A Look at the Movie Memento: The Lies Our Memories Tell

A hand holds a photograph of a dead man in a blood-splattered room. Slowly, the image fades out and it becomes apparent that what we are watching is a developing photo in reverse. The camera zooms out, and a man comes into view. He places the photograph back into his Polaroid 690 and the flash goes off. Blood oozes up the wall. The man with the camera surveys the scene: eye-glasses on the floor, a bullet casing, a dead man. A gun jumps into his hand and he kneels. The bullet returns to the gun, the glasses fly back to their place on the dead man’s face, and the dead man rises under the gun’s point. The gun is fired. With the blast of the gun, the viewer is thrust into the movie, left alone to make sense of what he had just seen.

In this manner, the ending of the film is revealed within the first few minutes. The viewer is thrown in without warning, making him confused and disorientated. Memento (2000), directed by Christopher Nolan, continues in this erratic and unusual way, showing scenes in reverse chronological order: it unfolds one scene at a time in backward succession, with each scene preceding the last, each scene showing what events led up to the previous. The movie follows Leonard Shelby, played by Guy Pierce, a man who is unable to form new memories due to a debilitating head injury. Leonard comes up with ways of getting around his condition, using Polaroids, handwritten notes, and tattoos to guide him on his way. The last thing he remembers is the rape and murder of his wife, a brutal memory which drives Leonard on his quest to find his wife’s killer. He is a strong-willed man who does not let his condition prevent him from reaching his goal – avenging his wife’s death.

Or so it seems. Slowly, the image of a confident, determined man fades away, much as the photograph in the opening shot. As we move backwards in time through Leonard’s experiences, it becomes apparent that Leonard is not as in control as he seems. The idea of a man who will not remember anything in five minutes is a tempting one; it has the allure of no consequences. All around him, people take advantage and use Leonard for their own needs and benefits. It becomes apparent that even people who are thought to be on Leonard’s side are only using him. People such as Natalie, who we first get to know through a note written by Leonard on her picture: “She has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity.” Yet it seems that Leonard is wrong about every person, and his photographs and notes start to become meaningless. Halfway into the movie, Natalie’s true intentions are revealed. “You sad, sad freak,” she says to Leonard the second time she meets him. “I can say whatever the fuck I want, and you won’t remember. We’ll still be best friends. Or maybe even lovers.” She circles around him, jeering at him. “You know what? I think I’m gonna use you.” Natalie, and others who Leonard encounters, are enthralled by Leonard – they realize that they can get away with anything. There are no consequences to their actions, because Leonard will not remember them.

The viewers watch a man they have come to admire for his inner strength and overcoming obstacles such as his condition turn into someone easily manipulated by others and blinded by the illusions of his notes and photographs. Yet the real blow comes with the realization that this man – this strong-willed, unstoppable hero – has been manipulating himself. It is hard to imagine suffering from Leonard’s condition; nevertheless, the movie is universal in its message: memories shape a person’s identity, but they are so easily alterable. Memento is not about Leonard and his problem; it is about living in a world of illusions and lies that we create for ourselves.

Memories determine your character, personality, who you are. It’s no wonder, then, that memories and their importance in shaping a person’s identity have become a hot topic for movies in recent years. There are numerous films that discuss the subject of memories: Mulholland Drive deals with a woman suffering from amnesia; 50 First Dates, though a comedy, addresses a very similar medical condition as the one found in Memento; The Bourne Identity presents a world where people remember the future. In all these movies, the characters and those around them shape their own memories, in turn displaying the minds’ flexibility – and vulnerability. These films remind us just how easy it is to change and mold our memories into what we want them to be, or even what we believe them to be.

Memento fits in with these movies, but something else sets it apart: it does not only show us what Leonard is experiencing; it allows us to experience it for ourselves. The TimeOut Film Guide states: “This taut, ingenious thriller displays real interest in how perception and memory shape action, identity, and, of course, filmic storytelling” (854). While Christopher Nolan is not the first to utilize this backwards form of film-making, his choice to do so in Memento makes it the powerful movie that it is – the backwards movement of the scenes, connected only by a black and white phone conversation between Leonard and an unknown cop, keeps the viewer uncomfortable and constantly thinking. Memento simulates what it might be like to be Leonard, never knowing what happened to bring him to a certain point. Reality unfolds piece by piece, scene by scene, each time rewinding a bit more and exposing more of what is truly going on. Ever so often, the viewer must stop and fit together bits of information, just as Leonard must do all the time, over and over again. The movie forces the viewer to constantly make his own connections, instead of relying on a linear storyline to feed him the details.

By getting the viewer to piece the movie together, Nolan creates a false sense of security. It makes the viewer feel as though he is the one in control because he is the one figuring out the movie and forming opinions. The same is true for Leonard – he feels he is in control of his life, despite his disability. However, little by little, both the viewers’ and Leonard’s confidence are stripped away. You learn that those around Leonard, like Natalie, are only using him. As a viewer, you are so confident that you know what is going on, that the knowledge that you are wrong comes as a shock. Yet before long, the initial shock at finding out the truth slowly melts into a different kind of feeling – the numb realization that this movie is not only about Leonard, but about you. “We all need a mirror to remind us who we are,” Leonard notes by the end of the movie. “I’m no different.” To know who we are, we must look in the mirror and see who we have come to be. Nolan uses Memento to create a mirror for us – Leonard. When we look at Leonard, we realize that we are watching ourselves. Although we may not all have his condition to hide behind, we too are guilty of manipulating our memories.

