Christopher Nolan’s Memento , from a screenplay by Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by Jonathan Nolan, is a difficult film for me to describe or evaluate because it sets its own rules for the audience to follow–which it does at its own peril. I must confess that, while the end credits were rolling, I decided that there was no real payoff for the story, which had been told in an always-uncertain sequence of images and impressions.
The reconstructed premise is this: Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a one-time insurance investigator, has completely lost his short-term memory after being shot during the rape-murder of his wife. The program notes describe his condition as “a rare, untreatable form of memory loss”: He remembers the crime itself vividly, as well as everything that happened to him before that point, but since the damage to his brain he cannot retain a new memory longer than 15 minutes. The only way he can keep track of what has happened in his recent past is to take Polaroid pictures, make notes and even adorn his body parts with tattoos to record what he has learned.
Normally, one would expect a few hospital scenes with the usual medical mumbo-jumbo to authenticate Leonard’s condition. Instead, we are thrust immediately into his troubled mind. In the opening moments, a murder rewinds on-screen: a photograph undevelops and is sucked up into a flashing Polaroid; a bloody carnage is reassembled into human features as a gun barrel pulls away from a twisting mouth. We are at the end of the story, and we are being pulled back to the beginning of one man’s quest to avenge the crimes against his wife. There is no official collaboration with the police, who have written off the case because Leonard himself managed to kill one of the criminals before he was shot, and the police do not accept his story of a second predator.
Leonard has no money problems as he drives around in his Jaguar, stopping at seedy motels out of Raymond Chandler’s southern California to question potential witnesses and suspects in the case. He is befriended by a mysteriously motivated waitress named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who has her own agenda for Leonard in the disposal of her abusive boyfriend. Far from taking pity on Leonard’s bizarre condition, the people he encounters seek ways to exploit him. Motel managers keep shifting him to cheaper rooms at the same expensive prices. A persistently genial pest named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) keeps stalking him with a strange cheerfulness that seems suspicious. Indeed, Leonard has made a note at some unremembered period not to believe anything Teddy says.
The audience is left with no subordinate characters to trust, with the result that the paranoia spreads from the protagonist to the spectator. Even the flashbacks to Leonard’s idyllically presented wife do not give us enough information about what kind of life they led together. Then, right in the middle of the story, there is a digression to a case Leonard handled as an insurance investigator. The case involved a claim of short-memory loss by a worker named Sammy (Stephen Tobolowski). Leonard decided that Sammy was faking his condition because Sammy seemed to flash an expression of recognition at Leonard’s second visit. Consequently, Sammy was denied Workman’s Compensation to pay for his enormous medical bills.
In one harrowing scene, Sammy proves to his wife (Harriet Harris) that he does indeed suffer from short-term memory loss, despite her own hopeful doubts that he is only pretending to be afflicted. The proof consists of his repeatedly injecting her with insulin for her diabetes over a short period of time at her request. She dies, and he is confined to an institution. Leonard was wrong in his diagnosis of Sammy, but why does he suddenly remember his misjudgment? And why do the Nolan brothers even introduce Sammy, a character with such overwhelming dramatic charisma?
It was at this point that the film began to confuse me. Teddy suggests that Leonard’s late wife was also suffering from diabetes, and I thought I caught a glimpse of Leonard jabbing his wife with a needle. But I could not be sure, inasmuch as I was beginning to succumb to Leonard’s haze. What was real, and what was not, and who cares? This is not to say that the acting or writing or directing was to blame, but rather that the whole conception was clearly designed to subvert its mystery-suspense- noir genre by leaving too many questions unanswered and too many ambiguities unresolved.
Jonathan Nolan, whose short story formed the basis for his brother Christopher’s script, says in the production notes that “the crime thriller genre has become a sort of a 90-minute call-and-response session with the audience: they know all the tropes and tricks backwards and forwards. Increasingly, the question for thrillers has become what happens next? And, while Memento has plenty of twists and turns for the audience to enjoy, it’s asking a different question: we know what happens next–the first frames of the film are the last seconds of the story. The question here is why? What sets Leonard in motion toward murder in the first place? The murder is a given; the question is the motive.”
