Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Volumes, myriad of pages, lectures, countless hours have been written and spoken about Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking film, MEMENTO (2000). Yet egotist that I am, I felt that the world needed one more interpretation; mine. And besides, who am I to deny the world its due?
Cinema of the Reverse
Director Christopher Nolan was unknown in 1996 as he took a cross-country trip with his brother, Jonathan; who pitched a storyline to him. Christopher loved it and they began to collaborate on the project. Christopher finished his screenplay for a future film before Jonathan finished his short story, which he called MEMENTO MORI. The film did not come to fruition immediately. In Jonathan’s story, the protagonist is called Earl, and many of the plot pieces were the same, writing notes and having things tattooed on his body, but unlike the film, his wife was definitely murdered, and there was no ambiguity about Earl finding and killing the anonymous man responsible.
Memento: Something that serves to warn or remind; souvenir; aka Momento.
Nolan was born in England, and he spent his childhood moving back and forth between the United Kingdom and the States; ending up with dual citizenship. Like Steven Spielberg, Nolan started making films when he was seven years old, working with his father’s Super 8-MM camera and his toy action figures. When he went to college in England, he was an English Literature major.
Christopher Nolan said, “I studied English Literature in college. I wasn’t a very good student, but one thing I did get from it, while I was making films at the same time with the college film society –was that I started thinking about the narrative freedoms that authors had enjoyed for centuries, and it seemed to me that filmmakers should enjoy these freedoms as well.”
Nolan also was quoted to have said, “In commercials and music videos, cross-cutting and parallel actions are absolutely standard and acceptable as a mainstream language. Filmmakers, like me, enjoy the fruits of that experimentation and the absorption by the mainstream. I think people’s capacity to absorb a fractured storyline is extraordinary compared to 40 years ago.”
Following the extraordinary success of MEMENTO, Nolan went on to making several more important films. He directed INSOMNIA (2000), giving us an excellent remake of the Swedish crime thriller. His American version starred Al Pacino and Robin Williams. After that film did well, Nolan wrote a great screenplay, and began to put together a film on Howard Hughes. He got Jim Carrey interested in starring in it. But then the word came down that Martin Scorsese was making THE AVIATOR (2004), with Leonardo DiCaprio, this scuttled interest in Nolan’s epic. So he went on to direct BATMAN BEGINS (2005), reinventing the caped crusader saga, reinvigorating the series, and beginning his association with actor Christian Bale—who also starred in THE PRESTIGE (2006), and presently they are putting the finishing touches on the next Batman film, THE DARK KNIGHT, which is to be released in 2008.
Like many film projects, MEMENTO underwent several casting changes. Nolan at first tried to get Alec Baldwin for the lead. Then Brad Pitt was slated to play the part, and he was interested in it, but was unable to do it because of a conflict with another project. Other actors auditioned include Aaron Eckhart and Thomas Jane. I think the one other actor who might have been very good in the part was Val Kilmer. When Guy Pearce was chosen for the role, it was in part because he was not a huge celebrity, and when he discussed the role, he was very enthusiastic. This turned out to be essential since Pearce had to be on the set for every day of the shooting.
Mary McCormack was very interested in getting the role of Natalie, but Nolan had seen THE MATRIX (1999) and was very impressed with Carrie-Anne Moss. Nolan said, “Carrie added an enormous amount to the role of Natalie that wasn’t on the page.” For the role of Teddy, the corrupt cop, Moss suggested one of her co-stars from THE MATRIX, Joe Pantoliano. Nolan was very pleased with the “subtlety” the actor brought to the role. Jorja Fox was still fairly unknown at that time, before her seven successful seasons on CSI, with William Petersen, and she brought both mystery and softness to the role of Leonard’s wife. Larry Holden played the dope dealer, Jimmy. He has worked with Christopher Nolan in several of his films now. Mark Boone, Junior, played the motel clerk, Burt, giving us a great sleezeball performance. Stephen Tobolowsky snagged the plum role of the stricken Sammy Jankis, and Harriet S. Harris played his doomed diabetic wife. Callum Keith Rennie became Dodd, the thug trying to retrieve the money that Jimmy owed him.
Nolan designed the MEMENTO’s official website. It was intended to provide further clues and hints to the story, while not providing concrete information. After a short introduction on the home page, the visitor is shown a newspaper clipping that is written about Leonard Shelby’s murder of Officer John Gammell. Clicking on highlighted words will lead to more material about the film, including some of Leonard’s notes, photos, and some of the police reports. Nolan edited the film trailers himself, and their cleverness helped the movie gain widespread interest and score well at the box office.
In the middle 90’s, he had shot a low budget film in London. It was called FOLLOWING, and it was released in 1998. It was shot in black and white, and it had a fractured non-linear plot line. Simultaneously, Nolan’s lady friend, Emma Thomas, was pitching his finished script for MEMENTO. It was considered by the executives who saw it, “the most innovative script” that they had seen in ages. It was green-lighted, and given a budget of 4.5 million dollars. It was originally slated to be shot in Montreal, and then the project shifted to Los Angeles. It was said that at Cannes, after the screening of FOLLOWING, in 1998, Nolan gave a pitch to the audience for funding to make MEMENTO. One just has to admire such audacity.
Nolan had felt for a long time that he liked the way commercials and music videos were shot in a non-linear fashion. He also responded to literature presented that way. So he decided to take the methodology, and what he learned on his first feature, refine it and transfer the concept to MEMENTO; creating a wondrous cinematic puzzle of a picture. It certainly is evident that he succeeded beyond his wildest imagination.
This concept of working a film plot backwards, or playing with and fracturing timelines is not entirely new, or course. It is just the Nolan gave it a completely new twist. Roger Ebert pointed out that Harold Pinter used this methodology for his film BETRAYAL (1983), based on his play. Ebert went on to write, “Pinter told the story of adultery and the betrayal of friendship, beginning with the sad end and then working his way back through disenchantment to complications to happiness to speculation to innocence. His subject was memory and regret, and the way adulteries often begin playfully and end miserably. His purpose was the opposite of the strategy used by writer/director Christopher Nolan in MEMENTO. In Pinter’s film there was an irony in the way the characters grew happier in each scene, while the audience’s knowledge of what was ahead for them deepened.
Nolan’s device of telling his story backwards is simply that –a device. It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. As a character he still operates in chronological time, and does not know that he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time if for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition. It may make the movie too clever for its own good. I’ve seen it twice. The first time I thought I’d need a second viewing to understand everything. But the second time I found that greater understanding helped on the plot level, but didn’t enrich the viewing experience. Once is right for the movie. Confusion is the state we are intended to be in. That said, MEMENTO is a diabolical and absorbing experience.”
