I made my first short film when I was fifteen years old, a crime-thriller about deception and identity, presented completely out of order. I wrote it a few months after watching Memento for the first time, and if memory serves, it was a complete disaster. The cinematic concepts of the plot twist and the non-linear structure fascinated me to no end, and re-creating them was somewhat of an obsession of mine, even though I had little to no actual understanding of them at the time. It’s a hard thing to reconcile, being so wrong about something that felt so right, and for years I’d try to justify it, but perhaps it’s something that’s best left forgotten. The lesson therein, as I see it, is less to do with my own work and more to do with understanding and interpreting the works of other people, in this case Christopher Nolan. If we’re talking about the specific concepts at play, from the writing to the editing and the approach to narrative perspective, then Memento is perhaps the perfect culmination of all those things. An almost flawlessly assembled piece that provokes both inspection and introspection, and one that uses the concept of human memory as its chariot.
The film’s structure is unique, both in how it delivers action as well as exposition. Two timelines, one running forward, one running backward, both meeting in the middle with the film’s ‘final’ scene acting as both a turning point as well as a somewhat surprising ending. The film alternates between the two plot threads, with the ‘present’ timeline in colour, presenting scenes in reverse order, and the ‘past’ timeline in black and white, moving forward to meet the other one. The screentime during the latter is dedicated entirely to Leonard Shelby, as he narrates his experiences and his condition to either us, or to a mysterious character on the phone, and everything he says or describes is with the utmost certainty. The events in this timeline have already taken place, as we see Leonard tattooing clues about his wife’s murder onto his body, the same clues we see during the timeline in colour. Technically, the coloured timeline has also ‘already happened’ since we’re seeing it in reverse, but the major difference between the two and how it manifests (colour and lack thereof) relies on our own understanding of both memory and the language of cinema, and how the two relate to each other. To us, black and white means old. It’s a thing of the past, and the harsh lighting is reminiscent specifically of classic American Film Noir of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Of course, that isn’t the only purpose of the stark shadows. Leonard Shelby is a man shrouded in uncertainty. People are as wary of him as he is of himself, and part of the reason for it is his condition: he can’t make new memories. The story begins (or ends, depending on how you look at it) with Leonard shooting a man in the head based on a clue written on a Polaroid. This man is Teddy, whose identity in relation to Leonard keeps changing as the film progresses, and we learn more about him, about Leonard, and about all the other characters as we move backwards through time. Leonard’s condition keeps him from remembering things that have just taken place, so he obsessively writes them down, and catalogs important information in the form of tattoos or photographs. He’s been tracking down his wife’s killer for a while now, but he no longer has any real concept of time. He claims to remember everything before the break-in that left him disabled, right up until the moment of his wife’s death right in front of his eyes, and everything since has involved him acting on the basis of clues that he doesn’t remember leaving.
In the black and white timeline, he narrates the story of a man he met while investigating insurance fraud, Sammy Jankis. Sammy had a similar condition, and his wife ended up in a coma because of his carelessness. Now Leonard has a tattoo of Sammy’s name, and keeps telling people Sammy’s story to remind himself how he’s more organized, and thus, more trustworthy. People try to pick holes in the film’s logic by asking how Leonard knows he can’t remember things if he can’t remember things, which is a silly question to ask since the film deals so heavily with repetition, the nature of memory and its ability to distort details, as well as the relationship between memories that are long and short term. Leonard’s story about Sammy involves the question of conditioning, and how our minds can be made to retain certain kinds of information, which is likely how Leonard was able to absorb and retain the details of his condition, the same condition being faked by the real-life Sammy, as it turns out. The story of Sammy’s wife falling into a coma due to an insulin overdose was actually his own, because his wife survived the attack that night, and since her death he’s convinced himself that she died the same night his ability to retain memories did, and he no longer has any recollection of her diabetes. He claims to remember everything before the incident, and yet, he’s forced himself to forget certain details in order to make his narrative more convenient – his own Hollywood action hero story of tracking down the man who murdered his wife, working around police conspiracies and infiltrating drug rings to get closer to whom he thinks is the killer at any given moment. Until he does this, he’s going to feel inept, like he failed at performing the duty of protecting his wife. According to Teddy, he already killed ‘John G’, the man supposedly responsible, but despite Leonard’s claims that he would remember doing so, he didn’t, and the empty space on his chest reserved for a tattoo saying he’d done the deed remains empty. His life returns to its impotent state until he decides to create a puzzle for himself, perhaps multiple times over, so that he could give himself something to live for. Some kind of purpose.
Anterograde amnesia is the condition that Leonard describes, the inability to make new memories while retaining old ones. The short term memories last minutes or seconds, and because they can’t be retained as long-term, Leonard’s existence is like a perpetual waking up. A constant state of in medias res. However, just like memory itself, Anterograde amnesia is not an absolute. Its polar opposite, Retrograde amnesia (the retention of new memories without the recollection of old ones) has been known to exist alongside its counterpart, and it’s entirely plausible that unbeknownst to him, he may even have some combination of the two that distorts the stories of Sammy, his wife and Sammy’s wife (who never existed to begin with), or he may have even made an active decision to convince himself of this new backstory somewhere along the way. There’s really no way for us to know, because there’s no way for Leonard to know. All we’re privy to is a small window into his existence, spanning a couple of days and some very key decisions that tap into who he was, and who he is today.