Interestingly enough, 30-year-old writer-director Christopher Nolan observes, if only half-jokingly, that Memento is an ideal film to see on DVD: “Its use of flashbacks that redo the past and the abuses of memory on the part of the hero and the film itself make this the kind of film that you may want to stop and rewind and review …. My brother Jonah’s short story gave me the suggestion that I developed in the screenplay: an examination of the function of memory in the art of storytelling. In Leonard’s character, his reconstruction of identity and shaping of a future from the material record of the past is really just an exaggeration of what everybody does in real life.”
Mr. Nolan is a comparatively young man, and I suspect that Memento will appeal mostly to comparatively young viewers. Older viewers like me may have serious problems with short-term memory loss as a subject. In fact, only recently I forgot the name of Amsterdam Avenue when I was giving instructions to a cab driver. I knew what Amsterdam Avenue looked like and in what direction it went. I knew it was between Columbus Avenue and Broadway, but for the life of me I could not remember the name of the street itself. I console myself with the rationalization that since my memory capacity is limited, every time I remember a movie actor’s name, I forget a street. But lately I have been forgetting movie actors as well. The problem may be that I have seen too many movies in my life, and my memory bank is overdrawn.
Don’t get me wrong. I am neither upset nor disturbed by Memento , only vaguely dissatisfied. I simply don’t buy Jonathan Nolan’s thesis that audiences know all the tropes and tricks of crime thrillers backward and forward. As Robert Warshaw once noted, the variety of faces and bodies and personalities of movie performers provide the variety of tropes we look for in literature. It is not only what but who that counts in movies. If the original cast of Casablanca –Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan–had remained to the end, would we have been celebrating the film for the past 60 years?
I have become addicted to several serial entertainments on television, namely Law & Order , The Sopranos , The West Wing , Inspector Morse , Ally McBeal , Gideon’s Crossing and Hercule Poirot . In each instance, the who and the what are seamlessly integrated. But the proliferation of visual technology has now endowed my television set with 300 channels. As I channel-surf day and night, I begin to broaden and coarsen my critical instinct. I become aware of repeated patterns of behavior, and keep redefining what I consider banal and stereotypical. I am too impatient to wait for nuances to appear: one familiar camera set-up and I am off to the races.
Lately, however, I have found that late-night channel surfing has had a pernicious effect on my dreams. Too much cruelty and violence. Inexplicable guilt and shame. I decided to go cold turkey and stop channel-surfing after midnight; the fragmentation was beginning to get to me. I have always based my theory of film history on the stylistic integrity of each individual movie and not on the recurring fragments in many movies, for each context is different.
What I object to in Memento is its final surrender to obfuscation in the name of a profound ambiguity. It reduces its characters to figures on a chessboard, and supplies just enough clues to tantalize an audience without engaging its sympathies. The plot it constructs is ultimately artificial in that it keeps each character safely away from any expression of feeling.
I had almost forgotten the call girl Leonard hires to reenact the crime by slamming a bathroom door as a sound cue for his memory. I was struck by the intelligently neutral expression on the face of the call girl. It was as if she belonged to a more rational world in which obsessive behavior was given short shrift.
Still, there is something wrong with the rhythm of the film, something that does not preclude a certain virtuosity of execution. This is to say that I respect Mr. Nolan’s effort, but I cannot reconcile myself to its studied confusions, allegedly caused by a clinical disability. The tattoos are the final outrageous touch that transforms Leonard into some sort of circus performer.
Now, as I begin writing my memoir, I regret that I did not keep more mementos of my past–though I am not sure there is not more in my past that I want to forget than remember. The problem with Leonard in Memento is that he never convinces us that he has enough emotional juice to seek revenge for a lost love. His rage is purely cerebral, as his mementos become ends in themselves. Yet, as I have indicated before, young viewers may find Leonard more appealing in this alleged Information Age than I do.
Follow Andrew Sarris via RSS.