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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2000)

2. Memento

When “Memento” first started to hit the festival circuit, it caught a lot of people’s attention. “That movie that plays backwards.” From a marketing perspective, it was a smart decision, a guarantee that anybody who saw the movie would remember it. (Ironically.) It’s no surprise that the film ended up being Nolan’s calling card, making him a hot new director to watch out for. However, “Memento” isn’t just a movie with a gimmick. It’s a legitimately good film. 

A polarizing one though. Critics tended to react to the film, generally, in two ways. The first group, Roger Ebert among them, dismissed the movie as gimmicky. That it’s unusual narrative device was nothing but a way to catch people’s attention. The second group, where I include myself, realize what’s so interesting and exciting about the film and its primary mechanism.

“Memento” is the story of a man with no memory. Leonard Shelby can’t remember what happened ten minutes ago. By presenting the story in reverse chronological order, Christopher Nolan puts the audience in the same position as the character. We, too, are completely unaware of the immediately preceding events. Nolan is sometimes, and not always without good reason, considered a very cold director, someone more interested in writing tricky narratives then warm, lovable characters. By telling this story in the way that he did, it was actually the best thing he could do for Leonard Shelby. The viewer immediately understands his condition and relates with him. It makes a captivating film even more so.

The film certainly does show off the director’s strength for constructing complicated screenplays. If I had to say Nolan has one strength over anything else, it’s his mastery of screenplay construction. Honestly, the dude is a better writer then a director, I think. Because “Memento” has to be one of the best constructed screenplays ever written. Writing a normal screenplay and making sure everything flows and makes sense is super hard. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to write a script like this. You can presume he wrote it in chronological order first and then shifted it around. That was probably followed by another rewrite where he went through and made the time-shift really work, adding all the irony and dramatic reversals that makes the film such a rewarding rewatching experience. And probably another draft or two to make sure it all made sense. That would be my guess anyway. Maybe it came into his head fully formed. The point is it would have been really easy to screw up “Memento.” In an alternate timeline, the film is completely incomprehensive. It’s still not an easy film to follow. Your full attention is required, you have to be paying close attention. That’s not a bad thing, of course, it’s just not a film you can put on in the background. As a whole, it all makes sense.

Except when it doesn’t, of course. There are a couple of story flubs here that, generally, you just have to overlook. The amount of time Leonard’s short-term memory lasts varies in accordance to the story’s whims. Some times he only gets a minute, some times he gets as much as twenty. The film actually has two time lines running concurrently. The main narrative is in reverse. The second, in black and white, are in forward, and mostly gives up the Sammy Jankis back story. In the black and white narrative, Leonard is on the phone for an hour and never seems to loose track of what he’s doing. It’s the most dubious leap in the film and the only one that truly distracts. (Of course, on first view, you’re so busy keeping track of the story that you hardly notice it.) Moreover, there are just the logical truths you have to suspend. Someone like Leonard Shelby would never be able to function in real life. How can he drive? How does he ever get anywhere? How can someone who has to be reminded to shave every day manage to get anything done, much less complicated crime capers? This is a movie so naturally the boring real life waiting gets cut out. In a story where time is so important however, loosing those moments does cause some confusion. You can overlook those things without too much difficulty, assuming you aren’t a total ‘sperg like me. You could also possibly accuse the film of spinning its wheels, throwing in subplots just to complicate things and waste time until the killer final reveal. You could but it would be a dick move.

The topsy-turvy script construction isn’t the only Nolan trademark that shows up here. Let’s take a second to examine the director’s use of female characters. Wives, or the major love interest, are always dead, or will be soon. Every other woman is a duplicitous femme fatale, only looking to lie and manipulate the male protagonist, foolish enough to fall for their feminine wiles. You saw that in “Following” and it appears here as well. Make of this what you will but it’s undeniably a reoccurring quirk in the guy’s work. Maybe Chris just watched too many film noirs as a teenager.

The movie is an astonishingly effective thriller. The story structure leads to that important uncertainty as well. While a second viewing builds so much on blocks laid down by the first watch, you do loose that suspense. Other emotions are brought up fantastically. There’s a surprising amount of humor here, just little funny moments. Like Leonard kicking open the motel room door of some random guy or the classic “I’m chasing this guy… No, he’s chasing me” moment. Anger comes up when you realize just how perfectly Leonard, a guy you’ve come to like, is being manipulated by the people in his life. In particular, a scene involving Carrie Anne-Moss raises as much bile in the viewer as it does in the protagonist. Finally, the Sammy subplot manages to be absolutely heart-breaking. Which sets you up for the film’s ending. Or maybe it’s the beginning.

