“No. It’s different. I have no short-term memory. I know who I am and all about myself, but since my injury I can’t make any new memories. Everything fades. If we talk for too long, I’ll forget how we started. I don’t know if we’ve ever met before, and the next time I see you I won’t remember this conversation. So if I seem strange or rude, that’s probably... (beat) I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?”
(Nolan, C., 2000, ‘Memento’)
This movie is often described as confusing the audience but I think Memento more aptly creates within the audience a vivid sense of uncertainty. Based on the short story (by his brother, Jonathan Nolan) ‘Memento Mori’, Christopher Nolan’s film explores the space in and around the human memory while at the same time telling a tale of revenge and its ultimate futility.
While we all trust our own memories police often say the hardest case to prosecute is one with only eye witness testimony because of the ease in which a skilled defence lawyer can destroy a witness’ memory of events. As an aside, this has given rise to the plethora of TV crime shows dependant upon science and scientists to prove or disprove evidence. Furthermore, in Sidney Lumet’s film “12 Angry Men” (1957), Juror #8 is able to persuade another juror to change their guilty vote to not guilty by illustrating the fragility and impermanence of their own memory.
The opening credits of Memento give a hint as to the uncertainty contained within the film. Similarly, the promotional website created to market the film is ‘otnemem.com’; the reverse spelling of memento. The director has gone to extraordinary lengths in making this film to leave clues at various moments throughout; some obvious and some not so. The earlier an audience member is aware of the clues Nolan is leaving through his fastidious approach to Mise-en-scene the sooner the viewer starts delving more deeply into the narrative and ultimately becomes more empathetic with the protagonist. At this point the movie becomes much more than a theatrical presentation but an experiential existential expression.
The opening credits scene occurs in reverse with a man being shot at close range while the sound plays in real time. We learn in the next scene that the protagonist Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) suffers a ‘condition’ known as anterograde amnesia. Pendick stated that “In important ways, Memento depicts amnesia more accurately than any major film release to date.” (Pendick, D., 2002, memorylossonline.com, “Memory Loss at the Movies”, para 2). He goes on to say that Memento is still not perfect in its depiction. Leonard’s ‘condition’, as he refers to it, prevents him from creating new memories. While we are reassured by Leonard that he is fully cognisant of his permanent past memories Nolan uses a wide range of devices to create uncertainty in everything Leonard tells us. No longer can the audience be sure of anything that Leonard says simply because how can one trust a man that cannot remember if he had a shower that morning, or where he lives, or if he killed his wife or not? Even the ‘facts’ Leonard has tattooed on his body are cast in doubt; while they may be permanent in nature there is no rationale for the audience to be certain of their content. As Rosalind Sibielski writes with regard to Leonard’s picture taking, note taking and tattoos, “The problem with his dependence upon these documents to legitimate the reconstruction of his past, however, is that since they are open to interpretation, they are not grounded in such a way as to fix meanings which comprise ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ knowledge…”. (Sibielski, R., 2004, “Postmodern Narrative or Narrative of the Postmodern? History, Identity, and the Failure of Rationality as an Ordering Principle in Memento”, Literature and Psychology, Volume 49.4, pp 82–100).
Nolan uses this juxtaposition of permanence of the tattoo with the fragility of memory to underscore the element of uncertainty.
Many more of these examples abound throughout the film. At one point we are told, by the unreliable witness, Leonard Shelby, that he is from San Francisco. Not long later we see him driving a car which he says belongs to him yet has Nevada number plates. These subtle jolts to our rational thinking occur almost like subliminal shocks to the psyche and start an internal questioning process; “If he got that wrong, what else is he getting wrong?” The result of this instance where the audience is told one thing and shown another again folds back into the ever present theme of what constitutes reality in the mind of someone suffering a brain injury.