Actually I find myself somewhat disagreeing with the maestro. Most of the serious film buffs that I know have seen this film more than three times, some of them a half dozen times. Somewhere midst those multiple viewings we click into the structure, and we begin to appreciate the “fun” director Nolan is having with us; not at our expense or at the expense of the film’s success –rather pointedly forcing us to realize that a film can be so much more than mere “entertainment”, that as an art form is can embrace the technology and techniques practiced within literature, commercials, and music videos, that some mysteries do not lend themselves to a solution, that some situations do not present closure, that a conundrum may not be a bad thing, that a film can be a thrill ride even without fully comprehending the mechanics of it, that somewhere in the pieces of plot we begin to question, to consider, to think about memory; its validity or lack of it. And I do think that the “backwards” telling of episodes did put the audience in a state that was empathetic for, and in line with the confusion that Lenny experienced; or seemed to experience. Timeline shifts were explored as well in films like GROUNDHOG DAY (1993), with Bill Murray, CLEAN SLATE (1994), with Dana Carvey, and PREMONITION (2007), with Sandra Bullock.
The film was shot in a very short 25 days in September, 1999. They decided to shoot in LA, because of the city’s Noirish qualities. The Travel Inn in Tujunga, CA was repainted and used as Leonard’s and Dodd’s motel. The home used for the Sammy Jankis interiors were shot in the suburbs of Pasadena. Natalie’s house was in Burbank. The mysterious derelict building that Lenny used to commit the murders in had the interiors done in a studio, and the exteriors at an Oil Refinery in Long Beach. The scene where Lenny burned his wife’s belongings was done on the other side of the refinery. A lot of the driving scenes were done on Victory Boulevard in Burbank. The tattoo parlor in the film is named after Emma Thomas, who is now writer/director’s wife and the movie’s associate producer. The rather unique looking clock used as Lenny’s wife’s stuff, that later he burns, was used earlier by Nolan in his film, FOLLOWING.
MEMENTO raises the curtain showing us the end game, an action that is the result of circumstances we do not yet know, presented in color. It takes us a moment to realize as the Polaroid picture is fading and not clearing up as Lenny shakes it; thus the action is being shot backwards. This is further complicated because the sound effects occur normally. But as Teddy screams “No”, that is backwards. Then it jumps to a separate narrative line, what we figure out is a flashback, presented in B&W, with our protagonist, Leonard Shelby waking up in a “strange” motel room. That is when we discover, as he talks to someone on the phone, that he suffers from a rare form of amnesia, known as “anterograde”. “I know who I am. I just can’t form new memories.” When he awakens in that motel room, or in any room, he seems to have to piece together just where he is. Then we are flashed forward to about five minutes ahead of where we left off in the color narrative. Lenny’s attention span seems to be about 5 minutes, and each time it begins to fade, we are transported to the B&W storyline shown in what seems chronological order. Odd as it seems, the color narrative is being shown in reverse chronological order; that is to say that the color section is presented in a linear fashion, but each time we return to it, it begins 5 to 10 minutes prior to where we left off, filling in some plot gaps as it approaches the inevitable fade out.
Leonard Shelby: [voiceover] So, where am you? You’re in some motel room. You just –you just wake up and you’re in –in a motel room. There’s the key. It feels like maybe it’s the first time you’ve been there, but perhaps you’ve been there for a week, three months. It’s—it’s kind of hard to say. I don’t—I don’t know. It’s just an anonymous room. There’s nothing in the drawers. But you look anyway. Nothing except the Gideon bible, which I, of course, read religiously.”
As an audience, we are confused, dazzled, and fascinated as we endeavor the meaning of these two independent parallel timelines. We watch, we make assumptions, we surmise, and as the film comes to what might be closure we realize that the two narratives were not parallel, rather they were moving toward each other, one linear from the past, the other in a tantalizing mind-blowing reverse mode, kind of in the present. Suddenly, following the action in the B&W narrative, the two timelines merge, and the action is transformed to color; with the narrative lunging toward us repeating the opening scene of the movie, becoming an action that is more like in the middle of the plotline. Are we more confused? A little perhaps. The plot threads converge and the “mystery” is explained, although it might not be accurately explicated, and in some ways it only deepens as even more options and solutions present themselves.
There are critics out there that feel if Christopher Nolan had just run the film chronologically; it would not have been very interesting. On the special 2-disc DVD, if one can solve the puzzle set up by Nolan, they can view the film run chronologically, and see for themselves.
Marjorie Baumgarten of the AUSTIN CHRONICLE wrote, “The film relied too much on the story’s reverse chronology. In forward progression, the narrative would garner little interest, thus making the reverse storytelling a filmmaker’s conceit.”
Sean Burns of the PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY commented, “For all its formal wizardry, MEMENTO is ultimately an ice-cold feat of intellectual gamesmanship. Once the visceral thrill of the puzzle structure begins to wear off—there’s nothing left to hang onto. The film itself fades like one of Leonard’s temporary memories.”
Rob Blackwelder of SPLICED WIRE.COM wrote, “Nolan has a crackerjack command over the intricacies of this story. He makes every single element of the film a clue to the larger picture…as the story edges back toward the origins of (Leonard’s) quest.”
William Arnold of the SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER wrote, “Director Christopher Nolan not only makes MEMENTO a delicious one-time treat, working as a non-linear puzzle film, but it is also a tense, atmospheric thriller.”
James Berardinelli of REEL VIEWS.COM wrote, “What really distinguishes this film is its brilliant, innovative structure. It is a fascinating, wonderfully open-ended motion picture that will be remembered by many who see it as one of the best films of the year.”
On line, on Wikipedia, there is an attempt to provide a linear and chronological synopsis for the film. Using that as guideline, let’s see if we can attempt to unravel the unravel able.
A man (Guy Pearce) awakens in a non-descript anonymous motel room, and does not seem to understand where he is, or why he is in that room. We notice a big map of Los Angeles, and a large piece of paper with photos attached to it, and notes of all kinds. An envelope is shoved under the door. There are notes in it, and a photo, and Lenny shirtless, smiling, blood on him, pointing to a bare spot on his already tattooed chest. One of his notes warned him not to answer the phone. When it rings he tries to ignore it, but finally he answers the phone, and begins to have a conversation with an unknown caller. The man identifies himself as Leonard Shelby, formally an insurance investigator working out of San Francisco. He relates the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky).
Leonard Shelby: I met Sammy through work. Insurance. I was an investigator. I’d investigate the claims to see which ones were phony. I had to see through people’s bullshit. I was useful experience, because now it’s my life.
Sammy Jankis wrote himself endless notes. But he’d get mixed up. I’ve got a more graceful solution to the memory problem. I’m disciplined and organized. I use habit and routine to make my life possible. Sammy had no drive. No reason to make it work.
[listens to the caller and looks at a tattoo on his chest that reads “John G. raped and murdered my wife” which can only be read looking in a mirror since it is tattooed on his chest backwards, and he looks at the tattoo on his wrist that says, “Remember Sammy Jankis”.]
