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)

The definition is Andy Klein's in
Everything you wanted to know about "Memento",, 28 June 2001