Monday, July 12, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon Day 2: Memento


It was Paul Schrader who (in)famously stated that “Film Noir should be viewed as a set of aesthetics.” And this is a message that the Neo Noirs, both the sun drenched films of the sixties and seventies, and their more hyperactive brethren that sprouted in the wake of Pulp Fiction, have embraced fully.

The statement has always struck me as more then a little bunk. Film Noir is more then a grouping of shadows, overripe women, and cigarette smoke. Should any doubt arise just compare the likes of Chinatown which is plugged directly into the root of Noir’s dark power, and something like The Long Goodbye, which merely cheekily comments on it. Take something like U Turn, which for all of its fun, is at the end of the day merely playing with some iconography and compare it with Memento and you’ll get the same difference. The difference in short, between art and exercise.

You can see it in films like Out Of The Past, The Set Up,The Naked Kiss its more then style, there’s a deep wounded heart at the core of each of these films.

As it is in Memento.

Memento is at its core a film about people who are profoundly broken. Not just Leonard, the damned protaginist, who spends his days like Sissyphus with that damn boulder of amnesia crushing him again and again, but Carrie Anne Moss’s damaged barmaid, and Joe Palantino’s vile Teddy. All are people so badly fractured is it any wonder that the film they star in becomes fractured as well?

I mentioned before that all of Nolan’s protagonists are defined by their inability to move on from one central event. Leonard is the epitome of this. In Leonard’s case this is literal as well as figurative. Memento tells the story of a man unable to make new memories after a brutal attack on himself and his wife, which left her dead. Or so he tells himself. He drifts through the land like an angry ghost. His quest for the truth is almost absurdist, its easy to think of the type of film say Bunuel would have made about a detective who can’t remember. But Nolan is too much the humanist, to see the joke in the absurdity, and combined with Pierce, creates a character whose truly haunting. Leonard is a grieving monster, more then he can know. And there are scenes that just break your heart, as when he recreates, his dead wives presence with a crack whore, so he can get literally one second of respite.

Memento is of course most famous for its non linear structure. But far from the gimmick it is sometimes written off as, it’s a brilliant way to communicate what Leonard experiences. When compared to Following, whose non linear technique was clearly being used just to keep crucial bits of information unclear, it becomes clear that Memento could truly be no other way.

Memento is brilliantly written, beautifully shot, and skillfully directed. And yet it’s a film that stolidly refuses to stop at the surface. In the fearless way it follows through on its implications, Memento becomes a film that aims at the heart. And it hits its mark.

Memento is more then a mere set of aesthetics.

Its great noir.

5 comments:

Darren said...

Love this movie. Can you believe I've yet to watch it in chronological order (apparently it's an easter egg on the DVD)? Keep meaning to do that.

Adam Zanzie said...

Hmm, I don't know. Leonard is most certainly written as a tragic figure, and Pearce's splendid performance definitely suggests it with each scene as well. But at the end of the day, having seen Memento twice in the last five years, it's that questionable structure of the film that still compromises my emotional response. Nolan of course told the film backwards in order to launch unexpected surprise elements on the audience, but I don't think surprise elements should have been the top priority of Memento to begin with. I'd be much more comfortable watching the events unfold in linear fashion, as the characters surrounding Leonard confuse him more and more--until he is driven first to one murder, then another. As it stands, the "ending" of the film has always struck me as an anticlimax.

I haven't tried the Easter Egg yet (I don't own the DVD), but I doubt it would instantly make it a better film. Nolan would have to do more than simply reverse the chronological order of the scenes in Memento in order to make it a more tragic film; he would have to totally rethink the way one scene transitions from the next, the musical score, and the performances of the actors themselves.

I'm of course glad that Memento has inspired the enthusiasm of so many people who have seen it, but I've always thought that if Nolan had been less experimental and more caring to the story, the film would have aged into a profound piece of work for the moviegoers of today.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Darren: I never have either. I'm almost afraid to.

@ Adam: Gotta disagree with you here Adam. I think you're misinterpetting Nolan's intentions with the device.

Its not to preserve narrative surprise. After all, from the first scene running we know Pierce has his "revenge" in one way or another. The device is to communicate Leonard's frame of mind, which is does quite beautifully.

Think of the scene where he meets Carrie Moss for the first time (In the film, not chronologically) he's forgotten her. We don't know she exists. When she reaches out for him its a surprise to both of us.

Its best used in the Trailer Park scene, both when Leonard can't quite figure out if he's being chased or doing the chasing, both work from the way he juxtaposes his shots. And the scene where Leonard falls asleep in the middle of an "action scene".

The effect Nolan's technique has here is the exact opposite of surprise. Its not the jolt of the unexpected that hits, its the "Ah hah" of the context coming together."

The ending while far from being an anti climax, deepens and darkens the whole thing. Leonard was a victim alright, but not just of a cruelly random act of violence, but a coldhearted act of prolonged sadism. Its a revenge movie of a different kind.

Like I said, the score performances and transitions all thought out quite well.

And as for your last point. I would argue that it does. Unless you speak for all of them of course ; )

J.D. said...

Excellent review! I love this film and like many this was my intro. to Christopher Nolan's work and I've been a fan of his ever since (altho, I will admit that INSOMNIA did nothing for me - the original is much better). He definitely puts a unique spin on the neo-noir and whole thing of having a protagonist with no short-term memory trying to solve a murder is pretty novel.

I've been really enjoying this blogathon. Keep up the great work!

Bryce Wilson said...

Many thanks JD. It was actually a lot of fun revisiting Insomnia and seeing what worked (Williams) and what didn't (Pacino).