My favorite film of all time is Memento (2000), by the director Christopher Nolan. It was this film that made me a fan of this director and I am always fascinated by the depth of the characters in his films, and the exploration he nearly always does of how a person’s weaknesses, when unchecked, almost always lead to their demise and are often manipulated by others.
Memento was the first Nolan film I ever saw and soon after I searched for anything else he had produced, which at the time included only one other film, Following (1998). I was struck by both films, the originality of the writing, and the similarity of the tides of meaning in both films. I’ll take some time now to examine the film on at least three levels of meaning.
Referential Meaning (What happened): Memento is the story of ,Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pierce), a man suffering from anterograde amnesia he suffered from a head injury from an attack on him and his wife in his home. Leonard killed one of the two attackers, but the other clubbed him on the head, allowing his escape, and causing Leonard’s imprisonment in revenge and the eternal now- quite literally. In terms of referential meaning, this is the crux of the story- and a clever device Nolan uses in presenting the film as well. Anterograde amnesia is the inability to store new memories, and as the protagonist of the story suffers from this, we experience the story from his viewpoint. Nolan takes the viewer through the story in reverse-chronological order, through a series of short episodes that we experience with the protagonist. The beauty of the film is that Nolan brings us into Leonard’s world by delivering the film as Leonard experiences it- life lived without context except for revenge. It can be very challenging to watch and understand, I admit to seeing it in the theaters three times just to try to get a better grip on what “really” happened. On the level of referential meaning- Nolan not only makes it clear that the main character and narrator experiences this psychological challenge, but we get to go along for the ride. A spectacular film making device that affords us more connection to the main character than is possible otherwise. Admittedly, using this as a device for the sequencing of the film crosses lines of meaning, and invites (nearly forces) us to explore the deeper meaning of the ways we might lie to ourselves to excuse (or enable) our worst behavior.
Explicit Meaning (What it means): I always look for at least this level of meaning in film- the motivations of characters, and what it says about the human condition. In Nolan’s films, the main character(s) almost always have a character flaw that they are aware of, but almost always give in to, creating the pivot point for the film. In Memento, the desire for revenge blinds Leonard and at critical times of clarity, he neglects to give himself a “memento” of what he’s learned so that he won’t be limited in his quest for revenge by something as benign and bothersome as facts. This allows him to be manipulated by other characters, and at times, even himself. Nolan’s first film Following had a similar message. In this film, the character slowly gives in to his desire to spy on others with his camera, becoming a voyeur. This later comes back to haunt him as his weakness is turned against him by the antagonists and he becomes manipulated by the very character flaw he nurtures into defect. Nolan’s message in both of these films is that we are often complicit in the situations we would call manipulation- that it was our own surrender to our weaker selves that ultimately causes us the greatest harm. We often are not the victims we feel ourselves to be; we are on some level complicit in our own self-delusion even if we enlisted someone else to assist us in it.
Implicit/Symptomatic Meaning (What it says to us or about society): Nolan does a spectacular job of showing how people can easily be manipulated by their weaknesses when they surrender to it, and that it’s often impossible to stop the forward progress of self-delusion. In Memento as well as Following, the protagonist is manipulated by the antagonists of the film using their obsessions and unique character flaws (or literal handicap in the case of Memento) as a fulcrum to exert more force against our self-control than we can resist. The implications are clear- that we must be aware of our weaknesses so that we don’t allow ourselves to be fooled into doing things we wish not to do- all the while believing that we are accomplishing our goals. Symptomatically speaking, we often blame others or society for the things we know we bring to the table ourselves, but having an enemy to blame shifts the focus and gives us a feeling of righteous indignation against our perceived enemies. These enemies are often just distorted reflections of ourselves as we bend the world to reflect back whatever we need so that reality becomes the funhouse mirror that shows us the monster that “made us do it.” But that monster is often just our own reflection, bent with small compromises and self-manipulation to allow us to push it just a little farther.
We are often our own addictions, and Nolan does an incredible job of showing us how others bend their mirrors so that we can evaluate how much we are doing this ourselves… if we take the time to stop looking for a victim in the mirror -and check for our assailant.