“Memento” - Christopher Nolan (2000)

Memento (2000) was the film that vaulted Christopher Nolan to international attention, and despite subsequent successes, such as the Batman series (2005, 2008, & 2012) and Inception (2010), it remains his most significant work.  In fact from the outset Memento attracted a cult following because of its bizarre narrative structure.  Some people saw the nonlinear plot structure as a mere gimmick, while others felt it raised profound questions concerning personal identity, paranoia, and the nature of memory.

Nolan fashioned the screenplay from a short story, “Memento Mori”, written by his brother Jonathon, and it tells the story of a man’s personal quest to find and kill a man who raped and murdered his wife.  This is classic film noir material, but in an extreme form.  In a typical film noir:
  • The protagonist wishes to forget his past and has no long-term future.  
  • The “truth” is hard to find – the world is dark and obscure.
  • There are few people that the protagonist can trust.  Those with whom he associates may be dissembling and working against him.
In Memento these problems are taken to the limit.  The protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), suffers from short-term memory loss (anterograde amnesia), so the immediate past is lost to his mind. Consequently he continually must mentally construct his past and arrive at an up-to-date understanding what is “true” in the world.  This is confounded by the fact that since Shelby can’t remember recent things, people can lie to him and he will forget that they are liars. The film’s narrative structure attempts to put the viewer into Shelby’s mental framework by showing much of the story in reverse order.

Actually, the plot, which takes place over a couple of days, has a well-ordered structure.  There are 22 short scenes shown in color, each of which is separated by a brief scene shown in black-and-white. Although within each color scene events mostly take place in normal chronological order, the separated color scenes, themselves, are ordered in reverse chronological order – so that the last shots of a particular color scene will match the first shots of the preceding color scene that appeared to the viewer. The intervening black-and-white (b/w) scenes, however, are collectively ordered in normal chronological order. 

As with any film, the viewer must construct a fabula (the world model of what has happened) out of the syuzhet (the scenes as presented).  Usually, this involves simple "filling-in-the-blanks" sequences that the viewer assumes must have taken place off screen. But in the case ofMemento, the viewer has a far more arduous task of constructing the fabula.  After awhile, though, it becomes clear to the viewer that all the b/w scenes take place before the events shown in any of the color scenes. Following what now seems to be a convention, we can then label the color scenes as they would be ordered in a chronological sequence with alphabetic characters (A - V) and the b/w scenes similarly with numbers (1 - 22) [1,2]. Since scene 22 is merged with scene A, it is labeled “22/A”.  So the correct fabula ordering should be: (1, 2, . . 21, 22/A, B, C, . . V). However, since the color scenes are presented in the syuzhet in reversed order, then the ordering sequences of the scenes actually presented on film to the viewer is: (1,V,2,U,3,T, . . . 21,B,22/A).  Things are made even more complicated by the fact that within some of the  color and black-and-white scenes there are additional flashbacks (usually associated with periods before the rape incident when Leonard’s memory was intact). 

The film’s scene ordering puts the viewer in a position somewhat like that of the protagonist, Leonard Shelby.  With each color episode, neither the viewer nor Leonard has a recollection of what came before and must construct a fabula model based on what is presented here and now.  Leonard tries to deal with his problem of soon forgetting what happens by writing notes to himself and taking Polaroid snapshots of things around him.  Since he has learned to be distrustful of the ephemerality of any written artifacts (they could be lost or altered), he has the most important facts he wants to remember tattooed to his body. 

However, the viewer is involved in an additional task: with each color episode presented, the fabula model of the previously seen (and hence later in the story) scene may have to be reorganized in the viewer’s mind. Thus after seeing color scene F, the viewer must reinterpret what happened in scene G, which was presented earlier, but which comes later chronologically.  This memory reorganization option is something that the viewer has but not Leonard, because Leonard has no memory of these things to reorganize (although he can edit some of his notes).  It is all made more complicated by the fact that there are (at least) two unreliable characters feeding Leonard misinformation. A barmaid, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a cop, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), both lie to Leonard, knowing that he will soon forget their lies and that they can tell him completely different things later. So they use their lies to get Leonard to commit murders for their own nefarious purposes by making Leonard believe each time that their designated murder targets are really his wife’s killer.

