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“I Have to Believe in a World Outside My Own Mind”: Memento Twenty Years Later

You can’t really talk about the film industry these days without mentioning Christopher Nolan. Love him or loathe him–or something in between–the fifty-year-old filmmaker is a significant figure in the world of cinema. He has his pretensions, as well as his creative weak spots, and his fans can be toxic and annoying as hell. But there’s no denying that in an industry suffocated by the Disney/Marvel production philosophy that pushes movie-making ever further into a process resembling a soulless assembly line in which individual touch and unique vision are cast aside, Christopher Nolan stands as a representation of something different. His films might vary in quality–Dunkirk is something akin to a masterpiece, Interstellar is a muddled mess–but they all feel like deeply personal projects.

Hugely expensive and successful personal projects, but personal projects nonetheless. They might not be mid-budget auteur flicks that deeply interrogate the human condition or shine a light on our societies–Nolan is no Céline Sciamma or Lynne Ramsay–but when contrasted against the never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe content pipeline and the suffocating stranglehold that the comic book movie boom has gained over the industry’s wallet and imagination the past decade or so, even films like Tenet–a two hundred million dollar behemoth–begin to feel refreshing. Because at least there seems to be some idiosyncrasy there. Some individual touch that hasn’t been sanded down in the boardroom by Disney executives worried about how a film’s ending is going to affect the next seven sequels and spin-offs. When you watch a Christopher Nolan film, you do feel like you’re watching something made by a human being–with all the weaknesses and foibles as well as strengths that that entails–rather than something constructed by algorithm.

These days, the one-off blockbusters of Christopher Nolan stand almost as the lone competition in the multiplex arena. He puts out a film every few years. It’s big budget, and it’s an original story, and it brings in a lot of money at the box office. I myself prefer the quieter, smaller budget productions, but it’s nice to have room in the landscape of the industry for something like Inception or Dunkirk. I saw Dunkirk in the cinema and was blown away. Not just by the spectacle and the immersive audiovisual experience of the whole thing–which was superbly done–but even more so by the emotional impact. The horror of war and the fragile nature of human life and the camaraderie amidst the ruins of civilisation that the film was concerned with–those are the things that have stayed with me more than anything else. To my mind, Dunkirk is in competition for being Nolan’s best precisely because it marries the big to the small so well. All the spectacle and practical effects bombast is there, but it’s grounded by the story unfolding behind the actors’ eyes. Without the latter, action has no meaning, no heft.

Dunkirk may well be the film I think of most often when I think of Christopher Nolan now–except, that is, for one abiding bit of early career excellence that just refuses to be beaten. It’s been twenty years since a then-mostly-unknown Nolan released the follow-up to his micro-budget black and white debut, Following. Well, twenty years in the US. It’s been twenty-one years for the UK. The Guy Pearce-starring neo-noir Memento made its film festival debut in 2000, was released in Europe that same year, and then came to the United States in late January 2001. It did so to rave reviews, earning praise for its daring structure and the emotional payoff that it engendered. Memento is, of course, the story of Leonard Shelby, a man suffering from anterograde amnesia following a tragic incident in which two men broke into his home and attacked and murdered his wife (the, ahem, inception, of one Nolan’s creative crutches), leaving him with a brain injury. Leonard had killed one of the attackers during the altercation but the other–“John G.”–had gotten away. The police, however, never accepted that there was a second attacker, and so, driven by the last memories that he was capable of creating–his beloved wife dying on their bathroom floor–Leonard has taken it upon himself to hunt the second man down and to bring him to justice himself.

It’s not an easy task, by any means, going on a manhunt. Especially when you are incapable of making any new memories. If you are going to assume the role of detective, there are certain things you need to be able to do. Remember names, faces, follow evidence trails, use your past experience to discern fact from fiction, friend from foe. Leonard Shelby is biologically incapable of doing any of these things. He needs help. But he cannot be sure of who he can trust to help him, and so he makes sure to help himself. He keeps notes. Meticulous notes. He keeps them on the back of Polaroids of people and places taken on the camera he is never without. The really vital stuff, the trail of incontrovertible bits of evidence that he comes across that are to lead him to his wife’s killer–that he tattoos on his body (a great decision of instantly iconic image-making, the design of the tattoos coming across both as visually striking and aptly utilitarian).

The most famous aspect of Memento is probably its non-linear structure. The film proceeds along two parallel strands. One branch of the film plays out part of the story backwards, with each scene ending where the preceding one began. This strand is shot in color to help us easily distinguish from the other branch, which is shot in black and white and which alternates with the color strand, playing out its scenes chronologically. It is a very effective tool, deployed with precision and care by Nolan. It is also a thrill to watch, especially the first time, as your mind races to piece together the fractured clues of the mystery. The fact that the black and white portions mostly follow Leonard in his hotel room delivering exposition over the phone could be seen as too neat and convenient a device, but it works in context, and doesn’t distract from the experience.

