Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, 2000
#12 (chronologically) in Mike D'Angelo's list of twelve films
to which he would give a score of 100 out of 100.
Unsuccessfully fighting to save his wife from an intruder, a
claims investigator for an insurance company suffers a head
injury that leaves him with anterograde amnesia, an inability
to store in his memory experiences after the accident. His
quest for revenge is therefore somewhat hampered by the fact
that every couple of minutes he forgets where he is and what
I saw this when it originally came out, and even wrote
a Calendar article about it. It's
weird to think that I have been doing these writeups since Clinton
was in office. It is even weirder to think that "Clinton was in
office" means it was a long time ago. I haven't quite registered
that the Monica Lewinsky scandal is no longer still in progress.
All those stories about teachers struggling with how to talk to
their students about current events when said current events
revolved around blowjobs? Yeah, those kids are in their 20s now.
What the fuck, man.
At least I'm
not alone in being bewildered by this.
When I looked back at my first article on Memento I expected
it to suck, but it was better than I thought. The point about how
the protagonist watches the world the way we watch puzzle movies is
reasonably well-observed. And I was correct that the filmmakers
demonstrate no inclination to try to turn their chess pieces into
actual people. But while the movie is pretty feeble as a character
study, I didn't realize on my first viewing how strong it is
existentially. I thought that it was demonstrating how important
memory was to the human condition by showing what it's like to have
it taken away. But nowadays I suspect that this is not the case
— that the guy with the brain damage is there to serve less
as a contrast than as a metaphor.
They say that memory is the first thing to go. Up until around the
time I turned thirty, I could actually argue (as I did in the first
article) that our sense of self relies on our ability to construct
a coherent narrative of our lives as a solid chain from the beginning
right up to the present. After all, I could; I could even datestamp
everything. But not anymore. I have gone from being the one who
quotes old conversations back at people to the one saying, "Buh? I
don't remember that at all" when Elizabeth tells me about things I
said last week. When I was in college, I rarely took notes because I
remembered everything; now when I audit classes I fill up notebooks
from front to back, and when I go back and read them, it's like taking
the class all over again — I retain maybe 25%. I've found myself
wondering how it is that the 2000s have managed to just fly right by me.
For a while I thought it might be because a smaller percentage of my
life has unfolded each year: the interminable 1980s took 63% of my life
to get through, while the 2000s to date have breezed by in a mere 24%.
But now I think it has more to do with the fact that I'm just plain
registering less of each passing year. Instead of a voluminous
chronicle to show for my decade I've got a little gift basket of
I was also mistaken to think that having a sense of the story of
your life is fundamental to one's sense of self. Note that above
I said that our inner narratives ran "from the beginning" —
but how far back do most people's memories really go? I was born in
1974, and even back when my memory was sharper, the entire rest of the
1970s only yielded a few dozen memories total. (Of course, there are
plenty of people who were adults in the 1970s who can say the same
thing.) How many people remember much of anything that happened to
them before about the age of two, or even five? And yet isn't most
of our character set by two, and almost all of it by five? Any
psychiatrist can undoubtedly bury you in files describing patients
who picked up dysfunctional patterns long before their memories begin.
So when the protagonist of Memento says that he can't remember
anything for more than a moment, but that he can still learn through
conditioning — that's not too far removed from the experience
of those of us whose hippocampi still work.
This is the last of the Mike D'Angelo Dozen, and after watching this,
and Exotica, and Primer (his #2
movie of 2004), and similar selections of his, it's pretty clear to me
that he has a weakness for puzzle movies — when they have any
thematic weight whatsoever, he pays extra close attention. I have
a similar weakness for superhero comics, so on this viewing of
Memento I found myself reminded of
Forever, the seventh volume of
is about a couple of immortals, millions of years old, who carry on a
vendetta spanning the millennia... but while their bodies are ageless
and invulnerable, their minds can only hold enough memories for an
average human lifetime. Each of them remembers only the last few decades.
They often even forget each other. But when they see each other, it
triggers a reflex: they remember that they hate each other, and that it's
for something that one of them did to the other... they just don't recall
quite what. But it doesn't matter. And it occurred to me that this is a
parable for any kind of multigenerational conflict. In the 1990s you had
people in the former Yugoslavia slaughtering each other over something
that happened in 1349. No one on either end of the massacres remembered
what, because no one involved was 650 years old. But they knew they hated
each other, because they'd been conditioned to, and because, like the guy
in Memento, they'd consulted little notes — history books.
And as Stalin showed, if you take the liberty of
rewriting a few of those notes, and eliminate those who remember the real
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