All of this fabula construction may seem like just a teasing gameplay for the viewer, but it points to a philosophical theme that lies at the heart of the film.  Philosophers, notably John Locke, have argued that our very identity is based on our memories.  If all the memories in your mind were to be completely replaced by a different set of memories, then your essence as a person would be changed – you would fundamentally be a different person.  But other philosophers have argued differently, saying that all that really counts is psychological continuity.  If all your memories were to be gradually replaced, little by little, then you might not have any memories that you had ten years ago, but given the continuity of psychological existence, you would still be the same person [3].  Both of these theories are essentially Objectivist: there is an objective world out there that can be understood scientifically, and a person’s identity can be based on some objective measure associated with his or her memories (whether based on the static record or on connective continuity). 

Leonard Shelby in Memento is an Objectivist, too.  He believes that he can overcome his short-term memory problems by scientifically recording what is happening in the real world and updating his real-world model. As he says at one point, “I have to believe that when I close my eyes, the world’s still there.”  But there is another way of looking at the world, that I call “Interactionist”, which is based on a interactive narrative construction of reality. From this perspective, narrative construction is not just a useful tool, like a notebook; in fact it is an essential operation to our self-understanding. Cognitive scientists like Roger Schank [4]  and Jerome Bruner [5] have argued that narrative is a fundamental mode of the mind.  They base their ideas on the notion that the narrative form is inevitably the way we structure what has happened to others and to ourselves.  Of course, this introduces problems of authenticity.  The listeners of our story will interpret it and perhaps restructure it in their own minds so that it fits better with their own thinking and experiences.  Thus our story is likely to be passed on to others in an altered form.  This has given rise to a certain misconception that because narrative inevitably entails fabrication, we should be objective and just “stick to the facts”. Leonard is reminded by people around him of this problem of subjectivity:

“So you lie to yourself to be happy.  We all do it.” 
“You don’t want the truth.  You make up your own truth.”

But he doesn’t fall to this pessimism.  He feels he can find the objective truth.

Nevertheless, narrative construction is inescapable, and our understanding of what has happened around us, and even who we are, is inevitably structured into a narrative form [6].  These narratives, of course, are interlinked and embedded within higher-order narratives.  As we go about our daily lives, we are continually constructing new narratives and restructuring and rearranging existing, stored narratives in our minds to maintain a narrative representation of reality. 

This brings us to another problematic aspect of Memento’s narrative – its backstory.  These are the events that took place before the rape/murder of his wife, a period which Leonard is supposedly still ("now") able to remember perfectly well.  Throughout much of the black-and-white sequences of the film, Leonard is on the telephone talking to someone (Teddy, we later presume) about things that happened before the rape/murder.  He was an insurance investigator and had to evaluate the claim of a man, Sammy Jankis, who suffered from anterograde amnesia after a traumatic accident.  Leonard reports that at that time, he denied Jankis’s claim, because he believed that the problem Jankis was suffering from was psychological, not physical.  For the Objectivist Leonard, only physical problems are objectively real – psychological problems belong to a malleable world of conjecture and distortion.  In fact Leonard says that he has heard that people with anterograde amnesia might be able to inject false memories into their minds by means of some sort of repetitive “conditioning” process.  Given Leonard’s denial of the insurance claim, Sammy’s wife, Harriet, who suffered from diabetes, found living with Sammy's condition unbearable and decided to test whether Sammy was really faking it.  So she asked him to inject her with insulin every fifteen minutes.  If he were truly afflicted with anterograde amnesia, then he would keep forgetting his previous injections and give his wife a lethal overdose. This is indeed what happened, and Sammy Jankis unintentionally murdered his wife.

