Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Memento’s puzzle structure hides big twists and bigger profundities

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“Don’t believe his lies” —Memento

I first saw Memento at a public screening at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival, well before Christopher Nolan was a known quantity, much less the semi-reclusive maestro behind The Dark Knight trilogy. What stands out about the screening—other than the bolt-from-the-blue excitement of seeing an as-yet-unheralded masterpiece—was the Q&A session with Nolan that followed. Generally, festival Q&A sessions are acutely embarrassing forays into the trivial or creepy, with people either asking obscure and irrelevant questions, launching into rambling soliloquies that never coalesce into questions, or simply offering everyone a window into their madness. Memento was different: They wanted Nolan to recount to them, in specific detail, what they just saw—to pick up the shards of plot points, twists, and temporal convergences that were still swimming around in their heads. Could there be a more perfect reaction to a movie about how we remember things?


The worst that can—and has—been said about Memento is that it’s an airless gimmick, visually undistinguished, and not even all that sophisticated when the puzzle pieces are finally put together. Both criticisms have some merit: Nolan’s alternating use of black-and-white and color is striking but not expressive, more about fulfilling a narrative strategy than giving his neo-noir the visual richness of the classics. And even Nolan has admitted that the story isn’t all that complicated once the backward chronology is straightened out. But in the film, the backward chronology isn’t straightened out, and the layering of black-and-white and color scenes does serve an important purpose, even if the photography itself doesn’t brand upon the brain. The only regrettable part of that Q&A session with Nolan is that getting all the facts straight isn’t the point—it’s the way we sort them out that matters. For Nolan, hearing the bunk theories and misinterpretations from the audience had to be the ultimate validation.

Having seen Memento several times now, I still haven’t come close to answering (or even thinking to raise) many of the questions, big or small, the film inspires—that task belongs to obsessives like Andy Klein, who wrote this exhaustive/definitive user guide for Salon back in June 2001, and this chart detailing the complicated progressions of story and plot, which was found as a special feature on the DVD. (A DVD with a menu screen that nearly requires Polaroids and arm tattoos just to navigate.) But more than clearing up the puzzle constructed by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan (who wrote the short story, “Memento Mori,” on which it was based), repeat viewings have helped mostly to make its insight into the nature of memory all the more moving and resonant. Wipe away some of the confusion about who-did-who-with-the-what-now, and it’s easier to focus on Memento’s whys and hows, and how the patterns of deception that run through its hero’s head are common to all of us, not just those afflicted with fake movie conditions.

Memento unfolds over 22 scenes—or, more accurately, 22 strands of time, the main strand (in color) moving backward in increments, and another strand (in black and white) going forward, though the two overlap profoundly. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a broken man seeking revenge on the man who raped and murdered his wife. The trouble is that Leonard suffers from a cinematically enhanced strain of “anterograde amnesia” that has wiped out his short-term memory and kept him from generating any new memories past the incident where his wife was killed. Because of these deficiencies, Leonard has devised a system of notes, Polaroids, and tattoos that establish the essential truths about his situation, and as he gathers more evidence, they lead him to his wife’s killer like a trail of breadcrumbs.

Those truths are easily manipulated. The question is: Who’s doing the manipulating? Is it the suspiciously gregarious Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who seems to have a bead on the “John G” Leonard has convinced himself is the culprit? Well, the back of Leonard’s photo reads, “Don’t Believe His Lies.” Or is it femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a bartender whose true motives for befriending Leonard are papered over in his Polaroid notes? Then there’s Leonard, the classic unreliable-narrator archetype, only in the Nolans’ scenario, he’s unreliable to himself, narrating the truth as he believes it and gaming his own system. The disparity between Leonard’s conviction in his system and his total vulnerability to exploitation is underlined again and again in Memento, including its best scene, when Natalie brazenly provokes him, making certain that no pens or pencils are around for him so he can’t record what just happened.

The black-and-white scenes mainly revolve around Leonard on the phone—to who?—telling the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man he studied closely when he was a claims investigator for an insurance company. Sammy developed a similar condition after a car accident, and Leonard was left to assess whether the condition was genuine. For Leonard, the lesson of Sammy Jankis relates mostly to the need for a smart system to block the sieve of his short-term memory, catching the important information before it drains away. But Nolan has other things in mind, including a twist that brings Leonard and Sammy’s stories into closer alignment as the black-and-white and color scenes start to converge. (It’s a terrible insult to dismiss Memento as merely that “backward” movie, when its mechanics are actually far more sophisticated. That was another problem with the few negative reviews the film received: Some just couldn’t puzzle it out.)


The twists in Memento are pretty mind-blowing, helped along by the audience being too busy sorting through the structural trickery to anticipate them. But their real value comes from what they reveal about human nature. The ties between Sammy and Leonard amount to a superb piece of plotting, but what sticks for me about Sammy Jankis is the idea that we pretend to be familiar with things even when we aren’t. “When I looked into his eyes, I thought I saw recognition,” Leonard says of Sammy. “Now I know. You fake it. If you think you’re supposed to recognize somebody, you just pretend.” And by “you,” Nolan isn’t just talking about guys suffering from movie amnesia, but about a more general human instinct to smooth social interaction. There’s no substantive difference between what Sammy does and, say, pretending to know some stranger who claims he went to high school with you.

By going backward in time, Memento draws the real mystery from viewers learning the first step in Leonard’s investigation, the origins of his self-deception. Yes, we also learn what really happened to his wife, what happened to him, and what happened to his killer, and we understand more about Teddy’s complicated role in using Leonard for his own purposes. But the most telling revelation at the end of Memento isn’t limited to his condition: Leonard lies to himself. And when he isn’t outright lying to himself, he’s guilty of confirmation bias, accepting only the facts that affirm his pre-cooked conclusions, and tossing out all the rest. Again, there’s no substantive difference between what Leonard does and, say, embracing the polling data that favors your candidate of choice, while ignoring the numbers that don’t. When Leonard writes “Don’t Believe His Lies” on the back of a Polaroid, it’s the original sin that begets all the others, like an infection that spreads through the body.


For cinephiles of a certain disposition, Memento has become the expert-level Sudoku of the ’00s, a puzzle that takes a lot of scribbling and erasing before the numbers add up. But the wonkery of it sometimes obscures the fact that it’s a hugely entertaining movie, too, exploiting Leonard’s memory lapses for big laughs (“So what am I doing? I’m chasing this guy… no… he’s chasing me”) and constantly scrambling our perceptions in much the same way Natalie and Teddy scramble Leonard’s. Nolan later teased viewers on a much larger scale with Inception, a nesting doll of dreams within dreams, but Memento is cleaner and more complex, with better insight into how the human mind works. Nolan delights in playing head games with Leonard’s amnesia, but his hidden strategy is to expose us, too. If Leonard is a freak, so are we all.

Coming up: 
November 29: The New World
December 20: Pump Up The Volume
January 10: [REC]