Sunday, January 16, 2011

Re(dis)membering “Memento”

 (Reflections on the film by Christopher Nolan.
This is not an introduction -- we assume you have seen it, preferably several times.)

(I) Structure

            At the most superficial level, as a watch-and-forget thriller (the spirit in which several critics took it), “Memento” works much better than the average.  Beyond that, there’s the puzzle factor, which adds spice to thrillers like “The Spanish Prisoner”.  And the narrative structure of incremental-repetition-in-reverse  permits numerous surprise twists, *without* requiring implausible twists in the plot (e.g. in the “Dodd did this to me” episode). 
            The title is better than it looks.  It is a future imperative of Latin meminisse, ‘thou shalt remember’ (“You must remember this”).  This perfectly encapsulates the sense of focussed urgency which – for all its genre elements – lends a certain seriousness to the film, a kind of moral weight.

            Reverse narrative always struck me as a dubious device, as it is no way to tell a moral story (morality requires causality, and an onward-unfolding free will); but it’s a superb way to explore epistemology.  There is, in fact, something lazy about sitting back and watching a linear tale unroll, easily taking it all in, flattering ourselves when we “saw that one coming”, and walking out when the lights come on.  “Memento” repeatedly confronts us with a very valid challenge:  You saw Y, and abduced “Y, because X”: but what was your evidence for believing that?  (When I outlined the plot to my son Steven, he remarked: “Sounds like his attention span was about the same as that of the American electorate.”  And indeed, we may picture:  Scene 1, Bush: “I’m a uniter, not a divider!”, public nodding vigorously.  Scene 2, Bush: “They’re liberals! Liberals! Soft on terror”, public nodding vigorously.  As though they’d had a taste of the flashy-thingie in-between.)

The device of repeat amnesia  is tailor-made to meet the artistic imperative to “make it strange”, without forcing the plot events themselves to be too rococco.  Every face is that of a stranger.
            Further, it engenders a sense of the iconic, the emblemantic.  “A man walks into a bar…”  Compare indeed the opening scene of Terminator II: the bar scene, the (re)birth scene, the protagonist naked as the day he was born, and which (having not previously seen “Terminator”, so that the man was a cipher) I saw in all its originality of innocence.
            The device well incarnates dream logic. The protagonist-dreamer meets strange situations, which (like dreaming Alice) he confronts with relentless logic.  He attempts to act, to influence things, to load the dice: a lucid dream.  The fear and knowledge that he will forget  is like dreaming too, as we know it mostly evaporates upon awakening.

            Despite its backwards metric, the incremental repetition lends itself to a story consonant with a linear Judeo-Christian-Muslim morality: compare “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Groundhog Day”, and the short story “Tarid min al-Firdaus”.
            It is a peripheral use, though occasionally diverting, of both cinema and fiction, to mimic that thing which they are not, namely music.  To this end, a structure of repetition is especially well suited.  Thus “Last Year at Marienbad”, which I first saw (in high school) in bafflement, until I realized that it was not really striving to remain within the confines of the Seventh Art.  “Fantasia” managed musically  by choosing mostly narrative pieces in the first place, or only single movements.  Imagine what visuals you must score to a self-echoing piece like “Bolero” or Franck’s “Sonata in A”.

            The plot’s premise allows an interesting variation on the motif of the narrator-naif.  He's an Unreliable Narrator -- but he knows he's unreliable, especially to himself, and is not out to fool us. And as the plot unfurls, he becomes increasingly an Everyman – a “John G” – trapped in the web of Maya, repeatedly reincarnated against his will, trying to get off the Wheel.  He must kill so that he might die.

Laplace famously claimed that, given exact knowledge of all the p’s and q’s of every particle at t = 0, one could predict the state of affairs at t = n.  The claim was mathematically false, quite apart from quantum indeterminacy, owing to the analytic insolubility of the three – let alone three trillion – body problem, plus dyamical chaos; but assuming it were true, one might equally retrodict t = 0 from t = n.
            And thus to our movie.  Under the guise of a forward-looking problem, “Where do I find the killer, John G.?”, the exposition smuggles in, and drives home, the retrospective questions, which are more fundamental:  “How did I get here? Where do I come from?” 

            The story is set  very carefully  nowhere:  a derelict warehouse; an anonymous motel; a tattoo parlor that seems to have landed via some asteroid. It is not X’s home town, he doesn’t recognize anyone or anything (as he  by hypothesis  would, did they trace back to his pre-trauma days). Why “John G.” should be here  we are not told.  And the subterranean equation, “I am John G.”, thereby implies the question: How and why did I get here?  Why was I born?  X is indeed something of a Platonic newborn: fresh-hatched and naked, yet inscribed with mysterious scrolls – that complement of inborn knowledge with which we are furnished in that earlier world, yet now only imperfectly recalled. (The film would be more neatly Socratic if, instead of things being tattood upon his skin, they were to emerge, say by rubbing.)  The trauma that shattered his wholeness, was none other than the trauma of birth.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Sigmund Freud, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

(II) Plot points

            An intelligent friend said that he had “got” the plot after one viewing.  After seeing the movie myself, I wonder what he meant.
            Certainly there was a lot to get.  But the movie also has several false bottoms; and one might easily get to *a* bottom of it  without getting to *the* bottom.  At the very least, on any relatively accessible reading   there are some loose ends. Now, in any other film  they’d be likely an oversight or a who-cares (Hitchcock was famously cavalier on the subject), but in a movie so carefully made, these stand out starkly, crying to be tied.  And the ways one thinks of tying some of them, put an entirely different construction on the whole affair. Moreover, the director reportedly claims that the whole thing does hang together  and can be deduced from internal clues (but – is he lying?)  I’d like your take on the following points.

