Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Memento (2)

Go to Part 1.

The reading of Memento I proposed last week was based on the straight story, the plot that viewers are called upon to piece together in traditional whodunit fashion from the two less-than-traditional concurrent narratives proceeding on opposite timelines. I'm talking about the story you might tell your friends if they asked you what the film is about. To beef up a bit last week's synopsis:
an insurance investigator called Leonard 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; during his search he is deceived by a cop, Teddy, who exploits his amnesia to make him take vengeance on the wrong people, but discovers this and in an act of self-deception plants evidence that will convince him his attacker was Teddy himself, whom he then proceeds to kill.
And that is the resolution of sorts reached in the film's opening sequence, which is the culmination of the backward journey of the main scenes, shot in colour. In the other interwoven narrative, made up of brief interludes in black and white moving forward in time, Leonard drip feeds to us in the course of a phone conversation the background to the main narrative, including the story of a client of his insurance company whose claim of suffering of amnesia he had investigated, one Sammy Jankis.

The function of these interludes would seem to be to clarify and reinforce our gradual understanding of the story, but they also do just the opposite by planting doubts on the reliability of the narrator, and introduce elements - supported in turn by claims made by Teddy at various points - that lead to an alternative and far more uncertain storyline. It is just possible that the Sammy Jankis that Leonard discusses on the phone may be Leonard himself; that his wife was diabetic and had survived the attack, only to die due to an insulin overdose unwittingly administered by Leonard; and even that the attack itself might be a product of Leonard's psychotic imagination. Like the origami animals made by James Edward Olmos' character in Blade Runner's Director's Cut, these clues are few and, well, small, yet impossible to ignore altogether. Some of them are in fact so small as to be practically subliminal, like the split-second switch of Sammy's figure in a mental hospital with that of Leonard in one of the flashbacks. And yet, like the Sammy Jankis plot as a whole, these brief and sometimes ultra-brief moments produce an interference that clashes with the linear reconstruction of the events, and prevents the comforting act of making sense of the straight story from being fully realised.

This interference is worth mentioning because it represents an unusual turn. It is rare nowadays for cinema to question the safest of assumptions regarding the means of construction and the unified nature of the subject. True, there are a number of filmmakers, most famously the Wachowski brothers in the Matrix trilogy, who tackle the Cartesian problem of illusionary realities, but they invariably assume the existence of a kernel of identity, a tightly bound Self, which is present at a deeper level for those who know how to dig. What I have in mind is more akin to the Lacanian cinema that David Lynch practices from a well-established place on the fringes, and that used to be the bread and butter of auteurs of old such as the Alain Resnais of Last Year at Marienbad, the Alfred Hitchcock of Vertigo or the Luis Buñuel of That Obscure Object of Desire. All films that, at the same time as they reflected on the past and identity, brought to the fore the formal dimension of cinematic narration and how it is implicated in constructing such categories. But that was then, and filmic forays into the unconscious capable of problematising the notion of the self, while at the same time reflecting on the medium's role in the development of subjectivity, have become rather less common.

In Memento, this foray is also characterised by a strong formal dimension, in that is produced by the overlapping contributions of various technologies that are at once of memory and of representation. The Polaroid snapshots are one example, the tattoos another; but so is film (including its flashbacks, an important convention / technique for representing memory), and so is even the film's website (http://www.otnemem.com/). This opens with a picture of burning media - of a memory technology in the very moment of its destruction

followed by a Flash animation that plays on the same oscillation between recollection and erasure. The first frame is this:

and it rapidly morphs into this:

and then back again, so rapidly in fact that the phrase some memories are best forgotten may in fact never be entirely on screen at any one time. Then the broken up word m em en t o disappears, and what remains is the piece of paper, now blank, on which the letters en were printed. This expands in turn to become a newspaper clipping, at first glance a teaser designed to give some idea about the plot of the film without spoiling the ending. If we turn however to this sentence:
Little is known about Shelby himself, but a man by the same name was reported missing from a Bay-Area psychiatric facility in September of 1998,
we notice that the clipping does in fact give away the other, alternative ending, the one that subverts the foundations of Leonard's life story (as told by himself), by suggesting that Sammy and Leonard are in fact the same person.

