Memento is a 2000 thriller film written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a pitch by his brother, Jonathan, who wrote the 2001 short story, “Memento Mori.” The film stars Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano.
The film’s non-linear storyline presents one set of events backwards and in colour, giving the audience a sense of the anterograde amnesia of its protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Pearce; in the short story, the character’s name is Earl). A black-and-white sequence of events in chronological order is presented in scenes that alternate with the reverse-order, colour scenes. The reverse scenes and chronological ones meet at the climax of the film, with the black and white switching to colour.
Memento was critically acclaimed for its non-linear structure and themes of memory, perception, and self-deception. It received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It’s widely considered one of Nolan’s best films and one of the best films of the 2000s.
“Memento Mori” gives the reader the sense of Earl’s inability to form new memories differently from the film’s back-and-forth, reverse vs chronological order: the short story instead presents scenes with large gaps of time between them to disrupt continuity. And instead of the film’s use of “Teddy” (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), who both help and manipulate Leonard, in the short story, the narration shifts back and forth from first to second to third person, leaving the reader to wonder if all three are the same person (my guess), or if someone else is actually helping Earl.
There’s a sense of depersonalization, of derealization, in Earl’s switching from I to you to he to us within the space, often, of just a few paragraphs. Given the extreme disorientation he feels from his condition, such a confusion of identity is perfectly plausible.
The short story directly and indirectly references Hamlet. Given the dominant theme of revenge for the murder of a loved one, such allusions are fitting. Apart from the “to be or not to be” quote, Earl also discusses how the passage of time can weaken one’s resolve for revenge, something Claudius discusses with Laertes in Act IV, Scene vii, lines 108-123:
I know love is begun by time,
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.
And nothing is at a like goodness still.
For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
Dies in his own too-much. That we would do,
We should do when we would, for this “would” changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents.
And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh
That hurts by easing.—But to the quick of th’ ulcer:
Hamlet comes back. What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your father’s son
More than in words?
After the contemplation of this need to act on revenge, Earl finds the motivation to do it. In the film, however, Leonard is, if anything, much too motivated for revenge, since he kills again, and again, and again. Leonard’s revenge truly “dies in his own too much.”
The short story begins with Earl waking up, looking up at a ceiling in an all-white room–a colour suggestive of innocence–in a mental institution. His innocence is that of one, in his oblivion, not knowing what’s happened to him. As his lacunae of lost memories are filled in through his notes and photos, the surroundings get darker: first, yellow, from having almost knocked over a lamp of incandescent light that floods the room with yellow, a symbol of jaundice, his bitterness over his predicament; then, he’s in a dark room where a tattoo artist is inking a message on his arm: I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE.
In contrast to the ‘innocent’ beginning of the short story, the film begins with Leonard already demonstrating his vengeful nastiness, shooting “Teddy” from the (as we later learn, mistaken) belief that he is his wife’s rapist and killer. A clue to who the real culprit is, however, can be gleaned from that tattoo just mentioned on Earl’s arm. Of course, Leonard’s changing of “I” to “John G.” simply demonstrates Leonard’s propensity for projection.
The movie’s beginning of the story with the film going backwards establishes the idea that the coloured parts are presented backwards, to help with audience comprehension. This retrograde motion also represents how what we perceive in the film is the other way around from what’s really happening.
Indeed, those characters we find trustworthy turn out to be untrustworthy, and–even more significantly–those we assume are bad turn out to be largely good. In this connection, the casting of Pantoliano–an actor we tend to see playing villains–is important in how this casting reinforces those prejudices in the audience, for later, we learn that he isn’t so bad after all.
Knowing that Leonard has written “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on the photo for “Teddy,” combined with his toothy grin (which hardly establishes trust), blinds us to the fact that “Teddy” is largely the only real friend Leonard has in the movie. He even openly admits that his real name isn’t “Teddy” but John G., for Gammell. His only dishonest moments are getting Leonard to kill some criminals for him, such as Jimmy Grantz (another “John” or “James G.”, played by Larry Holden), making Leonard think these guys are each the “John G.” he wants to get revenge on. “Teddy” just wants to get his hands on the money in the trunk of Jimmy’s car.
The fact is, undercover cop “Teddy” acts as a kind of psychoanalyst for Leonard, trying to get this forgetful fellow to engage in a bit of ‘know thyself.’ As we learn by the end of the movie, all of Leonard’s distrust of “Teddy” and “his lies” is really just an analysand‘s resistance.
Leonard’s search for his wife’s killer and rapist centres around finding a man named “John G.” or “James G.”, a name so ridiculously common that, convenient for forgetful Leonard, the anterograde amnesiac can keep searching for, killing, then searching for and killing again, and again, and again. One of my brothers is named John G. (in my posts about my family, I refer to him by the initial letter of his middle name, as I do for many of my family members): that’s just how common the name is, that my brother will remain essentially anonymous.
