Friday, July 23, 2010

Memento: Extreme Moments

Part 2 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan.
    Christopher Nolan’s Memento comments upon and explores the relationship between films and memory; this is most effectively achieved through the film’s unique editing, both how events unfold in reverse order, and by juxtaposing silent, out of context snippets with the scene at hand.
    Like any experience, watching a film creates memories. Likewise, these memories are unique for each person; what shape they take depends greatly on the individual’s state of mind, previous experiences, world view, and engagement with the film. After you are finished watching a film, you have a new set of memories, and, again, like all memories, they were triggered by intense emotions. Therefore, the parts of a film you remember will be different than those recollected by your neighbor, because you have responded to certain shots or scenes or musical cues based on how they made you feel, and what existing memories they recalled and are now tied to.
    In the case of Memento, for example, if you have ever gotten a tattoo, or you are a tattoo artist or know one, your mind might assign specific emotional significance to Leonard’s tattoos, where as others in the audience who do not share this kind of experience will only treat these inky notes on the body of our protagonist as merely parts of the story. Likewise, if you own the same make and model of the car that Leonard drives, you will more than likely create a memory of the film focusing on this detail, while others will pay it no mind. Technically speaking, you are all watching the same film, but in essence you are not; the film each person remembers will be different, because as it enters the brain it is melted down and blended with a person’s biases, interests, and life experiences to create something completely unique. The filmmakers address this subjectivity directly, when Leonard says, “Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record...”

    Memories are like waking dreams; they are rooted in real events, but are molded by emotions. Memories also do not obey the laws of time. When you recall a party, lets say, you do not remember the entire event from beginning to end, but only the highlights, the moments that caused an intense emotional response: the anxiety before arrival, winning a game of beer pong, a seconds-long glimpse of a beautiful stranger from across the room. Long after the red plastic cups have been disposed of and the revelers have returned to their every day lives, these moments linger in the mind, and together form your own personal movie of this party.
    Similarly, a film does not depict entire events, but only the important parts, the parts worth remembering and reliving. If Memento depicted every second of its story, it would be several years long and unwatchable. instead, like every film, it gives us only important moments in the life of our protagonist, just enough to know what he is doing, why, and how he feels about it.
    Many, including myself, feel that cinema is the most emotionally affecting art form. Much of this can be attributed to a film’s similarity to memories. When watching a movie, our mind recognizes the form and flow of it immediately, and can therefor quite easily process it and store it away in much the same way as a memory. Films are pre made memories meant for mass consumption. 
    One element that sets film apart from all other art is editing, what with the juxtaposition of images, and the burden of the constant passage of time. In one way, the pace of a film is a slave to time, but the filmmaker is also time’s master. The story unfolds as suddenly or as gradually as the director wants.
    Memento is linear, but not in the traditional sense; it simply goes backwards, starting at the end and ending at the beginning. The reverse structure of the film continually comments on the nature of memories. We can begin to piece the story together because the end of one scene is the beginning of the previous one. For example, there is a scene that begins with Leonard sitting in the bathroom of a hotel room, holding a half-empty bottle of whiskey. His ever present voice over ponders, “I don’t feel drunk.” And we wonder, too, if he might have just imbibed. Setting the bottle down, he then gets in the shower. After a moment, a man comes into the bathroom, and a fight ensues, during which Leonard grabs the bottle and knocks the man out with it. Soon it is revealed that we are in the mysterious man’s hotel room, and that Leonard came here to kill him; he grabbed the bottle to use as a weapon, but then promptly forgot why he was holding it as he waited. 
   The entire film operates this way, and by telling the story backwards, Nolan manages to put the audience in the same mindset as Leonard, our forgetful protagonist. This effect was driven home to me when I recently sat down to watch Memento for the Nth time, and within a few minutes realized that I could not for the life of me remember what would happen next. Just before the film began I could recall the plot in great and complete detail, but once the unique structure had me, I literally forgot what I had just been thinking. Nolan so successfully conveys Leonard’s state of mind that the audience actually takes it on; this is the very height of psychological filmmaking.
    One other major benefit of film editing besides time manipulation is juxtaposition. Nolan and his editor on Memento, Dody Dorn, exploit this benefit to ingenious effect. The main driving force behind all of Leonard’s actions is his relentless search for the man he suspects raped and murdered his wife. At key emotional moments in the film, silent, seconds-long shots of Leonard’s wife will suddenly be dropped in, completely out of context: the sunlight catching some errant stands of hair, her running to a window, a view over her bare shoulder as she reads. Leonard even talks about these bits of memory in the film. 
You can just feel the details. The bits and pieces you never bothered to put into words. And you can feel these extreme moments, even if you don't want to. You put these together, and you get the feel of a person.
Nolan brilliantly conveys this concept through the use of juxtapositional editing; in a matter of seconds, we get “the feel of a person”. And this effect works so well because it is of course reminiscent of how our minds work. We just feel the details, the extreme moments.

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