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Memento: What Makes It Successful?

Updated on September 4, 2014

A narrative structure like no other

This essay will be looking at the non-traditional narrative form of Memento (2000), written by Christopher Nolan, and discuss how it achieves its aesthetic impact. Memento is a crime-drama appraised for its unique, non-linear narrative structure and how it tells the story of a man with amnesia and his burning desire for revenge. The sujet (presentation) of the film shall be interrogated with Edward Branigan's Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992) and how his theories apply to making a narrative intelligible.

This is aimed at people who have seen the film and I'm sorry to say there are some spoilers - although nothing too detailed. If you haven't seen this film it will still be a twisting, tense and surprising adventure for you post-reading this lens, but if you would prefer to watch it with naked eyes then perhaps come back later. I'll still be here!

NOTE: you may of course quote my lens in any academic paper, presentation or casual blog that you are writing. That's what this essay is avilable for! Please just reference back to this page and its sources correctly.

Narrative - a form of organising data

Before interrogating "narrative" it is important to clarify what narrative is. What is the widely accepted and understood definition? The online Cambridge dictionary specifies it as 'a story or a description of a series of events.' (no date) Branigan takes this further by saying that narrative 'is a fundamental way of organizing data' (p.1) to help make the world and our experiences comprehensible. This ties in specifically with the structure of Memento as the protagonist has a riged set of habits that are his only clues to affirming he is safe and the people in his life are "truthful". Each day, the protagonist must piece together the narrative of his life; what his daily goal is, what he has already discovered in the hunt for his wife's murderer, why he is at his current location, etc. The interesting thing about this film is that it tells the plot backwards.

For reference, [this web page] lists every scene in Memento. They are listed in order of appearance in the film but numbered in order of chronological plot.

Effective Use of Displacement

how is Memento different from other films told in reverse?

Primarily, the reverse technique used in Memento forces the viewer to feel as unpepared for the next event as the protagonist, Leonard Shelby. He is a character with short-term memory loss. He cannot recall any event, the places he has visited or anyone he has met minutes before. His memory lasts for roughly five-to-ten minutes.

By telling the story backwards and in five-to-ten minutes chunks - interspersed with a black and white telephone conversation between Leonard and a mysterious voice, which is told chronologically compared to the scenes in colour - the audience experiences almost the same confusion as Leonard. There is no way of knowing what happened before the event on screen.

What makes this gradual telling of the story hard hitting is that we remember what Leonard has been through, the lies people have told him and the lies he has written for himself, but our protagonist does not.

Despite revealing the story back to front and with a parallel narrative told chronologically in flashbacks, nothing is confusing. The audience is treated as if they are recovering from short-term memory loss and are remembering what has happened. In a film, the way narrative unfolds is crucial as it is possible to alienate or over-confuse the audience. This often creates disinterest in what is happening, as said by Edward Branigan, 'judgements about space, time, and causation are fundamental because they give us the means with which to see and hear: a framework within which to perceive.' (p.48)

In Memento there is a reinforced saying from Leonard: the only person he can trust is himself and his handwriting, and because the audience is treated as if they have Leonard's condition they must also believe that the only trustworthy character is Leonard and his notes. The film instantly aims to misguide us from the truth, just as the protagonist has tried to delude himself, by opening the film with Leonard murdering Teddy - a man who, in Leonard's handwriting, is not to be trusted. From this first sequence, we assume that Teddy is a threat as we watch how past events have led up to the moment of his death. The film is structured to make us fear Teddy's presence and advice because we know nothing about him other than, "don't trust his lies" written in Leonard's hand. It is not until the last fifteen minutes of the film that we discover Teddy was a friend all along and Leonard, in a fit of petulant rage, decided to alter the evidence that pointed to his wife's murderer to lead to Teddy instead.