Leonard Shelby: Me? Yeah, I got a reason. Facts, not memories. That’s how you investigate. I know. It’s what I used to do. You know, I can remember so much. The feel of the world…her (sighs). She’s gone, and the present is trivia, which I scribble down as fucking notes.
Leonard continues the conversation with the caller. Sammy suffered from anterograde amnesia, which prevented him from forming new memories. As the insurance investigator, Leonard was assigned to determine the “validity” of Sammy’s condition; whether or not it was caused by a physical injury, because if it was it would have to be covered under his insurance policy. Sammy was given some psychological tests, in which he had to choose three objects out of a dozen. A triangle was electrified, and if he picked it, rather each time he picked it, it would give him a shock. Sammy kept making the same mistakes, and shocking himself. He did not seem to “learn” in order to avoid the punishment.
Sammy Jankis: That’s a test? Where were you guys when I did my CPA?
[after receiving the electric shock] What the fuck?
Doctor: It’s a test, Sammy.
Sammy: [flipping him the bird] Test this, you fucking quack!
Leonard then concluded that Sammy’s condition was not physical, that it was instead psychological, and the insurance claim was denied. Sammy’s wife (Harriet S. Harris) during the same time period, like Leonard, kept seeing what seemed to be glimpses of her old Sammy. Each time Leonard visited them, he was sure that Sammy had the look of recognition in his eyes. The wife was not sure that Sammy was not faking it. She visited Leonard at his office. She asked him if he thought Sammy was able to make new memories. Leonard only would repeat that the concluded Sammy’s condition was “psychological”. After several weeks of her doubt, the wife decided to give Sammy, “his final exam”. This form of amnesia does allow a person to have long term memory, so Sammy was able to remember that his wife was a diabetic, and he remembered how to draw up her insulin, and give her an injection when she asked for it. Leonard had observed Sammy doing this. The wife, overcome with her doubts, tricked Sammy into giving her multiple insulin injections. Each time she felt that the next time she asked for a shot, he would “remember” and not give it to her. But he kept injecting her, and as she lapsed into a diabetic coma, she still had an incredulous look on her face; she died still in doubt. It appeared that Sammy had unwittingly administered the lethal overdose. As a result, Sammy was confined to a mental institution, but since he was incapable of remembering her death, his days of staring at television, happiest with the commercials that he could follow without getting lost, stayed eternally the same.
Leonard: When I looked into his eyes I thought I saw recognition. But now I know. You fake it. If you think you are supposed to recognize someone you just pretend. You bluff it to get a pat on the head from the doctors. You bluff it to seem less like a freak.
Leonard then related to the caller how his own wife (Jorja Fox) died. One night while Lenny was sleeping, he was awakened by voices in the bathroom. Two men in ski masks had broken into his home, and they were molesting her in the bathroom. He broke into the room, brandishing a pistol. He shot one intruder, killing him, but he was attacked by the second intruder, being struck with a blunt object from behind. On the floor, just before he passed out, he looked at his wife’s face, wrapped up in a plastic bag. She was dead. They had murdered her.
Natalie: What’s the last thing you do remember?
Leonard: My wife…
Natalie: That’s sweet.
Natalie: Tell me about her again.
Natalie: Because you like to remember her.
Leonard: She was beautiful. To me, she was perfect.
Natalie: No, don’t just recite the words. Close your eyes…and remember her.
Leonard: You can just feel the details. The bits and pieces you never bothered to put into words. And you can get the feel of a person. Enough to know how much you miss them…and how much you hate the person who took them away.
I don’t even know how long she’s been gone. It’s like I’ve woken up in bed and she’s not there…because she’s gone to the bathroom or something. But somehow, I know she’s never gonna come back to bed. If I could just…reach over and touch –her side of the bed, I would know that it was cold, but I can’t. I know I can’t have her back, but I don’t want to wake up in the morning, thinking she’s still here. So I lie here not knowing—how long I’ve been alone. So how can I heal? How am I suppose to heal if I can’t –feel time?
When the police investigated, they took down the details, but they never bought the notion that there was a second intruder.
Leonard: I was the only guy who disagreed with the cops—and I had brain damage.
Interestingly, director Nolan gave us one flashback scene with Leonard and his wife that makes us wonder if their relationship was always rosy.
Leonard: How can you read that again?
Wife: It’s good.
Leonard: Yeah, but you read it like a thousand times.
Wife: I enjoy it.
Leonard: I always thought the pleasure of a book was wanting to know what comes next.
Wife: Hey, don’t be a prick. I’m not reading it to annoy you. I enjoy it. Just let me read…please. (smiles at him).
After the attack Lenny developed anterograde amnesia secondary to the injuries to his head. This was, of course, extremely ironic, since the memory of Sammy Jankis still haunted him. He found that because of this “condition” he could not remember anything after the accident for more than a few minutes. He, regardless, is determined to locate and kill the second intruder, to “avenge” his wife’s murder.
He developed his own system to somehow compensate for his short-term memory issues. He would take pictures with a Polaroid 690 camera, write notes on the back of them to identify the pics, wrote notes to himself about everything of importance, and for those things of paramount importance he would tattoo onto his body. Some of the tattoos he did on himself; others he went to a tattoo parlor. One of the clues identified the second intruder, the killer, as John G. On the phone, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who turned out to be the mysterious caller at the motel, informed Lenny that the murderer was a drug dealer—and that he could be found in an abandoned shack.
Lenny goes to said abandoned building, and when a smart dressed thug arrived, named Jimmy (Larry Holden), Leonard attacked him and killed him.
[Jimmy takes off his shirt]
Leonard: Take your pants off too.
Leonard: I don’t want to get blood on them.
Before they shot the scene where Lenny strangled Jimmy, actor Larry Holden informed Guy Pearce that he wanted to “really be attacked”. Pearce, a former body builder, and much stronger than he first appears, took the man at his word, shooting the scene without holding back much. This left Holden covered in bruises as he played his short but pivotal death scene.
A few minutes later, after Lenny has put on Jimmy’s 300 dollar suit, Teddy arrived at the site. Teddy revealed that Leonard had been tricked, and Lenny attacked him. But Teddy talked his way out of it. It was true that the man Lenny had just killed, Jimmy, was a local successful drug dealer, and was not involved in the wife’s murder. Teddy began to talk rapidly and at length, realizing that Lenny would not be able to keep up, or remember the details.
Teddy: You don’t know who you are anymore.
Leonard: Of course I do. I am Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco.
Teddy: No, that’s who you were. Maybe it’s time for you to start investigating yourself. You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth. So you now lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all do it.
