Happy Birthday, Memento!
It’s 21 years since Memento came to Australian viewers 1 as a masterpiece of cinematic subjectivity directed by Christopher Nolan. Once seen, it’s hard to forget the vengeful amnesiac, Leonard Shelby, played by an emaciated, strung out, heavily tattooed, Guy Pierce. The huge volume of reviews and scholarly work since its release gives some indication of Memento’s impact, for it marked a surge in the ‘amnesia genre’ in contemporary books and films that continues to this day.
Dubbed a neo-noir mystery thriller by Jason Clark from AllMovie 2, a boilerplate noir by New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott 3, a mystery thriller by the IMD site 4, whatever genre critics ascribe to it, most pay homage to its ingenuity, as they confirm its prime place in cinematic history, mulling over its diabolical structure and open-ended finale. What does the ending mean? Is Leonard Shelby an escapee from an asylum? Is he lying to himself and others? Is his wife alive or dead? How many of his memories are false? Is any character in the film a reliable truth-teller? Indeed, so much has been said about Memento, that rather than present a review, I have written a tribute to it and also to the director’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, author of the companion story Memento Mori.
In a nutshell
Memento is about a desperate man, Leonard Shelby, on a quest to find the alleged killer of his allegedly murdered wife. I repeat allegedly, as in Leonard’s world all facts are up for grabs. For he has a case of severe anterograde amnesia 5. Importantly, we see the world from Leonard’s perspective. Every ten minutes, stretching to 15 at best, he loses all his short-term memory. He was attacked by an assailant, which accounts for his amnesia. He can recall his life prior to the attack, but since the incident, he has not been able to form new memories. His wife’s death, which he believes he witnessed during the attack is the last thing that Leonard remembers. Thus it is also the first thing he remembers when he comes to consciousness at what the companion short story describes as ten-minute intervals. Anterograde amnesia does exist, but the way Leonard uses prompts to help him remember may well be fictional. To alert his future self to his desire to avenge his wife’s murder, Leonard has created an intricate communication system via polaroids, notes and body tattoos.
One amnesiac views another
In the spirit of subjectivity that the film evokes, I confess I am a Memento fan for personal reasons. When I saw it on its Sydney release in 2001, it was a decade after I had woken with amnesia myself. I was still caught in my own experience of pulling my life story together after my brain injury. My former condition is called retrograde amnesia 6. Although I saw Memento nearly ten years after my initial waking, I was still piecing my life back together. I recognised very early, while watching, that it was the closest thing I’d come across to capturing the dark, peculiar and paranoid-inducing world that severe amnesia can induce. While I could make new memories, unlike the fictional Leonard Shelby, his desperation to understand and surmount his amnesia felt poignant. Christopher Nolan did a brilliant job of creating an amnesiac point-of-view film, and so did Guy Pearce playing the hapless ‘ten-minute man’, Leonard Shelby.
Plot and structural complexity
Memento is not for the passive viewer. If you like your films to spoon-feed you, it is not for you. You have to do some serious work to understand what is going on. It is more art-house than feel good.
The plot is complex, with the point of view and Leonard’s condition creating an unstable narrator and protagonist in one. The most striking feature of the film is its incredibly complex structure. If you have not seen it, I am about to ruin the pleasure of working out what is happening; for this film operates as a set of puzzles for the viewer to unlock. It has two narrative threads. One runs backwards in time and is in colour. The other, in black and white, runs forward in time, features Leonard in a hotel room mainly, and uses a voice-over narration. So unusual, and intricate is this structure, it is not likely viewers can make sense of it for some time, and a process of learning to put effect before cause is needed to take place in your mind to get it. Rather than take my word for how it works, a detailed account by Andy Klein is worth reading. 7
Just as an amnesiac can wake up and face the daunting prospect of reconstructing their missing past, in a surreal and fragmented present, and I should know it has happened to me, the film operates in such a way as to evoke that shaky, unstable, nothing-can-be-trusted experience of amnesia.
Memory and Grief
I agree with Andy Klein that while the film is on one level a murder mystery, raising questions such as given the severity of his brain injury, will Leonard be able to find out who killed his wife, track them down and kill them, on another level Memento is about memory itself, and perpetual grief.
Leonard is caught in a constant present. He keeps recalling the moment his wife was killed, or as we learn to think of it, that moment he believes he saw his wife being killed. For Leonard time doesn’t move in the same way it does for others. Every ten minutes, his sense of the forward march of time simply cuts out. His narrative thread, his sense of the story of his life, goes back to the same moment of his losing his wife, and with it his mind. As Klein points out:
Christopher Nolan in interview
Here Christopher Nolan explains how the film came into being after a drive with his brother, Jonathan, who came up with the premise. 8 Christopher Nolan acknowledges that “both short story and the film deal with internal echoes and repetition”.
