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  • Surviving Memento
  • William G. Little (bio)

Christopher Nolan's recent film Memento (2000) addresses the complexities of surviving trauma. While watching the film is not identical to living through a trauma, responses to an initial viewing often bear witness to a cinematic experience marked by profound disruption of expectation. The film's unusual formal construction certainly unsettles viewer expectations of temporal continuity and coherence, expectations shaped by mainstream Hollywood cinema's commitment to linear narrative. One of the film's narrative threads is composed of a series of color segments that, while not exactly a reel running backward, nevertheless moves the viewer backward through time. The other thread consists of segments shot in black and white that move the viewer forward through time. Toward the end of the film, the viewer discovers that, with respect to the chronology of the plot, the point in time at which the black-and-white segments end is the point in time at which the color segments begin.

The film's disruptiveness is not limited to its making problematic the viewer's desire to put events in 'proper' order. Equally unsettling is the fact that no character's point of view can be considered reliable. Though the main character, a former insurance claims agent named Leonard Shelby, seeks to inhabit an authoritative position within the film by mimicking the cinematic traits of a hardboiled private eye, and though the film teasingly simulates this authority by granting him a voice-over narration, he suffers from a debilitating condition of short-term memory loss that continually subverts any claim he makes to producing a sustained, coherent narrative, either about himself or about others. Likewise, the two characters with whom Leonard has the most contact, Teddy the 'cop' and Natalie the bartender, appear to manipulate him for their own purposes, making it impossible to get from them satisfactory explanation of the plot's most conspicuous feature, Leonard's repetition of [End Page 67] certain behaviors: his repeated failure of short-term memory; his repeated tattooing; his repeated killing; his repeated attempts to narrativize his experience. For example, the only significant revelation concerning his character that emerges at the end of the film turns out to be superficial, namely where he gets the scratches on his cheek and the clothes on his back (from his murderous confrontation with Natalie's boyfriend, the drug dealer Jimmy Grants). Otherwise, his lengthy exchange with Teddy is so heavy with layers of possible fabrication as to make it impossible to know the truth: Is Teddy making up the story that he is a cop? Is Teddy making up the story that Leonard's wife was diabetic and that Leonard killed his wife? Did Leonard really receive a blow to the head, or did he make up his condition in order to kill his wife without consequence? Did Leonard make up the story about a client of his named Sammy Jankis who suffered from Leonard's condition and accidentally killed his wife?

The film's shifts, displacements, and concealments seem designed to produce a viewing experience that is marked, even after repeated viewings, by missing. In one respect, what is missing (i.e., both absent and longed for) is a familiar temporal framework. In another respect, what is missing is Leonard Shelby's character. Isolated in a landscape perpetually unfamiliar to him, he is a missing person of sorts, a figure lacking memory of, and guilt for, actions he takes throughout the film, a 'shell' of a 'be'ing apparently motivated exclusively by longing for his dead wife, though a clear backdrop to, or substantiation of, this longing—this missing—is itself missing from the film. Any effort to reconstruct a linear narrative and any effort to produce leads on the identity of this missing person compels the viewer to simulate detective work, not unlike what Leonard does. Just as a viewer's attempt to make up for the experience of missing must involve repeated sifting through the film's evidence, Leonard's attempt to make up for the experience of missing his wife (in the sense of mourning her absence and in the sense of having been asleep when she was attacked...


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pp. 67-83
Launched on MUSE
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