Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Memento

Somehow, this week, I managed to convince two people in separate incidents to watch the movie Memento for the first time. Looking back, I'm surprised to see that I've never written a blog post about Memento, which is easily in my top five favorite movies of the last decade. Because it can be confusing for first time viewers, I'm going for field a few questions about it and write some more thoughts as a review.

For people who have not seen the movie yet, I strongly advise you to stop reading this post and go watch it. This will contain spoilers. You should avoid reading too much about the movie, although it will help to know that it is played backwards. Scene for scene, each clip takes place immediately before the last one that was played. Some scenes are in black and white. Those are separate, but I'll have to talk about them after the spoilers.

SPOILERS AHEAD AFTER THIS LINE.

First, some general comments about the message of the movie and why I think it is so great. I already posted some of my remarks in an earlier comment thread to Dan, but I think they're worth repeating here.

If you insist on reading the spoilers, here's a quick synopsis. Lenny is a former insurance investigator who has a rare memory conditions that has left him unable to form new memories. Every so often -- somewhere between ten minutes and a few hours -- he forgets what happened recently. Thus, he is unable to remember names or faces, and the only way he can keep track of what's happened lately is to write things down and take pictures.

Lenny's last clear memory is that of his wife being killed, and his life's mission is to investigate and avenge her death. He writes important clues permanently as tattoos on his body. One other vivid memory that he keeps is the story of Sammy Jankis, a man who had the same condition as his own. Lenny investigated Sammy's case and thus knows all about his own situation based on prior knowledge.


In a nutshell, "Knowledge" is really the central theme of the movie. We think we know things because we remember them, but memory is unreliable. We think we can piece together an overall story from past events and familiar objects, but many of them are still subjective and can lie to us. Lenny gives an important monologue early makes an important speech early in the movie:

Early in Memento, Lenny's character gives an important speech about memory:

"Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The cops don't catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that's how you investigate. I know, it's what I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the color 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."

Despite his own condition, and despite his cynicism about memory as a guide to the past, Lenny unshakably believes that there are three things he can trust:

  1. His memories of the night his wife died
  2. His memories of Sammy Jankis
  3. His own notes and tattoos

The end of the movie simply yanks the rug out from under these beliefs, not once, but for all three beliefs. They lead you down this trail, thinking that when you dig far enough back into the past, you'll find the answers to everything else. Instead, you get to the "end" of the movie (really the beginning, in a way) and they hit you with new revelations, wham wham wham, so fast you're left without anything to hold onto in your previous understanding of what really happened.

First you find out that his wife's attacker was already caught, so his entire quest to avenge her since then has been pointless.

Then you find out that he got the story of Sammy all wrong, that many of the events were about him, and that he may have actually killed his own wife.

THEN you find out that he lied to himself in his own notes. On purpose.

One message you could take from the movie is, "No amount of evidence is sufficient to accept a claim." That's not what I got from it, though. Rather, that people's interpretations of events are rarely reliable, and therefore relying on direct experience is a trap. The character of Lenny is not stupid and he's not entirely malicious; he's just going with events as they happen to him and trying to make sense of an array of personal experiences which are even more jumbled than most people's.

Now some specific questions from Tracie. She asked:

Sometimes it seemed like he was claiming that whenever he awoke he had no recollection of his wife's murder--that he thought she was still alive and well; but most of the time he expressed that he retained the memory of her murder. Did they ever explain his alteranating recollection of that memory? It seemed like _sometimes_ he forgot she died--but it seemed to be a pretty consistent "sometimes." Like I said I have to watch it again, but I thought he said he always woke up without the recollection of the murder--but he also said her death was the "last thing" he remembered (which I interpreted to mean it was part of his permanent recollection and not something he needed to remind himself about...?

The only guess I had, but I felt it was pretty flimsy, was that maybe since he had a warped concept of time, it was as if the event had only just occurred, and therefore, when he awoke, it was so "new" that it hadn't sunk in yet that she was gone? While I have had similar experiences, I have to say that in my experiences they're _much_ more fleeting than the film implied (and I can't stress that enough)--if this is what they were driving at. I might wake up _not_ recollecting bad news for like a few moments--but then it hits before I can even sit up in bed. I certainly can't imagine I'd get up and expend too much energy walking around looking for my husband, and expecting him to be in the bathroom, if I'd just seen him murdered "the night before." I think I would wake up initially oblivious and possibly happy thinking he was still alive, but it would hit me (and I don't think I'm unique in this regard) pretty quickly after I became conscious that he had been murdered.