The most prevalent directorial influence over this element is the unusual editing style employed by Nolan. He draws upon two timelines; one in colour and one in B&W; not an original style in and of itself. However, the colour timeline is not linear. In a recent interview Nolan describes the colour timeline as ‘dis-linear’ (Neff & Argent, 2015, CreativeScreenwriting.com, para. 2). By way of comparison, a linear timeline moves forward in time as per real life. A non-linear timeline as exemplified in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994) where entire story arcs are moved around to aid the director’s telling of the story. On the other hand, the colour scenes of Memento are shown with a slight overlap as Leonard and the audience move backwards and discover a little more about how he got to where he is as each new piece of the puzzle is revealed. Chris Darke writes, “…Memento turns its detective hero Leonard Shelby into a surrogate for the spectator, its backward narrative logic forcing us to embark on the kind of investigative work Shelby is engaged in.” (Darke, C., 2000, “Memento”, Sight & Sound, Volume 10, Issue 11, pp 42–58).
This use of dis-linear editing in storytelling reinforces the uncertainty of Leonard’s memory and thereby every action he proceeds to undertake based upon his systemised manual memory replacement strategy. As each new piece of the puzzle is revealed another contrasting fact is presented to the audience and creates more uncertainty; more questions pile up about Leonard and his cohort.
Contemporary analysis of Memento uses the following naming convention when referring to these scenes, first proposed by Andy Klein (Salon, Jun, 2001). The colour dis-linear scenes are referred to as V-A and the B&W linear scenes are numbered 1-22.
Additionally, the opening credits are referred to as such because it contains important elements of the narrative while at the same, as previously mentioned, indicate a level of confusion which pervades the entire film at differing levels.
The colour timeline reveals a little more of the story as each new, albeit previous scene is introduced. Characters are introduced after they have already made impact into the timeline. Character development is revealed post appearance which adds to the confusion of the audience. This constant illustration and reiteration of uncertainty aids in creating an almost empathetic relationship between the audience and Leonard. Nolan draws upon this empathy as a story telling device to engage the audience deeper and deeper into the delusion that Leonard has created for himself and therefore creates a basis to justify his actions.
The colour timeline (scenes V-A) also includes numerous repetitive shots. However, on closer analysis there are subtle differences in specific frames within the repetitive scenes. In scene U for example one shot is of the hotel’s check-in desk. Leonard is paying his bill and has laid down two twenty dollar notes. When we see this shot again, as it is repeated sequence, the notes are in a slightly different position.
At another scene repeat, Leonard is writing on the back of one of his Polaroid photos. When we see the shot for the second time some of the writing has been made with a different pen. Interestingly, when the film was fist released these subtle changes were thought by some viewers to be continuity errors rather than the visual trope the director had wanted them to see.
The tension created by Nolan through his visual tropes builds throughout the film until the two timelines (colour scenes V–A and B&W scenes 1–22) converge and the delivery of a rationale explanation is, albeit fleetingly, presented.
In conclusion, Christopher Nolan has created a film for audiences to not only enjoy but also decipher. By employing a wide range of visual tropes across all element of Mise-en-scene to enhance the audience’s appreciation of both character and story, Nolan simultaneously gives audiences a path to empathise with Leonard by letting them experience the closest of approximations to the circumstances with Leonard has to live, and a starting point to solving the Memento puzzle.
12 Angry Men, 1957, motion picture, Metro Goldwyn Meyer, Hollywood, California
Bianco, J.S., 2004, “Techno-Cinema”, Comparative Literature Studies, Penn State University Press, Volume 41, Number 3, 2004, pp. 377–403
Darke, C., 2000, “Memento”, Sight & Sound, Volume 10, Issue 11, pp 42–58
Klein, A., 2001 “Everything You Wanted to Know About ‘Memento’”, Salon, June 29
Mememto, 2000, motion picture, Newmarket Capital Group, Hollywood, California
Molloy, C., 2010, American Indies: Memento, Edinburgh University Press, United Kingdom
Pendick, D., 2002, “Memory Loss at the Movies”, memorylossonline.com, para 2
Sibielski, R., 2004, “Postmodern Narrative or Narrative of the Postmodern? History, Identity, and the Failure of Rationality as an Ordering Principle in Memento”, Literature and Psychology, Volume 49.4, pp 82–100