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Memento: seizing the moment

A later version of this paper was published in Screen Education, 40, 2005: 115-117 as '"Close your eyes and you can start all over again": Memento'

The narrative strategy

The first thing to get straight in Christopher Nolan's film Memento (2000) is the story. People seeing the film for the first time will have to work out, probably with some effort, what is the narrative strategy that is being employed. It is simply this: the story is being told in two clearly contrasting ways. There is a series of colour scenes or sequences which are being shown in the reverse order of the story, and another series of (shorter) black-and-white scenes which are in the correct order. At a certain point, near the end of the film, they come together. As the last Polaroid photo develops, the black and white image that we are watching turns into colour, and the two narratives become one.

The other aspect of the narrative that has to be worked out is that the very first moment is the last. Memento may well be unique in that the very first thing we see after the film's title appears on the screen is the very last thing that occurs in the story. Many other films begin with the same situation as the one with which they end. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) is one well-known example. The film opens with the William Holden character lying face down in the swimming pool. The twist in this story is that he narrates the film in voiceover, despite already being dead. But whereas Billy Wilder's film begins, as usual, running forwards, the outrageous thing about Christopher Nolan's is that his is actually running backwards.

Audiences may not become aware of this immediately. Under some of the opening credits we see a Polaroid photo of what looks like the body of man who has been shot; but in a short space of time the photo inexplicably fades. It may be only when the gun that Leonard Shelby throws away flies into actor Guy Pearce's hand that we realise that the film is being projected backwards, and that the photo was not fading but developing. So the first moment in the film is the last in the story.

The origins of the story

The germ of the film was a story told to Christopher Nolan by his brother Jonathan. What Jonathan told Christopher, two years before the film was finished, was the idea for the story. At the time he had not yet written it; in fact it actually took him another two years. However, the relationships between Christopher Nolan's film and Jonathan Nolan's story 'Memento mori' are enlightening. Another item for profitable comparison is the website (that's 'memento' backwards), as it was designed by the author of the story.

The story's title means 'remember that you must die'. A 'memento mori' is something kept as a reminder of this fact: a skull is the most typical example, as kept by a monk in his cell, for instance. Shakespeare mentions the idea in Henry IV, Part I, and it is often included in paintings, to remind viewers of their mortality. And although the everyday word 'memento' does have an independent meaning, that is, something kept as a reminder, perhaps of an absent loved one, or as a souvenir of a visit, the film's title will also invoke the notion of the memento mori for those who have heard of it.

Very little happens in Jonathan Nolan's story: it's like an essay, or a meditation, on time and the meaning of life. In the story, the film's Leonard Shelby (the Guy Pearce character) is called Earl, and he is in a kind of hospital, presumably one for the insane. Then it seems he escapes, gets some tattoos, including 'a picture of a man's face that occupies most of his chest', and then kills the man pictured, who is presumably the bad guy, as the tattoo on Earl's arm, leading up to the picture, reads 'I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE'. The story does not describe the manner of the man's death, for the very good reason that it is mostly narrated from Earl's point of view, and by the time he is being driven away from the scene of the murder he has already forgotten what happened.

What the two narratives have in common, and this is Jonathan's main contribution to Christopher's project, together with the basic revenge motive and the tattooing expedient, is that both Leonard and Earl have a short-term memory problem called 'anterograde memory loss', which means that they cannot make any new memories after having had a traumatic injury. One of the functions of Jonathan Nolan's website is to increase the degree of commonality between the two stories. It is based on documents: newspaper reports, police documents, and notes written by Leonard to himself, and it provides a different back-story for Leonard. In the version on the Web, he has been a patient interned in an institution (like Earl), and escapes and kills someone.

Reading the film

The notion of 'revenge' provides one of the keys to approaching this film in generic terms. In an interview formerly to be found on the Web, the director has this to say, in a delightfully informal but informative way, about the use of this story type.

... it's this notion of what is revenge, it doesn't have any value outside of somebody's head. And this is the perfect story for exploring that. What's interesting to me is you introduce the beautiful wife that he has the fond memories of, and in so many movies it's like which reel is she going to die in. Then the hero is allowed to go out and commit otherwise morally questionable acts, but the filmmaker plays this little balancing game with the relative moral values in the movie, so it's OK for the hero to go out and kick ass.

