It’s August, 2013 and I’m watching Memento for the seventh time. Next to me is my partner’s sister. We’re about fifteen minutes into the film, and she comments, “Oh, so it’s like it’s running backwards?” It’s funny how the context surrounding a film can change. Back when Memento was first released, it was “the backwards film.” Not the second feature film from Hollywood heavyweight Christopher Nolan, but a film pitched as a bleak, unique story about a man with a special kind of amnesia and a memorable gimmick, with the story unfolding in chronological reverse. It remains a film that Nolan has yet to surpass, for all his big budget superheroics and sci-fi extravaganzas. The colours here aren’t Nolan’s greys and blacks of crumbling urban streets, but rather the dull blues and harsh, faded yellows of a solemn desert landscape. David Julyan’s score, spare and sharp, suffuses the film with a sense of uncertainty, reinforcing the lingering sense of mystery. It’s clear to me, even after this many viewings, that Memento deserves its rank amongst my favourite films; perhaps, now, it’s hard for me to evaluate the film objectively.
It’s three years before, and I’ve just finished watching Memento again with my partner. It’s her first time seeing the film, and I can barely hide my delight as I rewind the DVD to point out the elusive moments that elevate the experience of rewatching the film: the flash of Guy Pearce for a mere fraction of a second in the mental health facility, or the way Teddy’s licence plate oh-so-subtly comments on the unreliability of memory. This is an artwork that rewards – nay, demands – obsession. And unlike, say, Christopher’s Nolan’s Inception, which was just released recently, it doesn’t fall apart when subjected to such obsessive analysis (Memento does have plot holes, but they’re born of omission rather than carelessness). Of course, plot holes don’t ruin a film, but there’s something innately satisfying about a movie that can stand up to this level of intense, geeky examination.
It’s that kind of examination that’s on my mind as I watch Memento for the fifth time. The film aches with film noir sensibilities, but it’s more than just the moral ambiguity, the pseudo-private-dick narrative or the black-and-white palette used for the forward-moving, exposition-delivering hotel scenes. Watching the film with a newfound love of classic noir, the way the beats of Memento’s backwards chronology mirror key story points of noir. I’m considering the way that Memento works backwards from Teddy’s murder, gradually unveiling the motivations and specifics of the circumstances that led to his death … in much the same way that murders feature prominently in the first act of noirs like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Kiss Me Deadly, the plot driven by the protagonist’s need to investigate the reasons behind the murder – generally more of a whydunit than a whodunit. Or the way Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss)’s arc in the film emulates that of a typical noir’s femme fatale – first she assists Leonard (Guy Pearce) with his investigation, then they sleep together … and then her true, nefarious agenda is revealed. Significantly, though, this is reliant on the film’s (and Leonard’s) skewed perspective – it’s only when the story is told in reverse that it matches up so neatly to this traditional arc.
It’s years earlier and I’m watching Leonard’s story in the way it happened; viewing the film in forward chronological order, using the chapters of the DVD I’d recently purchased (Memento being among the first DVDs I ever owned) to skip forward through the black-and-white scenes then backwards through the colour scenes. As I approach the end (or beginning?) of the story, I’m coming to realise that the film is much less satisfying watched in this way. Nolan’s story is carefully designed to work as a rewarding three-act story. This stands in contrast to other films that use the backwards gimmick – predecessor Betrayal or, more recently, Irréversible – who use the structure to provide tragic, ironic shading to the “later” scenes of happiness, surveying characters unaware of the calamities looming in the near future. Watching Memento in chronological order is interesting, instructive … but not a compelling story. This is a movie whose structure is no gimmick, but an integral facet of its success.
I’m showing Memento to a friend. It’s his first time seeing the film, and it’s my first time … showing someone the film … who’s seeing it for the … first time (this is getting as convoluted as the film’s storyline). Memento is a film with two distinct pleasures: the disorientating experience of seeing it for the first time, the bracing cold-water-in the-face sensation of joining in Leonard’s confusion; and the subsequent viewings, where the layers, nuances and carefully-constructed details of the narrative reveal themselves. Thanks to somehow forgetting the climactic plot twist on my second viewing on the film only a couple of weeks earlier, I’ve managed to appreciate the former pleasure twice. Now, watching it with a “Memento virgin,” I’m able to note the clever composition of the script while also sharing in my friend’s bewildered enjoyment. I’d strongly recommend any Memento fans find an acquaintance who has yet to see the film and introduce them to it; there’s nothing like sharing in that first time.
I’m looking at the rental VHS of this “backwards film” I’ve heard a bit about. It’s called “Memento,” (like memento mori – “remember that you will die,” I guess?). It has Guy Pearce in it, and I liked him a great deal in L.A. Confidential, so I’m hoping that it’ll be a good movie. The backwards gimmick seems a little silly – I’m half-expecting another film like Go, a Pulp Fiction rip off using non-linearity as a selling point, rather than a necessary property of the film. I notice, putting the tape into the VCR, that the last person to watch the movie mustn’t have rewound it, so I press down the rewind button to take the movie back to the beginning. The hum of the player’s spindles is the only sound for a minute or so as it winds ever backwards; it’s vaguely hypnotic.
Now … where was I?