Teddy, holding his head, still threatened by Lenny said that Leonard’s wife survived the vicious attack and rape, but it was she, not Sammy’s wife that died of an insulin overdose that had been administered by Lenny. [The viewer flashes on the scene where Lenny’s wife is sitting on the bed in bra and panties, and she fusses as Lenny injects her in the thigh and the scene where Sammy is sitting in a chair in the mental institution, because for 3-5 frames, director Nolan inserted Lenny over the top of Sammy. In addition when Jimmy is being assaulted, he cries out, “Sammy” as Lenny is pummeling him.] According to Teddy, the real Sammy Jankis was actually a fraud who was not even married; never had been. Teddy claims further that he was the investigating police officer, who had taken pity on Lenny, after the wife went into a diabetic coma and died, that he (Teddy) had assisted Leonard track down and kill the real John G. over a year before. [The viewer recalls the Polaroid snap of Lenny, shirtless, smiling, covered in blood, pointing to that empty place on his chest]. Teddy admitted further that he took advantage of Leonard’s condition, and had manipulated him to destroy other enemies Teddy had.
Teddy: You are not a killer. That’s why you’re so good at it. Someone has to pay, Lenny. Somebody always pays. You are OK. You are living.
Leonard: Only for revenge. My wife deserves revenge, whether I know about it or not.
But since Lenny had “forgotten” that he found the attacker, John G., and had killed him already, he began to search for John G. again. Teddy was in some kind of shady business with Jimmy, the drug lord, Dodd, the enforcer, and Natalie, the moll and bar maid. He admitted that he manipulated Leonard into killing Jimmy for the $200,000 that he carried in a satchel in the trunk of his Jaguar. Jimmy had come to the abandoned building because Teddy had lured him there with the offer of a big drug buy.
Teddy: You need to set yourself a puzzle that you won’t ever solve. You know how many towns, how many guys called James G? Or John G.? Shit, Leonard, even I’m a John G.
Leonard: You’re name’s Teddy.
Teddy: My mother calls me Teddy. I am John Edward Gammell.
While some of these revelations were still clear to Lenny, he consciously decided to continue the quest, to keep looking for John G., and to set up Teddy to be his next victim. He writes down the license number of Teddy’s vehicle, and writes himself a note assigning this number to John G. He also reminded himself to have this tattooed on his body for emphasis. Dressed in Jimmy’s clothing, he decides to take Jimmy’s car, the Jaguar, and leave his old blue pick up at the parking lot for the abandoned building.
Leonard: [voice over] I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can’t I just myself forget what you’ve told me? Can’t I just let myself forget what you made me do? You think that I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? Hell, you are a John G. So you can be my John G. Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy…yes, I will.
Teddy: [pointing to Jimmy’s Jag] you can’t take his car!
Leonard: [takes a picture of the vehicle] Why not?
Teddy: Because the guy you killed owns it; somebody will recognize it.
Leonard: Well, I’d rather be mistaken for a dead guy than a killer.
Lenny had thrown Teddy’s keys into the bushes. While Teddy is searching for them, Lenny drives away in the Jaguar, and drives along thinking about his wife, and all that he can recall about what Teddy just revealed to him. At one point he glances at the Polaroid shot of him smiling, covered in blood, pointing to the bare spot on his chest; the photo that was earlier shoved under his door at the motel in an anonymous envelope. Lenny thinks about his wife, in flashback. They are in bed. Her head is nuzzled up to his bare chest, already covered in tattoos. She touches the spot on his chest that in the photo was bare, and clearly tattooed there now were the words, “I’ve done it”.
Leonard: [voice over] 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 out there. Do I believe the world’s still out there? Is it still out there? Yeah, it is. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.
Lenny drives until he comes to a tattoo parlor, Emma’s, and he slams on the brakes, stopping there to tattoo the license # on his body. The Jaguar skidding to a halt was a hoot for some of us who know a bit about cars. The Jag has anti-lock brakes, so the only way a stunt driver could make it look it skidded to a panic stop was to pull on the hand brake. Teddy shows up at the parlor for a bit, seeing the Jag parked out front.
Leaving the parlor, Lenny finds a note written on a cardboard coaster from a bar that Jimmy’s girlfriend, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) had written. Appearing to forget that he is not Jimmy, he is only wearing Jimmy’s clothes, and driving Jimmy’s Jaguar –Leonard drives to the bar where Natalie works. He introduces himself and explains his problem, as he is prone to do with everyone he meets.
Leonard: I take it I’ve told you about my condition.
Teddy: Only every time I see ya.
Natalie: Is that what your little note says? It must be hard living your life off a couple scraps of paper. You mix your laundry list with your grocery list and you’ll end up eating your underwear for breakfast.
Leonard: There are things you know for sure.
Natalie: Such as?
Leonard: I know what that’s going to sound like when I knock it. I know that’s what I’m going to feel like when I pick it up. See? Certainties. It’s the kind of memory you take for granted.
Natalie: But even if you get revenge you’re not gonna remember it. You’re not even going to know it happened.
Leonard: My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn’t make a difference whether I know about it. Just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it? Anyway, maybe I’ll take a photograph to remind myself, or get another freaky tattoo.
Even after multiple viewings it is hard to keep the timelines straight. On another visit to the bar, after Natalie knows who Lenny is, and all about his condition, she bets a regular customer sitting there that she will doe something nasty to Lenny and he will not be aware of it. She gets the customer to spit in the glass of beer. Then she spits in it, a big long luggie. Then she talks Lenny into spitting in it. She mixes it up and sets it aside for a couple minutes. Leonard moves to a nearby table. Natalie walks up casually and plunked down the beer glass. “On the house”, she chirped. Lenny smiled and drank deeply from the free beverage. The customer cracked up, and we were privy to the real and actual nature of the character called Natalie.
Lenny is staying at a motel. It “appears” that he was checked into it by the mysterious caller; probably Teddy. In the motel room we see a huge city map and photographs on the map with strings running to landmarks, and notes on the photos. There is a stack of police reports that Lenny studies, given to him by the police. He thinks that he still had contacts with the police, but it seems that Teddy gave him the reports. There are some strategic pages missing. Lenny does not know why. Teddy, during his confession, after Jimmy is killed, tells Lenny that he removed the pages himself, so that the mystery could deepen, so that the endless quest could continue; that he was hooked on the adrenalin rush of the chase, the fights, and of course, the killings. Every time he leaves this motel he talks with the desk clerk, Burt (Mark Boone Jr.), and he reintroduces himself and talks about his “condition”.
Leonard: I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?
Burt: Only every time you see me. You really don’t remember me? We have talked a bunch of times.
Leonard: No, I’m sorry, but I don’t. I mean if we talk too long, I’ll forget how we started. Next time I see you, I’m not going to remember this conversation. I don’t even know if I’ve met you before.
Burt: What’s it like?
Leonard: It’s like waking. Like you just woke up.
Burt: That must suck.
At one point Lenny has misplace the motel key, leaving it at the bar with Natalie. She gave him some information he wanted, and he put his motel key down when he went to the men’s room. Leaving the restroom, he left the bar, forgetting his stuff. He has asked Burt to open his room for him.
