Saturday, December 21, 2013
(March 2001, U.S.)
When we finally reached the turn of the century nearly fourteen years-ago, I had an unusually optimistic sense of hope and expectations for what the movies were going to offer us in the years to come and it was primarily due to Christopher Nolan's film of MEMENTO. Because of this one independent film, I had every reason to believe that film makers were headed in a bold, daring and risky direction in storytelling and film structure. As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth as the movie business has proven, in my opinion, that it's ultimately capable of nothing more than churning out an endless array of comic book sequel blockbusters that offer nothing more than the ability to see just how fast things can move and how much financial intake can occur over the course of a single opening weekend. I have to say, though, for a brief time, my hopes and dreams looked pretty promising.
So let's explore just what I'm talking about for a moment and see why MEMENTO has had such a big impact on me. Now in terms of non-linear structure, I can't claim that this film has done something so original. Quentin Tarantino had perfected this storytelling with PULP FICTION back in 1994 and took the world by storm with it. So why is MEMENTO so damn unique? Let's start with its initial premise, in that we're experiencing the life of a somewhat ordinary man named Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) who appears to suffer from anterograde amnesia, which impairs his ability to store new explicit memories and who has developed a system for recollection using hand-written notes, tattoos on his body, and Polaroid photographs (remember those?). Consider for a moment life's true ramifications and consequences for a man living with such a condition. In Leonard's case, he's on a quest to find the man who raped and murdered his beloved wife; an event for which he's been unable to create new memories ever since. Consider also the fact that should Leonard achieve his ultimate victory, he won't even remember having done it. Consider finally that we as the audience are being asked to truly tap into our own patience and intelligence and follow the film's plot backwards! That's right, people, I said backwards! We're starting at the end and progressively working our way to the beginning!
When the film begins, during the opening credits, which (remember!) portrays the end of the story, it's shown that Leonard kills a man named Teddy (played by Joe Pantoliano, fresh off of THE MATRIX). The film suggests that this killing is the ultimate vengeance that Leonard seeks based on information that was previously provided by a woman named Natalie (played by Carrie-Anne Moss, also from THE MATRIX). Vengeance is never that simple, though. Now the film begins to move in reverse so we can see each and every event and episode that ultimately lead Leonard to this point. Along the way, the film features brief overlaps with just a little piece of the story's information, the purpose being to force the audience into a sympathetic experience of Leonard's defective ability to create new long-term memories, where prior events are not recalled, since the audience has yet to actually see them occur.
It's important to note that the film is shot in color and black and white. The color sequences are shown in the reverse chronological order I've already spoken about. The black-and-white sequences are shown with Leonard in a mysterious motel room speaking to an unnamed telephone caller who' not shown on-screen. He tells the story of when he was previously an insurance investigator and of one case by the name of Sammy Jankis, also diagnosed with the same condition he has now. Sammy's diabetic wife, who wasn't sure if her husband's condition was genuine, repeatedly requested insulin injections to try to get him to break his act. It didn't work and as a result she fell into a coma and died. Does the use of black and white filming suggest a solidity to Leonard's condition of life that we are forced to and determined to accept; as in everything in his life is as simple as black and white? Or does it serve to suggest a much darker mystery than what we're being lead to believe along the way? Such a paradox is not easy and perhaps best left to film scholars and journalists with more insight than myself.
By the time MEMENTO concludes itself, the final twist is revealed that I suppose is meant to shock us. Through Teddy's revelations, we learn that Leonard had already previously found and killed the real attacker over a year ago. Teddy claims that Leonard confused elements of his life with that of Sammy Jankis, who was, indeed, a con man and had no wife. Leonard's wife was diabetic, had survived the attack and was the one who had actually died in the insulin overdose. Teddy accuses Leonard of creating an intentional unsolvable puzzle to give himself a purpose in life and that he (Leonard) will continually forget what has happened, beginning his search all over again and that even Teddy himself may become a potential target for vengeance. After hearing Teddy's exposition, Leonard consciously makes the decision to do just what Teddy has revealed and which we've already learned at the beginning of the film, will lead to the events of Teddy's death. As previously cited, Leonard can't remember achieving vengeance, so it becomes necessary to start all over again...and again...and again.
(Wow! That's a lot to take in, but man, is it worth it!)
Having experienced MEMENTO (and if you're smart, you've experienced it more than once!), once can only come away praising its unique, nonlinear narrative structure and motifs of human memory, perception, grief, self-deception, and revenge. Guy Pearce gives a tight, outstanding and thoroughly convincing performance as a man on the loose and on the edge, and with no memory of any of it! Even many medical experts have cited this film as one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of anterograde amnesia in any motion picture. For myself, I can only conclude by saying that this sort of thought-provoking thriller is the kind of film that keeps reverberating in one's mind, and each iteration makes one examine any preconceived notions in a very different light. This is a film for anyone interested in the workings of human memory and, indeed, in what constitutes the makings of true reality. MEMENTO is also, again in my humble opinion, one of my top ten favorite films of the 2000s!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Natalie: "But even if you get revenge you're not gonna remember it. You're not even going to know that it happened."
Leonard Shelby: "My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn't make a difference whether I know about it. Just because there are things I don't remember doesn't make my actions meaningless. The world doesn't just disappear when you close your eyes, does it? Anyway, maybe I'll take a photograph to remind myself, get another freaky tattoo."