Monday, November 3, 2008

Memento (1)



It's easy to sound intelligent when talking about Memento, for if you spend enough words about it some of its clever goodness is simply bound to rub off. And I'm referring here not only to its virtuoso narrative structure - weaving together the main scenes, presented in reverse chronological order, with interludes that proceed forwards in time - but also to its questioning of the role of the narrator, the positioning of the spectator and the nature of experience and memory. So naturally I made a very big deal out of it in my PhD. And I was hardly alone, judging from the sizeable contingent of academics making up the 640 results in Google Scholar, which sweep far more broadly than film studies alone and include a number of dedicated MA theses. For the knottiest, more philosophically minded critiques, try adding the keyword Deleuze (we're still in the Scholar subset) and you'll get a very impressive 98 hits. Subtract Deleuze, and add this time one or two more titles such Iñárritu's 21 Grams, and you'll be more likely to gravitate towards film studies proper. These Google games provide endless fun.

My particular handle on the film was that it epitomised the contemporary anxiety towards memory which was the subject of my thesis. The protagonist Leonard Shelby, I postulated, represents one pole of this anxiety: he is the everyman of a society that knows nothing, whose ability to remember - that is to say, to turn experience into lasting knowledge - has been lost; whereas at the opposite pole stands a character we encountered a few posts ago, Borges' Funes, surveying from the Library of Babel a society that remembers every single piece of information, but for that very reason is unable to discriminate and produce any knowledge at all.

Writing down this statement even now, I immediately launch the contrary argument in my own head. Your scholarly elucubrations notwithstanding, I tell myself, societies continue to exchange wisdom and knowledge, memory works, the Internet improves lives - most notably your own, old chap - so what's your point? And my point, I answer somewhat feebly, is that actually not all is well, that we do some things well but fail miserably at others, and that all the stories of mnemonic dysfunction that populate our culture are symptomatic of something, and not told simply because dysfunction happens to be interesting. This blog is also a way to silence this internal conversation and annoy somebody else for a change.

Returning to our muttons, I'm sure you're all familiar with the plot: insurance investigator is attacked in his home, survives (his wife does not), loses his ability to form new memories, embarks in a search for his attacker, whom the police was never able to find. To overcome his amnesia, he has had tattooed on his body what little information he has collected about the case, not to mention what little he knows about himself after the accident.


And in order to incorporate new facts into this sparse database, he goes around with a Polaroid camera, taking pictures that he carries in his pockets for easy reference.


Being memoryless and having to rely entirely on technology: this is the limit case that Leonard represents, allowing us to test the proposition I put forward towards the end of last week's post: can we in fact make the jump, cease to even try to remember stuff, seeing as it is so easy nowadays to take notes, and pictures, and videos, and lead perfectly documented lives? To which the answer, if the film is any evidence at all, is of course that no, we can't. Thus we discover that during his investigation Leonard is manipulated in turn by a crooked cop and the girlfriend of a drug dealer, each attempting to use him as a witless killer, an automaton sent on a path of destruction by means of few distorted directives. And it matters little that by the end of the film - which of course is also the beginning - Leonard manages to get on at least to the crooked cop, figuring out a way to deceive himself and set in motion the other's ruin. If anything, this underscores even more forcefully how little capacity Leonard has to infuse disjointed memories with sense, and how pathetically ill equipped he is to fulfill his wish for revenge.

To belabour the point a little, what I'm proposing then is an allegory: Leonard as homo technologicus, his memory incapacitated not by a blow to the head but by having surrendered to technology too much of the task of remembering. And that would be as far as it goes, and maybe not a long way towards convincing you of anything. Except I think there is a deeper aspect to the film, and something altogether darker in the anxiety itself.

Many discussions of Memento, and especially most of the academic ones I've come across, tend to underplay its violence and its most disquieting aspects, drain it of its blood, as it were, and focus rather on the conceit. But Nolan's is not just a film about narrative and editing and temporality, nor about memory in a neatly defined sense; it is also a film about crime and cruelty and retribution: about self-mutilation and deception, about the violence of a society that inscribes its norms in the naked flesh of its citizens - a vision straight out of Kafka's penal colony - and about subjects at the mercy of incessant mediations, of phrases and images that are as compelling as they are empty of meaning.

Compare Memento to another recent film that also happens to have become a machine for generating essays - The Matrix - and observe how uncompromising, unrelenting, true to itself the one is, and how contradictory, muddled and ultimately consolatory the other. And that's not the least of the reasons that led me towards my anxiety-hypothesis: the belief, grounded perhaps in an outmoded aesthetics - that a philosophical tragedy[1] of such force would have to be tapping into something real.