It isn’t just that Leonard forgets having gotten his revenge; it’s the very seeking of it, forever and ever, that satisfies him. The seeking is what gives his life meaning and purpose. Seeking revenge is Leonard’s objet petit a, the unattainable object-cause of desire, only this is not a desire of the sex drive of Eros, but one of Thanatos, the death drive.
The non-linear narrative, splitting up the continuity of the film into alternating colour scenes in reverse order and black-and-white scenes in chronological order, is symbolic of Leonard’s psychologically fragmented perception of the world and of himself. An investigation of what’s really happened to him, leading to the unified narrative at the end, puts the pieces of the puzzle together to reveal Leonard’s real problem.
The crucial element, in working out exactly what Leonard’s problem is, is in another man assumed to have anterograde amnesia: Samuel R. “Sammy” Jankis (played by Stephen Tobolowsky). Leonard’s job, originally, was investigating insurance claims, and Sammy, after being tested, is believed to have a psychological, rather than physical, reason not to be able to make new memories, according to Leonard.
As it turns out, though, “Teddy” in his all-too-blunt honesty tells Leonard that Sammy was simply a faker. Leonard’s ‘memories’ of Sammy repeatedly giving his wife insulin shots, one immediately after the other because she wants to test his memory, and leading to her death by overdose, are really projections of Leonard, after his diabetic wife’s rape and his knock on the head, giving her such a series of insulin shots, killing her.
This raises an important question: is Leonard the one whose inability to make new memories is for psychological, rather than physical, reasons? Has he, inspired by Sammy’s fakery, deluded himself into thinking that the knock he got on the head gave him anterograde amnesia? If so, why?
I’m guessing that he couldn’t bear to see his wife’s suffering, the pain on her face, after the rape. He couldn’t bear to remember her post-rape life, so Sammy inspired him to use his knock on the head, actually not strong enough to have caused brain damage, to give him an excuse to believe he can’t make new memories.
Added to this, his wife’s despair over what’s happened to both of them–from the intruders in their home–has made her suicidal. There’s the trauma of her rape, compounded by the fact that her husband is no longer the man he used to be. He, deep down in his unconscious, wants to put her out of her misery, too…and conveniently for him, he’ll ‘forget’ it. Of course, his repressed guilt that he’s his wife’s real killer drives his delusion of having anterograde amnesia even further.
For if his inability to make new memories is physical, we are left with a number of unanswered questions. He should remember nothing from when he got the hit on the head knocking him unconscious. How does he even know he has his “condition”? Every time a set of memories goes, he should feel as if he’s just woken up, with no idea of how he got from being knocked out in his bathroom after trying to stop his wife’s rapist, to wherever he is at the moment. He has no memory of anyone telling him he has anterograde amnesia.
Another thing: he speaks of how “everything fades” when the memory of a new moment vanishes from his mind. If he doesn’t remember any of these new memories, how does he know that they fade?
To go back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story, it also makes little sense how Earl, forgetting everything approximately every ten minutes, could ever get his revenge off the ground. Even with help, he’d have to spend every one of those ten minutes or so reviewing everything, and then how would he be able to use his, presumably, ever-so-few remaining seconds to advance his plot of revenge…only to have to write the new things all down, then have to spend more of that ever-so-little time reviewing more and more notes? Leonard would have comparable difficulties with his short periods of consciousness.
So, anterograde amnesia in this film should be understood as a metaphor for repression. Leonard isn’t really forgetting all these post-rape experiences: he’s simply pushing them deep down into his unconscious mind. As with all repressed material, though, the new experiences resurface in forms that are unrecognizable to him.
He speaks of a condition that he can’t possibly remember being told he has. He speaks of all new memories fading, when he shouldn’t even be able to remember the fading. What he calls ‘fading’ is really just the process of repression.
The unrecognizable form of his memory of giving his wife the all-too-quickly repeated insulin shots is his projection of that memory onto Sammy, when he has no way of knowing anything about Sammy supposedly giving the excessive shots to his wife.
Other little slips come out, suggesting that deep down, Leonard is remembering more than he lets on to. His angered, paranoid reaction to finding “Teddy” hanging out in the passenger’s seat of his car (Jimmy Grantz’s, actually) suggests that Leonard remembers how “Teddy” has reminded him of the uncomfortable truth that he killed his wife with the insulin, not her rapist, and that it wasn’t Sammy who overdosed his wife.
Leonard appears at Natalie’s house with a photo of Dodd. His asking her, angrily and full of suspicion, about who Dodd is suggests that he has a trace of the memory of her taunting him about how she’ll manipulate his inability to form new memories, of how she spoke abusively about what a “retard” he is, and about his “whore” of a wife, provoking him to hit her and put that cut on her lip.
