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.