Memento

On Monday I wrote about the horrible, brain damaging experience that was the new Indiana Jones movie. In the comments section Teague asked me what was the last good movie that I saw. Well, I decided that I will write about that movie today.

After watching Indy battle Roswell aliens on Saturday, I sort of needed to do something to counteract this experience. Sort of like rinsing my brain from the dreadful mental muck spewed by all recent George Lucas productions. I picked Memento because I had never heard a bad thing about this movie. Everyone kept talking about it in superlatives. When I took Psychology back as an undergrad my professor just couldn’t shut up about it during the lectures on memory and amnesia. Ever since then this movie was on my “to watch” lists.

Memento

This Sunday I really needed to watch something intelligent, and intriguing – anything to stop the recurring fantasy of me punching George Lucas in the face for making me waste $10 bucks on one of the worst movies of this year. It worked, Memento did not disappoint me and it was a hell of a ride.

The film is unique in almost every aspect – starting from the idea (a man anterograde amnesia hunts the killer of his wife seeking revenge), to the composition and story telling methods. We experience the movie very similar to the way Leonard (out protagonist) lives his life: few minutes at a time. Due to his condition, he cannot form new memories. He promptly forgets everything he sees and hears after it leaves his short term memory which usually only takes few minutes. We experience the movie in the same way. Each scene starts when Leonard just forgot what was going on, and ends at the point where he is about to forget everything again. Here is a twist though – we watch the events unfold in reverse chronological order and running in two parallel timeliness which merge at some point in the movie.

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This may sound confusing, and initially it is. Things happen to our hero, and we don’t know why (and neither does he) but with each scene we get more information. And since most of us can form long term memories, we can always stay one step ahead of Leonard and put together all the pieces of the puzzle until we have a clear picture of what has transpired.

Since Leonard can’t do that, he has developed a system of notes, and reminders for himself. His method is so simple it is almost brilliant. He always caries a small Polaroid camera with him and snaps pictures of things he wants to “remember”. For example, how his new car looks, the motel where he is staying, the people he met recently. On the little white strips he writes relevant info – like “my car”, “my motel” or given person’s name and phone number. On the back he scribbles notes: like “don’t trust this person” or “this person will help you” and etc. Very ingenious.

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Some facts are too important to trust to pictures. He tattoos them directly onto his body – some in reversed letters so that he can read them in the mirror. These facts include the fateful line “John G. Raped and Murdered my Wife”.

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What initially bothered me was the fact that while Leonard would forget recent events so easily, but he had this intricate system in place. How did he remember to take notes – or how to take them? I did some research in this direction and apparently there are two types of memories we form – episodic and semantic. Episodic memories are snapshots of events, while semantic memories are more procedural and instinctive (like riding a bike for example) or factual (water is wet, sun is bright, etc…). The theory is that most episodic memories get translated to semantic memories over time – so you actually forget the exact details of the event, but you remember the “story” the way you tell it to people as sort of a monologue. But they also develop via repetition and training. People with anterograde amnesia seem to have more problems with forming episodic memories rather than semantic ones. Leonard mentioned at several points in the movie that he is able to learn by repetition and routine – so it is possible that his notes system, and the instincts he used to cope with his condition developed over time.

His amnesia is tragic, but also strangely liberating. Leonard never gets embarrassed, has no regrets and no remorse. He doesn’t have to live with his choices – only with their potential consequences. And he has a very strong drive – his quest for revenge, is what keeps him going, and keeps him motivated. All of these factors make him a very intense and memorable character, and Guy Pierce does an incredible job portraying him on the screen.

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Memento raises interesting questions about the very nature of memory. At some point someone questions Leonard’s ability to collect and process facts for his investigation based on his condition:

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.

Are Leonard last memories real? Does his story actually check out, or has he successfully deceived himself and conveniently forgot important details of his life? The ending, or rather the beginning of the story is rather ambiguous and puts a big question mark above Leonard’s whole quest. All the facts about Leonard’s we took for granted throughout the movie are questioned.

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What would you do if you were Leonard in these last scenes of the movie? Would you make the same choice he did? And what do you think of Gamme’s version of the story? Do you think what he said about Leonard’s wife it was true?

If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend it. It is highly entertaining, suspenseful and masterfully written, acted out and produced. And it only shows that what we talked about in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull thread is true: good stories do not need any special effects or big budgets. These things are really just cosmetic stuff. But if you make them the focus of your project, you usually lose sight of what is the most important: the story and the characters.

[tags]memento, movies, review[/tags]

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4 Responses to Memento

  1. Craig Betts UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Solaris Terminalist says:

    I saw this movie when it first came out . . . and just loved it!

    My wife couldn’t stand how the scenes kept jumping around, but it was the perfect way for the viewer to experience Leonard’s life.

    Granted, this is not a movie for “zoning-out”. It requires an open mind and some patience since you really do watch it backwards.

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  2. freelancer SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Love this movie! Very entertaining, and almost as confusing as Primer. Watched it on TV a few years back. My mom walked out after about 30 minutes though, she didn’t really get it :P

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  3. Marcus GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    Amnesia and tatoos as hints are themes in the Planescape Torment game. ;)

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [quote comment=”9271″]Granted, this is not a movie for “zoning-out”. It requires an open mind and some patience since you really do watch it backwards.[/quote]

    Yep, but to me this is a good thing. I like movies that make you think and which are not “easy viewing”.

    [quote comment=”9275″]Amnesia and tatoos as hints are themes in the Planescape Torment game. ;)[/quote]

    Heh, yep. I started playing it some time ago, but I got sucked back into Morrowind these days. :P

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