Burt: Oh shit. This is the wrong room. You’re in 304 now. I’m sorry. I fucked up.
Leonard: This is not my room?
Burt: No, come on, let’s go.
[picking up a bad with something written on it]
Leonard: Why is this my handwriting?
Burt: Ah…this was your room, but now you’re in 304.
Leonard: When was I in here?
Burt: Last week. But then I rented you another room on top of it.
Burt: Business is slow. I mean, I told my boss about the, your condition and stuff, and he said to try and rent you another room.
Leonard: So how many rooms am I checked into in this shit-hole?
Burt: Just two—so far.
Leonard: Well –at least you are being honest about ripping me off.
Burt: Well hell, you’re not gonna remember anyway.
Leonard: You don’t have to “that” honest, Burt.
Burt: Leonard, always get a receipt.
Leonard: That’s such good advice. I will have to write that down.
At some point Lenny is “staying” at Natalie’s house. She, being a controlling bitch, taunts him about something, and he slaps her in the mouth.
Natalie: You know what? I think I’m gonna use you. I’m telling you now because I’ll enjoy it so much more if I know that you could stop me if you weren’t such a fucking freak! You sad, sad freak. I can say whatever the fuck I want, and you won’t remember. We’ll still be best friends. Or maybe even lovers. Do you know what one of the reasons for short term memory loss is? Venereal disease. Maybe your fucking cunt of a fucking wife sucked one too many diseased cocks and turned you into a fucking retard.
She goes outside and sits in her car for five minutes. Lenny is struggling to remember what she said to him, looking for some paper to write himself a note. She returns, slamming the door. She has a fat lip and a bit of a bloody nose.
Leonard: What happened to you?
Natalie: What do you mean? You know what happened. He beat the shit out of me.
Natalie: Dodd. I went to him and told him what you wanted me to say and he beat the crap out of me.
Leonard is thinking.
Natalie: Get rid of Dodd for me. Kill him. I’ll pay you.
Leonard: Are you crazy? I am not going to kill someone for money.
Natalie: What then? Love? What would you kill for? You would kill for your wife, wouldn’t you?
Leonard: That’s different.
Natalie: Not to me. I wasn’t fucking married to her!
Leaving the house, Lenny finds Teddy in his Jaguar. He seems to know Natalie, and he warns him that no matter what she has told him, to beware, that she is poison. Natalie had written down directions to find Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie), however, and Lenny goes after him. But it seems that Dodd is looking for him too, and the money; recognizing Jimmy’s Jaguar, Dodd, driving a red SUV, pulls up alongside the Jag, and points a gun at Lenny. Leonard in a panic, parks the car, and Dodd gets into the passenger seat. Leaping out of the car, Dodd shoots the driver’s side door window out. Lenny runs in a panic. In the middle of running, he forgets why he is running.
Leonard: [while running] Okay, what am I doing?
[Sees Dodd also running parallel to him]
Leonard: Oh, I’m chasing this guy.
As Lenny careens toward Dodd, the thug shoots at him and misses.
Leonard: Nope. He’s chasing me.
Somehow Lenny got into his Jag, and pulled out, which is incredulous since it appeared that Dodd had parked behind him to prevent him from getting away. But Lenny manages his escape, and following the directions given to him by Natalie, he arrives at Dodd’s apartment before Dodd does. He shakes it down, looking for a weapon. He finds a partially consumed bottle of scotch. He goes into the bathroom and sits on the commode, holding the bottle. Then he forgets his stratagem, and stares down at the bottle of Scotch.
Leonard: I don’t feel drunk.
He put the bottle down, and inexplicably he strips and begins to take a shower. In the middle of the shower Dodd arrives. Lenny leaps out naked, and attacks the thug. Lenny is tough, and he beats the crap out of Dodd, and disarms him. Pulling on his pants, he finds some duct tape, and tapes up Dodds hands behind the back, and tapes up his mouth, dragging him into a closet. Pulling out a picture of Teddy, he picks up the phone and calls him. After Teddy arrives, Lenny now has the pistol, and is confused about what has taken place. Lenny pulls off the mouth tape, seeing this battered man in the closet.
Leonard: [To Dodd in the closet] who did this to you?
Leonard: Who did this to you?
Dodd: You did?!
At gunpoint Teddy and Lenny march Dodd to his vehicle and force him to leave town. There were numerous scenes where Teddy would drop in on Lenny, lying to him about his own identity, manipulating him, trying to get him to take care of all the obstacles so that he will be able to take the drug money all for himself. He is constantly reminding Lenny, confusing him when possible, not to rely on his memory; but Lenny seems to have his own concept of the value of memory.
Leonard: Ask any cop, an eye witness can not be trusted. Don’t overrate memory. It is not absolute, not constant. Memory can change the shape of a room. It can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.
Again, unraveling the unravel able is very difficult, and the timelines of many scenes swim in my memory. At one point, Lenny is at his motel, and he calls an escort service. He arranges to have a girl come over for a visit, a tryst. He sits quietly, and seems able to formulate in his mind what he wants the prostitute to do for him. Later he awakes while lying in bed. The sound of the bathroom door slamming has awakened him. He feels the sheets next to him, and realizes that they are warm. He rises with alacrity, sneaking over to the bathroom, where he hears someone, and bursts into the room. The call girl (Kimberly Campbell) is terrified. We then find out that when she arrived Lenny had given her specific instructions to set certain articles out in the room, a clock, a teddy bear, and other things. Then she was to lie down next to him until he fell asleep; then rise and go to the bathroom, slamming the door loud enough to wake him. This precious three minute scenario was reminding him of his wife, and her demise, and he needed that false scenario more than sex.
Another scene, one that preceded this one in the film, following this one in chronological order, had Lenny driving the Jaguar late at night into an industrial area, mostly abandoned buildings, like a foundry. He gets out holding a paper sack, and builds a small fire. Out of the sack he pulled his wife’s clock, Teddy bear, some photos, and tosses them into the fire. He sits there a long time, watching them burn, somehow keeping track of why he is there, until daylight and ashes conclude the ritual.
Leonard: Probably burned truck loads of your stuff before. But I can’t remember to forget you.
At some point Natalie and Lenny have slept together, and she has made a note of his license plate # tattoo. She uses one of her police contacts and traces the plate. She tells him that he will finally be able to find and kill John G. But the copy of the license plate shows the picture of Teddy, called John Edward Gammel. Leonard matches the ID photo to his photo of Teddy, and he feels that his revenge is close at hand.
Leonard: I found you, you fuck.
So after Teddy has assisted Lenny in rousting Dodd, he accompanies Lenny in the Jaguar. Teddy asks where they are going, and Lenny tells him he has a tip on the whereabouts of John G. Leonard, as we know by then, has decided that Teddy is the real John G, the man who supposedly raped and killed his wife. They pull up to the abandoned building, and find the blue pick up; Lenny’s old vehicle. Lenny begins to check it out.