"The screenplay is an extrapolation of his [Jonathon aka Nathan's] basic idea which I was fascinated by, he told me as we were driving cross country between Chicago and Los Angeles. We both decided straight away that by far the most interesting way to approach that concept was subjectively, to tell that story in the first person. So he went off to write his short story and I went off to write the screenplay and my idea of writing subjectively was to deny the audience the same information the protagonist is denied, and my approach to doing that was to effectively tell the story backwards, that way when we meet the character we don’t know, just like the protagonist, how he met that person, whether he even met that person, or whether or not they should be trusted." - Christopher Nolan.
Quotes from critics
More from Andy Klein: 9
Its riddles are tangled up in a dizzying series of ways: by an elegant but brain-knotting structure; by an exceedingly unreliable narrator through part of the film; by a postmodern self-referentiality that, unlike most empty examples of the form, thoroughly underscores the film's sobering thematic meditations on memory, knowledge and grief; and by a number of red herrings and misleading clues that seem designed either to distract the audience or to hint at a deeper, second layer of puzzle at work - or that may, on the other hand, simply suggest that, in some respects, the director bit off more than he could chew. It's heartening, however, that most critics at the country's major papers understood that the film has immense thought behind it, both technically and thematically. Memento is a philosophical tragedy - Andy Klein.
Another one of my favourite articles is Surviving Memento by William G. Little, whereby the idea of Leonard Shelby as representing a case of trauma reenactment is explored 10
The film's disruptiveness is not limited to its making problematic the viewer's desire to put events in 'proper' order. Equally unsettling is the fact that no character's point of view can be considered reliable. - William G. Little.
... what makes Memento a remarkable film is that while its narra tive break-ins simulate the missing characteristic of trauma, it also invites the viewer to convert such dis-appointment into tolerable, even entertaining, disappointment by replaying?and playing with?its reel(s). - William G. Little.
Leonard might be diagnosed as traumatically repeating the original crime scene. Seen through this interpretive framework, his failures to remember are symptomatic of something more than a blow to the head. They constitute a form of auto-interruption that mimics the interruption of sleep, time, and marriage caused by the criminal trespass.- Willia G. Little.
Scott Tobias, from the Australian edition of The Guardian. 11
By going backward in time, Memento draws the real mystery from viewers learning the first step in Leonard's investigation, the origins of his self-deception. Yes, we also learn what really happened to his wife, what happened to him, and what happened to his killer, and we understand more about Teddy's complicated role in using Leonard for his own purposes. But the most telling revelation, at the end of Memento, isn't limited to his condition: Leonard lies to himself. And when he isn't outright lying to himself, he's guilty of confirmation bias, accepting only the facts that affirm his pre-cooked conclusions, and tossing out all the rest. - Scott Tobias.
A.O. Scott, New York Times reviewer, 12 says: ”Memento” is like an existential crossword puzzle, or a pungent 50’s B-thriller with a script by Jorge Luis Borges.
The reason to go on watching ''Memento,'' which begins with a killing and its aftermath shown in reverse (an instant photograph fades to white, a bullet flies out of a man's head and back into the chamber of a gun), is for the disorienting pleasure of its unusual narrative technique. The audience is plunged into a condition analogous to Leonard's, but also, logically speaking, the opposite….He lacks all recollection of the past, and so in compensation we are given memories of his near future. The story is told in a lurching backward motion: Each scene jumps back in time, and ends where the previous one -- in narrative time, the next one -- began. Before too long you get the hang of looking for causes that follow from effects. If you notice a scar or a bruise on a character's face, before long you'll see the punch that put it there. - A. O. Scott.
Rolling Stone writer Peter Travers opened his article with this trippy statement about its showing at the Sundance competition:
Mushrooms won’t help when it comes to Memento, the first film in the Sundance competition to go into wide release and my favorite among the sixteen dramas that vied for prizes. - Peter Travers, Rolling Stone. 13
Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics gave Memento a rating of 93% (with 179 Reviews involved in the score). 14
I can't remember when a movie has seemed so clever, strangely affecting and slyly funny at the very same time. - Joe Morgenstern.
Film critic Stefano Ghislotti “Backwards: Memory and Fabula Construction in “Memento” by Christopher Nolan”, (2003)15
The film is interesting because it reflects the absence of the past in its narrative structure. As an effect of composition, the main character's memory disease is directly perceptible to the viewers. In one of the most revealing comments, we find a key to the study of the film: 'I loved this movie because it made me feel as if I had a short-term memory deficit.' With the backward structure, fabula construction is difficult, because facts are presented neither in chronological order, nor following the causal relationships. In addition, it is hard to provide a coherent version of the story, since at the end of the film we touch the unreliability of the main character's recollections. - Stefano Ghislotti. Stefano Ghislotti
The name Memento Mori refers to memento mori, a symbolic or artistic expression of the Latin phrase meaning “remember that you [have to] die.”
Memento Mori Quotes
Check out the story complimentary, Memento Mori by BY NATHAN NOLAN that first ran in Esquire magazine on JAN 29, 2007. 16
I wonder if he’ll feel stupid when you find him. Tracked down by the ten-minute man. Assassinated by a vegetable.’
