Nolan joins forces with cinematographer Wally Pfister for the first time, and together they set the scene for the increasingly vast-in-scale – but cerebrally so – populist fare that would follow over the next two decades. Memento was one of those instantly cool cult indie darlings, like Donnie Darko or Pi, and you were invited to do little else but wow and flutter at a formidable new talent. Which is to say that Memento is impressive, both formally and thematically, but it also evidences the weakness that would increasingly manifest for the director going forward.
Memento’s conceit is both simple and effective; through telling his tale of an anterograde amnesiac in reverse, Nolan renders the straightforward facts concerning his protagonist’s quest complex and elusive. One can play the picture in chronological order if one has the right DVD (I still have the original R2 single disc edition); I’d never got round to it until this visit, and even then, I quickly gave up, as it simply isn’t very interesting viewed that way. Indeed, one of the reasons I suspect I haven’t returned to Memento in almost two decades is that, despite rating it highly, it isn’t so stimulating as a repeat offender. Thematically, yes, but as a narrative it rather wilts. First impressions are everything. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Roger Ebert suggested it wouldn’t warrant multiple viewings: “Confusion is the state we are intended to be in”); it rather depends what you’re angling for from your movie.
Certainly, the info dump that kicks off the proceedings (ie comes at the end of the released movie) is unwieldy to say the least. All that business with Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) turns out to have been Leonard’s own experience and – as Joe Pantoliano’s cop Teddy Gammell tells it – Leonard tracked down his wife’s killer(s) a long time ago, but due to his condition refused to accept it. Consequently, Teddy used Leonard’s vigilance for his own ends (this refusal to accept the truth in turn leads to Teddy’s death at “the beginning”). Now, it may be that Teddy is lying – Nolan noted audiences were unwilling to believe Teddy, in much the same manner that Leonard isn’t – but if that’s ambiguous, what is not is that we see Leonard actively nourishing his own self-deception. Which rather supports Teddy’s account, at least to a degree.
Indeed, for all Memento’s structural dazzle, as a puzzler it isn’t so distant from other schlockier genre examples. Had it turned out that Leonard was actually responsible for his wife’s death – and I bet Nolan considered it; the germ of the idea can be found in his assaulting Natalie, and then her turning it on him – it would have been in the same amnesiac/mental aberration furrow as the likes of Shattered and Shutter Island (God forbid it bore any relation to the latter).
Instead, what’s significant about Memento is how small its world is – in direct contrast to Nolan’s subsequent fare, except maybe for Insomnia – and that is its salvation. All Leonard really does is become suspicious of Teddy, and thanks to a stray drinks coaster hook up with and get manipulated by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Indeed, it’s in this that Memento’s effective dissertation on paradigms is laid out. Those who know more about the world than Leonard, about the truth of the world – Teddy, Natalie, motel clerk Burt (Mark Boone Junior) fleecing Leonard for two rooms – have no compunction in influencing and using him for their own benefit, fully aware he stands no chance of seeing things as they really are. And possibly, even if they show him, he won’t believe them. Sound familiar?
If one has a limited understanding of or ability to perceive the world, it becomes impossible to make decisions about one’s circumstances that are beneficial to one’s wellbeing. And the more corrupted that perception is or becomes, the more one is likely to make choices that are actively counterproductive to the same.
Leonard is caught in a purgatory, spending his life going round in circles because others tell him to, and he actively allows them to tell him to. Decisions about where he lives (Burt), who he makes friends with (Natalie, who deceives him and sends him on a massive detour, being Callum Keith Rennie’s Dodd) and who he trusts as a guide (Teddy). In Memento, this truth is a particularly stark one, because it’s really rather pathetic that Leonard believes he’s onto something, that what he’s doing is important, that it’s “big”, and that the key to everything is within his grasp. Yet he actually has no idea and further, he cannot, because he has zero perspective. He can’t see things from above, looking down. Much like our lives, perhaps? Even when we think we believe we have insight, be it spiritual, political or global, we’re invariably still only snatching a sliver of something someone else is permitting us to perceive. “The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?” But to an extent, it does.
Leonard has a massive book of clues, but his trying to work things out on a personal level is akin to the rabbit warren of, say, the JFK assassination; it will only turn up further questions, because the closer one gets, the further away one actually is from coherent perception. Leonard’s condition simply means his confirmation biases are more immediate and dramatic: “You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth” he is told, and finally he admits “Do I lie to myself to be happy? In you case Teddy, yes, I will”.
Nolan commented “What the film says is that you can take on knowledge unconsciously through repetition, through habit“. But that’s partly due to its internal logic (the how it is that Leonard even knows he has a condition). What it really says is that unconscious knowledge – intuition, if you like – is no more valid than flawed memory.
In many respects, this scale and approach to a movie is Nolan playing to his strengths; the geography of action is within his grasp, and the focus is within the cranium rather than overstretching itself with dazzling set pieces and special effects (which is where his limitations as a filmmaker usually manifest themselves). The intricacies of editing work for him when they’re exclusively to do with the mind. The Tobolowsky plot is easily the most arresting part of Memento, and it’s easy to see why Nolan decided to lace it throughout the middle section of the movie (watched in a chunk at the start, it takes up about a quarter of an hour). It’s an excellent “in” to the picture’s themes; Sammy’s wife (Harriet Sansom Harris) begins doubting her husband’s condition because someone else doubts her husband’s condition. How well do we know our minds? How well can we say we know who we are, let alone assess who others are?
All Nolan’s films are about perception and the limitations thereof to some degree, but Memento is the one that probably sets out this store most overtly. The director’s canvases will change, and sometimes, his efforts won’t be wholly satisfyingly, as he attempts to stretch the material to fit his predilections (Batman Begins). But it’s easy to see, on the predictive programming front, why Nolan has become such a darling of TPTB. He’s putting it out there in plain sight, how easy it is to blur and blend and fabricate the reality of the masses, and still we’ll be entirely malleable when we’re told to be.