Does Hollywood sometimes get everything back-to-front? A new film called Memento certainly does. Our movie maestro Thomas Wartenberg takes a look.
Classical Hollywood films were shot and edited with a view to making the viewer comfortable as he or she watched the film. Since editing together two shots breaks the continuity of the scene portrayed in a single shot, a system was developed that allowed audience members to easily interpret how the later shot was related to the earlier one. A series of conventions – eye-line matches, establishing shots, the 180 degree rule, etc. – was developed that allowed viewers’ experience of a film to be uninterrupted by the intrusion of editing and other camera techniques. As a result, this style of filmmaking was claimed to make the act of filming transparent, meaning that the audience would watch a film so constructed with no conscious awareness of how its experience was being shaped by the filmmakers.
One common tendency among those who revolt against Hollywood is a desire to allow the act of filming to enter into the consciousness of viewers. Jean Luc Godard’s use of jump cuts – edits in which the principles of continuity are broken, as when the second shot skips some undeterminable amount of time or where the characters change places slightly from one shot to the next within an otherwise static shot – in Breathless (1959) may seem tame to us today, but it shocked viewers at the time by its daring. Here was a filmmaker and, indeed, a whole school of them – the French New Wave – who wanted viewers to be aware that they were watching a film and who employed a system of shooting and editing in service of that goal.
Today, of course, many of those techniques have been incorporated into mainstream film, and even television, so the potential of these techniques to disturb an audience has diminished. Nonetheless, the desire to make audiences more aware of films as constructed burns undiminished in the hearts of the more adventurous filmmakers. Christopher Nolan’s film, Memento, breaks interesting ground in this regard. For example, it begins with a shot of a murder – only we see it happening in reverse. A black and white photo bleaches to white; a bullet emerges from a man’s head and enters into the gun that shot it. As we watch these events, we are completely disconcerted, for we have no context in which to place them. We wonder what is going on, as we try to construct a coherent narrative from such bizarre sequences as this. Whatever else might happen, we are here tipped off to the unusual temporal structure of the film, a structure that constantly makes us ask why the director chose to tell the story in the way that he did.
More generally, the film consists of two sets of scenes that are intercut. The first, shot in color, depict events in the life of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), an ex-insurance investigator who has lost his shortterm memory as the result of a head trauma suffered when his wife was brutally raped and killed. The second, shot in grainy black and white, are of a phone conversation that Leonard is having (we never hear the other person, only Leonard) in which he narrates the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who also suffered this unusual mental condition and whose situation thus parallels Leonard’s own. But what makes this film unique is the time sequence: each color scene ends where the previous one began, so that the audience has to piece together Leonard’s story in reverse, beginning with the final event, the killing of a man whose identity we initially do not know. (We later learn that the man is a cop, Teddy [Joe Pantoliano], who has been interacting with Leonard for some time.) Since we initially have no context for understanding what is going on, the experience of watching this film is very different from that of watching most popular films, for we are very aware that the filmmaker has deliberately constructed a film that won’t easily be understood by its audience. And we begin to wonder what the point of this inversion of our usual expectations is.
Memento has been likened to The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, and there is some justice to this, for all three films end with a revelation that inverts our understanding of what we have been seeing. These films undermine the conventions of classical Hollywood by presenting a convoluted narrative that forces audiences to take a more active role in interpreting it, only to pull the rug out from under the audience at the very moment when they become convinced that they have finally figured out what is going on. What’s unique about Memento, however, is that it plays so interestingly with the temporal sequence of the narration, something the other films leave more or less intact.
Memento is particularly interesting to a philosopher because of the story it tells. Because Leonard has lost his short term memory, he cannot remember anything that has happened in the recent past. Although the film isn’t always consistent about how long it takes for him to forget something, there are times when he is unable to remember why he began a sequence of actions, as when he finds a half-empty bottle of scotch and wonders if he was drinking it, reasoning that he doesn’t appear to be drunk, so that can’t be why he has it with him. (He wasn’t drinking, by the way. He planned to use it as a weapon.) It also makes his relationships with people difficult, for he can neither remember them nor what he has told them. His relationships with others thus appear always to involve some form of manipulation, for why else would one be interested in spending time with this man who can’t even remember that he has been with you?
To compensate for his memory loss, Leonard takes Polaroid snapshots of the people he meets which he labels with their names and short instructions to himself about his sense of them, writes notes to himself to remind himself of where he is and what he is doing, and even inscribes his body with a set of crucial notes that will allow him to pursue his wife’s rapist and murderer. Having no memory of anything that has happened since that fateful night, Leonard seems to be creating the externalized archive equivalent of the usual internalized memories most of us have. Whether this set of written reminders is an adequate substitute for an actual short-term memory is one of the questions posed by this film.
The question of what provides us with a sense of ourselves as the same person throughout our experiences was first raised by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke argued that it is the continuity of our consciousness that gives us this sense; my awareness that I am still the same person I was yesterday is secured by my ability to construct a continuous story about myself from yesterday to today. But this is just what Leonard is unable to do. And yet he claims, in opposition to those who encounter him, that he remains the same person because he knows who he was before the accident that took his short term memory from him.
Intellectually, the shocking ending of the film reveals that the issue is not so easily settled, for Leonard does not have access to any of the acts he has performed since that night. I won’t reveal the details of the film’s surprise ending, but I will say that it undermines Leonard’s claim to being the same person he was prior to the accident. In so doing, the film supports the contention that there is more to one’s identity than a sense of sameness, that one has to be able to reconstruct the story of one’s life. This is precisely what Leonard appears to be trying to desperately to do, and that the film suggests he cannot do in the absence of his short-term memory.
As a philosophic endeavor, then, Memento makes an interesting and unique intervention into the question of what is necessary for maintaining a sense of personal identity. As we learn from cognitive science that memory is not itself a single function, as the classical empiricists from Locke to Hume had assumed, the question of how we develop a sense of ourselves as unique individuals who remain identical over time (pace postmodernism) becomes even more puzzling. Memento makes an important contribution to the discussion of this question by showing us the crucial role that short-term memory plays in this construction.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2001
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.