’t, but as Leonard flicks the Polaroid in his hand of the just-slain Jimmy, the scene slowly shifts from the original B&W to color, marking the transition from the forward-progressing B&W narrative to the color story we have been treated to in backwards presentation.
– Stephen “Ned…Ryerson!” Tobolowsky is awesome, awesome, awesome at all times, in all places.