A memento of Memento

I just watched an incredible film and want to tell you about it before I forget.

We all lie to ourselves to be happy.

I’m not lying. I like the quotation.

The prospect of reviewing Memento is wholly overwhelming. I don’t think I’ll even try actually. I’ll just note down my initial response, my appreciation, post utter mind-blown viewing.

Hang on. Memento as in the film that came out all the way back in 2000? Have you been living under a rock? Yup. But that’s pretty hipster now, remember? I’d review a 2015 film if I could. Allow me to remind you, if you did last watch it over a decade ago, how awesome it is. Or allow me to persuade you to watch it, if you’re even more hipster than me, and haven’t got around to it yet. Heads up in advance – there are no major spoilers here.

Question: Who’s better than Christopher Nolan? Answer: Indie Christopher Nolan. This film was his early second hit, its plot based on a short story, ‘Memento Mori’, written by his brother Jonathan. A nice touch I think. It’s about Leonard Shelby, a sufferer of short-term memory loss, short-term memory loss (I won’t be doing that again, don’t worry), who tries to hunt down the man he believes killed his wife. His investigation, even day to day life, relies on a ton of post-it notes, a scrapbook load of Polaroid pictures, and plenty of DIY tattoos. Leonard’s interaction with these objects provides some really cool visuals, a tattoo covered, topless Guy Pearce included. Nolan has you sit through these emotive speeches from Leonard’s friend, Teddy. Where he implores our protagonist to move on… and he’s just about looking convinced… until he checks his little Polaroid snap:

Don't believe his lies

The complexity of this film is superlative. But its greatest quality is that this complexity isn’t lost on non-Nolan mortal viewers. It makes sense, kind of. So often clever plots are so intricate they leave you completely in the dark. Memento is different. The landing light is left dim. Nolan crafts twists and turns, leading you all over the place, destroying your sense of direction, only to reveal you have ended up back where you started. I can only describe the film’s ending as an immensely smug one. Nolan permits you that oh my god moment of realisation only because it forces you to appreciate his ingenious trickery. The same flair crops up in some of the dialogue. In a flashback with his wife, the protagonist says, ‘I always thought the joy of reading a book is not knowing what happens next’. Irony alert. Irony alert. The joy of watching Memento is that, in theory, you do know what happens next, that’s if you can keep up with the scrambled narrative (totally did).

A few words on the film’s structure are due then. I know structure isn’t really a fun word, so I’ve borrowed (stolen) a diagram to spice things up a little. The film plays out a non-linear narrative that combines two sequences. A black and white one is constructed chronologically, while a coloured one is told in reverse. The colour coding is very generous on Nolan’s part. He ties the threads together seamlessly at the end, creating a classic circular plot. This film’s simplicity is its intricacy.

The aforementioned fun diagram to illustrate Nolan’s narrative wizardry (includes spoilers):

Memento Timeline

Plot overview. Narrative structure. What’s left? Two cool bits and another quotation.

Firstly, there’s a scene, crucial to Leonard’s character depth, where he burns his wife’s stuff. What’s special about Leonard? He forgets things – specifically, new things. What can’t Leo forget? (Let’s just call him that herein.) Long-term memories. What’s the one thing in particular he wants to forget? Bingo. His wife’s death. We have a tragedy. Leo says, ‘If we can’t make memories, we can’t heal.’ Irony alert. Irony alert. Only in erasing his wife’s memory can Leonard heal. But that’s an impossibility – one that haunts Nolan’s miserable protagonist.

Forget that he looks pretty happy below.

Leo Polaroid

My last mention goes out to the Sammy Jankis. Sad, sad Sammy. The emotional magnitude of this film is entrenched in this subplot. He’s a sufferer of the same condition as Leonard, but a passive sufferer. Our protagonist is determined to learn from Sammy’s case and beat the disability. Nolan’s portrayal of mental illness has been deservedly praised by specialists. He captures how society struggles to empathise with those suffering with mental illness in the same way we can with physical illness. He gets this just right, with none of the glorification you might see elsewhere.

Sammy

That’s all I have to say really, which just leaves room for this cracking quotation:

I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.

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