More on this next week.




Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)

[1]
The definition is Andy Klein's in
Everything you wanted to know about "Memento", Salon.com, 28 June 2001

17 comments:

objectdart said...

can we in fact make the jump, cease to even try to remember stuff, seeing as it is so easy nowadays to take notes, and pictures, and videos, and lead perfectly documented lives? To which the answer, if the film is any evidence at all, is of course that no, we can't.

very interesting proposition, and one i've flirted with myself.

it seems that even our own memories are questionable and open to recoding during our lived experience. i always saw the protagonist as a victim as the extreme of the 'gullible fool' stereotype in storytelling. he believes everything because that is his nature, and the knock to the head is just a sympathetic device.

the film told me that anyone can be that guy, unless we constantly question, or at very least have the faculty to do so. technological reminders are extensions that ossify memory for us, to bolster our ultimately fallible selves.

Taramoc said...

Funny how two people can have different perspectives watching the same thing. As I see it, the main character of memento is the quintessential distrustful person.

Everything he is told, he second guesses it and check his notes, because he has no choice. Even if he wants to believe everything, he ends up not believing anything. He is on a mission though, so, eventually, he has to trust someone, and that is how he gets into trouble.

We do reach the same conclusion though, everybody can be that guy. Do we really need to question everything to avoid that, though? I just think we need to figure out which persons to trust, and tools like memory help us doing just that.

An opposite view of the same issue is in Finding Nemo, with Dory, the blue fish having the same handicap. She uses the opposite solution, though. She trusts everybody, blindly. Being a comedy for kids, that serves her well, but Memento’s world (and unfortunately our own) is less forgiving that Finding Nemo’s.

Giovanni said...

I started writing about Memento in the lead up to the Iraq war and it was easy to see it then as an allegory for a large chunk of the public, by no means only in America: at the mercy of the media (not just the news media), always confiding in the latest representation, never questioning the history, or how a certain juncture might have been reached. Ultimately too trusting.

But I agree with Taramoc that Leonard does his level best to be distrusting of people, and trusting only of objective reality. He thinks that having no memory even puts him at an advantage, since

[m]emory can change the shape of a room or the colour of a car. It’s an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.

He fails not only because those discrete facts aren't objective in the first place, but especially because he cannot link them into a coherent narrative. Others shuffle them around for him, and that's enough to change the story. Perhaps that's what happened in the lead up to the war too.

Anonymous said...

I’m not so sure that Dory’s trust is anything so thought-out as a solution, or that it really serves her well. It’s a perfectly decent coping mechanism until Marlin’s anxiety and rage disrupt it. Dory and Marlin’s journey together seems to me to be about them learning from each other how to get the correct measure of memory, something that explains why Dory’s memory improves as the journey progresses.

Finding Nemo is a good example of the kind of ruthless programming or training that Disney films have always been so good at, in this case priming us for the correct ‘balance’ of memory for successful integration into the system. To get the object of their desire (to find Nemo) Dory and Marlin both have to reshape their relations to the world: Dory to lose her amnesia, but Marlin also to lose his hypermnesia, to end his excessive mourning for Coral and the ‘total recall’ of that loss in order to be able to introduce Nemo to the discipline of the world (school).

Marlin’s final injunction to Nemo to go and have an adventure is, whatever the formal differences, attuned to the ideology of an older form of bourgeois realism where, ‘sadder but wiser’ (“with fronds like these, who needs anenomes!”) the purpose of his quest has in part been to teach him how to let go of his older, inhibiting attachments (in this case, a refusal to forget) so that memory can take its ‘appropriate’ place in the world.

dougal

harvestbird said...

Mike from Neighbours
fell in love with a glamour model
thus breaking, for a while,
the heart of adoring Jane

while the blokes of Coober Pedy
spied that Adam was not a woman
by the ropey sinews
that gendered his arm

Ed Exley seasoned his bile
at the strain of corruption
not too late he understood
that they all were soaking in it

an actor's career is a palimpsest
new characters are painted with old brushes
you can scrape the words from your arm
but the stories are still there

Giovanni said...