(1) Who is Leonard talking to on the phone, in the B&W scenes?  At what point did he get that “Don’t answer the phone” tattoo (it may have been prior to the story altogether, as it shows up in the earliest b&w scenes), and why was it bandaged?  He repeatedly refers to the fact that he’s “not good on the phone”.  If the caller is indeed a cop, as implied, is it Teddy or someone else?  When Leonard goes down to the lobby to meet the “officer” (who has apparently represented himself as putting Leonard on to the trail of his wife’s murderer, eliciting “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be”), he runs into Teddy in the lobby, and asks, “Officer Gammel?”  A quick look thus yields Gammel = Teddy, both for Leonard and for the audience.  But there are some odd details.

(a) Teddy greets him “Leon-ard!” on a sort of “What a nice surprise!” note, rather than a curt nod which would be all that would have been required were he the actual caller rather than an interceptor  planned or accidental.
(b) There’s a brief hesitation on Teddy’s part, when Leonard asks if he’s Gammel. Teddy glances at the desk clerk (either because they’re in cahoots on this, or because Teddy really isn’t Gammel  and wonders if the clerk has overheard the question and will spoil the ruse).
(c) When Leonard is about to write a rank and surname on the photo, Teddy says, Uh, er, just write “Teddy”.  Why?  If he’s *not* Gammel, the matter is explained – a photo so (mis)labeled could give him away.  (There’s also the odd detail of not wanting to be photographed in the street, but against a truck.  I can make nothing of this.)

Further, Teddy warns against the “bad cop” who checked Leonard into the Discount Inn and calls on the phone.  Of course, Teddy does lie, and messes with Leonard’s mind.  He could be “warning” against himself. (Teddy himself urged Leonard to check into the Discount, but maybe that was just how he got into room 304. He had already checked in – into room 21 – before Teddy sent him back there.)  But his other warning, to beware of Natalie, proved correct – she nearly got him killed. And Teddy seldom has difficulty getting to Leonard, whereas the caller does (and is driven to leaving notes under the door).  [Note: There is already so much uncertainty, based on Leonard’s amnesia  and the backwards tale-telling, that, from a purely expository standpoint, the movie would be better *if*, indeed, we may trust all the other characters’ utterances; otherwise the whole thing is hopelessly indeterminate (which, again, the director – for what it’s worth – denies).  Also, as a parable of epistemology:  It is better that all the uncertainty be located within Leonard, as it is within ourselves as we confront the universe. That people lie to us is boring, a mere distraction (save to the extent that  their lying may be positively *deduced* from other, nowise-uncertain factors); that phenomena are inherently unstructured (I almost wrote, “evidence is difficult to interpret”, but even that assumes far too much) and do not wear their relevance on their sleeve, is crucial  to the philosophy of science.

            There is, of course, the driver’s license, which on the face of it should be conclusive.  On the other hand, it is a photocopy, supplied by Natalie, who has reason to get revenge on Teddy  for suckering her boyfriend to robbery and death, and who supplies Leonard with the address of the abandoned building, saying it’s “isolated” (i.e., a good spot for a murder).  But a scrutiny of the written details  yields no obvious contradiction to Teddy’s actual appearance: blue eyes, age early 40’s based on d.o.b. and expiration date of the license, wears glasses.

(2) Seeing the tattoo, Natalie takes the license-plate number to be ID’d at the DMV. The thing is, there’s no need to, no mystery about what car it belongs to, Leonard sees that car every day, he knows it’s Teddy’s.
            Natalie has reason to want Teddy dead, since he suckered her boyfriend into an ambush.  She manipulates Leonard to bump off Dobb, perhaps she does this in Teddy’s case as well (though that is superfluous, since Leonard has deliberately programmed himself to eventually kill Teddy;  she might not know that, but she would  if she’s seen the captioned photo).

