The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.3 (2002) 167-181
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The Space-Time Image:
the Case of Bergson, Deleuze, and Memento
Texas A & M University
The film Memento (2000), written and directed by Christopher Nolan and based on a short story by his brother Jonathan, is a film about memory. The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, has been the victim of a crime during which an injury to the head has resulted in the loss of his ability to form new memories. His ability to remember events even in the contiguous short-term is no longer functioning. The condition is so serious that he cannot remember people a few minutes after he has met them, and is unable to recognize a person even if he has daily conversations with that person (such as the hotel clerk or other acquaintances we are eventually introduced to as people who know him). He does, however, remember things that happened in the past; he remembers in a normal way (to the same extent that we all remember) events occurring prior to his accident. But let the viewer beware, for before the story closes, we will be forced to consider the question of how accurate "normal" is.
The plot centers on Leonard's "condition" and his desire to avenge the death of his wife, which occurred in the same crime that caused his condition. (He can remember the actual crime.) His condition in combination with his desire for vengeance requires him to keep piles of cryptic notes, take the occasional polaroid picture, and when something is really important, to tattoo it on his body. But Leonard never seems to write enough detail in his notes (his memory is always already fading), and he must function in perpetual confusion as to what and whom he knows and who knows him. This leaves him very vulnerable to suggestion. From one minute to the next he can forget what he was talking about or doing. This makes for much hilarity in the film, such as in the [End Page 167] scene where Leonard is running, but does not remember why. He sees someone running parallel to him, and we hear him thinking "Okay, now, what am I doing? Oh, I must be chasing that guy," but the audience dissolves in laughter as "that guy" takes out a gun and Leonard suddenly realizes "that guy" is chasing him. His condition also means that people may or may not be using him for their own purposes, to link their story to his, for instance, in order to prompt Leonard to kill someone they want to have killed.
The film is about memory and what happens if we don't have it, and moreover, whether we can rely on it even if we ourselves escape having such a condition, since in the end there is confusion as to whether the past prior to the accident that Leonard has been remembering is true or false. But of course, this actually tranfers to the viewer because upon leaving the theater, the viewers are asking one another to remember "what happened" in the film. People are trying to figure out the "truth" about the circumstances surrounding Leonard, and there is even a website set up for this purpose.
All of the aforementioned notwithstanding, however, if we consider it more closely, the film provides an exemplary case study of the relation between memory and the time-space relation. All the while the movie is filled with ambiguity as to what's real and what's imagined, and with pure undecidability as to what's true and false both in the present and with regard to memory of the past. Yet we are equally certain that the Leonard we are initially introduced to has become someone else by the end of the film, and that the film is about time is never in question. At the same time, the viewer has no trouble whatsoever in understanding that the film traces a few days' movements backward through time. All of these productions concerning...