Although I always have fun with blog-a-thons, it’s been a while since I’ve done one. The idea for this blog-a-thon actually came from my husband, Aaron. Although Aaron sadly does not love movies as much as I do 😉 (I’m still trying to convert him!), his favorite director is Christopher Nolan and we like to discuss those movies. We thought it would be fun to watch through his movies together, before the premiere of his new movie “Dunkirk” this summer. This week we’re starting off with Nolan’s first major release, “Memento” (2000).
“Memento” is a fascinating and decidedly trippy film about a man with a terrifying problem: the inability to form new memories. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, who is struggling to cope with his illness while also trying to find (and get revenge on) the man who killed his wife. He devises an elaborate system of organization, notes, and tattoos to help him keep track of the clues he finds. He does receive some help along the way from several people who claim to be his friends…but how much can he really trust them, since he can’t hold his memories for more than five minutes?
“Memento” would have been an interesting film even if the story had been told conventionally, but Christopher Nolan takes a risky gamble and forces the viewer to experience things from Leonard’s perspective. How does he do this? He tells the story backwards. We get approximately 5-10 minute chunks of Leonard’s story, starting at the end of the narrative and concluding at the beginning. This really keeps the viewer off balance — like Leonard himself — and we feel his same sense of panicky uncertainty. Do we know what’s actually real? Or is our version of the truth impacted by the limited facts we do know…or think we know?
This is one of my favorite Nolan films, and it’s actually pretty interesting to re-watch, even if you already know the surprise twist. It really makes you think about your own perception of reality and how our view of the world is impacted by the assumptions we make about others (whether they’re true or not).
How do you make a movie about someone who can’t remember anything? It’s an intriguing question and a joy to watch in practice. A movie focused on someone who can’t remember anything for more than a few minutes would be very difficult to make in the traditional format. The audience would soon get exasperated with the shtick of the character having to say he can’t remember anything constantly and characters having to constantly explain what we just watched him do. So what do you do?
In traditional film, the future is in doubt and the past is known. Ideally we’d have both in doubt for a person who has no short-term memory, but film is bound in time and we have to see something before we see something else, so we have to see one.
So to help us sympathize and share the plight of a person with memory loss, Christopher Nolan gives us a movie where we share the main character’s condition. We don’t know how we got where we are. Though you think that seeing what ultimately happens would help us ground what’s happening, it actually doesn’t, and can even be deceptive. “Memento” does a brilliant job of showing that explanatory power lies in the cause, not the effect.
This is my third or fourth (depending on the day) favorite movie of all time. Number one is coming up later in this series, number two and three/four are “Donnie Darko” and “The Game.” If the idea of this movie intrigues you, I’d highly recommend “The Game” as it and “Memento” share many similar qualities. But I digress.
The first thing I think that “Memento” does brilliantly is to muddle timelines. It’s presented in two sections. The first is the parts that are shot in color. This is the backwards working action where we simply learn piece by piece how Leonard got where he was in the last scene. Each of these scenes begins with a quip or piece of memorable action and ends with the quip or action that began the last scene.
The second section of the movie is shot in black and white. These scenes are of Leonard alone in a hotel room explaining his system and history. Sometimes he’s talking on the phone, sometimes he’s talking to the audience as we watch him go about his business. These scenes are, more or less, shot in forward moving action. These scenes versus the backwards moving color scenes give good contrast and keep the audience on their feet as the two move from one to the other. Not until the very end of the movie is it made clear how and if these two sections are related. Are they happening simultaneously? Is one before the other? Are they related at all? You’re kept constantly guessing.
Another contributing factor to the timeline muddiness is that at the start of each new backwards moving section, you have no idea how far in front of the previous section it is. Nolan does a good job moving the scene location each time so that it’s incredibly difficult to guess where exactly the scene is moving even though you know how it ultimately ends.
The second quality I admire in “Memento” is the atmosphere of doubt and loneliness. The movie is plagued with doubt, despite Leonard being constantly sure of himself. His self-assurance is the only assurance the whole movie has. Characters’ motives shift. Lies are uncovered. Past events are left unexplained. Leonard is self-assured because if he wasn’t he’d be a helpless, nervous wreck. There are multiple core facts that are intentionally left wholly unexplained. Unlike the famous ending to “Inception,” there’s not even a hint in the entire movie regarding some of big important questions we have (would say what they are but spoilers.) This is coupled with an atmosphere of loneliness. Because of the backward moving nature of the movie, we have a cold relationship with the other people in the movie. We know that they’re involved with Leonard, but we don’t know why. Leonard’s relationship with them is cordial but in the way he’s cordial to strangers. On top of this is a soundtrack which is either hauntingly airy or subtly dissonant, depending on the scene.
I love “Memento.” It’s unapologetic. It doesn’t spoon feed you anything and doesn’t try to make you feel better about things at the end. It doesn’t answer your questions no matter how badly you want it to. It doesn’t gift wrap a happy ending that ties everything together nicely. It tries to be great and it is.