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
For a mini-movie of our own, check this out:
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *
(3) Is Leonard’s wife really dead, and if so, who killed her?  Teddy says at one point that Leonard himself did it (with insulin), thus implying that the bathroom rape/murder scene was at least in part  a fantasy (a couple of times we see shots of the wife’s eyelids fluttering beneath the plastic, illustrating  but not proving  the thesis that she survived the attack); then smoothly segues into contradicting himself, saying that he led Leonard to the “real murderer” a year ago. Teddy, indeed, lies.  But there’s something quite elegant about that version, wherein: Leonard had a brain trauma (whether in an auto accident, or in the bathroom scene with rape but *without* murder of the wife), and Teddy was the cop on the case.  For this leads neatly into another conundrum:

(4) Why is *just one* tattoo written *backwards*?  In a film like “Memento” (official Web site: otnemem), this discrepancy may not be minor.  One bold, or overbold, hypothesis:
            That message, which is the basic one, that launches the whole search, is the only one written backwards, because it is the only one not written by the same hand as the others.  Namely: Teddy.  For, finding this anterograde-amnesiac, and recognizing the tremendous potential of this resource for a crooked cop (or con man, or whatever he is), as a programmable multiple assassin, one with whom you need never split the loot, and who can never remember anything to testify against you, Teddy springs Leonard from the asylum, and tattoos that message on him (shades of “The Manchurian Candidate”).  Teddy apparently photographed Leonard in a bloodied drugged/dazed half-nude state, pointing to an untattooed spot.   And later we see Leonard (in a scene impossible to contextualize literally  on any reading) with his wife alive, and with all his tattoos plus “I did it” in that previously bare spot.  The shot is impossibly brief for a theatre audience – one is reminded of those features of cathedral roofs, visible only to the eye of God --; I saw it only by virtue of freezing the DVD.  But it may be meant seriously: its appearance is perhaps foreshadowed by those two red marks on Leonard’s cheek (not present in the b&w scenes)-- we keep wondering how he got them and how soon we’ll find out.  And, “I did it” is ambiguous between the more obvious sense (“I (finally) killed my wife’s killer, and this is how I’ll remember that fact”) and another (deeper? false?) lying beneath a false bottom: “*I* am the one who killed my wife.”  Presumably innocently, as in the Sammy story; but there is that very odd detail, twice mentioned, of “My wife called me Lenny. I always hated that.” Doesn’t ring true for a loving couple.
            The most extreme Ockhamian solution would posit that Leonard *is* Sammy: further, that he was previously  actually so named.  For why else would the dying Jimmy murmer “Sammy”, and why would that startle Leonard so much, and lead him to conclude that “I’ve killed the wrong guy”?  One might even hypothesise further that, as Teddy avers re Sammy, Leonard never did have a wife.  I don’t buy this one, but the multifaceted movie has grist for even this mill: The idea that Len was not in fact married is suggested by the shots in the warehouse as he awaits Jimmy’s arrival, quick flashes of her in the same poses.  The visual homology suggests a spiritual identity (cf. dream logic); to resolve this literally, she would have to be a figment of his imagination.

And with this  we arrive at the threshold of depth psychology. There is even an odd way in which Teddy may be seen as Leonard’s psychiatrist, prodding the patient to sort out his self-deceptions and contradictions. Recall the scene in which he questions him in the car, to account for the wealth (clothes, car) that Leonard is taking for granted. (Taking for granted: itself a kind of amnesia; thus America and its wealth.)  Leonard replies – falsely  -- (?) -- that it was insurance money from his wife’s death.  “Oh, so in a fit of grief you walked into a Jaguar dealership,” Teddy ironises.  Now, Leonard’s answer is interesting.  If he believes what he says, it suggests a memory problem beyond his anterograde amnesia: not just forgetting what just happened, but “recalling” what did not.  Or, the answer might reflect (in a distorting mirror) a reality: that he killed her for the insurance.

            Taking this notion to its conclusion, we could see in the movie  a kind of echo of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”.  In that early noir-expressionist film, Dr. Caligari, a seedy hypnotist, tours with his zombie-like somnambulist Cesare.  Cesare turns out to be a serial killer under the evil doctor’s direction, and Caligari turns out to be the director of a madhouse. The parallel would be with Teddy directing Leonard as his Cesare. Further still: the superadded second ending to the earlier film, the honest-narrator Francis turns out to be the ultimate unreliable narrator: Dr. Caligari is a well-meaning alienist, and Francis has imagined the whole thing.  This parallels the scenes in which Teddy seems genuinely to care about Leonard, and hints at truths which Leonard is unable to face; and reflects the very brief image of Leonard, rather than Sammy, in the asylum.
            (Wheels within wheels within …)

            While we’re at it, there is a psychoanalytic dimension here that I don’t quite understand: a suggestion of the dream-motif of (semi)nakedness.  As experienced in actual dreams, this is normally not erotic; it is an embarrassment, or even just an unembarrassed annoyance.  Now, Leonard is not literally naked, though he is often without his shirt, but he is stripped of the usual cognitive armaments.  There is something oneiric – and archetypal – about the bemused attitude of the townspeople, regarding this prodigy/eccentric in their midst (“Hey there, memory man.”).  That he is moving about with the stated purpose of killing someone in their township, elicits no particular concern.  This smacks of dream-logic.

Well, enough; it’s just a movie. But with some of the same pleasures that drive folks to conspiracy theories (and more harmless). – Our son remarks that the plot may illustrate Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem: there are things in the film that are true, but which cannot be proved from within the film. --- Wait, that gives me an idea.  If you just run the movie backwards-----  Enough. Enough.

[Further reflections here.]

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