Remember to Forget

Memory, movie-watching, and the uncertainty principle of Memento
by Michael Atkinson  posted April 22, 2010
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The Sloan Foundation and the Tribeca Film Institute will present a 10th anniversary screening of Christopher Nolan’s Memento on Saturday, April 24, 2010. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the science of memory, featuring stars Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano, writer Jonathan Nolan, neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin, and psychology professor William Hirst.

Visit our sister site Sloan Science and Film for more articles, short films, and dialogues about the intersection of science and the moving image.

You remember Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)—no one quite forgets it. An uncategorizable indie that managed 10 years ago to please and haunt virtually every quadrant of moviegoing society, doing so with ideas and little else, the film has lost none of its frisson with time. But what’s it really about? As with the subjects of Oliver Sacks’s writings, the plight of brain-damaged Leonard (Guy Pearce) is merely the psychoneurological MacGuffin, the clinical aberration that gives birth to endless symbologies like a queen bee. Leonard, you’ll recall, has persistent short-term memory loss, or anterograde amnesia, a “condition” that prevents him from effectively doing the only thing he knows he must do: find his wife’s killer. But as the other characters in the film learn, this doesn’t mean that Leonard hasn’t already avenged her death and forgotten, or killed her himself and forgotten. Every few minutes Leonard forgets where he is and why, and must immediately start piecing his reality together from clues, reconstructing his “plot” so it may be able to re-enter “the present” and then move on.

For Sacks, the way brain lesions would affect human behavior is more than medical phenomena—his program is all about ruminating on how they’d impact our very humanness, in poetic ways that seem to question our notions of self-definition and our tendency toward Aristotelian substantialism, i.e., believing in our humanity as something larger and more important than the sum of its properties and circumstances. Memento is Sacks’s perspective made active narrative, taking one step backward for every two forward, disconnecting something as simple as memory from our experience of story, and relishing the grenade-spray of metaphoric questions that results.

“Memory can change the shape of a room,” Leonard tells us. “It can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.” Science backs him up, of course (even if procedural law doesn’t), but Memento is a resonance machine, and Leonard’s situation suggests almost any existential dilemma you could name, from your standard-issue identity crisis to the paranoid fear that your life might just be a virtual construction and your senses are lying to you to a lostness in the absence of God. Is there a more powerful film evocation of mental illness? But if Memento conjures the ordeal of a consciousness under siege in its very structure, then it is also a movie about movie-watching, a brand of consciousness rarely contemplated as such. Like dreams, movies are stories and image parades, but they’re also time, time spent by us following in the present what is “past” as it unrolls along its own unshakable temporal track. For us it’s happening now, but a movie also represents the past caught like a dragonfly in amber, all of its ingredients (a thrilling moment, an actor’s beauty, a graceful gesture, a real place at a specific moment) frozen poignantly and always just beyond reach. We can watch, but we cannot affect the “reality” a movie manifests, or enter into its permanent pace and length.

In Memento, Leonard can affect his scenario, but to his relentless misfortune. Since he’s missing the memory that allows us to follow stories to begin with, the movie of his life is a cataract of unknown unknowns, and like a mad movie critic in the dark he’s forced to scribble notes, on himself and any available surface, in order to make sense of events later, when he forgets them. Hitchcock’s Rear Window famously exemplified our viewing role; James Stewart is us, sitting in the dark, voyeur-consuming framed mini-movies. But Memento insists that we are living in one of those movies, without a voyeur’s distance, and are therefore its victim.

Which is, it appears, a largely satisfying role; Memento was a hit, while Michael Haneke’s Caché took a parallel tack, and became internationally one of the most successful European films of 2005-'06. Is not-knowing a comparable pleasure to knowing? We are kept in a suspended state of conjecture throughout the film, but while the movie’s uncertainty principle may feel quantum for Leonard—every time he witnesses or experiences anything, it changes what he thinks he knows—for us it’s an epistemological trial. Do we ever “know” anything for sure? No, and actually we never do—from their beginnings not as “moving pictures” but as montaged visual fictions à la The Great Train Robbery in 1903, movies have not delivered information so much as given us cause to imagine or infer substantive connections between images. A large percentage of every film story actually takes place in our head rather than on the screen; every suture between shots depends on us to understand associative suggestions and draw conclusions (an actor turns + a shot of the Taj Mahal = the character in the story looking at the Taj Mahal) in order for the film tale to move forward. “Knowledge” is something we never have—we’re merely telling ourselves a story, linking incidents and emotional meanings together, taking cues, trying to remember everything that’s “happening” offscreen (but of course isn’t) even as we strive to grasp what’s happening in front of us.

In this way, we are the prototypical viewer in Memento’s program, as well as a co-filmmaker, as always, and Leonard is us, not observing independent movies in James Stewart’s courtyard, but moment to moment fabricating a coherent “reality” out of fragments and clues. (Memory is part of our problem too—a well-placed script-bomb, like the oxygen tank in Jaws, can be overlooked and forgotten until the end, when it reappears and becomes pivotal.) All of which prompts strange questions—as in, how much does the attempt at assembling and/or following a film’s story resemble a mental pathology? Is it, pace Sacks, a therapeutic procedure we seek out in order to experience escape from our "humanness," to live free of our own memories and self-conceptions, slack-jawed in our seats, like a nation of brain-lesion victims who forget where they are and why?

In one sense at least, Memento is authentically quantum: its essential inconclusiveness is “truer” than ordinary film narrative, which should best be regarded as an industrial convention designed to imbue us with a notion of omniscience we do not truly have. This false superpower may be a large reason why we crave cinema, and it seems safe to say that if every movie cannonballed anti-omniscience Kryptonite at us as Memento does, then the medium would have withered away for lack of an audience. We can hardly blame ourselves. Truth is beautiful, Emerson said perhaps temperately, but so are lies.  


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Guy Pearce in Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan
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Michael Atkinson is the author/editor of six books, including Ghosts in the Machine: Speculating on the Dark Heart of Pop Cinema (Limelight Eds., 2000), Flickipedia (Chicago Review Press, 2007), Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (SUNY Press, 2008), and the novels from St. Martin's Press Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat.

More articles by Michael Atkinson
Author's Website: Zero for Conduct