Stream On: ‘Memento.’ It’s like waking. Like you just woke up.

By on September 14, 2023

Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Following (1998), was about a writer—well, he hoped to be—who followed random people around London … for his work. To see what others did. Looking for a way to escape his subjectivity. Nolan’s second film, Memento, which made him an international star, was about a man who, tragically, could never again escape his own subjectivity.


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“Know thyself.” (Plato et alia)

“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.” (Leonard Shelby)

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, “one of the best actors never nominated for an Academy Award,” IndieWire) waves around a Polaroid print which doesn’t develop; it fades. It shows a corpse. He feeds the print into the camera, which sucks it up. A pistol leaps from the floor into Leonard’s hand; then a bullet comes out of the corpse into the gun, and we realize that this scene has been playing in reverse.

Leonard’s psychological state is represented by the fading Polaroid print. He can make no new memories; since “the incident,” everything he sees soon fades from his memory.

And the audience is put in Leonard’s position by the regression of the narrative: The subsequent scenes take us further back from the opening; in each, we see a situation, but not what set it up—until the next scene, which takes us further back still. Now Leonard is in a motel lobby, and the deskman is pointing to another Polaroid, also of Leonard’s victim, but in this one he’s grinning into the camera. “This guy—he’s here already,” the deskman says, indicating the lobby door, where Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) enters, grinning: “Lennie!”

A second storyline, in black and white, alternates with the reverse timeline scenes. Leonard is in a strange (to him) motel room. He’s just awakened, and trying to put together where he is and how he got here. “I could have been here for months.” Now on the phone, he tells the caller about his insurance investigation into Sammy Jankis, who also had anterograde amnesia, like Leonard’s, that prevented him from making new memories.

Leonard can remember an attack, a home invasion, in which his wife was killed, and he injured. It’s the last thing he does, or will, remember for more than a few minutes. He had killed one of the attackers, but the other got away, and Leonard has sworn to find this person and kill him. Leonard now uses Polaroid pictures of people and locations, notes, and tattoos, as his memory: he has the most important facts to retain tattooed on his body. First thing in the morning, when he wakes up and goes to wash and shave, he sees, tattooed across his chest in reverse so he can read it in the mirror:

“John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

In tattoos on his arms and legs he has collected these “facts”: “FACT 1: MALE”; “FACT 2: WHITE”; “FACT 3: FIRST NAME JOHN OR JAMES”; “FACT 4: LAST NAME G______”; “FACT 5: DRUGDEALER”; “FACT 6: car license number SG13 7IU.”

On his left hand is a tattoo that he habitually rubs: “remember sammy jankis.” Leonard tells people about Sammy (one of his tattoos reads “Don’t trust”) as a way of explaining his own condition; these include Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a waitress who will help Leonard in return for his help, and Teddy Gammell, a policeman who shares information about the case with him.

That’s the same Teddy that Leonard kills in the first scene of the film.

(Credit: YouTube)

Christopher Nolan likened Memento’s structure to a hairpin on its side on YouTube: The story chronology starts on the bottom rail, moving forward to the right. (These are the black and white sequences.) At the turning, the scenes become color, and the story moves along the top rail to the left. But the narrative starts at top left, interspersing scenes in reverse order (Leonard’s point of view) along the top rail, with objective scenes going forward along the bottom rail, towards the end of the film, at the right. So Leonard shooting Teddy in the beginning of the narrative is at the end of the story, and the next, black and white scene of Leonard waking up in the hotel room, is at the beginning of the story. When they meet at the end of the film (the midpoint of the story), the black and white becomes color.

It’s confusing to watch, all right, but fascinating. Pretty soon we realize that this is how Leonard sees the world, and the alternating black-and-white scenes give us enough back story to make some sense of the regressing color scenes. But, like Leonard, the sense we make of the story masks what’s really happening. The shape it takes is not the story. Repeated viewings can help, but the objective truth can also be approached by searching YouTube for “memento chronological order,” which will bring up fans’ interpretations, including some supercut videos showing the important scenes all in chronological order. At any rate the film is not “amnesia victim seeks revenge on his wife’s killer.”

Check it out: Memento is very entertaining, and will make you question everything you think you know. It was based on an idea from Nolan’s brother Jonathan, who turned it into a short story, “Memento Mori,” while Christopher filmed the movie. Now, where was I?

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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