We viewers take this backstory to be true, because Leonard is presumably remembering things that are still intact in his long-term memory.  But by the end of the film, our fabula construction is thrown into disarray.  Although many things have been cleared up, we still have three possible theories about Leonard:

  1. Leonard’s wife was raped and killed, and Leonard suffered a traumatic blow to the head leaving him with anterograde amnesia.  He sets about trying to find his wife’s murderer with the dubious help of Teddy and Natalie.
  2. Leonard’s wife was raped, but not murdered.  Leonard still suffered the blow leading to anterograde amnesia.  He later killed his wife in the way told via the Sammy Jankis story. Leonard is then committed to an insane asylum but escapes prior to the beginning of the film. With repetitive-conditioning assistance from Teddy, Leonard makes up a false memory about Sammy Jankis and transfers the overdose murder account to Jankis and his wife.  He now (at the start of the film) “believes”  that his own wife was murdered in the rape event.
  3. Similar to theory 2, but Leonard is still in the insane asylum, and everything shown in the film is in Leonard’s imagination. In this connection there is a brief image of his wife examining his chest tattoo that reads, “I’VE DONE . . .” and that seems outside the realistic scope of what would be consistent with theories 1 and 2.
So at the end of the film, we realize that there is a third unreliable source of information: Leonard, himself.  Leonard knows that his mental condition will enable him to forget his own lies to himself, so he goes ahead and lies.

So how does all this work for us?  Are we doomed to have only the two following choices in understanding the world:
  • the hopelessly difficult task of constructing a scientific understanding of everything (which has been advocated by the Modernists, but which doesn’t work for Leonard)?
  • the untrustworthy path of relying on presumably prejudicial personal narrative testimony (which has been deemed hopelessly subjective by the Postmodernists)?
No, there is another alternative.  Remember that I said above that our own narratives are interlinked and embedded within higher-order narratives. These are the narratives that we share in our community of acquaintances.  Together, all these conjoined and overlapping narratives need to be made as consistent and comprehensible as possible.  We need to engage in a shared community of understanding, empathy, and practice.

Consider religion. There are many disparate narratives on this subject that people follow, some relatively objective, others based on personal revelations of varying degrees of authority or credibility.  Because the topic covers the most profound aspects of our conscious existence, we have been unable to come up with a single scientific model about the nature and meaning of our world. So we take into account and weigh multiple perspectives. There are inevitable contradictions when all our various schemes are lumped together, but we do not abandon the effort. Instead we are continually sharing, criticizing, and linking together these complicated narratives and trying to integrate them into something meaningful – even if it is not always perfectly consistent.

It is this third alternative, which involves compassion and the empathetic sharing of narratives, that helps make our existence meaningful.  Regrettably, this way or path is outside the  scope of Memento. Though the film is clever and skillfully executed, it is cold and lifeless; and despite its intricate plot structure, it doesn’t engage us at this level of empathetic and involved interaction. Memento bases its own model of identity on individual, static memory (Objectivism), not on narrative (Interactionism). In this connection Leonard is essentially a cipher; other than partially sharing his mental condition, we know nothing about him. Natalie and Teddy are more interesting, but nowhere in this bleak landscape is there a character with whom we can empathize. The film has taken noirish alienation a bit too far.


  1. Andy Klein, “”Everything You Wanted to Know About ‘Memento’”, Salon, 29 June 2001, http://www.salon.com/2001/06/28/memento_analysis/.
  2. “Memento (film)”, Wikipedia, (accessed 31 March 2013), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_%28film%29.
  3. Basil Smith, “John Locke, Personal Identity and Memento”, (2006), Southern Humanities Review, vol 40, no. 4, pp. 313-326.
  4. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory)  (1990), Northwestern.
  5. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press.


fragments of noir said...

Excellent review of the many ways to approach this movie - i've drafted a post to recommend this on my blog Fragments of Noir Thanks

tubeistdan said...

"This is indeed what happened, and Sammy Jankis unintentionally murdered his wife."

Good heavens, it would hardly be even called 'homicide'.