The idea of revenge not only allow film-makers to play with 'relative moral values': it also provides a very useful structure for the narrative. There is a clear goal, with a powerful psychological motivation, but there are also many opportunities for suspense, as the hero has to overcome a number of obstacles to carry out his self-set task, and it will probably take at least ninety minutes to recount them all.

Another conventional structure running quite comfortably alongside that of revenge is the crime film genre and its detective subset. In this type of plot, the central character is an investigator (whether a professional one or not) and their goal is to solve the crime, usually a murder. It's quite a common trope for this investigator not to be a police officer and for them to be smarter than the cops, although they may work partly with them. In the present case of course Leonard is the investigator, and the task he has set himself to carry out is to find his wife's killer. Revenge will be the icing on the cake of detection.

An important feature of the detective narrative structure is what is known as 'restricted narration'. Typically, the audience knows little more than the detective; and this is crucially the case in this film. As the director tries to get into Leonard's head, not only is he in every scene, but what the camera reveals is often just what Leonard sees.  There are remarkably few establishment shots and a minimum of wide shots, as almost everything is seen from the main character's point of view.

The brilliant twists in Nolan's take on the detection structure are manifold. If you read Teddy's final revelations as the 'correct' version, then it seems that Leonard himself is a murderer. However, note that in the same scene Teddy himself gives different versions of other events. First he says Jimmy Grantz, whom Leonard has just previously killed, was the man who raped Catherine. But when Leonard raises the question of the 200 grand in Jimmy's car, and it's clear that a drug deal of some kind has been arranged between Teddy and Jimmy, Teddy shifts his ground. He tells Leonard that he, Leonard, has killed the actual perpetrator quite some time ago, as he says:

I was the cop assigned to your wife's case. I believed you. I thought you deserved a chance for revenge. I'm the one that helped you find that guy in your bathroom that night, the guy that cracked your skull and raped your wife. We found him; you killed him.

As if this were not already enough clever variations on the detection/revenge structure, Nolan provides one final piece of brilliant invention. He has Leonard note Teddy's licence plate number and then erase the evidence that supports the present situation and Teddy's account of what led up to it. He destroys two photos: the one of the dead Jimmy Grantz and the other of himself covered in blood that Teddy says he, Teddy, took just after Leonard killed the real John G., the original perpetrator. He then goes to assemble the last piece in the jigsaw, to get the tattoo of Teddy's plate number—and as he drives towards Emma's Tattoos he forgets, of course, what he has just done. This will allow him to conclude, as we saw him do back in Chapter 5, 'Just the Facts', that Teddy (John Gammell) is the right John G., and the one who has to be killed—which is the first thing we see in the film.

Reading for meaning

It is useful to read the Christopher film together with the Jonathan short story. As Leonard is driving away to get his last tattoo, he seems to have a moment of epiphany, of fundamental insight. He closes his eyes for some seconds; we hear his voiceover.

I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning. Even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed the world's still there.

In the short story, Earl tells himself:

Time is three things for most people, but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment. Like you're the center of the clock, the axis on which the hands turn. Time moves about you but never moves you. It has lost its ability to affect you. What is it they say? That time is theft? But not for you. Close your eyes and you can start all over again. Conjure up that necessary emotion, fresh as roses.

These two insights are not quite the same, but they are both the result of meditation on the nature of experience, the nature of time, and the relationship between the two. If you think about the film as a noir thriller presenting 'morally questionable acts' and 'relative moral values', which it is and does, you'll miss much of the point. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) is that kind of film too, but it concludes with one of the finest meditations (from Rutger Hauer as Roy) on memory, meaning and time that I can recall in any medium.

Standing far enough back from Memento, it is possible to read its meaning as being not dissimilar to the message of Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989): carpe diem, seize the day, grasp the moment. Nolan's film is perhaps less uplifting than Weir's, but it does make the same suggestion: that this moment is all we have, so we should make the most of it. A tagline used to advertise the film is 'Some memories are best forgotten'. As is often the case with such a line, although it does pack a lot of suggestions into a few words, it is ultimately misleading. Memento reminds us that life is short and death inevitable; its tagline could read: 'memento mori'.

Garry Gillard | New: 12 November, 2013 | Now: 4 April, 2019