Insite’s film guru Philip Attard has decided to reminisce about masterpieces past, and presents an argument on why this acclaimed 2000 film deserves the recognition it gets… and more.
Christopher Nolan may be famous for reinventing the Batman films in awesome fashion, or for his 2010 Inception, a movie which tackled narrative strands in truly innovative ways. His most ardent fans, however will always be the most thankful for Memento. But why, exactly?
I don’t want to write about the reasons why Nolan’s 2000 thriller is such a brilliant film. If you’ve watched it, you know that Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano give superb performances, with an emotionally involving story and final plot twist so well conceived. And if you haven’t watched it, well what are you waiting for? I suggest (nay, order you) to check the film out and come back here pronto.
What I want to discuss, rather, is why Memento is more than just a brilliant film. I think it’s one of the most genial of them all, or at least out of the films I’ve seen. (Like everyone else, I have my share of classics I’ve ashamedly never watched.)
In virtually every film, character motivations, technical nuance and thematic depth are elements which strengthen the film’s narrative, the main focus. With Memento, it’s the narrative that is extra, character and theme becoming the reasons we’re watching the film in the first place.
Memento doesn’t just tell an intriguing story, but in doing so it redefines the cinematic experience and how it usually operates. Its narrative technique of simultaneously depicting one strand of events in reverse time, and another chronologically, and then merging the two timelines together, doesn’t just put you in the shoes of our protagonist Leonard (don’t call him Lenny). Most importantly, it’s neither an excuse to confuse the hell out of you, or try and come off as clever.
Rather, it’s a way of testing what the medium of film can and cannot do, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and it’s amazing when you find just how much of it does work. Film usually relies on the viewer’s curiosity to find out what happens next; of course, there’s much more to any film than just the crude answers to ‘so what now’ or ‘how does it end’, but pick any film that has been labelled as a masterpiece and you’ll see that it’s driven by the urge to satisfy your curiosity about the plot. Everything else is extra.
Memento, however, disregards this fundamental rule and tells you how it ends, (by showing you its last chronological scene) at the very start. You know, out the bat, how the film ends, and so the ‘extra’ becomes the crux of the entire thing. In virtually every film, character motivations, technical nuance and thematic depth are elements which strengthen the film’s narrative, the main focus. With Memento, it’s the narrative that is extra, character and theme becoming the reasons we’re watching the film in the first place. In all honesty, it shouldn’t entertain, let alone work.
So why does it?
It’s a question which has been nagging at me for years, and after watching the film for (roughly) the seventh time, I think I have a clue. We’ve already established that Memento doesn’t work like any other film, but what is more striking is that we watch it exactly like we do any other film. This may sound needlessly complicated, but when you understand how our minds work when we watch a film, it makes a lot of sense.
We are so busy remembering the scenes we’ve already watched and connecting the dots that we’re manipulated into thinking that we’re discovering what happens, when in reality, we already do.
The medium of film, as a storytelling device, relies on our capability to remember the scenes we’ve just watched. The famous plot twist at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, for example, wouldn’t be exactly effective if we fail to remember that Luke and Darth Vader have been at odds for the entire duration of the film. What Memento does (and this is criminally simplifying Nolan’s cinematic technique) is carry this basic principle and intensify it to the point that we are straining to do what we do unconsciously with any typical film. We are so busy remembering the scenes we’ve already watched and connecting the dots, that we’re manipulated into thinking that we’re discovering what happens, when in reality, we already do.
How Memento operates, as a cinematic experience, is revolutionary when one considers its specific dynamics. Nolan, with only his second film, redefined the affordances and techniques of an entire medium. Here’s hoping, then, that instead of settling for immensely entertaining films such as Interstellar, he takes a crack at it again.