Everybody forgets. “How Excercising Your Memory Strengthens it” notes that “Forgetting is a natural phenomenon. It is even essential.” Forgetting eliminates things that would “clutter [our brains] up needlessly” (“How ExcercisingâÂ?¦”). As hard as it is to imagine, though, Leonard’s condition does exist. It is called Anterograde Amnesia – the inability to form short-term memories – and can be caused by damage to certain parts of the brain (“Memory Loss and the Brain”). Anterograde Amnesia is not a new problem, yet Nolan manages to put it in a unique light: he does not place emphasis on how Leonard is different, but rather on how he is strikingly similar to each viewer. In fact. the knowledge that Leonard’s condition is so exotic and rare is what makes the blow even more powerful – here is a man with a condition you’re not even sure exists, so distanced from you, and yet the two of you are so similar.

Christopher Nolanchose to use a real medical condition to drive the movie’s point home. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Charlie Kaufman, the film’s screenwriter, takes the idea a step further, and creates a medical procedure. He brings to life a world where memories can simply be erased by this procedure. Memento is a powerful movie because it points out that such a procedure is not even necessary. The movie shows that people are already capable of manipulating and changing their own memories.

Such ideas of memory manipulation are not mere works of fiction – examples exist in real life as well. Entire nations are affected by this desire to change our memories. Take, for example, Russia. In early 1800, Russia was a state that had been through much turmoil and change. The people’s morale was low. A great majority of Russian citizens went through day-to-day life without putting too much consideration into who they were, or why. In 1810, a man by the name of Nicolai Karamzin wrote the 11-volume History of the Russian State, detailing in everyday, vernacular, and positive language the history of Russia up to the year 1613. The volumes were a bestseller. All of a sudden, people became incredibly proud of their nation, and nationalism skyrocketed. The views of people about the nation they lived in, and their culture, changed drastically. The knowledge of the country’s past changed and shaped its people, just like the memories of a person change and shape him.

We can see examples of memory manipulation in literature as well. In 1984, George Orwell creates a nation that lives in fear and oppression under its government, Big Brother. This nation is always at war, though the current country being fought is constantly changing. Every time this change occurs, the public is made to believe that this was always the country they were fighting, and that in reality, nothing changed. Through manipulation of the media, citizens easily believe the lies that are fed to them by the government. A nation who may be praised one day is cursed the next. Memories are so easily shaped that people don’t even realize what is happening – or possibly don’t want to realize.

Similarly, at the end of Memento, the viewers have journeyed to the beginning of the movie. Leonard sits in his car, after an episode in which his “friend” Teddy tells him what really happened to his wife. His wife survived the rape. She lived on, not knowing how to face Leonard’s condition. She believed he was faking it, that he could do something about his condition if only he were pushed hard enough. So she pushed. Every day, Leonard gave his wife insulin shots for her diabetes. Desperate to get her husband back, his wife asked him for her shot. Five minutes later, she asked again. And again. Leonard’s wife died by Leonard’s own hands. Hearing all this from Teddy, Leonard is enraged, not wanting it to be the truth. He is faced with knowing that he himself killed his wife, that he had already killed his John G. – the man who raped his wife – and that he has been living nothing but a lie, searching for a man who does not exist. “Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve told me?” he asks, gripping the steering wheel. “Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve made me do?” In many cases, it is simply easier to pretend, to make up our own memories. It is safer; it hurts less. Just as the people in 1984 choose to believe what they know is an obvious lie, Leonard chooses to believe that John G. is still out there. “Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy… yes I will.” Leonard chooses the lie. He chooses to continue searching for a man who does not exist. Leonard, the people in 1984 – are we all craving happiness so much that we are willing to turn a blind eye on on reality?

Near the beginning of the movie, Leonard Shelby tells Teddy: “Memory’s not perfectâÂ?¦ It’s an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Since Leonard cannot remember anything, he bases everything on what he believes are the facts – untainted and unaltered by the uncertainty of his own memory. Leonard believes that he deals in truth, but the movie makes it clear that even these so called “facts” are subject to manipulation. We lie to ourselves, tell ourselves that what we remember must be the truth. An event we’ve seen with our own eyes must have taken place. And, consequentially, who we are is rooted in these memories, these facts. Who are we without memories? Who did Leonard become without his? A false superhero who lived a lie. Is it better to lie to ourselves to be happy and live a life based on illusions? Do we take the easy way out and just forget? Or do we stop running, turn around, and look in the mirror to figure out who we really are?

Works Cited:

“How Excercising Your Memory Strengthens it.” 2002.

Thompson, John M. Russia and the Soviet Union. Westview; Colorado 2004.

“Memento.” Internet Movie Database. 1990-2006.

“Memento.” TimeOut Film Guide.

“Memory Loss and the Brain.” Memory Disorders Project.

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