Noirvember Files: Memento (2000)
Christopher Nolan’s Memento is a film so steeped in the noir and post-modernist trappings of the neo-noir tradition, that its narrative form seems inextricable from the traditions. Memento has, in the past seventeen years, become the film known as ‘the one that’s told backwards’. Nolan’s most ambitious work, though, is far more ambitious than this overly simplistic description would suggest. It’s a rumination on memory and identity, and how it’s told, as Paul Schrader notes, is typical of the film noir tradition, presented in a “complex chronological order.”
Obviously, the most evident marker of the film noir tradition in Memento is the tradition’s obsession with memory. Our protagonist, Guy Pearce’s Leonard, suffers from anterograde amnesia; meaning he can no longer form new memories, though all memories from before the traumatic incident that precipitated his memory loss remain intact. He snaps photos of significant people, places, and objects with his polaroid, scrawling names, license plate numbers, and notes on the backs of the photos to help keep himself on track.
In Blade Runner and Blade Runner: 2049, the unreliability of memory is used to assert the fluidity of identity. In Memento, memories–manifested in the snapshots Leonard collects–are used as the building blocks to help form his constantly crumbling identity. In other words, for Leonard, it’s not the unreliability of memory that dismantles his ability to form a solid identity, it’s the failure of memory to even take shape that impairs his formation of an unshakable identity. And, the nihilistic tone of the noir and neo-noir traditions creeps in through this sense of vaporous reliability of evidence. Leonard’s photos and scrawled notes are only useful insofar as he can distill the importance of and re-connect the scattered pieces of his memory.
Nolan takes up the theme of identity more than just through the constantly shifting unreliable photographs that adorn the comforter of Leonard’s motel room, though. To complicate the unreliability of Leonard’s retrograde construction of his identity from notes and pictures, Nolan constantly pulls us back to the moment before the break. He takes us to the safe haven of identity security that lies in the memory uncorrupted by Leonard’s identity-corroding amnesia. We are constantly ensured that this moment is, in a sense, an oasis of tragedy; that is to say, an oasis from the antagonism of memory loss.
But, in the end, this moment too proves to not be safe. In the climax, Teddy claims that Leonard, in a sort of schizophrenic coping mechanism, constructed the identity of Sammy and inserted him into Leonard’s own tragic story to escape the guilt of what he did. His own identity, and supposedly an integral part of his tragic past, has been constructed and warped to further abstract and complicate the way Leonard constructs his identity from his scattered pieces of memory. It’s a brilliant narrative trick, one that nihilistically complicates the morality of the entire narrative posing Leonard as, not an avenging angel, but an unhinged hitman.
Like the helpless and hopeless final words to J.J. Gittes at the end of Chinatown, the final revelation of Memento only fractures the narrative further, like a finely carved glass vase splintering into a million pieces. The greatest trick of Nolan’s Memento isn’t in its narrative inventiveness, its intricate cross-cutting, or its stylized but intimate violence; it’s in the film’s deep indebtedness to the film noir and neo-noir traditions. It’s a film that updates and transforms decades-old codified principles that span a film catalogue so vast it’s still being unearthed and re-discovered today, and manages to make the old radically new again. In short, after seventeen years, it’s still a masterpiece.