Whoa, Dougal! First of all, inscribing Finding Nemo in a Disney ideology is a bit like saying that the plays of Samuel Becket are typical Faber & Faber fare, and therefore just like the plays of Tom Stoppard. Finding Nemo was produced by Pixar, and Pixar has total creative control over its films (although there is a degree of ancillary contractual strong-arming: Disney for instance has forced Pixar to make Toy Story 3. "If you don't make it, we will," they said, and that was enough to close the Pixar creative guys in a room double quick). That said, Pixar does have a pretty strong and cohesive authorial voice, and I'm sure there are a lot of graduate students with children aged 2 to 12 who are writing about it as we speak. I have my ideas - yes, it's a fairly conservative bunch - but they're not terribly well formed.

In the case at hand, go and find adventure may be a disciplinary instruction, but surely Marlin's overprotectiveness of Nemo was a far worse constraint? And as for Dory learning to remember, it takes a heart of stone not to see that it's the emotional bond that she develops for Marlin and Nemo that makes those new memories stick better. I hear you say: yes, you need to be part of a nuclear family, Disney style. Perhaps. But becoming a stepmom is hardly a typical move in this direction, and it would be a... biracial affair? cross-species? Plus it's very unclear that it's what happens and there is nothing really to suggest that the two have a romance. If there is a system that the 'family' gets integrated in, it's a very vague one. Does Marlin even have a job? I'm throwing it out there. All we know is that he competed with other clownfish for their anemone, so there is some form of private property, but otherwise life on the reef seems fairly undefined. I see parents (fathers, actually) and children and I see a school, and I see the open ocean - a dangerous outside - but that's about it, could be a socialist utopia in every other respect.

Speaking of the anemone... I never understood that joke. Or rather, I half understood it, I thought it said "friends" and that still made me laugh. Hah!

(Ah, and Harvestbird... genius.)

Taramoc said...

Giovanni, you couldn't have said it better. Finding Nemo is so far away from the old I-need-to-find-a-prince-to-be-happy Disney refrain (between other reactionary bullcrap) that trying to put them in the same category seems, well, preposterous.

Pixar earned their creative freedom making gazillion of dollars for Disney, the only thing that in this day and age big corporations care about it.

Anonymous said...

My Disney formulation was unhelpfully sloppy, and the situation is more complicated than that rather reductive first take. I’m not wholly reassured, though, by the idea of Pixar’s “complete creative control”, not only because of the very real limits “distributional control” puts on this relative autonomy, but also because of the sense these films give that they’re renewing and redefining the effectiveness of a Disney ideology that had lost its energy and aggression (rather, in another register, how Blair’s New Labour completed Thatcherism by seeming to change it).

More importantly though, for me at least, is the link I tried to draw with the programming project of an older realism: of course Marlin’s clinging style of parenting was a far worse constraint, but part of the reason for that is that hypermnesia never gets its moment of justification in the film. The fact that it’s impossible to feel otherwise about so much of it shows how determined (nice word!) the film is to get these responses. There’s no other way of seeing Finding Nemo than as a lesson in how to let go because, as with bourgeois realism, it sets us in that position. So - whatever tinkering inter-special emotional innovations at the level of content - it’s carrying out the same formal task as the older Disney films (which is why I want to risk preposterousness and put them in the same category).

Compare the bourgeois realism of Finding Nemo with the exuberant Brechtianism of Rob Minkoff’s “Stuart Little” (1999), a film that - on any first viewing - seems to be the standard reactionary schmalz for the nuclear family but that, in fact, sends up both the family and the whole genre of the ‘family movie.’ Not only is the family villain Snowball, like Milton’s Satan, given the best lines (“so I lied, welcome to Manhattan”) but Stuart himself - in a scene that Michael J Fox plays ‘straight’ - unmasks the whole family story he’s supposed to be at the centre of:

“You lied and cheated?”
“Yes!”
“That’s wonderful! I’m not a Stout at all, I’m a Little!”

This has taken things a fair way from Memento, though, so I’m sorry for lowering the tone.

d

P.S. Isn’t Marlin not working fairly typical of compensatory utopias (the Flintstones always started with the end of work)? The more properly utopian project has to be showing work itself being transformed (something that Stuart Little manages so cleverly with the alternate world of the Stouts)

Taramoc said...

Dougal,
sorry but I disagree again. At the beginning of the movie, Marlin ends up letting go of Nemo. He is going to school after all. He flips out only when he learns that the teacher is taking them to the drop-off, place where his wife and other kids have met their demise.

As a parent of a three year old myself, I see Marlin struggle as very real, even if not obviously to that dramatic extent (thankfully my wife and my other two babies are doing well). Part of me accepts and understands Marlin's unwillingness to let go, while I agree generally with the fact that kids need to find their place in the world by themselves. There are really no clear cut answers in the matter at the age Nemo is. Many individuals are home schooled all their lives and turn out just as fine.