More than anything else though, the device enhances the film not because it provides a fiendishly clever puzzle to solve, but because it succeeds in bringing us into the shattered mind of Leonard Shelby. It gives us a glimpse into the grim mirrored funhouse that this poor soul finds himself unable to escape. Just like Leonard, we are constantly disoriented, desperately scrabbling for clues, scanning the terrain for information and trying to read everyone to determine whether they mean well or not. His hunt for John G. becomes our hunt. This is what stands out to me about Memento all these years later, and what makes me rate it so highly among Nolan’s filmography. Each time I watch the film I am struck more and more by the overwhelming sorrow of Leonard’s situation and the pathos it generates.

“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 is still there.”

The opening of any film is such a delicate operation. As audience members, we are trained to experience it in a very specific way: We receive every meticulously chosen line and make instant judgements of the people we see as we try to catch up with what our protagonist already knows. In Memento, that protagonist is on the same level as us. He doesn’t know anything or anyone. When Joe Pantoliano first pops his head round the door of the Discount Inn and cheerfully greets Leonard with a, “Lenny!,” we have no way of knowing if he is friend or foe, and neither does Leonard. Not until he checks his notes anyway. But he will forget again, and he will have to check again. Slowly, we build up something of a picture of what’s happening, but poor Leonard keeps resetting to oblivion. Guy Pearce is an underrated and reliable presence on the big screen, and here he gives one of his very best performances, inhabiting Leonard’s perpetual cycles of quietly determined befuddlement and white hot rage perfectly. Right at the start of the movie, Leonard tells Pantoliano’s Teddy that they have to go a building on the outskirts of town, and he asks whether Teddy knows it. Teddy responds saying that, yes, but “It’s just this fucked up building. Why do you wanna go there?” To which Leonard replies, simply, yet with determination: “I don’t remember.”

Pearce’s delivery of the lines at the start of each of his resets are a highlight of the film, and provide a much needed bit of (admittedly downbeat) humour to bring contrast to the darkness. His variations on “Okay, where am I?” never get old. In one of his fade-ins, Leonard wakes up in a motel room bathroom with a bottle of liquor in his hand. We later find out that he’s waiting to ambush someone, the bottle an improvised weapon. But first we get to hear Leonard’s quick assessment of the situation: “Hmm, I don’t feel drunk.” My personal favourite of these comes when Leonard fades in and finds himself mid-run in an anonymous car park of some sorts. “Okay, so what am I doing?” he begins to himself, never breaking stride. He looks to his side and sees a man running parallel behind some cars. “Oh, I’m chasing this guy!” he surmises, his face growing darker, and he takes the next turn to close the distance to his assumed quarry. In a flash the other man turns towards him and brandishes a gun. A panicked look on Leonard’s face and quick reassessment of the situation–“No. He’s chasing me.”–and he changes direction and bolts away. The roller coaster of assumption, analysis, and emotion is performed perfectly by Pearce.

As Memento progresses and we learn more, we find out that it’s entirely possible that Leonard had in fact already found his wife’s killer, and that his vengeance brought him no peace whatsoever. He forgot all about it, and all he’s left with is the bitter unfulfilled taste that spurred his quest in the first place, and that has perhaps led him through this cycle multiple times. We even have to entertain the possibility that the story that Leonard repeats to himself religiously–about Sammy Jankis, a man he met through work who had the same condition as he and who accidentally killed his wife through an overdose of insulin–may well be a fabrication: That Leonard and his wife both survived the attack, but Leonard, left with his memory condition as a result, ended up killing her with insulin, and “Sammy” is just a construct designed to shield him from his guilt.

Leonard is frozen forever in the moments following a tragedy. He is so cruelly trapped forever in the trauma of bereavement, which the passage of time and the nurturing of new memories and experiences is meant to help soothe. There is no closure as such that follows someone’s death. No settling of the universe’s accounts. We come from nothing and are returned to nothing. The best that we can hope for is some peace of mind that comes with the acceptance of loss. Leonard Shelby can never know even such minimal release. Memento succeeds as much as it does because it understands how truly awful Leonard’s situation is, and it makes that its centrepiece. “I don’t even know how long she’s been gone,” says Leonard of his wife at one point, and that line hits like a ten ton hammer.

There’s a scene about halfway through the film that I always remember more than any other. Leonard has driven out in the dark, early hours, to a remote spot in an abandoned, industrial part of town. He has gone to burn some of his wife’s belongings. Leonard sits, staring into the fire that is consuming his wife’s favourite book, its dog-eared pages curling black. “Probably tried this before,” he says grimly, addressing the ghost that haunts him wherever he goes. “Probably burned truckloads of your stuff. Can’t remember to forget you.” And that’s all that’s said. No lengthy monologue. Just three simple lines, with an ocean of devastating emotion behind them. Where something like Tenet is an embodiment of what Christopher Nolan has become known for–huge action set-pieces on highways and in hangars–Memento reminds us of what Nolan used to trade in: Thoughtful character studies set in bars and motel rooms. The locations might have been smaller but the feelings hit that much harder.

Starring Guy Pearce on Plex:

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Petr has come to peace with the imminent fall of civilization. He thinks that as long as dogs, beer, and the Before Sunrise movies survive, then maybe it all wouldn't have been for nothing.

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