In fact, when Natalie taunts him by saying his “whore” wife must have gotten a venereal disease from sexual contact with so many men behind his back, and that his getting the disease from her could have caused his anterograde amnesia, he finds this especially triggering. We can connect this trigger with his sticking of a phallic needle into his wife’s thigh, close to her own genitals; his giving her the excessive shots in this way, leading to her death, can be seen as a symbolic rape. This fact dovetails with that tattoo on Earl’s arm: he reads those words himself–I RAPED AND KILLED YOUR WIFE. Remember that Earl is both I and YOU.
Indeed, it’s interesting how, after Leonard kills Jimmy Grantz, he puts the body in the basement of the abandoned building, this basement being symbolic of Leonard’s unconscious; this placing the body there is symbolic of repression. Leonard also puts on Jimmy’s suit and takes his car, symbolically identifying himself with the man he imagines is his wife’s rapist and murderer. We see Leonard in that suit for the vast majority of the coloured sequences in the film, implying that he has been the real killer all along.
Leonard gets triggered when he hears dying Jimmy whisper Sammy’s name; it shouldn’t otherwise matter, since as “Teddy” points out, Leonard tells everybody about Sammy. The implication behind him telling everybody about Sammy is that it is a circuitous kind of confession of his own guilt in killing his wife.
There’s no reason to believe “Teddy” is lying about everything he reveals to Leonard about what really happened to him and his wife, she who survived the attack and therefore wasn’t killed by the intruder in their home. “Teddy” has nothing to gain by lying about any of that; in fact, the ugly truths he reveals, too painful for Leonard to face, ironically cause Leonard to write “DON’T BELIEVE HIS LIES” on his photo for “Teddy,” which in turn ultimately leads to Leonard killing “Teddy.” The fact is, Leonard is the real liar, and he’s projecting his mendacity onto “Teddy.”
The real reason none of his photos or notes can adequately replace his memory is that they’re static: they don’t flow with time, since reality is fluid, not static, so they lack the crucial context needed for their meaning to be correctly interpreted. This lack of context, nonetheless, is convenient for Leonard, since he doesn’t really want to remember, anyway. His notes and photos fool him into thinking he’s remembering what’s essential, but this of course is nonsense. He talks about “facts” being better than memory, but static facts without context are useless.
That ending of the film, when he consciously decides to forget the ugly truth that “Teddy” has told him, is representative of what his unconscious mind does after every so many minutes of each new, post-rape experience. He forgets new things not because he can’t remember them, but because he doesn’t want to. This last scene simply presents that unwillingness to remember–an unwillingness that pervades the whole film–in its most blatant, naked form.
To get back to Jonathan Nolan’s short story again, the narrator, just before the end, says something significant: “Time is an absurdity. an abstraction. The only thing that matters is this moment. This moment a million times over.” In the paragraph before this quote, he says, “Time is three things for most people [i.e., past, present, and future], but for you, for us, just one. A singularity. One moment. This moment.”
These passages remind me of how Buddhists speak of the eternal NOW as the only one time that has any real meaning or existence. The past and future are just mental constructs with no material validity. If we could just ground ourselves in the NOW, and not ruminate over our unhappy pasts or worry about our futures, we’d be happy–we’d have peace.
That Earl would speak of having only the present to live in, with no sense of moving time, always forgetting the (recent) past, he seems to be living a perverse version of this Buddhist wisdom. Of course, neither he nor Leonard will ever, or can ever, attain peace of mind.
Now, his past isn’t completely in a state of oblivion–he still remembers everything up until his wife’s rape, and as I’ve explained, it’s not that he’s forgetting everything after her rape, but rather he’s repressing the post-rape memories–and this lack of complete oblivion makes all the difference. These voids in his mind, from her rape onwards, are repressed traumas that make up the undifferentiated, inexpressible psychic world of what Lacan called the Real.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Real–or Bion‘s O–can be traumatic or blissful, depending on one’s attitude towards it. The Buddhist experiences the oblivion of past and future, focusing on the present, as blissful because he lets of of his ego. Earl/Leonard, on the other hand, experiences this oblivion of the Real as traumatic because, apart from not completely forgetting the past, he’s still attached to his egoistic experience of the world.
After all, the whole point of attaining bliss, peace of mind, is to extinguish desire, craving, attachment; but Earl/Leonard is doing the opposite. Our forgetful protagonist not only desires revenge, but is perpetuating the seeking of that revenge by creating an unsolvable mystery… the ever-elusive identity of “John G.” His murderous objet petit a can never be extinguished, because it can never be attained.
In fact, the key to ending his trauma is precisely to remember it, to recall it in all of its excruciating brutality. Yet Earl/Leonard is really just an extreme version of all of us. None of us wants to remember what has hurt us, so we conveniently try to forget our traumas, or we only selectively remember them, cherry-picking what’s comfortable for us and discarding what isn’t.
Our therapists tell us we’ve got to feel the pain in order to heal it…but who wants to do that? Leonard certainly doesn’t want to; that’s why he burns those photos of himself (smiling upon achieving his revenge…or so he thought) and Jimmy. He burns them in the fire of a desire he never wishes to blow out, because Thanatos is his new life.
Not to be, that is his answer.