The film’s expert editing, likely a harrowing process, is vital to the story making any kind of sense. It’s a herculean task as it is, arranging scenes that fit together in such a specific way, but knowing exactly where to switch between timelines is a vital part of it. If viewed in chronological order, the ‘scenes’ as we traditionally understand them (based on a change in location or time of day) would have a very different flow to them, as those changes in time or locale would be the exit and entry points for the timelines. However, the main story’s reverse approach exists to drop you, the viewer, right in the middle of a scene or situation with no idea as to what happened prior, the same way Leonard might experience it. The only other context for what came before lies in what came after (the film is so precisely written that this doesn’t help you figure out what’s happening), along with what’s being narrated during the black and white scenes. Everything Leonard says or describes here is part of this well of information that he believes to be true during the film. All the information therein is part of his long-term memory, or at least his long-term memory as both he and we perceive it. At its outset, the black and white timeline is a factual core intended to convey information, with the coloured timeline acting as an emotional journey that relies on the factual context, as it contains almost none of its own.
The necessary lack of context is what allows traditionally expected entry and exit points to wither away. There’s no setting established at the beginning of a scene, no characters having conversations, or information as to their wants or needs. Not at first anyway. The cutting points are usually moments of confusion, heightened tension or paranoia (waking up in a bathroom with a bottle in hand, searching for a pen to jot down something important, finding a stranger in your bed) and those heightened moments allow us to piece the scene together in our heads. Most of the time, our entry points into the scene involve another character, and Leonard’s reaction to them. The man laughing at the bar. The hotel desk attendant asking him questions. Natalie walking in with a bruised face. Dodd chasing him. Teddy startling him in his car. Each time, how the scene plays out is dependent on Leonard’s response to these people. More importantly, it’s the fact that he registers them. Their presence. Their words. The impulses they cause in him. It’s what triggers the creation of a memory rather than simply something that’s glossed over, and that specific, short-lived memory is what becomes the scene. It’s what keeps the film going in a constant forward direction despite the fact that it’s moving backwards, and it’s what helps keep us align ourselves with the perspective and experience of Leonard Shelby.
The short story that the film was kind of, sort of based on (Jonathan Nolan’s Memento Mori) features a similar premise, but is presented in a linear fashion, ending with the lead character Earl finally getting his revenge but not remembering it. The 2005 Tamil rip-off Ghajini, and its subsequent 2008 Hindi remake by the same director, both feature a similar lead character who can’t make new memories and uses clues he left himself to track down his wife’s killer, but both films are also completely linear, which defeats the purpose of telling a story from the perspective of a man with this condition. However, it’s not just about making people confused for a moment before delivering a surprise or a plot turn. As much as obstacles might be thrown in the way of a character like Leonard in a linear version of the story, the removal of the film’s unique structure then reduces the plot to a very standard action/crime thriller. Which is not to say that it’s bad, it’s just not Memento.
Watching the film in its intended order requires constant involvement. A continuous process of putting the pieces together in your head, like you’re going over all the clues and connecting the dots alongside the character. Not only that, doing so brings into question the nature of each and every event, especially the second time around, and while the film deals with deception and hidden identities, the one thing it’s up front about from the very start is the unreliable nature of memories in relation to facts. However, as the film goes on, there begins to be a conversation about the importance of memories despite their unreliability, the kind of importance that facts can never hold.
“We all need memories to remind ourselves who we are.”
“If we can’t make memories, we can’t heal.”
Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker whose works often fall on the side of stoic dedication to duty above all else (the exception perhaps being Interstellar), but by telling this story in reverse, it’s as if he was deconstructing an entire body of work he hadn’t even created yet. Leonard’s focused drive to complete his mission was a self-perpetuating construct, the sort of traditionally hyper-masculine desire that exists because we create it and project it and get others to aspire to it. But, in reverse-engineering this story, he eventually touts the importance of a personal identity rooted in memory as an emotional concept, as opposed to an identity spun out of facts and police reports. The latter absolutely has an emotional element to it, but just as memories can be distorted, facts can too, and while emotional stimuli exist as responses to facts as we interpret them, memories are, in their own way, an encapsulation of emotions themselves, regardless of whether or not they’re completely ‘real.’
Towards the very end of the film, which takes place during the middle of the story, Leonard asks “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” which is a valid question for any of us. Perhaps the space reserved for the tattoo telling him he’d completed his mission will always remain empty, but it’s the idea that he’s constantly working towards filling that physical and emotional void that keeps him going. As he’s driving away, we see a brief flash of an impossible moment, where he’s both with his wife, and has taken revenge for her death.
This flash isn’t a memory, not in the traditional sense, but it occupies the same visual space as all of Leonard’s other memories of his wife. A brief moment of calm amidst the chaos. And while Leonard’s fate is uncertain, as is absolutely everything else in the film, perhaps he might someday get to a point of reconciliation where part of this vision is allowed to slip past the barrier, be it in a literal or emotional sense. Where having found some sort of inner peace becomes a memory that sticks, one that helps him to heal, and one that becomes part of his identity in the process. In the meantime, everything that he does isn’t just a search for the mysterious John G, but a search for himself, the kind of self that he can be content with. But until he finds that person, he has to keep moving forward.