Some movies are never forgotten
… where was I?” – Leonard Shelby
movie begins with the opening credits running over a man flicking
a Polaroid picture. As the scene progresses, the picture quality of
the Polaroid decreases until it finally disappears and the snapshot
is inserted into the camera. It is the first tip-off this is no normal
movie we are about to watch. The director is telling us we are watching
a story told in reverse.
directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby,
Carrie-Anne Moss as Natalie and Joe Pantoliano as Teddy, is the story
of an insurance investigator (Pearce) searching for the killer of
his wife. Moss and Pantoliano play characters that may be helping
or hindering his search. Pearce’s character, Leonard Shelby, is conducting
his own private investigation. What complicates his search is the
injury he received when he and his wife were attacked. Leonard suffers
from anterograde memory dysfunction – the inability to make new memories
– as a result of head trauma received during the attack. He can remember
everything up to the attack, but since then, new memories fade after
about 15 minutes.
movie, released in 2001, generated a large box office return with
minimal advertising. The movie created a fanatical following and an
equally determined group of detractors. These two opposing groups
center on the same issue: the manner in which the story is told.
film is usually described as being told in 10-minute flashbacks, with
each flashback illuminating the preceding scene. Yet this is just
a half-truth. A separate narrative interspersed among the flashbacks
moves in a forward, linear timeline. The two storylines finally converge
to reveal the central mystery of the movie.
flashback scenes are in color, while the chronological scenes are
in black and white. Thus the movie alternates between flashback and
chronological scenes, between color and black and white, until the
forward story and the backward story converge and the black and white
turns to color.
all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.”
– Leonard Shelby
am I? This question, in various forms, is posed through out the film.
Who am I? What am I doing? What goals do I have? Leonard Shelby and
others keep asking these questions in relation to Leonard. The answers
highlight the importance of memory and the way that memory is an integral
part of who we are. For Leonard, these questions serve as a necessary
guide to direct and redirect his focus towards his goal.
mirrors are his tattoos, his photos with handwritten notes, his police
file and his map. His inability to make new memories has stopped his
life. Each day, possibly several times a day, he starts from the point
of having to remember his wife is dead. For him, the wound is ever
fresh, the loss is new, the pain is sharp and piercing. Only his many
notes remind him that it happened years ago.
the audience, one realization derived from the film is the central
part memory plays in making us who we are. Memory, so central to our
perception of self, betrays Leonard. As he notes, he has lost his
ability to live. In many ways, he died the night of the attack and
is a living, breathing ghost doomed to wander seeking vengeance.
passes, memories fade, old wounds heal. For us, this is a part of
the passage of life. Yet Leonard cannot experience this type of relief.
For him, time has ceased to pass. He will maintain no memories beyond
the attack and death of his wife. Thus his identity is now wrapped
solely in that memory. He is now the eternal avenger, forever looking
for the man who killed his wife. This is his one and only reason for
mirrors he has chosen – the tattoos, the notes, the pictures, the
memory of his wife dying – reflect this at him. His mirrors give his
life meaning and direction. They also serve to guide him through everyday
life. Things a normal person would remember, such as an appointment
with someone, Leonard only “remembers” when he sees a note about the
appointment as he starts to write down a tip about navigating through
life. His notes, photos and tattoos control every aspect of his life.
Yet this is also what allows him to persevere, permitting his mirrors,
his memories, to give his life its limited direction.
paraphrase Michael Crighton from his novel “Sphere,” memory is such
an integral part of who and what we are as to be indistinguishable
from our self. Personality derives in part from memory, our life is
formed by memory, and society is built from the shared memory known
as history. From Leonard’s perspective every day, each moment was
immediately preceded by the attack. His new memories are preserved
artificially, made up of photos with notes, tattoos and a map that
attempts to arrange the photos in a meaningful relationship to one
another. Life changes everyone, whether it is a change in career or
marital status or lifestyle, and Leonard is no exception. Memories
are among the fuels for this change. Actions are taken based on these
memories, and we adapt and move forward. Leonard’s problem is that
he is stuck in a kind of perverse “Groundhog Day,” as his injury does
not allow him to move on.
I can only make you remember the things you want to be true.” – Teddy
talking to Leonard
problem Leonard is only partially aware of is his ability to be manipulated
by others. Several times during the movie, this type of situation
will confront Leonard. Yet he believes he has developed methods –
the photos, notes, tattoos and instincts – that allow him to deal
with these situations. In fact, at one point in the movie Leonard
will knowingly manipulate himself. While the average person would
remember what previously happened, Leonard is a prisoner of his photos
and notes. For him, if it isn’t written down or photographed, it didn’t
happen. And this becomes the key to his self-manipulation.
at least you’re being honest about ripping me off.” – Leonard talking
can be and often are the most engaging type of film. The best are
those that keep you guessing up to the final scene. “Memento” is that
rare movie that keeps you guessing even after the credits have rolled.
There are enough unanswered questions to provide fodder for many discussions.
Not that the film doesn’t provide a clear ending; it does. But the
ending opens the door to other questions. Without giving away plot
points, consider where Teddy got the snapshot he had. Or wonder whether
Teddy and Natalie knew one another. The movie suggests Teddy took
the picture. The second question is never answered, although both
Teddy and Natalie separately deny knowledge of the other to Leonard.
Ambiguity is a part of everyone’s life. You will be talking about
next week, next month and next year.
those seeing the movie for the first time, I envy you for the unique
thrill you are about to experience. For those seeing the film again,
enjoy the nuances that only reveal themselves upon repeated viewing.
Will Reilly is a fraud investigator.
He is currently working on a novel involving a phone call to a wrong
number. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.