Thursday 21 January 2010

Memento (2000)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Memento has a lot to live up to. When I grabbed the Top 250 list in 2004 it was ranked as the 19th greatest film ever made and six years later it's only dropped as far as 26th. That puts it ahead of almost every film throughout the history of cinema including the nine entries that I'd watched so far in this project. So is this product of the new millennium really better than Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard and Gone with the Wind? Well my initial reaction after watching in 2004 was that I didn't have a clue. I enjoyed it but it was obviously one of those films that warranted more than one viewing to fully appreciate what it does and what it means. Now that I've watched through it again I'm inclined to agree that it's one of the greats, a film that doesn't just entertain but provokes thought. That's a balancing act that director Christopher Nolan has proven pretty good at over the years. As the icing on the cake, the non-linear approach has proved massively influential, copied in more than a few instances on television and in film.

We begin with a polaroid of a crime scene. There's blood everywhere but no apparent corpse in sight and as we try to work out what the shape in the right hand bottom corner is, we watch it fade. That's a clever device to point out to us that this scene is running backwards, even before the bullet leaps back into the gun and the dead man comes back to life. Yes, that blur was part of a body. So, even if we haven't heard anything about what this film is before watching it, we can't help but realise at this point that we're in for something different and as we watch, we realise just how different it is. While the initial scene is literally reversed film, the film itself is reversed in a different way, scene by scene but in reverse order, making it more than a little confusing but not impenetrable and it's enlightening in a fascinating and innovative way.

The shooter is Leonard Shelby, who is a former insurance investigator from San Francisco, someone with a talent for telling whether people are lying by looking at their eyes as he talks with them. He's been hunting a man called John G who raped and murdered his wife, and as far as he's concerned he's finally found him, because he's the man he kills at the beginning of our film to end his quest. What we need to find out is how he manages to track him down given that he has a serious handicap. When he walked into his bathroom to catch his wife's killer in the act and shoot him dead, an unseen accomplice threw him into a mirror and triggered a condition called anterograde memory loss, possibly the most serious way to impact anyone's ability to investigate anything.

Anterograde memory loss is a form of amnesia that prevents the formation of new memories, but doesn't break anything else in the brain. Therefore Shelby can remember his life before what is consistently referred to as 'the incident', right up to seeing his wife in the bathroom, but nothing further from then on except for the previous few minutes. But hey, he gets there in the end, right? After all, we see it at the beginning of the film. We see Shelby get his revenge by killing John G. Well it's not quite that simple. It's more than a little strange watching an investigation in reverse, scene by scene, because of course it isn't about the usual things an investigation is about.
Normally we follow clues to work out whodunit, but here we follow clues to work out if whodunit got it right, if he killed the right man, and if not why things panned out the way they did. After all, he can't trust his memory in the slightest. That means that he has to rely on some sort of system to compensate for his inability to remember what he's found out. At one point he's given key information in a restaurant but goes to the bathroom and promptly forgets he'd even met anyone. Fortunately the waiter gives him what he'd left on the table. At another point he's being chased by a drug dealer with a gun and he forgets during the chase who's doing the chasing. So he defines a system, beginning with a tattoo on his left hand that reads 'Remember Sammy Jankis'.

Because he knew Jankis before the incident his memory of him isn't lost and he knows precisely what that tattoo is supposed to trigger: the recollection system. Sammy was a man he investigated who had the same condition and wrote things down on notes. As Shelby is dealing with more serious things, he goes a step beyond mere notes to keep polaroids in his pocket that identify people and places and key information like who to trust and what people's motivations are. His own driving purpose he has tattooed onto his chest in mirror writing and whenever he is sure enough of something that it becomes an unarguable fact he has that tattooed onto his body too, along with general reminders like 'notes can be lost' and 'memory is treachery'.

While this sounds like an innovative approach to a story, how can it expect to keep our interest over a 113 minute running time? After all, we know what happens. We've seen the finished jigsaw puzzle, watching backwards just means that we see the pieces taken out, right? Well, no. This story really does run both ways. Part of the power is in the fact that we watch the story the way the lead character, with all the restraints of his condition, sees it, in that we question every new character as they appear because, like him, we're seeing them for the first time, only later finding out the history that went before. However there's also power in the fact that, unlike Shelby, we don't forget what we see, so everything we learn from this reverse chronology fills in that jigsaw puzzle and we discover all the background information and character motivation that he's forgotten. These in turn intrigue us, puzzle us and eventually shock us.

Christopher Nolan is one of those rare creatures, a filmmaker who wants to produce art but to entertain us in the process. There aren't too many people who even attempt this, because the two approaches are not particularly compatible. Art is inherent in a piece, whereas entertainment by necessity involves a process of experiencing it. Art is unchanging, whereas entertainment is relative and constantly in flux, depending on fashion and context and timeframe and even the personal taste of whoever is going through the experience. It's the rare filmmaker who can make something that stands apart as a work of art but still involves and entertains us. Stanley Kubrick is the most obvious name to conjure up and Christopher Nolan has every possibility of succeeding such an important name.

Each film he's made thus far has tried to do something new, even though he's committed supposedly unpardonable cinematic sins like filming a remake or making a superhero movie. Insomnia is a rare American remake of a foreign film that wasn't universally panned on release and Nolan reinvented the superhero genre with Batman Begins, then apparently mastered it with its sequel, The Dark Knight, possibly the most popular and acclaimed such film ever made. I'm more of a fan of Following and The Prestige, very different films with very different budgets that both impressed me no end, and Memento, only the second of six features thus far to carry his name, seems to be holding its own. It sprung out of a cross country road trip, of all things, which prompted both a short story by Nolan's younger brother Jonathan and this screen adaptation of it, though the two apparently have a number of strong differences.

Guy Pearce plays the lead, which helps the story because he's far less recognisable than the initial choice of Brad Pitt. He's come a long way since Neighbours, an Aussie soap opera, finding himself in films from what seems like every genre: film noir (LA Confidential), horror (Ravenous), romantic comedy (Dating the Enemy), western (The Proposition), science fiction (The Time Machine), swashbuckler (The Count of Monte Cristo), drama (Winged Creatures), crime (Animal Kingdom), even the uncategorisable (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). He currently has a couple of major titles to his name, keeping him at the forefront: Kathryn Bigelow's award winning The Hurt Locker and the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Pearce carries much of this film, the condition his character has surely making it a difficult part to play, regardless what order they shot the scenes. However he has able support from a couple of actors from The Matrix: Joe Pantoliano as Teddy, the man who dies at the beginning of the film but has quite a bit of screen time after that, and Carrie-Anne Moss as a bartender called Natalie. Both of these characters, along with Shelby himself, help to shape the directions he takes, and while it gradually become clear which are due to who and why, even after the impactful ending I was still a little unsure as to how much each of them knew at any point in time, or whether the beginning of the film constitutes justice or a miscarriage of it. Perhaps it's both. Perhaps we'd really need the scene that happens before the film begins to truly reach that decision.

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