Natalie: What’s the last thing that you do remember?
Leonard Shelby: My wife…
Natalie: That’s sweet.
Leonard Shelby: …dying.
Memento is about a man named Leonard Shelby, who is on a strange search to find and kill the man who raped and killed his wife. Leonard awoke one night to find his wife out of the bed. He heard struggling coming from the hall bathroom, so he grabbed his gun. When he busted into the bathroom, he saw a man over his wife, who was being suffocated. He immediately shot the intruder, and when he went to assist his wife, he was attacked from behind by another man. His last normal memory is lying on the bathroom floor and watching his wife die.
The viewer learns that from this event, Leonard acquires anterograde amnesia, which prevents him from creating new short term memories. However, it allows a very interesting structure to the movie. The movie begins as Leonard is shooting who he believes is John G., and as the movie progresses, it shows how the chain of events happened to get him in the last scene (or the beginning of the movie). It can be a little confusing to watch it, and I didn’t fully understand everything until my second time through the film. I consider it his way of time traveling, since he could not connect scenes in his head. Each scene would start with Leonard analyzing what he thought could be happening (usually with the thought, “Now, where was I?”), and he would figure out the best he could, and he would have to go with it.
~I’ll include this nifty VISUAL MAP to show the craziness of the order of events:
I know I mention this in probably everything I have written in this class, but this structure first reminded me of Slaughterhouse-five. The time travel is used to exemplify a psychological disorder, much how Billy Pilgrim was suspected to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are also very similar in that they both go along with whatever is happening to them. However, they have very different feelings about why they choose to do that. Billy Pilgrim’s reasoning was because he knew his fate, so he did not see a point in trying to change anything. On the other hand, Leonard relies on himself to leave little notes to guide him, and he had to trust his past self because that was all he had to go on. They are both just actors in their own life. The movie puts you directly into Leonard’s shoes, and you get to see the limitations of his condition. It also leaves space for other themes to arise.
Upon reading about the production of the film on Wiki, I learned that the film was originally meant to be shot in Canada. However, it was moved to Los Angeles. The director chose this because he felt that it gave the film more of a “Noir” feel to it, much like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union or La Jetée. First off, there is an obvious detective style to it as Leonard searches for his wife’s murderer. He is ridiculously determined to find the murderer, and the entire film is centered on his investigation, much how Landsman decided to take things into his own hands. Secondly, the scenes themselves are very grungy and dark, with lots of shadows. Another large component of the film’s structure is a series of black and white scenes of Leonard talking on the phone with a cop, completing the Noir style.
Throughout the conversation with the cop, Leonard tells the story of Sammy Jankis, who was his biggest case when he was an insurance investigator before his accident. He also has the tattoo “Remember Sammy Jankis” on his hand, giving his a constant reminder about his own condition. Sammy had the same condition as Leonard, and Leonard loved to tell people about Sammy. He states that it’s his way of better understanding his own condition. He repeatedly talks about how Sammy had to leave himself notes, but he would keep getting them mixed up. A strange aspect of the movie is that Leonard got various tattoos of what he believed were the “facts” that would lead him to avenge his wife. Also, he carried around a stack of Polaroid pictures with things such as his car and his acquaintances. I’ll touch more of this subject a little farther down. Anyway, his heartbroken wife eventually overdosed on insulin when she realized that she couldn’t make the “old” Sammy come back.
The final theme that I want to touch on is about Leonard as an unreliable narrator (attention: spoilers!). At the end of the film, or the beginning of the chain of events, it is revealed by Teddy, who is shot in the beginning for being John G., that Leonard had already gotten his revenge over a year ago. However, he could not remember it. From there, Leonard questions whether or not he lies to himself to stay happy, and he decides that he will continue his search by making Teddy the next John G., making his next “fact” tattoo Teddy’s license plate number. It is also revealed that Sammy did not have a wife, but rather the story was about Leonard’s wife, who survived the attack after all. He wouldn’t let himself remember that she was a diabetic, again lying to himself that he indirectly killed her. In one scene, he asks himself, “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” I think the trauma of losing his wife made him rewire his memory to think that she had died in the accident so that he could have meaning in his life again. It reminded me again about Slaughterhouse-five, where the time travel is trauma-based. Another intense moment is when he thinks aloud: “You know, I can remember so much. The feel of the world… her. She’s gone. And the present is trivia, which I scribble down as — notes.”
All in all, I was blown away from the way this film was put together. I think an alteration in traditional chronological structure is an excellent way to draw viewers into the movie as well as a book, much like we have analyzed all semester (and last semester for those of you who were there!). It seemed to fit right in with themes that we have discussed in class, and I was really into it the entire time (minus some graphic parts that my stomach couldn’t really handle). I read more about it on Wiki, and it turns out that it was based off of a short story by the director’s brother called “Memento Mori,” which I found online here!