Memento

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The Truth Behind Christopher Nolan's Memento

Jul 21, 2002 (Updated Oct 14, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Intelligent, fascinating, terrific themes

Cons:Slick; not a style masterpiece like Last Year at Marienbad

The Bottom Line: Not for lazy couch potatoes looking for mindless "entertainment"


So I've just watched Memento and I turn to my friend and say, "Do you think he saw Last Year at Marienbad?"

By he I mean the writer-director, Christopher Nolan.

"Of course," my friend says, "he copied the whole thing."

Which isn't really true, but I smile anyway because the similarities are obvious. "Marienbad" is a favorite of mine; I know it really well—you could say backwards and forwards, which is apt in light of the fact that Memento is told (mostly) in reverse chronology.

What that means is that time-wise the first scene is the last (or most recent) and the last scene is the first (or oldest). The exception: a number of black-and-white flashback-type scenes separate from the primary narrative. These scenes (inserted throughout the film and crucial to our understanding of it) unfold in a normal, straightforward chronology and occur earlier than the bulk of the story.

What's it all about, Alfie?

If you want to understand Memento, study Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad with its theme of time and memory. Fortunately I had already seen "Marienbad" a number of times, had already discussed it, had already read about it and thought about it for quite some time. Unlike many viewers, I take it, I walked away from Memento feeling I pretty much "got it" on my first viewing. I have an explanation and—even though there are a lot of wild theories out there—I'm fairly confident I'm right (just for fun I did watch the film a second time in chronological order which is relatively easy to do with a DVD).

Note: I don't want to rob you of the joy of discovering these things for yourself, so you may want to skip the following if you have yet to see the movie and/or don't want major plot elements and surprises revealed to you.

In both this film and Last Year at Marienbad you need to start with a basic assumption: a tragic death of a woman has occurred. In Memento this isn't really a problem and I suspect that most viewers will readily accept this. The big question is how she died.

In "Marienbad" the principal character, X (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to deny that the woman he had an affair with the year before is dead. The story is essentially the re-creation of the past in the mind of X. Because X does not want to admit to himself that she's dead (because of the guilt he feels regarding her death) he constructs a fantasy out of fragmented facts.

Leonard Shelby (played by Australian actor Guy Pearce) essentially does the same thing in Memento.

Before his wife's death, Leonard was an insurance investigator from San Francisco. One night he stumbles upon a couple of thugs after they've raped his wife and are bagging her up in plastic (shades of David Lynch). Leonard shoots one dead, but the other one wallops him on the head and escapes. Leonard sustains an injury whereby he loses his short-term memory. The last thing he remembers is this violence perpetrated against his wife.

The police, we take it, feel it was a single-person job and don't pursue the other-guy theory. Leonard, however, like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, is out to avenge his wife's death—a daunting task for someone with such a handicap. To aid him in this endeavor, he's devised a system whereby he takes Polaroids of motels he's staying at and the people he meets—sometimes scribbling crucial notes on the front or back of the photo. Major facts get tattooed on his body.

The question that Roger Ebert asks in his review (which he mistakenly calls a major plot hole) is this: if he doesn't remember things prior to the attack, how does he know he has short-term memory loss? The answer: a tattoo he has on his hand (Remember Sammy Jankis). This was probably the first tattoo he did (significantly, it's the only tattoo visible when clothed).

Sammy Jankis (well played by Stephen Tobolowsky) is key to our understanding Memento. First off (Ebert please note) he's key to Leonard remembering he suffers from short-term memory loss because Sammy, too, has the same affliction—or at least claims to.

As an insurance investigator, Leonard refused to pay off Sammy's claim because it is shown that his amnesia is not physical—but perhaps psychological. In one of those black-and-white flashback scenes, we see Leonard telling Sammy's wife this. She's a diabetic and—in the next scene—we see her testing her husband in an unbearably painful way. Sammy gives his wife regular insulin injections when she tells him "it's time." In this scene, she tells him it's time again and again to see if he'll actually go through with it (her reasoning: if he really loves her and is faking he'd obviously stop). The thing is he doesn't stop.

What's so crucial about this scene is this: it mirrors Leonard's own trauma. Somehow (and we may not have enough information to say exactly how—perhaps through conditioning and repetition as is suggested) Lenny has merged his own past with his memory of Sammy. In seeking out revenge for his wife's death, he tattoos facts on his body (Fact 1, Fact 2, etc.) but the message "Remember Sammy Jankis" is importantly not one of them.

To quote Leonard himself: "memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car."

The final scene (which, remember, is the earliest in chronological time) with the undercover cop Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) spells this all out. Teddy has his own agenda but what he reveals to Leonard here is true. The black-and-white scene of Sammy giving his wife repeated injections is a visualization of something Leonard psychologically wants to believe—but that doesn't make it so.

The fact is this: Leonard's wife is the diabetic and Leonard is the one who gave her too many shots. This is confirmed by Teddy when he tells Leonard she survived the attack. Teddy also points out the missing pages in the police report. Why are the pages missing? Because Leonard didn't want to face what they reveal. And (even more significantly) there's the image of Leonard's wife on the bed (wearing underwear) in which Leonard is seen giving her an injection. This image is quickly brushed aside by another image of him playfully pinching her in the same spot, but that's just obfuscation. It's a perfect example of a real memory intruding into our hero's mind and him quickly seeking to cloud it so as to avoid psychological pain.

This occurs many times in Last Year at Marienbad. In both films, the lead players try to shift blame.

There are a lot of things I like about Memento (although it's slick and not a style masterpiece like "Marienbad"). First, the casting is inspired. Everyone is right in his or her role and the acting is top-notch. I especially liked Stephen Tobolowsky as Sammy. You may remember him as Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman who pesters Bill Murray in the underrated comedy Groundhog Day ("Am I right or am I right?").

What's terrific about this casting is that Groundhog Day is one of the few films in recent memory (no pun intended) with a similar theme. And I clearly remember thinking of Last Year at Marienbad after seeing it as well (I'm assuming Nolan thought along similar lines).

I also really like Carrie-Anne Moss ("The Matrix") as Natalie, the manipulative bartender with the drug-dealer boyfriend. Like Leonard, we want to side with her over the always-popping-up Teddy because of the note on her photograph: "She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity." This sounds better to us than the note on Teddy's photograph ("Don't believe his lies"). It's important, however, to understand the context in which each note was made.

By film's end this context is clear. Nolan has constructed a puzzle that hangs together remarkably well (it doesn't crumble to pieces like David Fincher's "The Game"). And when that puzzle is pieced together a truth emerges. Memento, to its credit, is a movie that requires its audience to think. Couch potatoes looking for mindless entertainment best look elsewhere.



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