Actually, according to one interpretation, his wife wasn't really dead when he found her. Teddy says as much at the end. As you point out in the next comment, Teddy isn't a reliable source himself, but in this case I think his claims might be plausible. Lenny's memory of Sammy is a false projection of events that really happened to Lenny. Teddy's version is that Lenny's wife survived the attack, but the trauma of seeing the rape still caused the memory condition. It was Lenny's wife who had diabetes, and it was Lenny who killed his own wife through an insulin overdose.

Although Lenny can't form new memories, there are hints that he can drill "facts" into his head through repetition. This might explain how he somehow managed to remember the real death of his wife and project it onto Sammy Jankis.

Then again, temporarily forgetting that his wife is dead may just be a product of the shock and not related to his condition at all.

2. So, who was Teddy? Was he a cop, a snitch? Was his motive actually to go around looking for people with JG initials to let Lenny randomly kill so Lenny could feel better again and again? That's a bit odd. I wasn't sure what to believe about Teddy or whether he was reliable--or was that the point?
Was Teddy supposed to confuse the issue? He lied enough and expressed such odd, unbelievable motives, that he was not a trustworthy character (I thought?). However, Lenny's reasons for not trusting him were, of course, contrived. But still, as the audience, I saw Teddy contradict himself (although we were shown that he did sometimes tell the truth), and I don't know who he really is, except that he seems to have more mental issues than Lenny.

I agree with you that Teddy is just about the least reliable character in the movie (although he has some tough competition!) but in the end I'm inclined to believe his version of events. It may be just because Teddy got the last word and tied up a lot of the other threads. He lies all the time, but it seems like in this case he may have been telling the painful truth just to get back at Lenny.

No, I don't think he was letting Lenny kill random people just to feel good. I think he really was a crooked cop, and he enjoyed the power of being able to go after small time crooks without hassling with court proceedings. The fact that killing crooks made Lenny happy was merely an added bonus, on top of the fact that Teddy got to keep his hands clean.

Also, in this case it's obvious that Lenny wanted to steal Jimmy's drug money. Throughout the movie, Lenny is really driving Jimmy's car and wearing his clothes, and Teddy keeps trying to get the car because there's money in the trunk.

3. Was Lenny's wife diabetic or were we supposed to be left wondering? If we can't be sure, this calls into question Lenny's entire story except what the police report validated. His notes were certainly unreliable. In addition to his conscious motviation to make Gambel the killer--even though he wasn't--he trusted Natalie, who was totally unreliable. So, the assessment he recorded, that she would help him, was very wrong and based on bad data--since he was unaware he'd killed her boyfriend.

I do think we are supposed to be left wondering, but I also seem to recall an interview with Chris Nolan (the director) saying "there is definitely a correct answer."

Again, my best guess is that Teddy was telling the truth about Lenny's wife, and about Sammy being a con man.


I want to wrap up with a few words about the black and white scenes, since those are a little hard to decipher. Unlike the color scenes, the black and white scenes play in forward order. Chronologically, they come before the rest of the movie. So if you want to piece the whole movie together in the correct order, start with the first black and white scene, and when you come to a color scene, skip it. Keep going forward until you get to the last BW scene in the movie.

When Lenny kills Jimmy Grantz, he takes a polaroid and then shakes it until it develops. As it does, the whole movie slowly fades into color. Watch the rest of the scene in color, then go backward to the next color scene before that, and so on.

Finally, the best explanation I ever saw for how everything worked was in this article at Salon. Hope it is helpful.

7 comments:

  1. I woke up this morning and more of the film had gelled. I realized that the blacked out portions of the police report made sense if Lenny was responsible for his wife's death. If he wanted to believe only certain facts, then deleting part of the report would keep the info at hand, but keep him from seeing conflicting info.

    Meanwhile, I'm not sure about repetition accounting for the Sammy memory. My understanding of the repetition therapy from reading other material, but the film took this same stance, was that it's produces an "instinct" in the brain to avoid X or like Y--but the detail involved in the Sammy memory, I'm not sure that could be achieved. If I could repetetively instill detailed false recollections--why not use the same method to put back actual memories in people's heads? We can't.

    I still feel I need to view the film one more time. I didn't quite get why Teddy was so insistantly hanging around Lenny--but I hadn't gone back and plugged in the money in the trunk--and now that makes a lot more sense.

    I think viewing it one more time will help. I also will read the Salon link. Thanks again!

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  2. My DVD has a hidden feature (then again, given the UI on this DVD, all features are hidden, including "play movie") that'll play the movie in chronological order.