And as for the passage of time, well, that doesn’t really apply to you anymore, does it? Just the same ten minutes, over and over again. So how can you forgive if you can’t remember to forget? Jonathan Nolan.
Time is an absurdity. An abstraction. The only thing that matters is this moment. This moment a million times over. You have to trust me. If this moment is repeated enough, if you keep trying — and you have to keep trying — eventually you will come across the next item on your list. – Jonathan Nolan.
Here’s the truth: People, even regular people, are never just any one person with one set of attributes. It’s not that simple. We’re all at the mercy of the limbic system, clouds of electricity drifting through the brain. Every man is broken into twenty-four-hour fractions, and then again within those twenty-four hours. It’s a daily pantomime, one man yielding control to the next: a backstage crowded with old hacks clamoring for their turn in the spotlight. Every week, every day. The angry man hands the baton over to the sulking man, and in turn to the sex addict, the introvert, the conversationalist. Every man is a mob, a chain gang of idiots. – Jonathan Nolan.
“You’re different. You’re more perfect. 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. -Jonathan Nolan.
Time is theft, isn’t that what they say? And time eventually convinces most of us that forgiveness is a virtue. Conveniently, cowardice and forgiveness look identical at a certain distance. Time steals your nerve. – Jonathan Nolan.
Not too many professions out there that value forgetfulness. Prostitution, maybe. Politics, of course. – Jonathan Nolan.
It’s not so much that you’ve lost your faith in time as that time has lost its faith in you. – Jonathan Nolan.
- 22 in America
- “Memento (2000)”. AllMovie. Retrieved November 8, 2021
- NYT reviewer AO Scott, New York Times, March 16, 2001 https://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/16/movies/film-review-backward-reel-the-grisly-memories.html
- IMD https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0209144/
- [What is anterograde amnesia? [https://www.ukessays.com/essays/psychology/memento-anterograde-amnesia.php] Anterograde amnesia is a form of memory loss that affects the ability of memories to become transferred from the short term to the long term memory. Anterograde amnesia is something that can be a permanent disorder, but can also be caused temporarily by different amnestic drugs, or for a number of days and weeks after serious head trauma. Damage to the fornix, hippocampus, or mammillary bodies are the main cause of the amnesia’s onset. Due to this, the theory that the three previously mentioned are the primary parts of the brain responsible for long-term memories, has been given much support
Examples of it in real life can be found in the story of Henry Molaison, know as H.M., who reportedly always introduced himself to his psychologist, Brenda Milner, despite having worked closely with her for decades (Squire, 2009). And also in the work of Oliver Sacks 2007 on the case of British conductor Clive Wearing.
- Retrograde amnesia (RA) is a loss of memory-access to events that occurred or information that was learned in the past. It is caused by an injury or the onset of a disease.
[Hunkin, N., Parkin, A., Bradley, V., Burrows, E., Aldrich, F., Jansari, A., & Burdon-Cooper, C. (1995) “Focal retrograde amnesia following closed head injury: A case study and theoretical account”, Neuropsychologia, 33(4) 509–23. doi:10.1016/0028-3932(94)00136-D]It tends to negatively affect episodic, autobiographical, and declarative memory, while keeping procedural memory intact without increasing difficulty for learning new information. RA can be temporally graded, or more permanent based on the severity of its cause. It is usually consistent with Ribot’s law. The law states that subjects are more likely to lose memories closer to the traumatic incident than more memories that happened further from the incident. [Wixted, J. T. (2004). The psychology and neuroscience of forgetting, Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 235–69. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141555] (All from Wikipedia.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retrograde_amnesia#:~:text=Retrograde%20amnesia%20(RA)%20is%20a,the%20onset%20of%20a%20disease.)
- Klein, Andy (June 28, 2001). “Everything you wanted to know about “Memento”. Salon. Archived from the original on June 15, 2020. Retrieved September 4, 2012.
- [https://youtu.be/67e_jl4flpE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67e_jl4flpE
Memento Explanation by Christopher Nolan, August 21, 2015. Posted to YouTube.
- (June 28, 2001). “Everything you wanted to know about Memento”. Salon. Archived from the original on June 15, 2020. Retrieved September 4, 2012 or https://www.salon.com/2001/06/28/memento_analysis/
- January 2005, Narrative 13(1):67-83, DOI:10.1353/nar.2005.0002
- . “Memento’s puzzle structure hides big twists and bigger profundities”. The A.V. Club. (November 8, 2012) Retrieved December 9, 2016.
- in an article, FILM REVIEW; Backward Reel he Grisly Memories, from March 16, 2001 https://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/16/movies/film-review-backward-reel-the-grisly-memories.html
- Rolling Stone https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/memento-105684/
- https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/memento] Among them, critic Joe Morgenstern from the Wall Street Journal wrote in Mar 26, 2014
- . Film Anthology. Archived from the original on December 31, 2009. Retrieved September 24, 2009.