this is why i always have a pen

my pal bryce over at things that don't suck is devoting this week to all things christopher nolan in anticipation of inception (2010) opening friday.

so, for the occasion, i thought i would go back and take a look at memento (2000), one of the finer neo-noir films i have seen.

those of you that haven't seen it still might be familiar with the title due to how much attention was paid to its somewhat novel structure. the scenes that comprise the main portion of the narrative run in reverse order. this backwards chronology, shot in color, runs alternately with an expository thread, shot in black and white, in which you see leonard, our protagonist, engaged in a phone conversation with an unidentified party. on paper, it sounds a little confusing. on film, it is deftly handled by nolan and is a compelling example of form following function.

the story follows leonard shelby, an insurance investigator who suffers from anterograde amnesia due to an injury suffered at the hands of the person he believes raped and murdered his wife. simply put, he cannot create new memories. he retains everything right up until the point this trauma occurred, but since then it is impossible. his memories fade as thoroughly and quickly out as the polaroids he takes to help him remember names, numbers and faces fade in.

the pictures, combined with notes, numerous tattoos and police files make up the trail of clues that he hopes will lead him to his wife's killer so justice may be served. leonard is meticulous and orderly about his routines. it's how he gets by in his condition. the one thing that other detectives have, even when all else has deserted them - their wits - are in full revolt in leonard's case. memories and motivations stick in his head just long enough to be tantalizing and frustrating. and in some cases, hilarious/potentially fatal.

as the alternating timelines converge, we pick up our femme fatale and a cop who works in the more gray areas of the law, to put it diplomatically. very satisfyingly noir. intercut with everyone who has a stake in manipulating leonard to their own end is the story of sammy jankis. sammy's case was one that leonard investigated in his earlier life and the first place he encountered the phenomenon that is anterograde amnesia. ah, the fickle finger of fate. sammy's story has now become leonard's story. one wrong turn, one bad decision and the cosmos deals the good man the bad hand. also very satisfyingly noir.

everything about the production is strong. solid writing, great performances and excellent direction from nolan. its structure would be a liability in less skilled hands but here it is never less than compelling. the story might not be quite as much so if it were told in a straight, linear fashion but i see this as more than just beneficial gimmickry. the structure suits and serves the story. it corresponds to our narrator's mental state and puts us very solidly in his shoes. it is no parlor trick.

and you want noir? it is deep black. it may take place mostly in the light but it is a worthy successor to those dark and shadowy films that first began to explore these themes in the forties. when noir really began to bloom at the end of world war two some pretty existential seeds had apparently been sown. two world wars, a great depression and a spanish flu pandemic is a lot to deal with in a thirty year stretch. the crisis of masculinity felt by men transitioning from a theater of war to the daily routine of home and work was profoundly reflected by these noir protagonists. "what do i do now?" rang in the heads of millions of people, men and women, as the adjustments to normal life were struggled with. well, memento is these existential noir questions to the nth degree. leonard, very much like the veterans of the forties, may know who he used to be but he certainly has no idea anymore. he is more than just the literal embodiment of this crisis. he is its terminal point.

and when you contrast his story with sammy's you are opening a veritable pandora's box of questions about the role of knowledge versus instinct in developing that identity that is so much in question here. is there any position except the amorality so essential to good noir when you have no hope of a future? what do you do when your only choices are a tragic past and this moment you are in right now? when there is no tomorrow, nothing to keep going on for, your very soul is at risk. you cannot hold on to the things you know, the things you learn, therefore you are operating on instinct. and when your instinct is unreliable? it's something we all face to one degree or another. at one point leonard explains that memory is only an interpretation, not a record. so, if you give that any credence, not only is he an unreliable narrator in his story, we are unreliable narrators of our own. combine that with the fact that we are all at the mercy of fate's fickle finger. memento gives us quite the puzzle to work on, both during and after the film. exceedingly satisfyingly noir.

in addition to the noirish psychological underpinnings, i like to read leonard's job as an insurance investigator as a nod to double indemnity (1944). unfortunately for leonard, the little man who lives in his stomach can't remember anything any longer than he can. and while i am thinking about it, i know we're supposed to prize versatility and no one wants to be typecast, but i think genre films, noir and horror in particular, sometimes suffer these days for the fact that there aren't those faces you see over and over in these types of roles. you had a certain understanding with humphrey bogart, alan ladd and elisha cook jr. guy pearce has made two of the best neo-noir films our generation has seen, the other being l.a. confidential (1997), and it would be a shame to see someone so well suited to it not make another.

if you want to catch up on other nolan-related items, old and new, before you go see inception go take a look at things that don't suck for bryce's daily posts. you will also find those of several other worthy contributors. except teddy. don't believe his lies.


  1. Nolan's earlier effort "Following", is also a fine example of modern noir. Highly recommended as a portrait of a fledgling filmmaker stretching his wings. Also forgot that Nolan helmed the American remake of "Insomnia", which a shame really. It was a serviceable film, but completely needless, as the original is pretty much near perfect. can't win 'em all.

  2. the thing that always strikes me when i consider his first two features is the huge leap from one to the next. "following", while a good start, has "first film" written all over it. by the time "memento" arrives, though, the difference is astounding. it is confident, lean, assured and exceedingly well made. i won't say "insomnia" was needless. i think it was a sound move on warner's part to make sure the evolution so evident between films one and two was legitimate before handing him the keys to the "batman" franchise. i suppose they could have done that with just about any property, though.