[See also my article on the Christopher Nolan Batman films and my review of his latest film, Inception.]
I was reading Allan Cameron’s work on modular narratives this week, (you can read and download the introductory chapter here) in advance of a seminar that would include Memento, so I thought I’d throw down some notes. Hopefully they’ll come out in some kind of comprehensible order, but if it gets a bit disjointed, I’ll try and claw back some credibility by pretending that I was trying to write in a “modular” fashion.
Cameron describes a trend in contemporary cinema for a kind of reconfigured narrative:
In its cinematic form, database or modular narrative goes beyond the classical deployment of flashback, offering a series of disarticulated narrative pieces, often arranged in radically achronological ways via flashforwards, overt repetition or a destabilization of the relationship between present and past.
I’m sure you can easily think of some films that don’t tell their stories in a linear chronological order from start to finish (21 Grams, Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Irreversible are some of the key examples Cameron cites), but he’s not claiming that this is now the default setting for cinematic storytelling, only that the mainstream acceptability of these formal exercises suggests that “audiences are now acclimatized to achronological narrative structures.” But, Cameron argues, these are usually not just films that shuffle their stories for the sake of it. They often become “tales about time”, where faith in storytelling, knowledge and subjectivity is brought into question:
Although the pleasure of navigating the narrative structures of these films is undoubtedly central to their appeal, many modular narratives also evoke a mood of temporal crisis by formally enacting a breakdown in narrative order. This mood of crisis is not simply a response to the mediating role of digital technology in contemporary society, or to the rise of the database as a cultural model. It also serves as one of the most recent extensions of a modern and postmodern discourse that continues to rethink the human experience of time in relation to science, technology and social and industrial organization.
Memento might be an excellent example of a tale about time, about “a mood of temporal crisis” represented by “enacting a breakdown in narrative order”.
[Oh, I should add, for those who haven't seen Memento but plan on doing so, from this point on there will be quite a lot of major plot spoilers. Sorry, but it's probably best if you stop reading and come back another day. I hate to see you leave, but it's for the best. Go and check out my post about A Trip to the Moon instead. It took me ages.]
It’s a detective story where Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) attempts to find his wife’s killer, working around his anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents him from creating new memories. I’d be tempted to posit the film as a “metaphysical detective” fiction, as described by Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney:
The metaphysical detective story is distinguished by the profound questions that it raises about narrative, interpretation, subjectivity, and the nature of reality, and the limits of knowledge. […] A metaphysical detective story is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions – such as narrative closure and the detective’s role as surrogate reader – with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot. Metaphysical detective stories often emphasise this transcendence, moreover, by becoming self-reflexive (that is, by representing allegorically the text’s own processes of composition).
Detective fictions seem very familiar to us, and their outcomes are usually dictated by the form: they set up the expectation, born of habit, that the detective will show the skills needed to solve the crime and fill in the plot gaps. Following a narrative is like following the clues that can lead to the solution of the crime (that’s what they mean by “the detective’s role as surrogate reader”), and the pleasure of a crime story tends to be the final falling-into-place of the clues which were offered along the way with no immediate certainty about their connection to one another or to a particular suspect. Subverting expectation is not only a threat to the prowess of the (usually masculine) detective, but also to the “rules” of the genre. One of the main forms that this subversion can take place, according to Merivale and Sweeney, is the “defeated sleuth”, the hero who fails, just like Jake Gittes fails to bring justice (and makes the current situation much worse into the bargain) at the end of Chinatown. The most fundamental failing a detective could make is to pursue a killer that isn’t there, or worse: to turn out to be the killer…
Even though Lenny turns out to be perpetrator of an uncertain number of killings, the film manufactures a sympathetic view of him as victim, at least until his true condition becomes clearer. As director Christopher Nolan notes, the reversal of the plot sequence completely alters the response the spectator is expected to have to the film’s protagonist:
It’s not that it doesn’t work forwards, because it does. Technically it works, logically it works. It just becomes unbearable to watch. It becomes this horrible portrayal of this guy being abused and abused. The only way to get around that is to prevent the audience from seeing that abuse until much later in the film. People still seem to sympathise with him, they still want to view him in the way he views himself, which is as this kind of heroic avenging figure.