Teddy: Oh, that truck’s been there forever.
Leonard. No, those tracks are just a few days old.
Teddy: What are you, Pocahontas?
They go into the building, pushing past the plastic drop cloths covering the entrance. Suddenly Lenny pulls his pistol and smacks Teddy, knocking him down. Teddy begs for his life, again trying to convince Lenny that he does not remember things properly; doesn’t even seem to remember that the blue pick up was once his own, or that Jimmy was lying dead in the basement of that building. Leonard, smiling, comes full circle in his mind, again, and he shoots Teddy in the head. This is the end of the story, and it was presented as the prologue, in this fascinating backwards cinema of the reverse.
The novelist Joyce Carol Oates referred to MEMENTO as “ingeniously contrived” and “among the most admired” out of a long list of films that depict amnesia.
Several medical experts weighing in on MEMENTO stated, “the film is one of the most realistic and accurate depictions of “anterograde amnesia” in any motion picture. “
CalTech neuroscientist Christof Koch said of MEMENTO, “this is the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media.”
Esther M. Sternberg, physician, and Director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health labeled the film as “close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory.” She concluded, writing in the Journal SCIENCE, “This thought-provoking thriller is the kind of movie that keeps reverberating in the viewer’s mind, and each iteration makes one examine preconceived notions in a different light. MEMENTO is a movie for everyone interested in the workings of memory, and indeed, in what it is that makes our own reality.”
A good friend of mine, pillar of the TACOMA FILM CLUB, Ronald Boothe, who is a retired professor, formally the Director of Graduate Program in Neuroscience and Animal Behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, was so impressed with MEMENTO that he used it as a basis for a series of lectures on memory for his graduate students. Boothe wrote, “The main character in MEMENTO, Leonard, asserts that he has a memory problem” that affects his short-term memory. Leonard is clearly mistaken (perhaps out of ignorance or misinformation) when he makes this specific assertion. All of his symptoms revealed in the film are ones that are related to a specific form of deficit in “long-term memory”.
Memory refers to our capacity to retain and later retrieve information about our prior experiences [which includes he goes on to say, our “sense memories”]. In fact, only a tiny fraction of what we experience gets stored. Another way of expressing this is to state that memory is “highly selective”. Psychologically, memories give us a feeling of continuity with our past. If we do not have long-term memories, then our way of maintaining a sense of “self” is to continuously chain together from one set of short-term memories to the next.
In the movie, Leonard exhibits no problems involving his sensory or short-term memory systems. His symptoms relate to the fact that he can not remember anything that happened to him more than 30 seconds or so since he stopped rehearsing it. This is because none of his short-term memories are getting transferred into permanent long-term memories.
So every new situation Leonard encounters is interpreted and organized around an underlying theme he keeps in his “memory”. Since he can not keep this memory in his head, he puts it on his (body) in the form of a tattoo [or he writes on the backs and bottoms of Polaroid pictures, or on paper bags, or scraps of paper, or bar coasters, or matchbooks]. His life is organized around the theme that he needs to find the person named John G who raped and killed his wife. But here is the rub—we know that memories can be unreliable. So what if this is a false memory? In order to interpret the film, one task that we are going to have take on is to evaluate whether this memory that is guiding Leonard’s entire life is true or false. We know that the memory is “true” psychologically for Leonard in the sense that it is the major theme for his existence. But speaking objectively in terms of what actually happened in the past we need to ask some questions. Was Leonard’s wife raped? If so, was it done by John G.? Was Leonard’s wife murdered? If so, was that done by John G.? Is Leonard’s wife even dead? Did Leonard even have a wife? Yikes! Once one starts doubting the reliability of memory, it is hard to know where it might lead.”
Daniel Pendick, author of MEMORY LOSS AND THE BRAIN, wrote an article he titled
MEMORY LOSS AT THE MOVIES. In it he wrote, “Hollywood has a love affair with amnesia. Since the 1930’s, this memory disorder has had a major or minor role in nearly 80 films. One of the most notable recent examples of a film showcasing amnesia is MEMENTO (2001).” And, “In important ways, MEMENTO depicts amnesia more accurately than any other major film release to date. Character Leonard Shelby has profound anterograde amnesia. The disorder is marked by an inability to create memories of facts and events. This is often referred to as declarative memory, consisting of what happened to you yesterday, the name of someone you met on the street, or the town you just arrived in the previous day.
In explaining his condition, Shelby says he has “no short-term memory” That is true. Short-term memory is the bin in which we store recent experiences and perceptions for minutes to hours while they are consolidated into more enduring “long-term” memories.”
David Julyan did the musical score for the film, much of it synthesized. He said that several synthesized soundtracks inspired him, like Vangelis’ BLADE RUNNER, & CHARIOTS OF FIRE, and Hans Zimmer’s THE THIN RED LINE. For MEMENTO, he felt there needed to be two distinctive different kinds of music for each narrative, “brooding and classical” themes for the color section, and “oppressive and rumbling noise” for the black and white section. Julyan said, “I thought of the whole score at “Leonard’s theme”. The emotion I was aiming at with my music was yearning and loss. But a sense of loss you feel, but at the same time you don’t know what you’ve lost, a sense of being adrift.” Julyan has composed scores for 18 films, starting out as a friend of Christopher Nolan’s in England, scoring the Nolan short, DOODLEBUG (1997), following up working for free, like everybody else on Nolan’s FOLLOWING (1998). He kids that the music budget for that film was 8 dollars. He scored MEMENTO (2000), and then worked on Nolan’s INSOMNIA (2002). He did music for THE DESCENT (2005), and then worked for Nolan again on THE PRESTIGE (2005).
Wally Pfister was the cinematographer on MEMENTO. He has shot 36 films since 1991, five of them collaborating with Christopher Nolan. He started out as a news cameraman, from 1982-1985. When director Robert Altman came to Washington D.C. in 1987, to shoot his TV mini-series, TANNER, he wanted a “real news cameraman” to shoot some of it, and be a consultant; enter Wally Pfister. After shooting MEMENTO with Nolan in 1999, he went on to lens SCOTLAND, PA (2001). Following that with the Nolan feature, INSOMNIA (2002). He squeezed in LAUREL CANYON (2002), and THE ITALIAN JOB (2003), before shooting Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS (2005), and then went right into production of Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE (2006). He was nominated for Oscars on both films. Presently he is finishing up shooting on Nolan’s Batman sequel, THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).
Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby was astonishingly good, both a lost soul and a dangerous avenger; a man so logical, so meticulous, so organized that he found a way to circumnavigate his inability “to form new memories”. As an actor he has never been more physical, more intimidating and lethal, pulsating with pent-up emotion and energy –yet he manages to capture our empathy, and holds our attention, his hopes become ours, his quest our own. With the odd reverse narrative, the director gets us to rediscover time and place much as Lenny has to, as we careen along beside him, off balance, piecing together the plot like manic chimps putting together a puzzle while swinging on a rope; several ropes.
