Thursday, June 24, 2010

Forward and Back

Film: Memento
Format: DVD from Rasmussen College Library on laptop.

I’m standing in the library at the school I work at, looking over the two shelves of DVDs we have. We have a couple of dozen on the list that I haven’t watched yet. I pick out a half dozen or so, including Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

is a film that plays with the most basic notions of storytelling, and does so brilliantly. The forms and methods of storytelling have been with us for so long, that to make such a basic and fundamental shift in the actual form of narration is a form of brilliance. It doesn’t hurt that the story, while ultimately simple watched in the correct sequence, is made complex, interesting, and gripping by shuffling it in this way.

I arrive home and immediately have to deal with what appears to be the nightly argument between my daughters. With that resolved, I look at the stack of DVDs I’ve come home with and select one. Memento seems like a good choice for the evening, based on the time and the fact that I do need to get up for work early.

This is a truly innovative film, and it is innovative in a basic way. Playing with the idea of narration is a risky proposition at best, but here it works. While much of the film is confusing, and makes sense only after the entire film is digested, it is fascinating to watch. Each character slowly changes just as in a traditional narrative, but as we the audience gain more and more information about each character, Leonard gains less and less, making him more and more naïve as the narration spools back.

I plug the DVD into the CD drive of the laptop. The film begins and my children run back and forth through the kitchen. Gail has a friend over tonight, so it’s louder than usual. I consider moving in to the bedroom, but I decide I am comfortable where I am.

The bulk of the story is told in reverse order, in color. Each scene here ends where the previous scene began, and this frequently leaves the viewer in the same sort of state of confusion that Leonard must exist in virtually every moment of every day. As this story plays out, it becomes possible to piece together small bits of the story, but there is nothing like realization of what is happening until the very end of the film, which is also the beginning of the narrative.

As the film plays, I recognize particular actors in small roles. I had forgotten that Stephen Tobolowsky was in this movie. I like Stephen Tobolowsky. More surprising for me is the presence of Thomas Lennon, the guy from Reno 911, here playing the much more serious role of a researcher. I find it interesting when directors cast comedic actors in serious roles. I also recall having the same reaction to seeing Michael Hitchcock in Serenity.

The story is completely straightforward, really. However, it is told in two different styles. The first style is in black and white, and generally consists of Leonard talking to someone on the phone. Most of this story explains Leonard’s condition through the example of another man with the same condition. In his former life, Leonard was an insurance investigator, and his most interesting case involved a man with anterograde amnesia. The man, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) can’t add new memories, and has no system for dealing with his life. Through investigation, Leonard determines that Sammy’s condition is entirely mental, possibly psychosomatic, and thus his claim is denied.

In the film, Guy Pearce tattoos himself with a pen and a needle. I don’t like needles. Watching something like this, even when I know it’s fake, really bothers me. Thankfully, the scene isn’t too hard to watch.

Aiding Leonard, at least in his mind, are two people. The first is Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who is actually using Leonard’s bizarre condition for her own ends. The other assistant is Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who may be a cop, may be the man who killed Leonard’s wife, and may be something else entirely.

I can remember watching this movie in the past. I had a similar reaction to it the last time I saw it. It requires almost constant attention. I’m happy to be wearing a pair of headphones to help me drown out the noise of the kids in the next room.

Leonard’s tattoos are all related to the murder of his wife (played in flashback by Jorja Fox). Leonard encountered two drug dealers raping and murdering her. While he managed to kill one of them, the other got away, and injured him, causing the anterograde amnesia. Now he is driven by revenge.

I wonder about the risks being taken by Christopher Nolan with this film. Evidently, on the more well-endowed version of the DVD, there is a way to watch the film in chronological order, with the black and white scenes first, followed by the color scenes in proper narrative order rather than how they are normally presented in the film.

Leonard gets around his memory problem with two types of note. The first are Polaroid photographs. He takes pictures of everything important to him—people, his hotel room, his car. When needed, he writes additional notes on the photographs to help him remember further. More important pieces of information are tattooed on his body, all done in ways so that he can read them. Tattoos on his chest, for instance, are done backwards so he can read them in the mirror. The tattoos on his legs are upside down so that he can read them when he sees them.

The question the film asks is nothing as heady as the nature of memory or anything like that. As the film continues, the question becomes whether or not Leonard actually killed his wife, or already got revenge on the people who killed his wife. There is no real way to tell. Such is the nature of Leonard’s condition. Even he can’t remember what he has done.

At its heart, Memento is a straightforward tale of revenge and deception. The twist in terms of the story comes in the mental disability of our main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce). Leonard has anterograde amnesia, meaning that he is completely unable to create new memories. He knows who he is, and he knows what has happened to him, but since the incident that drives the film and his revenge, he is unable to add anything new.

Film over. Time for bed. Thankfully, I’ll remember this tomorrow.

There is a natural way that we tell stories. While we might deal with a flashback or two, or a start near the end with a very long flashback that gets us back to the start, for the most part, we like our stories to go in a particular direction: front to back. Playing with these established rules of narration offers only a couple of possibilities. The most likely possibility is that you end up with a mess. The other possibility is that you end up with a story that rewrites in many ways the idea of narration, and you get something like Memento.

Why to watch Memento: Perhaps once in a lifetime, someone creates an entirely new way to tell a story. This is one of those rare times.
Why not to watch: Blink and you’ll end up confused.

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