Lenny’s status as hero depends upon the delusional state constructed by the achronological structure, demonstrating how contingent and manipulative cinematic sympathies can be. Rob Content suggests in his review that the film is an indictment of the formal techniques which often narrativise horror and injustice in order to make it acceptable:
Leonard’s inability to acquire new memories after being clubbed on the head is not only a life-shattering individual catastrophe for him. It’s also the ground figure of a metaphor for the obstruction of historical memory about the criminal exercise of power – a criminality which, just like Leonard’s perverse and ultimately absurdist mission of retaliation, is typically masked as the pursuit of justice. [...] In an unusually frank gloss on Santayana’s often-quoted but little understood dictum on the forgetting of history, Memento demonstrates that those condemned to repeat history are condemned to enact their own criminal participation in its horrors. [...] Nolan’s great achievement lies in the unsparing use of formal devices of first-person characterisation to expose flawed moral character. Leonard Shelby’s murder of Teddy Gammell, committed right before our eyes in the film’s opening moments, is being made okay with us. Like the representation of so many other horrific killings executed within range of our view (and, very often, in justice’s name and so in ours), mass media’s form remains its fatalistic message.
According to Content, then, the film problematises the process of investigation and confronts the viewer’s longing for the reassuring pleasures of justice simplistically and tidily administered. But let’s not forget that Lenny is not a professional detective. This is an investigative role he has created for himself, a construct that conveniently casts him in a performance that masks his true role as a puppeteered killer. The most chilling revelation of the film’s conclusion is that we don’t know how many people Lenny has killed. Teddy’s nonchalance in arranging the kills and manouevring him into position suggests that this is a well-oiled routine. Watching the film again this week, I noticed a flash of recognition in Lenny’s eyes just before he shoots Teddy, as if he realises that he is playing a part, but the part has become his life and he refuses to give it up. Did I imagine this, or was I being invited to entertain the notion that Lenny might be faking his condition to avoid facing up to the reality of his loss? Maybe not, but one of the pleasures of the film is the way that it sensitises the viewer to its deliberate clues, and thus ends up making every detail seem heavy with potential significance: by unhooking all the effects from their cases and reversing them, the investigative instinct is prompted by the novelty to think more keenly about these things. And this is a film packed with clues, it’s signature shot being Pearce’s hands turning over a bit of text, a note or a photograph:
His sense of touch is one that he feels he can rely on. Solid objects carry more certainty than remembered ones, voices or interpretations.
But Leonard has also created his own clues with what Esther M. Sternberg dubs “a meticulous artificial memory system”. His main problem is his confusion of photographs with objects. Whatever their status as tangible things, they are primarily vessels of information that carries little in the way of inalienable factual weight, despite the assertion in the tattoo that reads “CAMERA NEVER LIES”.
In a fabulous article about the film in which he examines the film’s approximation of human memory in states of trauma, William G. Little discusses Lenny’s use of objects to construct a map of his former life. He draws on Susan Stewart’s theories on the nature of souvenirs as compensation for an existence disengaged from the sense of a real world. She argues that:
Within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for an authentic object become critical. As experience is increasingly mediated and abstracted, the lived relation of the body to the phenomenological world is replaced by a nostalgic myth of contact and presence. ‘Authentic’ experience becomes both elusive and allusive as it is placed beyond the horizon of present lived experience, the beyond in which the antique, the pastoral, the exotic, and other fictive domains are articulated.
In Little’s astute analysis, it follows from this that the souvenir is “as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. Insofar as it serves to ‘discredit’ or discount a corrupt present in favour of an orginal past, the memento operates, repeatedly, as the activator of short-term memory loss.” That is, it allows Leonard to cling to the objects from the past whose meaning and significance (unlike his shattered experience of the present) never changes. He is fond of these authenticating things. He doesn’t like talking on the phone because he prefers people to be present, as if their unmediated proximity is more truthful. As Little puts it:
This claim expresses a conviction that modern information systems inevitably carry a ‘long distance’ charge, whereas physical proximity insures unmediated contact. According to this logic, face-to-face exchange guarantees an untroubled experience of presence.