    According to my notes, it's:
    Start at the main menu.
    Select the alarm clock (3d row, 3d column).
    This takes you to psychological test S038. Select any answer to go through S039, S040, S041, S042, to S043.
    S043 should be a test where you have to reassemble a comic strip about a flat tire into chronological order. Select answers 3, 4, 1, 2 (the revers of the correct solution) and it'll show the movie in chronological order.

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  3. Bleah. Ignore the S<whatever> numbers. I thought they appeared on the forms on the screen, but they're just identifiers in my notes.

    Just goes to show how reliable my memory is.

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  4. First, did anyone notice the scene at the end of the movie with Lenny and his wife in the bed, and a tattoo on his chest that says 'i did it'?

    I think that whether his wife was killed by him, killed by someone else, or is still alive, Lenny is forcing himself into chasing a new person every time. Notice that Fact 5 made him kill Jimmy, and Fact 6 made him kill Teddy. I guess that if you want to picture how the story goes on, he would keep on coming up with facts that drive him in the hunt for the imaginary killer.

    Overall, a really great movie. I'm sure everyone enjoys watching it, and the long discussions with friends about all the different theories.

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  5. did anyone notice the scene at the end of the movie with Lenny and his wife in the bed, and a tattoo on his chest that says 'i did it'?

    Yes. I happens while Leonard is driving and telling himself that the world is still there when he closes his eyes. That scene troubles me.

    I've now seen Memento several times, and I've noticed another layer of inconsistencies beyond the ones that I and people here have caught:

    The "I did it" cannot be a memory - unless Leonard got the tattoo and then had it removed. (Any tattoo people out there who can tell us if a tattoo can be erased completely?) If it's not a memory, is it a wish? Why does this shot appear in the film?

    Why doesn't Leonard have a polaroid of Teddy from a year ago, being that Teddy tells him that Leonard killed the real John G. a year ago? (After all, Teddy has a polaroid of Leonard from then.) Also, wouldn't Leonard condition himself to remember Teddy, the way that he has apparently conditioned himself to check his pockets and look for notes?

    How does Leonard remember that he has a condition - through, er, conditioning? (Funny, I didn't notice that double meaning before!)

    Did people notice that Teddy's license number changes? In the end of the film (beginning of the story), it's SG13 7IU but later, when Leonard and Teddy are escorting Dodd out of town, it's SG13 71U. Also, Leonard writes down the license number on the polaroid with the 1 and the I either as two ones or two "I"s, and apparently gets the license number wrong in his tattoo, yet he repeats the correct (or should I say, orginal) license number to himself. ??? See here.

    I interpret this to mean that Leonard can indeed make new memories, since he writes his "I"s and ones as the same, and remembers which is which, even though a one instead of an "I" turns up in his tattoo.

    I did notice that during one of Leonard's monologues about Sammy ("You learn to fake it, to pretend to recognize people, to seem less of a freak,"), Sammy in the group home briefs turns into Leonard when the doctor passes by the screen.

    But what took me three viewings to notice was that when Leonard stops watching TV in Natalie's house, notices his tattoo ("Remember Sammy Jenkis") and has a brief memory of a pair of man's hands preparing the syringe, the woman's shirt in the background does not match that of Sammy Jenkin's wife, but of Leonard's wife in another flashback! I think Leonard's wife was indeed a diabetic.

    Teddy does seem to tell the truth when he's under duress, but he's still a liar and the license number changing bothers me a lot. I am inclined to believe Nolan about the correct solution, and I think one still lurks beneath what most people discussing this film seem to think is the solution. Maybe I'm crazy, but there are pieces that still don't fit.

    "Remember Sammy Jenkis." Why because Sammy was a phony just as Teddy said? Has Leonard failed in his quest to truly remember Sammy, or is Leonard's "condition" actually psychological, as he states Sammy's was?

    One more thing: Teddy - "Lenny" - Jimmy - Natalie. Is that weird?

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  6. Why does no one consider the fact that he started with notes, and then may have began simply writing the information on himself instead of tattooing it. After awhile, the notes would eventually wash off, or he would deliberately wash them off in whatever mood may have struck him at the time.

    The "Remember Sammy Jankis" tattoo is a great example, in that he always thinks it will wash off, because he doesn't know it's a tattoo. In the 'final' scene in the movie, there's a very short clip of him in bed with his wife, and if you look at his chest you will notice that the backwards one across his chest by his collarbone is NOT there. This leads me to believe that notes on his body in that scene were not tattooed.

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  7. Why does no one consider the fact that he started with notes, and then may have began simply writing the information on himself instead of tattooing it.

    Because we simply didn't think of it! So was the "I did it" merely written?

    Good job, gate.

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