This revelation in the film not only shocks the audience for believing the evidence presented to them but makes Leonard an horrifically fascinating character. He so desperately needs a drive to keep living that he will not let anyone, or himself, know the truth of his wife's death. In this film 'the particular materials and techniques ... determine when and how we apply our skills of spatial, temporal, and causal construction.' (Branigan p.48) This is put into better context by Andy Klein, a writer for the online blog Salon, who said '"Memento" is like "The Sixth Sense" and "The Usual Suspects" in that nearly every scene takes on a different meaning once you know where the film is going.' (2001)


it's not just a clever structure, Memento has meaning

Jumping backwards through the story, being visually thrown into a new scenario, and returning to the black and white phone call adds complex layers to what we are being told, for 'selecting something to be seen in terms of something else ... demonstrates the close connection between creating metaphors, and discovering causes.' (Branigan p.49) But this clever use of themes and structure is not because the story is told backwards, indeed 'this is a substantial oversimplification of the movie's structure.' (2001, Klein) The opening scene of the film (Teddy's death) is, ironically, played in reverse and fades into black and white. Klein explains how this is neatly ties up the end of the film:

What is beautifully clever here is that black-and-white scene 22, the last sequence in the film, almost imperceptibly slips into color and, in an almost vertiginous intellectual loop, becomes (in real-world order) scene A, the first of the color scenes: This then serves as the link between the forward progression of black-and-white material and the backwardly presented color stuff. (2001)

The aesthetic impact of this disjointed narrative constantly enforces its most obvious theme: memory, 'the ways in which it defines identity, how it's necessary to determine moral behavior and yet how terribly unreliable it is, despite its crucial role in our experience of the world.' (2001, Klein) But from Memento's intense sujet alone 'One should not think that stylistic metaphors are merely a decorative use of language or way of talking about what can be quickly verified by examining the screen.' (Branigan p.61) That is to say, the ambiguous questions that still remain at the end of the film can possibly be explained by examining what is subliminally fed to us on screen.

Dealing With Grief - things we take for granted: memory being one

Perhaps one of the most painful themes handled in Memento is grief, which is of course largely caused by memory. Relief from grief is also caused by memory but is something Leonard cannot achieve. "How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" he asks, and yet he does not try to find a way of reminding himself that he has already avenged his wife's murder. It is an interesting look at human psychology and evokes the question "what do I live for?"

The thrills, emotional low-points, shocking character twists and frustration with Leonard's condition keeps the audience engaged and guessing - keen to understand the truth behind their unreliable narrator. The Truth about Leonard is something still many cannot fathom however, despite Nolan insisting 'that close viewing will reveal all.' (2001, Scott Timberg) In a way, like Leonard, I myself am not sure I want to know the Truth to his past. The hunt, the mystery and plot-points that do tie together are fulfilling on a deeper, much more instinctive level. We want to trust the people closest to us. We often lie to ourselves to suppress pain or embarrassment. And we all, at some point, must come to terms with grief.

The Secret to Memento's Success - how NOT to confuse your audience

I would like to return to the point made that Memento is not confusing. The simplest reason behind this is that each of the character motivations are made clear. For each person Leonard meets they have a goal, a subjective purpose for Leonard - each manipulating him for their own means. This includes Leonard manipulating himself.

This is what Nolan gives to his audience: information. It enables the spectator to judge how they should apply the backwards-information they receive onto the people on the screen. Feeding bits of information can be difficult if you are trying to create mystery so, as strongly advised by Branigan, make sure every character's goal is clear:

For the spectator to attain knowledge from a narrative at least some of these restrictions must be overcome. The text must, to a greater or lesser degree, inscribe - make explicit and definite - its own spatial, temporal, and causal coordinates for at least some of its levels of narration. (p.172)

Overall, Memento is an extraordinary achievement that medical experts have claimed to be the most realistic depiction of anterograde amnesia. This film demands the attention of its audience and forces them to comprehend what they are seeing. Through its thought-provoking questions and intense emotional probing it is easy to see why nearly everyone who watches it is eagerly engaged and willing to try to solve its mysteries. Is Leonard pretending to have amnesia? Did he accidentally kill his wife with too much insulin and find a way to forget? Did he escape from a mental asylum or is he still there?

It is possible that only Christopher Nolan will ever know the answers. If only more Hollywood films were as daring as Memento and unafraid to challenge its consumers with post-modernish distortions of narrative. The most recent film to date that has dared to test its audience is Nolan's recent film Inception, but that is for another lens...

Memento: "That Camera Never Lies"

Dan North also takes a look at Memento's structure and presentation

A Film You Won't Regret Buying


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