Leonard therefore records “facts” by turning his own body into a living souvenir, the ultimate guarantee of presence and authenticity, an index of the self that cannot be mediated. He attaches a similar evidential force to the texts and photographs which he uses to build up a map of the remnants of his life. His mistake is to count photographs as indexes of presence, when most of us would presume that photographs are interpretive images whose meaning is almost entirely contingent on context. In Lenny’s artificial memory, arranged on his skin and on his walls, images, objects and text become placeholders for people. Because the story is told out of sequence, cause-and-effect relationships between people and their actions have to be calculated and pieced together, rather than being seen as the natural fallout of characters’ behaviour. One moment I find especially frightening in the film is when Natalie tries to tear up a photograph, destroying the evidence; Lenny immediately tells her “you have to burn them”, as if he has burned a lot of photographs of his victims in his time.
Many viewers will spot the half-dozen frames that show Leonard in Sammy’s place in the institution. It’s a a simple, quasi-subliminal cue that their identities have become confused in Leonard’s mind, but it also undermines the faith in the photographic that Leonard holds so firmly. One of his tattoos reads “Camera doesn’t lie. Notes can be lost”, affirming his wish to attach special significance to the photographs he takes, but this glitch in the filmed inserts of Sammy’s story unseats the photograph from its position as privileged truth-teller: we the viewers have been invited to impute the veracity of Sammy’s backstory by its presentation as a flashback, with the same evidential status as anything else in the film. Though we begin to suspect that Leonard’s evidence is insecure, we at least expect that what we see actually happened, even if we’re not certain how it should be interpreted.
What he doesn’t realise, and what the viewer doesn’t realise until it’s too late, is that these signifiers don’t refer to an actual state of affairs, but to a constructed set of facts that have been manipulated by Teddy and Natalie, but which might also constitute Lenny’s radical reworking of his former life: Rob Content points out that we are led to suspect that Lenny has idealised his marriage, which is indicated occasionally as a fractious affair (he hates being called Lenny, hates her reading her book repeatedly etc.), and has created an investigator’s role to inflate his original job of “insurance salesman” (as Teddy teases him) into something more heroic and pro-active. If we follow this line of argument, we’re left with little certainty about how much Lenny has fabricated “the facts” by selected the souvenirs he chooses to represent his past; we see him burning some mementos, keeping others, and we know that he has been crossing out or removing parts of the police file that don’t fit with his theories. As Cameron suggests:
Leonard, despite his memory disorder, makes use of his memory of past events in order to create a coherent narrative. Rather than drifting helplessly through a detemporalised world, Leonard actively remtemporalises his experiences, giving them a temporal order and thereby endowing himself with a history and an identity.
If there’s a clue to the misleading status of Lenny’s memory objects, it’s in the film’s title, which is an abbreviation of the short story by Jonathan Nolan on which it is based, Memento Mori (you can read the whole thing here). An art historical term for those blunt symbols of mortality inserted into paintings, “memento mori” is Latin for “reminder of death”, or “remember you must die”. This gives me a spurious excuse to repeat the image of Philippe de Champaigne’s Still Life With a Skull (1671), in which the symbols of life, death and time are laid out like single entendres on a block of stone, or Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), a personal favourite in which the portrait is morbidly undercut by an anamorphic skull beneath the subjects (see below – click for a larger view or go here, for a detailed close-up, and see image right for a detail of the skull). The film’s title hides the bit about “death”, leaving the less sinister term for “souvenir” or “reminder”. Lenny, too, though he has remembered his wife’s death, has forgotten the cause of death, and denies his own mortality by staying in a perpetual, timeless state of readiness for retaliation. In Holbein‘s painting, the image of death is hidden by the anamorphosis (you have to look at it from a certain angle to recognise it as a skull), and the two figures are oblivious to its iconography, preferring to be surrounding with their other artefacts of their profession. Lenny believes that by keeping mementos, he is guarding himself against forgetting what is important, without acknowledging that he is actually selecting the evidence to help him construct an alternate set of facts that block out the truth of the deaths he has inflicted.