James Berardinelli of REEL VIEWS wrote, “Guy Pearce gives an astonishing, tight, and thoroughly convincing performance.
Carrie Ann-Moss as Natalie the bar maid, the gangster’s moll, a drug runner, a femme fatale, love interest, abuser, and ten times a bitch –was very effective, creating a character that we can not shake from our senses, emerging as sexy, selfish, and far from innocent. She aspired to be the queen bee, acting as a black widow, shamelessly manipulating all the men in her life; steering toward what she perceived was her big pay off.
Joe Pantoliano, a veteran of putz roles, usually playing shady, vicious, unreliable, and untrustworthy types, leaves shadings of all this in his John “Teddy” Gammel, a man who misrepresents himself to Lenny, changes his identity often, and hides his purpose; whatever that might be, from hour to hour, from episode to episode. Yet his role as cop, or ex-cop, crooked and larcenous, comes off as semi-sympathetic –quite a feat for any actor.
This film provokes discussion, after challenging the viewer to stay with it. Director Nolan has created a complex methodology that continues to perplex us, even after multiple viewings. The movie is not easily pigeon-holed or labeled. It requires that we consider the fragility and the ineptness of memory that includes some misrepresentations and implanted data, and is rife with occlusions. MEMENTO has dozens of scenes that change point of view, or particulars of plot, as we experience them; plot elements that surely are in conflict with themselves, perhaps even some teasing red herring moments. I feel that director Nolan intentionally played games with us, as his later suggestions of multiple endings, and his complex DVD and websites data are testament to. Regardless, this is a film like no other, an original that is worthy of both its accolades and its criticism.
Some plot points that may not “ring true” for me include.
1. Daniel Pendick, author of MEMORY LOSS AND THE BRAIN wrote, “One example of this is his vivid memory of the physical attack in which he is injured. People with anterograde amnesia often cannot remember the trauma that caused the memory loss as well as the memories of events, just before the trauma.” This then makes us wonder how could he consistently recall the “incident” in such vivid detail.
2. Which makes me wonder how he could stay focused enough to make a phone call to the Call Girl service, sitting quietly and waiting for her, know who she was when she arrived, and knew exactly what he wanted her do, distributing the personal items that once belonged to his wife, falling asleep with her on the bed, and then having her rise and slam the bathroom door; so that for a few precious minutes he could feel the heat on the sheets next to him, and wonder if his wife was “just in the other room”.
3. He seemed to have access to his wife’s belongings, many of which he burned up
because he could “not remember to forget her.” That is all fine and good, but if he is now in Los Angeles, and his wife was “killed” in San Francisco, where they lived while he worked in the city as an insurance investigator, how did he have access to those items; even the ones only implied at? If he had a storage unit, how could he remember where it was, or how to use it? He might have carried some things in his old original blue pick up truck, but it did not have a canopy or space cab, so there was nowhere in it to store items, and besides he abandoned it at the old warehouse after he killed Jimmy and took his Jaguar. This brings up the question, was he ever in San Francisco? Maybe officer Gammel (Teddy) was the only one from San Francisco, where he somehow through his crooked drug deals came into possession of Leonard’s existence; if Leonard Shelby was his name, and not Sammy Jankis, or Sammy Somethingelse. So many of Leonard’s memories could have been implanted, manipulated, or suggested by Teddy.
4. With the specific memory issues Leonard had, in remembering directions to
destinations, how could he “read” a map of LA, and actually find a place, or remember main arterials. Maybe LA was his home city, and he already had some long-term memories of how to drive around in it.
5. Was Leonard ever an insurance investigator? Was he ever married? Did Sammy
Jankis ever exist? If so did he ever have a wife? Or was Leonard’s wife actually attacked and raped, which caused TBI for “Leonard”, and she survived, and she was the diabetic of the “Sammy Jankis” tale, told and retold, memorized from repetition?
6. If Leonard’s wife did survive, was it she that did not believe he was truly
amnesiac? Was it she that used to have Leonard/Sammy draw up her insulin and give her the injections? That twice repeated scene where Jorja Fox sat on a bed in just her bra and panties at first had Leonard just pinching her thigh, and the second time it ran we saw that he was injecting her with a needle. Was it she that gave Leonard/Sammy the “final exam”, letting him inject her repeatedly until she lapsed into a diabetic coma, and then died? Was this death, accidental or otherwise, enough of a trauma to further complicate Leonard’s memory issues with a new psychological component?
7. Teddy said that Sammy Jankis was real, but that he never had a wife, that Leonard
had invented his version of the tale to live with the memory or half-memory. That being the case, after Leonard’s wife died of a diabetic coma, did he become so ill that it was he that was put into the mental institution? Remember that in the scene recalled by Leonard, with Sammy sitting in the chair in the mental institution watching television; if one slows down the frames you can clearly see that Nolan superimposed Leonard in the chair in place of Sammy. Was the mental home where Teddy first found Lenny? As has been suggested by some, did he spring Lenny for the purposes of creating the perfect assassin, the killer who will not remember his deed?
8. There is an urban legend that as Leonard is killing Jimmy the drug lord, he cries
out, “Sammy” as he is dying. Multiple viewings did not allow me to “hear” Sammy get called out. But if one puts on the sub-titles, is does say, “Sammy”. This is perhaps another of those fun-filled red herring scenes that Christopher Nolan has inserted just to muddy the waters, to twist our tails, to push us down strange pathways, to suggest more than it should, to provide a clue that may not have, nor was it intended to have a solution.
9. One of the more obvious “goofs” or examples of poor memory and muddled
recall and cognition, there is the “Dodd finds Leonard Scene” Dodd is driving a red SUV, and he drives up parallel to Leonard in the Jaguar. Leonard flees and Dodd pursues. As Leonard parks the Jag, and is collecting his wits, Dodd, still in the red SUV, blocks the Jag in, and then goes up to the sports car and gets in on the passenger side, popping a shot off at Leonard, blowing the driver’s side window out. Leonard leaps out of the car, and Dodd pursues, they chase about the parking lot, with Dodd shooting at Lenny. When Lenny gets back to his Jaguar, there is a blue pick up (possibly his own blue pick up still left supposedly at the Jimmy murder scene) parked behind him, but “not blocking him in”. He is able to back out, swing around, and take off, and when Dodd gets back into his vehicle, it is once again, the red SUV.
10. How on God’s green earth could Leonard read his scribbled directions written out
by Natalie, drive fast enough to shake Dodd in hot pursuit, and lose him, and get to his apartment before him; leaving enough time for Lenny to break in the apartment, look around, pick up the partially empty Scotch bottle, go and sit in the bathroom, forget what he was doing, strip, and be taking a shower before Dodd arrives. How did Dodd not notice Lenny’s clothes in the bathroom, or Lenny in the shower? How could Lenny turn off the water and leap out naked and still have the element of surprise, beating the crap out of Dodd? In addition it has been noted the color of the walls in Dodd’s apartment changes, and there was no window in it as Leonard arrived, and later there is a window on the left side. Is this more proof on the fallibility of memory? Is Nolan just messing with us, or was he one of the poorest mixers and matchers on the set, and lost his way from shot to shot? That would be unlikely.
