No Time Like the Present: Memory and Self in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”


Apologies for the long hiatus without warning. Thesis Crunch. Let’s get back to the movies.

I embarrassed myself yesterday in an event that will not be recounted here, but for a while I could not stop thinking about it. Even an hour after the fact I was chiding myself for what happened until I finally just told myself that the event was only a memory now and that nothing could change it. Every once in a while I have these mind-boggling moments (I think Philip K. Dick is to blame with all his talk of memory implants) where I recognize that the only thing that I can be certain of is the moment I am currently experiencing. This is probably a personal mind-boggle for me; we all have our quirks. But for the first time I began to doubt even the present, because the present as we are able to conceive of it is based on memory. At that point I began thinking about the concept memory itself, which leads me to my favorite film on the subject, Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

Nolan tangles his narrative in a way that on the surface may appear gimmicky or done in an effort to parallel the life of the main character, Leonard. But in reality, there’s much more at work in Nolan’s cinematic decisions. I’ve done a few different readings of this feature, which will all probably make their way to this blog at some point. Memento is my Waste Land; I will always come back to it. For now, I’d like to focus on the malleability of these definitions of past, present, and future presented through Memento’s cinematic arrangement.

As touched on earlier in my Exposition post, film as a storytelling medium creates meaning by juxtaposing images and requiring a viewer to fill in logical gaps in order infer elements of the story. In other words, film defines its present through a chronological assessment of past pitted against future. In some ways this reflects real life in that we understand events through their temporal context, but in real life we don’t have access to the future. It can be said that we don’t have access to the filmic future either, but I would argue that techniques such as shot/reverse shot and other methods of continuity editing prime a viewer to expect a future and abstain from interpretation.

However in Memento (as well as many of his films), Nolan denies the viewer a temporal narrative that aligns with the logical narrative. We are unable to construct our narrative present with its logical past and future because they are divorced from their temporality. At some points, our cinematic past is the narrative future, and our cinematic future is the narrative past. For the purposes of using past and future to define the present, the traditional boundaries break down. In the place of these usual features, the viewer is forced to rely solely on his or her own memory. The forced dependence on memory opens a space that allows Nolan to explore one of the Memento’s themes—the failure of memory.

The moments are subtle, but present (pardon the pun). Three particular items: A photograph of Natalie and Jimmy, Teddy’s license plate, and a coaster with Natalie’s name written on it, are shown to the viewer in forms that change from one viewing to the next (click for larger):

Photo A – seen at 35:43

Photo B – seen at 38:19

License Plate A – seen at 44:15

License Plate B – seen at 1:48:21

Coaster A – seen at 1:23:42

Coaster B – seen at 1:32:43

The manipulation of these supposedly immutable items challenges the reliability of memory, and therefore of fact and of self. To the viewer watching for the first time, they are unlikely to remember the exact framing of a photograph, or the handwriting on a coaster. If a viewer does notice that something is different, they are more likely to attribute the perceived difference to having a faulty memory. These images represent more than just the signs of a questionable recollection process. Within Leonard’s world they are reminiscent of his rigorous process for finding facts and discerning the truth. But like a logical fallacy, a faulty premise will lead to a faulty conclusion.

The real-life medical case that most strongly parallels that of Memento is the plight of Englishman Clive Wearing. An infection in the 1980’s caused Wearing to develop a severe case of anterograde amnesia, which, like Leonard, prevents him creating new memories beyond a few seconds. He remembers and recognizes only his wife, who has cared for him for the past couple decades and he still retains the ability to play the piano, including pieces longer than the span of his memory.

What is most striking to me about the Wearing case are his journals. He repeatedly writes variants of the phrase “I am now awake” every few minutes to represent his coming into consciousness. When regarding previously written versions of the same sentence, Wearing often becomes frustrated, drawing lines through them or even insisting that someone wrote in his journal because only at the time of writing his current note is he truly awake and aware. Wearing’s notes support the idea that our entire conception of awareness is based on having access to memories, and allowing those memories to contribute to the notion of a self that exists over time. Christopher Nolan plays with this concept partly through his use of a disjointed narrative that forces memory to fail (and it does spectacularly, I’ve seen the move MANY times and still cannot recite the chronological timeline of events).

It’s strange to think about every instance of awareness in terms of recalling a memory. Even as you read this sentence now, you are recalling a memory of yourself reading it because once you reach end, you are no longer reading. In this sense we are always looking backward into a past tense, which mirrors the way that many narratives are told. I’ve always had the experience of trying to have my cake and eat it too while reading a novel. I may be on page 50, but because all 200 pages have been printed and bound, I have the future while still within the present. The same holds true for traditional film reels. I believe someone may have discussed this with regard to the screenplay in one of my screenwriting theory books, but sadly I can’t think of the name. Now in the age of digitization, the “future” has a less physical presence, but the feelings of engaging with prerecorded material persist. Nolan shakes up this concept of a prerecorded future through the jumbled narrative that combines future, past, and the fleeting elusive concept of what we consider to be the present.

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