It could be argued that Memento‘s approach to narration, with its drag-and-drop approach to cause and effect, is a bi-product of the digital age, as if a greater facility and familiarity with Random Access Memory equips spectators to better handle the demands of non-sequential stories. It’s an attractive argument, but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny when there are plenty of examples of modular narratives prior to the digital age (Annie Hall springs to mind) which are not conceptually baffling to their viewers. But the kinds of repeat viewings and close scrutiny of intricate narratives, and the kinds of attentive, diligent viewing they foster, fits in nicely with the trade in home viewing invigorated by DVD sales. DVDs, much more so than VHS tapes, allow you to take control of the telling of a tale, to slow down rapid action or sudden horror, skip to favourite scenes or fast forward to important parts of the plot you may have misunderstood on an earlier viewing. They let you modularise any film, should you wish to (I feel sure that most of us still prefer the old fashioned method of starting at the beginning and travelling forwards to the end). The Memento DVD can do this work for you, with an option to view the film in chronological order. Is it necessary? The redundancy of this feature (surely the “chapter selection” section can do this job, if your brain hasn’t already done the job of mentally arranging the pieces in sequence) is perhaps good evidence that modularity is a side-effect of digital technology – Leonard’s construction of his own database of “facts”, loosed from the temporal significance as he searches for their semantic connections, mirrors the non-linearity of digital media. Further cementing this link is the DVD menu screen that resituates Guy Pearce’s tattooed body as an index for navigating the film:
But the film’s evocation of a wounded mind arises from its finely tuned reversal of narrative convention; playing it “forwards” makes less sense than its intended order – the clues are overdetermined and obvious, the suspense and mystique dissolved from every situation, proving conversely that it is really a film about time, memory, and the ways in which alienation from the comforts of linear narrative can be devastating, and thus that narrativisation is an artificial comfort that guards against chaos and contingency.
Here are some extra notes that I couldn’t find a way to work into my argument, but wanted to download from my brain:
- Lenny’s tattoo needles echo the insulin needles whose object (Leonard’s wife? Sammy’s wife?) has been mixed up in his mind, as does the sly injunction by Lenny’s wife to not “be a prick”.
- Balding and nebbish, Sammy Jankis is supposed to be thoroughly distinct from lean, peroxided Guy Pearce, but if there’s an advance hint that Sammy is a more crucial icon of misplaced memory and cyclical narrative, it’s the casting Stephen Tobolowsky. Remember him as Ned Ryerson, perpetually-punched recipient of Bill Murray’s repetitive frustration in Groundhog Day? In both instances,Tobolowsky is used as a marker of a trapped memory, a looped recollection that each protagonist must come to learn from.
Reading List (suggestions for further reading welcome):
- Esther M. Sternberg, “Piecing Together a Puzzling World”. Science vol.292, 1 June 2001.
- Allan Cameron, Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema (2008). (Download the introduction here.)
- Allan Cameron, “Contingency, Order, and the Modular Narrative: 21 Grams and Irreversible“. The Velvet Light Trap no.58 (Fall 2006): 65-78.
- Melissa Clarke, “The Space-Time Image: the Case of Bergson, Deleuze, and Memento.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol.16 no.3 (2002): 167-181.
- Rob Content, “Review: Memento“. Film Quarterly vol.56, no.4 (2003) 36-41.
- Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film” in Warren Buckland (ed.) Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (WileyBlackwell, 2009): 13-41.
- Francie Lin, “Double Think”. Film (Fall 2001), 27.
- William G. Little, “Surviving Memento“. Narrative vol.13, no.1 (January 2005): 67-83.
- Patricia Merivale & Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Detecting Texts: The Metaphysical Detective Story from Poe to Postmodernism.
- J.J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (London: Continuum, 2008).