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A Polaroid photograph, clasped between finger and thumb, showing a crude, crime-scene flash picture of a man’s body lying on a decaying wooden floor, a bloody mess where his head should be. The image in the photo starts to fade as we superimpose titles. The hand holding the photo suddenly fans it in a rapid flapping motion then holds it still.
The image fades more, and again the picture is fanned. As the titles end, the image fades to nothing. The hand holding the photo flaps it again, then places it at the front of a Polaroid camera.
The camera sucks the blank picture up, then the flash goes off. ” As the Polaroid fades to white, so we begin with a blank slate… It’s the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a man who proves as emotionally empty as the surname suggests.
Unable to make new memories since a blow to the head during a raid on his apartment, he remains hell-bent on avenging his wife’s death from that same assault.
Hampered by his affliction, Leonard trawls the motels and bars of Southern California in an effort to gather evidence against the killer he believes is named John G. Tattooing scraps of evidence and information onto his body, Leonard’s faulty memory is abused by two others: bartender Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and undercover cop Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), both involved in a lucrative drug deal.
From the very beginning, director Christopher Nolan establishes that the structural arrangement of the narrative of this film will run backwards in a non linear fashion. Although the audience may not be fully aware of it now, they have just witnessed the end climax to the plot.
This already captures the audience’s attention, subconsciously allowing them to understand that Leonard has just erased the act of killing, the key to understanding the confusing, opened ending. Now that the audience has witnessed this rewound scene they are enticed into knowing the full story, something that they will have to wait for until they have pieced all the parts of the jigsaw together, a device that cleverly hooks the audience for the duration of the film.
Essentially running backwards, the film’s end at the beginning only makes sense once the whole story has unfolded; each scene plays out with Lenny reconstructing the development of events for himself from scribbled notes, photos, maps and clues, only for the next scene to jump back and relate the events which led up to it. This framework of constant revisitation, revision and reconstruction puts the viewer in Lenny’s point of view: as he pieces events together so, gradually, do we, never fully knowing the full story, and more importantly, never completely knowing what Lenny has done and who he can trust.
The film is a kind of narrative test of alertness; visual clues – the scratches on Lenny’s cheek, the smashed window of his car, the comments on his Polaroid pictures and his “memento” tattoos all hint at the order of events but ensure that the solution, like the identity of the killer, lies tantalisingly out of reach right up to the end. Another visual clue is the parallel plot of the elusive Sammy Jenkins story. After the initial backward sequence we are faced with a short clip of Leonard sitting in his room, shot in black and white so that you know it is the counter plot, in which we can view the protagonist’s everyday life.
Throughout the first ten minutes, and the rest of the film, we view snippets of the two plots pieced together so that just as we get to grips with one of the plots we are thrown back into the other. This plot unveils the tale of Sammy Jenkins, which we later find was a conman whom Leonard, in a state of extreme denial, has reconstructed as a pitiful victim, to enable him to forget that it was he, not Sammy, who killed his own wife.
Nolan has deliberately run these two plots side by side, jumping from one to the other in this jigsaw narrative so that the audience can learn of the climax to the two plots at the same time, like a multi-stranded narrative. This helps to build the films tension and disenables the audience to work out the truth before Leonard does. Caught, like Leonard, in the film’s looping reverse narration, we can’t help but cling to his flashbacks of Sammy Jenkins as having some kind of authority.
It serves as a case history of Leonard’s condition and illuminates his attempts to snap out of it – he hires a hooker to help him restage his memories of his last night with his wife, only to nod off and forget about it – as well as adding an emotionally compelling counter-narrative to the chilly formal intelligence on display, enticing the audience further. The order of mementos narrative is intriguing as it challenges the theories of those such as Todorov.
The usual components of narrative structure are composed of three parts in the following order; a beginning with an opening, a middle containing a conflict and an ending with a resolution. By contrasting to the traditional patterns of film, Memento plays with the audience’s expectations of the equilibrium, disequilibrium and new equilibrium pattern. This contributes to the build in tension and anticipation. Memento also relates to the theory of Vladimir Propp, who was interested in the function of specific characters in narrative.
He proposed that there were set character roles including the villain, the hero, the donor, the helper, the false hero, the princess and the dispatcher. However, even though Memento does not contain all of these roles, what with its small cast, but it does manage to question these. This is interesting because the characters roles as perceived by the audience change during the course of the film, what with it being in reverse. In the first ten minutes of memento Leonard is perceived as the hero, Natalie as the helper, princess and donor, and Teddy as the ambiguous ‘John G. and hence villain.
However, by the end of the film the audience’s perceptions are completely reversed, with Natalie helping to wreck Leonard’s life and Teddy being an innocent victim. This is effective, adding to the upside down plot, challenging the audience’s original perceptions. Memento also uses symbolic codes. Each scene in the first ten minutes has a ‘memento’ which provides a link forward and back, helping the audience to understand the narrative. For example, in the first scene Leonard takes a Polaroid of Teddy’s dead body.
In the next we have a contrasting memento; a Polaroid of the living Teddy which reads “he ides the one, kill him” and something scribbled out. In the next scene we see the Polaroid again however; it only says “don’t believe his lies” where the scribble was. This assists in constructing the narrative as the audience can see what point in time they are at, helping the plot to flow more. Thus we can the initial narrative of memento appears extremely complex, which ultimately manages to make complete sense by the final chapter.
Memento is a strange mix of several genres which all play a major part in this movie. It is ultimately a detective-thriller, with obvious film noir links to films such as point blank, for Memento is a skewed noir mystery at heart, peopled by manipulative ‘femmes fatales’ and low-down lowlifes, whose visual settings – diners, car-lots, beaten-up motels – and set-pieces (including a chase scene in which Lenny forgets who is chasing who) conjure the film’s downbeat, hardboiled feel.
It also bears a lot in common with the noir film Double Indemnity, both with a circular narrative, beginning as they end, the audience constantly aware of the protagonist’s fate. This typical iconography makes it clear in the audiences mind the genres of this film, which could subconsciously help the audience to unravel Leonard’s mystery. Even the themes of revenge and betrayal are telling noir characteristics.
As a generic -hybrid, this film contains the appealing characteristics of a crime, drama, thriller; hence not only enabling the film to appeal to a wide and varied audience, but also preparing the spectators for an innovative and less conventional film. The film is clearly a detective-crime from the beginning, with the death of Teddy and Leonard’s conversations on the phone seeking information about ‘John G,’ also the ‘evidence’ such as John G’s number plate and description written down on the wall.
The film also quickly establishes itself as a thriller, what with the suspense and tension built up within the first few minutes of Memento, which manages to sustain throughout the film. However, although it distinguishes its genres, it still manages to trick the audiences as to each characters role, referring back to Vladimir Propp, what with Leonard appearing the villain and Teddy the victim, and Natalie an innocent who turns out to be the films ‘femme fatale’.
Thus we can see, Memento is a film in which being confusing, enthralling and frustrating, it revels in teasing and misleading its audience, both through genre typography and narrative structure. It’s a mark of Nolan’s achievement that this final scene – which seemingly completes the narrative jigsaw – should cast a cloud over Leonard’s motives. It’s a stunning tease, a tantalisingly ambiguous note on which to sign off, one that scatters our sense of certainty as we rerun the events of the past two hours in our heads.