Dispatches from Tribeca: Memento Memoriam

Even now, ten years after the release of Christopher Nolan’s indie hit Memento, people are still trying to figure out what the movie is actually about. On Saturday afternoon, NPR’s Robert Krulwich, the host of a Tribeca Talks panel celebrating the film’s tenth anniversary, opened his discussion with questions not for Guy Pearce or Joe Pantoliano but for the audience: “How many people think that Leonard was the murderer?” Krulwich asked in reference to Pearce’s character, garnering a few halfhearted hand-raises. “Does anybody know who Leonard was talking to on the telephone?” (Neither of these is a spoiler, we promise.)

Admittedly, the film—which tells the story, backwards, of an anterograde amnesia patient attempting to remember enough from moment to moment to avenge his wife’s murder—is complicated. But we were surprised to learn that even those who made the film can’t be quite sure what happens in it. The director’s brother Jonathan Nolan, who wrote the short story on which Memento was based, explained that its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 2000 sparked some friendly debate among his colleagues. “Immediately afterwards, we went to dinner… and proceeded to have a lovely dinner and a huge argument over what everyone thought the movie meant. And everyone at the table had a totally different interpretation of the film.” Filmmakers: they’re just like us!

If the movie seemed different somehow to audience members who’d only seen it on DVD, it was more than just the big-screen aspect ratio: Mr. Nolan divulged that his mischievous brother had played a rather apropos trick on home viewers. “There are at least two shots that Chris subbed out for the DVD, just to mess with people,” Mr. Nolan explained.

Professors Suzanne Corkin and William Hirst lent some scientific heft to the conversation; Dr. Corkin, a neuroscientist, is best known for having worked with the famous anterograde amnesiac H.M. for 46 years. The one point on which it seemed everyone could agree was that memory is fundamentally mutable; and while Drs. Corkin and Hirst offered deep scientific explanations, an anecdote from Mr. Pantoliano better summed up the phenomenon: he explained that while watching the film this time around, he found himself thinking, “I don’t remember shooting that scene!”

“You were drunk that day,” Mr. Pearce replied, without missing a beat.

In fact, it would appear Mr. Pantoliano’s memory is unreliable even at the best of times. “I remember nailing my wife on the first date, but she said it took six months!” he later exclaimed, unforgettably. Dispatches from Tribeca: Memento Memoriam