This ambiguity is in my opinion in direct contrast with the "impossibility of feeling otherwise" you mention.

It's my turn to apologize with Giovanni about hijacking this Memento thread with Finding Nemo. Luckily more chapters about Leonard and his struggles seems to be in the works, so we will have the opportunity to get back to it.

And yes harvestbird, genius indeed.

merc said...

Thread is going great, I'm enjoying it. Harvest Bird, what can I say but that what the others did, genius.

Giovanni said...

Thread is going great

Oh, I don't know, I can't say I'm partial to all these unauthorised opinions and branching out of the discussion. Can't we just stick to the film I've brought up and agreeing with me? Especially the latter.

Dougal: I hope you learned a valuable lesson, you don't disrespect Pixar films with parents of young children. Unless you're the kind of person who enjoys touching electrified fences. I don't know about Taramoc, but I've entirely devolved the teaching of moral values to these guys (although, would it be too much to ask Brad Bird to come and change the little one every once in a while?).

I’m not wholly reassured, though, by the idea of Pixar’s “complete creative control”, not only because of the very real limits “distributional control” puts on this relative autonomy, but also because of the sense these films give that they’re renewing and redefining the effectiveness of a Disney ideology that had lost its energy and aggression

Well, of course, there is no such thing as total creative control, having to raise 100 million dollars to make a film will take care of that even before you get to the distribution part. Could it be the reason why Dr. Seuss never wanted to let people make films of his books? (except for anarchist-in-chief Chuck Jones, and then nobody saw that one anyhow) (ah, and click on the link: it's worth it). But then neither there is a Disney ideology, it's a really overrated concept. I'm not saying they weren't the product of a certain milieu, or that they didn't sometimes overtly push a fairly predictable set of moral messages, but it was hardly ever a uniform thing and there were glorious exceptions. (Re)-watch the Aristocats when you have a chance. And I'm not even going to get into the whole "giant penises" in Aladdin thing or the naked human figures you can see through the windows in The Rescuers (for no other reason that they would probably make your point more than mine - they were likely the product of the will to control the story and oppress the workforce involved).

There’s no other way of seeing Finding Nemo than as a lesson in how to let go because, as with bourgeois realism, it sets us in that position.

Hard to quarrel with that, point well taken. Relentless and hyper-controlled development of plots and themes is a hallmark of Pixar films. Could it have something to do with the discipline that digital animation imposes on artists? Memento appears to have a neat resolution but offers a major subversive reading and is generally a much more open ended text - I'll get into that in the next post.

Compare the bourgeois realism of Finding Nemo with the exuberant Brechtianism of Rob Minkoff’s “Stuart Little” (1999), a film that - on any first viewing - seems to be the standard reactionary schmalz for the nuclear family but that, in fact, sends up both the family and the whole genre of the ‘family movie.’

I had stopped at the first viewing, I'll have to get it out and follow your Cliff's notes. I'm sure the brood won't mind one bit.

And, to go back on your freedom to talk about whatever the hell you want: Harvestbird's submission reminds us that Memento like any other film or book or product of the mind isn't a stand-alone text that is somehow sealed off from the rest of culture. And I say hooray to that.

stephen said...

A small and unworthy note, but: "anemone" is a near-metathesis of "an enemy", so the gag is a simple pun on the English commonplace "with friends like this, who needs enemies". Nothing more.

Although it actually would be a better pun in a terrestrial setting, since anemones are a real flower which sea anemones are merely named after. One could put this joke in the mouth of a gardener who prefers ferns.

Giovanni said...

A small and unworthy note, but: "anemone" is a near-metathesis of "an enemy", so the gag is a simple pun on the English commonplace "with friends like this, who needs enemies".

That's how I heard it from the lips of Richard Schiff on the West Wing - I assume it's the joke that Marlin tells at the end of Nemo? We watch the film in Italian in this household so it's entirely different there. Anyhow, with fronds it's twice as punny and as most ESOL learners I get inordinately excited by puns. And I'm sure that's the correct version of the joke - wait, it is.

harvestbird said...

On the subject of ESOL puns, Giovanni, here is one a Japanese student of mine once made that I think you will enjoy.

Giovanni said...

Heh! Me, I'm still trying to get my head around like littoral.

objectdart said...

DOH!! leave a thread for a few days and everyone has fun without you...

Giovanni said...

We're all about the fun, as I think this week's post ably demonstrates.

(Okay, mayble I'll try to lighten the mood next week.)

ShareThis