What makes the film a favorite of flaky lart majors and college drop-outs is just how you can interpret it from a philosophical angle. Opinions will vary, obviously. I tend see the movie as being about personal identity on a major angle. To be wholly truthful, we can never be really sure that anything exists outside our own mind. Even if only what we feel or the sensations we personally encounter are true, that leaves our entire existence on an ambiguous level. If we can never be sure that anything we do is real, why bother doing anything? This is a struggle we all deal with on an every day basis. To go less esoteric, none of us can be sure what the future holds, which is an ambiguity of a different, but similar, sort. What allows us to look past all this doubt and uncertainty are our personal motivations. And when we are uncertain of so much, how can we have any real faith in our goals, instincts, or personal philosophies? “Memento” encapsulates all of these complex dilemmas into one story.

The cast is uniformly strong, packed full of strong character actors doing their thing. Guy Pierce, despite the temptation to think of him as a typically handsome leading man, really does have the chops of a subtler actor. This was a hard part to play, for sure, and Pierce manages to suggest multiple layers with only his facial expressions or a simple line reading. Joey Pantelino hardly expands pass his typical role, but it is a good performance from him. Especially when you realize that, what might seem like an important moment for us, is just him saying something to a guy who won’t remember anything. Carrie Anne-Moss manages to make you buy her manipulations just as convincingly as the characters do. The nervous, quivering, minimalist score is used sparingly but does ramp up the tension when it shows up. And I applaud the use of Bowie’s “Something in the Air,” one of the artist’s most haunting songs, over the end credits. Lyrically, it stands apart from the film but on a tonal level it functions perfectly.

“Memento” has quickly become a classic and essential film-nerd viewing. Say what you will about the rest of Nolan’s career, and I will, but he certainly hit this one out of the park. How many films have a more perfect last line? “Where was I?” [Grade: A]


Sean Catlett said...

I was fortunate enough to get in on the splashdown fairly early on, after Entertainment Weekly (I think?) wrote a glowing review with the byline "Cool So Is Thriller This" and I did everything in my power to track the movie. It never made it to theatres in Bakersfield, so friend Erik and I were "forced" to download it illegally. I mean no we didn't.

After watching it, I experienced the feeling I usually get when I see a good movie that gets a 9.0 or higher from me: I had to think about it. With Memento, there was an added cloud of depression. The movie is a goddamn downer.

But that's totally fine. I'm a sucker for, what I learned later, is the sort of story that Oedipus the King formalized. "I'm going to discover the cause of this plague on Thebes." *two hours later* "Oh... I am the cause." Leonard Shelby is the cause and the cure for his own sickness, like psychodynamic theory (one that could even explain the plot holes in the movie; it is implied by the Sammy Jenkis parallel and the series of shot at the end that Leonard's condition is psychological, and that this complex mystery has been forged even in his own mind, as a prison to punish himself; the treatment from the other characters in the movie cannot compare to what he does to himself).

On Nolan's directing. He certainly is cold, in that Ridley Scott Alien/Blade Runner sense. His characters go through hell and we don't really get too close to them. It could be a British sensibility or he enjoys procedurals. Even the flashbacks, which one would think would give us some insight into the characters's mindset, are more presented as evidence. It has never bothered me so I dunno... I don't understand the people who complain about it (not necessarily you, I'm thinking of OTHERS). Similarly, Ebert's complaint baffles me. Yes, it's a narrative gimmick -- can a movie not have one? Can only novels have them? Do you insist on being dismissive so you can complain about something? You'll love The Tree of Life for doing some of the same shit, so fuck yourself.

Where was I? Oh. Now, at this point in Nolan's career, I will say that he is not yet good at staging action (as in shootouts and fistfights). It was something I didn't really notice until Batman Begins (which we'll get to) but the shots aren't particularly imaginative or even illustrative. They are fast, dirty, and are over in seconds (insert your own sexual analogy here). It's so strange because he's on point in just about every other area. He does get better at it, I say at The Dark Knight but SOME disagree with me. WE'LL GET TO IT

So I loves it. That's what I'm getting at.

Bonehead XL said...

When I call Nolan cold, I'm not referring so much to the way he treats his characters. He's just obviously more interested in story construction then anything else. I say "more" rather then "not at all" because many of his films, this one included, revolve around getting into the head's of his lead characters. When that doesn't work, he's usually smart enough (usually) to cast actors strong enough to pick up any slack.

I've never heard the theory that Leonard's condition is completely psychological. Interesting. I also like the theory that there is no Sammy or John G. That Leonard is the guy in the flashback who poisoned his own wife and the whole quest was intentionally set into place to give his life purpose. I guess the film itself brings up that possibility. Of course that doesn't explain where the hell he got the condition in the first place. Obviously, the fact that the film is open to differing theories is one of the reason why it's good, possibly great.

Nolan has gotten better at action but even then I'd say he's not much of an action director. It doesn't bother me here since this isn't an action film. I think you can make the case that none of his films, not even the Batmans or Inception, are action films. Stuff blowing up and kung-fu fighting aren't were his interest lie.

Sean Catlett said...

Yet I would orgasm all over m'self if he ever got a job directing a Bond film.