11. Obviously, Teddy is tight with the whole motley gang of drug kingpins and their
moll, Natalie. Is gets very confusing trying to conjecture who is double-crossing who, and why? Were Jimmy and Dodd and Natalie not familiar with Leonard? Was this Teddy’s dirty little Terminator, his secret weapon, his equalizer? At some point after Natalie gets the drift of things, she too is using Lenny to kill or run off Dodd, and it is her that sets up Teddy. Were she and Teddy in on the first double-cross to kill Jimmy, and get rid of Dodd? She had to be aware of the 250 grand that Jimmy had in the trunk of the Jaguar. Leonard, early on showed it to Teddy, after he killed Jimmy. How could he know about it, remember it, conjecture about it at all, unless Teddy gave him some implanted data, some repeated memories, while he talked him into action on the phone?
12. The Polaroid picture of Lenny, shirtless, smiling ear to ear, covered in blood,
pointing to that bare space on his chest where later he would put “I’ve done it”
for posterity, was supposedly taken by Teddy, then later put in an envelope and
shoved under the motel door—if any of these timelines were even remotely
accurate, when did the scene where Leonard and his wife are lying in bed, and she
has her head on his chest, and she is pointing to that spot on his chest, and the
tattoo is clearly there, when did it happen? After the death of the first John G.?
After the death of the second or third John G.? Did it happen at all, or was it
wishful thinking on Lenny’s part, and how could that be?
13. What was that old dog-eared paperback that Leonard’s wife was reading, that later
he burned, or seemed to burn, or might have burned?
14. Those police records that Leonard kept with him, using them as part of his
detective work, were they given to him by the SF police, or by Teddy? Who
altered the records, was it Teddy to keep Lenny confused, or was it Lenny in
order to keep his quest extant?
15. If under the most bizarre of circumstances Leonard was faking his amnesia, as
as a real psychopath, why would he continue to have the memory symptoms even
when he was by himself? Why would he continue to do the permanent tattooing at
all, when he could get a similar effect by just using notes on several scraps of
16. When Leonard wakes up in the middle of the night at Natalie’s house, he wanders
about and discovers a photograph of Jimmy and Natalie. Jimmy has a moustache
in the photo, the same moustache he has when Lenny killed him. But later in the
scene the photo is shown again, and Jimmy is clean-shaven.
17. Why does the size, the width of the duct tape used to close Dodd’s mouth change
from shot to shot?
18. When Natalie kisses Leonard good bye, her lips are not cut from his smacking her
in the teeth earlier; but she does have a cut lip in the shots before and after the
19. When Teddy and Lenny arrive at the abandoned building the weather is cloudy,
but when they get out of the Jaguar, the sun is out, and it is a cloudless day.
20. In the scene where the motel clerk admits to renting Leonard two rooms, Lenny
called him Burt. Since he can never remember conversations with Burt, how did he remember the clerk’s name?
21. In one scene he calls Natalie by her name. How can that be when he can walk into the diner and walk right past her after having slept with her, and had several scenes with her earlier?
22. When he stops at the tattoo parlor (named after the director’s wife) he puts
Fact 6: SG1371U, even though he wrote and said SG137IU. Is Nolan having fun again with us? When he is sitting in the Jaguar, and he has formulated that he is going to frame Teddy, he writes Fact 6: and how does he remember that that would be Fact 6? He can’t see, nor can he remember his other tattoos.
23. The note on FERDY’S BAR beer coaster in alternating scenes is written first
in print, and then in cursive.
24. So many issues are not clear about Leonard’s memory. Sometimes he
“remembers” things, and sometimes he doesn’t. Does he review the stuff in his police files several times a day? How can he remember to do it, or the significance of what are in the files? How can he remember to tell so many new people about his “condition’? How does he remember his disagreement between himself and the SF PD about the murder investigation? How does he remember there were two men in the assault?
25. How does Natalie know exactly how long it takes for Leonard’s memory to fade,
The spittle in the beer episode, and the sitting in the car after Lenny smacked her, and then returning to lie about he fat lip, and blame Dodd, and sick Lenny on him?
26. Many have wondered if Leonard was just an insurance investigator, when did he
learn to handle weapons so efficiently? Was using a credit card to pick a motel room door lock old memory? Where did he learn to tattoo himself with just a pen and a needle?
27. If a pivotal plot device is that Leonard “can’t make new memories”, unless he
Repeats something enough times, is this conditioning that would apply with his memory problem specifically? Unfortunately, with all the red herring and changeable data Nolan throws at us, the premise is more like Leonard can’t make new memories –except when he can. Logic be damned here, sir. For instance, if the wife was raped, and he was banged on the head, causing some form of memory loss, was this a different kind of memory loss than occurred after his wife’s actual death?
To muddy the waters even further as one considers this fine perplexing film, in the GOOFS section for this film on IMDb, there is a notation:
“Since the movie is about memory and its fragility/unreliability, it is eminently possible that all supposed continuity errors are deliberate. However, given the structural complexity of the movie, and bearing in mind the number of errors which manage to find their way into even the simplest linear narrative, it is equally possible that they are genuine errors.”
Christian Lilley, in a Comments section for SLATE MAGAZINE wrote, “There are so many opportunities for alternate interpretations of the available facts because I think Christopher Nolan went out of his way to keep us in the dark. The things Teddy tries to foist off on Leonard are in no way verifiable either way for the viewer, so we’re stuck cruising along on almost the same ride of uncertainty that Leonard is; we are forced to decide on the spur of the moment who to believe and which memories…are “real” memories. MEMENTO has certain convenient plot holes, without which the movie would not be as effective as it is, and which almost no movie this complicated could avoid. That said, the viewer can eliminate most of the rest by looking for Nolan’s intent, and understanding that almost “every memory” Leonard thinks he “has” is open to interpretation and question. Not even one of them should be accepted completely. As with Hamlet, we are left wondering, “Is he crazy, or is he just a victim of circumstance?”
Roger Ebert summed it up for me in the CHICAGO SUN TIMES, writing, “The purpose of the movie is not for us to solve the murder of the wife. If we leave the theater not sure exactly what happened—that’s fair enough. The movie is more than a poignant exercise, in which Leonard’s residual code of honor pushes him through a fog of amnesia toward what he feels is his moral duty. The movie does not supply the usual payoff of a thriller (how can it?), but it is uncanny in evoking a “state of mind” Maybe telling it backward is Nolan’s way of forcing us to identify with the hero. Hey, we all just got here.”
Glenn A. Buttkus 2008