Jake Black Instructor Kennedy FIL 2001 April 2011 The Humanity of Memory The post-modern film Memento challenges its viewers to analyze the way they put together a story based on the order of events. The film follows Leonard Shelby, an amnesiac determined to avenge his wife’s brutal rape and murder. Leonard allegedly lost his ability to make new memories in a head injury when he attempted to save his wife. Leonard puts all of his energy into taking photos and writing notes that will help him remember how to react in the situations he gets into.
Consequently, Leonard and the audience alike are constantly trying to figure out what’s going on, and this makes for an interesting perspective on how we ourselves interpret events. The most significant element of this story is the backwards chain of events. While the scenes are not in chronological order, the order we see them in plays a major part in the way we interpret this story. The movie begins at the chronological end, where Leonard kills the cop Teddy. Leonard looks at the photo of Teddy and sees the caption, “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES, HE IS THE ONE, KILL HIM. (Memento) Leonard repeatedly says that the only thing he can trust is his own handwriting, and so he kills him. As the movie goes on, we learn to trust Leonard’s handwriting as well and are therefore suspicious of Teddy. Though the order of the narrative is confusing, it is not non-linear. Director Christopher Nolan points out that “you can’t remove a single scene, or the whole thing comes to a grinding halt. Each scene follows very tightly after the next, more closely than they would in a conventional movie. ” (Nolan)
Leonard’s thought process is to try and forget the past, remember the present, and plan for the future. His inability to make new memories is keeping him from healing from the trauma of seeing his wife die. Since he cannot escape that memory, he loses his sense of humanity. It continues to be the last thing he remembers and her vengeance is his supposed purpose for life. It is important for him to remember the present, so that he can plan for the future. He plans for the future by leaving notes, captions, and taking photos of things he deems significant.
It becomes apparent that he is constructing his own reality. It becomes increasingly difficult to trust Leonard’s narrative as we get closer to the chronological beginning. Teddy claims that Leonard has already found and killed his wife’s murderer more than a year ago. He presents a picture of how happy Leonard was immediately after the killing. The audience comes to realize that Leonard has been “conditioning” himself to trap himself in a paradox where he will always be looking for the murderer. Teddy sums this up by saying “you don’t want the truth, you make up your own truth. (Memento) Leonard’s habit of conditioning himself is quite complex, and the red pill is hard to distinguish from the blue. He believes that by being organized and disciplined, he will be able to find avenge his wife’s death and fulfill his purpose. He is aware that if he were to find the killer, he would forget it, so he would want to take a picture. When Teddy presents the actual picture, Leonard is unable to accept it and burns it. This leads us to believe that the reality may actually be that he will never be able to escape his own construction of reality.
The last scene is the first chronologically, where he gets the tattoo that ultimately leads him to kill Teddy. The major premise of this movie is the distinction between facts and memory, if there really is any. Leonard claims that “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts. ” (Memento) His tattoos are what he considers to be facts. In order to remember his purpose for life, he has a tattoo across his chest reading “John G. aped and murdered my wife. ” However, we learn that we cannot trust these facts as they are truly just interpretations of whatever Leonard was thinking at the moment. A major lesson to be learned from this movie is that you don’t remember what happened, but what you remember becomes what happened. The relationship between Leonard and the bartender Natalie shows how Leonard could be easily manipulated for alternative motives. Leonard trusts Natalie, on the back of her polaroid it reads “She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity. Natalie provokes Leonard, knowing that he won’t remember it, and he ends up punching her in the face. She storms out and then walks back in a couple minutes later acting like her boyfriend abused her. Teddy tries to warn Leonard about her, but the caption on his polaroid “don’t believe his lies” is working against him. The mise en scene of this movie is particularly strong in the color department. Scenes containing events in the past moving forward are shown in black and white, creating a descriptive and tense mood resembling the noir genre.
Scenes with events occuring in the present moving backward are in color, showing more action and livelihood. This dichotomy of colored and black-and-white scenes is deliberately used to emphasize the concepts of memory and time. “Awake. Where am I? ”(Memento) Like Leonard, the audience is constantly put into this position. The structure of this film is highly effective in that it gets us into Leonard’s head. The audience is forced to actively participate in putting the pieces together just as Leonard is.
As we watch how Leonard associates significant pieces of information with each other, we begin to see his analyses in ourselves. Different objects in our minds act as mementos to trigger how we think we should react in certain situations. Leonard’s rationale is easy to understand and that’s why the audience quickly trusts him, though by doing this they are only playing into the writer’s hands. The film has an unsettling effect on the viewer because they are put into a “Cretan Dilemma” where they can truly trust no one.
Teddy and Natalie turn out to be just using Leonard’s disability to their own agendas. Leonard also cannot be trusted because he is only trying to hide from reality. He refuses to face the truth and tries to condition himself to forget his past. In conclusion, this film is an intricate puzzle challenging it’s viewers to examine the way they create memories and relate them to each other. Leonard is an easily relatable character in a seemingly unrelatable position. Leonard never feels as if he were in his element and therefore the audience cannot feel that way.
Leonard has lost his humanity, forcing us to analyze how our memory makes us human. Works Cited Lyons, Diran. “Vengeance, the powers of the false, and the time-image in christopher nolan’s memento. ” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 11. 1 (2006): 127-135. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. Nolan, Christopher, writer and director. Memento. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano. Newmarket, 2000. Nolan, Christopher. “Remembering Memento: Daniel Argent Speaks with Christopher
Nolan. ” By Daniel Argent. Creative Screenwriting, January-February 2002, 47-52. Parker, Jo Alyson. “Remembering the Future: Memento, the Reverse of Time’s Arrow, and the Defects of Memory. ” KronoScope 4. 2 (2004): 239-257. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 21 Apr. 2011. Pile, Steve. “Topographies of the body-and-mind: Skin Ego, Body Ego, and the film ‘Memento’. ” Subjectivity: International Journal of Critical Psychology 27. 1 (2009): 134-154. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 20 Apr. 2011.