As well as pushing this interpretation from the margins of the film proper, that is to say from the nobody's land of promotional material, or 'extra content,' which in the era of Web presence and DVD makes a strong case for inclusion in the interpretation of the cinematic text, this piece of quasi-filmmaking calls attention to that which by definition does not: subliminality. Before the clipping comes into sharp focus, seven words in it - the first to burst into view for a fraction of a second during the animation - appear highlighted, for a duration far too short to be consciously apprehensible. Here's the best snapshot I was able to capture:
I cannot make much of the choice to emphasise those seven particular words, but there is again here an echo of that switching of Sammy and Leonard in the mental hospital, a clue of tremendous revealing force almost entirely blunted by its ephemeral duration on-screen. If one takes theatre projection as the primary mode of viewing of a film, it makes sense to ask if the image is actually there, or if we should think of it instead as the proverbial tree falling in the wood when nobody is there to hear it. Does an image that nobody can apprehend create meaning? In one sense, the image is unquestionably there; in another, its being there is dependent on the audience's ability to perceive it. The ontological status of the image, in this regard, is partly dependent on its highly specific context, that is to say, a scripted and tightly crafted feature film. Suppose we were talking instead about the film of the Kennedy assassination shot by Abraham Zapruder: each single frame in this case could be (and has been) magnified and subjected to minute inspection in search of clues that would be invisible if the film where shown at normal speed, and the circumstances do not pose issues regarding the legitimacy of such manipulation. But this forensic mode of reading is based on the assumption that, in this instance, the cinematic real corresponds entirely with the real real of November 22nd, 1963. Memento, on the other hand, is a piece of cinematic fiction, and as such it requires an audience to view and interpret it.

What of the subliminal clues, then? We know they must have deliberately inserted, 'put-in-the-scene,' as a French person would say. But a mise-en-scene is there to be (re)activated by the spectator. An image produced in a feature film of this kind does not register at any level of the scale of cinematic reality unless a spectator can see it.

Enter the DVD player, and the perfect freeze-frame. The home spectator can now slow down a film to the point of dispensing with subliminality altogether, pause on a single frame in the same way that the reader of a novel can gaze at an individual sentence or word for as long as s/he likes. Films made since the mass commercialisation of VCRs were already partly exposed to this phenomenon, but those made in the (brief) age of laserdiscs and since the advent of DVDs are totally open to near-infinite modulations of viewing duration. An entry-level DVD player can slow down a film to the level of single frames or accelerate it by as many as thirty-two times its normal speed. Except that there is less and less ground to consider Speed One the norm, of course. For one thing, it is far more problematic than in the past to claim that cinema projection is the primary, intended and ideal site in which a feature film should be viewed. For another, there are growing signs that filmmakers are becoming more conscious of the modulation of the viewing speed allowed by these new instruments. The freeze frame is being recognised as a legitimate viewing practice, and is therefore factored in, made part of the creative process.

This complicates further the thematic relationship in Memento between memory technologies and interpretative practices. Leonard's readings are fragmentary and ultimately misguided because what he looks at are snapshots and short statements, texts that aspire to transparency and perfect referentiality (one snapshot plus one caption equals one incontrovertible fact), but fail to achieve it. By obsessing over small details and sparse connections, Leonard loses track of the whole picture. But obsession over small details also happens to be a fairly normal behaviour in the age of DVD and home theatres (Figwit, anyone?). Thus added layer of subliminal and near-subliminal clues in Memento invites a reflection on the nature of the several media, including film itself, which encode them, and on their ability to carry and communicate meaning, and inscribes the breakdown of memory not only in the vagaries and failures of the human mind, but also in the dysfunctional relationship with our technologies.

But again, as I observed last week, this would be as far as it goes, and interesting only up to a point of cool reflection, if it wasn't for Nolan's determination to put this formalistic innovation at the service of pursuing the story into its darkest and most meaningful corners. For Memento is not only a film about the impossibility to remember, but also about a tragic failure to forget: Leonard's ever-present grief is also carried inside of objects, the few props he uses to remind himself of his dead wife and to stage fake domestic scenes designed to fool himself into thinking, however briefly and with the help of a prostitute, that she's still alive; a heart-rending ritual that he finally abandons, staging the bonfire of the memories echoed in the website's homepage reproduced above, but of course to no avail: for it is not through things alone that we remember, nor just by getting rid of things that we forget.