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Memento
2000 - R - 113 Mins.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd
Written By: Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mark Boone Junior, Stephen Tobolowsky
Review by: Marc Eastman
   
Confused?*

Where was I?

Either way, ‘Teddy’‘s going to get shot, and he knows it.

Confused? Don’t be. The brief ‘action’ involved in the killing throws us right at the ‘beginning’, but in a way that uses all the things we don’t know yet. Why does ‘Teddy’ shout and turn just at the end, when it looks, right up to that point, that he’s perfectly calm about the whole thing? He knows and sees the clue we don’t know yet. He sees the blank expression coming over Leonard’s face, and he knows Leonard knows that the memory is fading and we’re about to have a ‘reboot’. You can really go two ways here. A) Leonard does ‘reboot’, and he reacts on instinct to the situation. Clearly, if you find yourself suddenly in this situation, it’s a good idea to shoot the person you’re aiming at, especially considering your condition. You have to trust yourself that there was some good reason you were pointing the gun at him, and if you ‘let him explain’, you know there’s no way to believe what’s going on. Better to trust yourself, shoot him, and figure it out later. B) Leonard realizes he’s on the verge of ‘rebooting’, and knows he’d better shoot him now, because how can he be certain what will happen then?

He is also key to one of the best scenes in the movie, the first, well maybe the second depending on how you look at it. It’s a scene that would get a lot more credit if it were really the end, instead of ‘the end’. That the scene plays out just as it would (and would make so much more sense) if it were at the end, is a great credit to the picture.

Joe Pantoliano (‘Teddy’), also of ‘The Matrix’, is generally a detriment (to me) to any movie he’s in. He’s not particularly good as an actor, but certainly not terrible either. It’s just that he’ll always be the guy from ‘Eddie and the Cruisers’ to me, and he always plays characters who have names that end in ‘elli’, ‘oni’, ‘etti’, ‘otti’, etc. He’s just always the little, weasely guy, and it gets old. He’s surprisingly good here, though still not very special. His is a character that keeps changing attitudes, and he does it pretty well. He is, to some degree or other, using Leonard, and he’s very familiar with him and his condition. Because of that, he is constantly shifting gears to whatever demeanor or ‘character’ suits the purpose of using Leonard best at the moment. Pantoliano is a good choice for that character.

Carrie-Anne Moss (‘The Matrix’ -yes, Trinity-, ‘Chocolat’) as Natalie is a slightly different story. For most of her scenes she is very good, but there is a certain scene where she ‘goes off’, and it doesn’t play well. It’s taken too far, and at a certain point it detracts, as she almost seems to be making fun of herself. Overall, however, she works very well.

It’s a tricky thing, given the obvious openness of the story, and the lack of detail of any of the characters, to judge the actors. Guy Pearce (‘L.A. Confidential’, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’) is either not very good, or absolutely brilliant, and it’s hard to put your finger on which it is. His character is one that, by definition, doesn’t take you anywhere and doesn’t deliver any ‘character’ to the audience. But, that’s sort of the definition of a bad actor playing any character, so how do you tell which it is? Whichever, Pearce had me pretty thoroughly convinced, and managed to deliver a certain amount of ‘hook’. The script also gives him several clever lines, many in his narration, and he delivers them well.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a movie that can really wrack up the negatives, this is your movie. It’s barely even a thing unto itself really. It’s so open for exploration, leaves so much detail to the viewer, and gives everything in a way that is so available for interpretation, that each viewer can really make their own movie. So, you ask yourself when it’s over, was it actually X, or was it Y? Both are equally likely, and equally strong cases could be made for either. X and Y, of course, are beyond the scope of the real point of the movie, but they’re fun to play with afterward.

‘Memento’ defies you not to like it in so many ways, and it couldn’t care less what you decide on the score. Looking for positives to rack up for this movie? It hasn’t any. Hardly any, anyway. It doesn’t have any characters for you to love, embrace, or even get to know. How could it? It has no tension in the way we’re accustomed to feeling tension. We know the good guy is alive at ‘the end’, and we know the bad guy (well someone) is dead. We can’t really connect to our hero. We only get him for bits of a minute or two, and then he snaps out of himself. Worst (or best) of all, the movie keeps throwing us out of itself, bouncing us around, without letting us ‘ground’ on anything.

Oddly enough (given what I’ve said), the movie does answer questions. Not many, and not nearly as many as you want it to, but it answers the questions it set out to answer. It answers them pretty cleverly, and at the end it sort of winks at you. It knows you want the other answers, but who’s telling the story here?

Confused? It’s not that hard to understand really. Stories that focus on the way people trick themselves, the way they lie to themselves all day everyday, are the sorts of stories audiences won’t listen to. Unless they don’t know they’re listening to it. Stories about being manipulated by other people are the sorts of stories people will listen to, unless you also tell them that they manipulate themselves all the time, and to greater effect. Stories about how people alter their own memories (or do they?) to fit the reality they perceive as being ‘true’, aren’t the stories people want to hear about. Stories that don’t give out any answers, because, look... who’s got any answers anyway, aren’t the kinds of stories people are looking for.

There are certain stories that you can’t really tell in a movie, or even a book. There are certain stories that, in order to be effective at all, cannot be told. They can only be hinted at. To actually tell the story is to create a tangible disinterest and discomfort in the audience from the very start, unless (perhaps) the start is the last thing you say.

But, not only does it not tell the story you think it’s going to tell, it doesn’t even really tell the story it’s telling. Sure, we ‘get there in the end’, but that’s not where we’re getting, that’s just the end of the plot. The real story that the movie is telling is one of those things that the movie ‘doesn’t do’. Are you in love with this movie yet?

So, it doesn’t tell the story you think it’s going to tell. That’s obviously going to be irritating to a lot of people, and that’s part of the point. It is irritating. The other definition of the word isn’t negative though, and is simply - to stimulate. It was most refreshingly irritating.

We’ve got a strange spin on your typical murder mystery, but as I said, what’s great about this movie is what it doesn’t do. It asks heaps of questions, makes you ask even more, and doesn’t provide any answers. The answers you do get, if it can be said that you get any, aren’t the ones you wanted. In fact, the movie even refuses to tell anything remotely like the story you demand it tell. You say, ‘I want to know this,’ and the movie says, ‘that’s not my problem.’

We start the movie out with Leonard killing someone, and progress in our backward fashion to the ‘beginning’, where we discover the reason Leonard kills him. We move along the story by following Leonard’s strange train of thought, and our other two characters, Natalie and ‘Teddy’. ‘Teddy’, oddly enough, is the person Leonard killed at the beginning, and we’re not really sure what to make of Natalie, apart from the fact that she may or may not be helping Leonard.

Confused? You’re supposed to be. You might think I’d say something like, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all work out in the end,’ but it doesn’t. That’s part of the beauty. This is a movie that you have to let drag you along, because trying to figure it out is not only pointless, it’s counter-productive.

In order (let’s assume) to take us on a ride that simulates Leonard’s constant state of confusion, the film is given to us in something that is easiest to describe as backward. It’s not exactly backward, but close. Imagine that the film (if it were forward) contained fifty scenes. We see the scenes running forward, but we start with scene fifty, then watch scene 49, then 48, etc.

His main system of leading a somewhat ordinary life, however, is to make himself a creature of habit and instinct. He has worked on this for a long time, apparently, and he’s got it pretty well down. He keeps the same things in the same places, so he always knows where to look for them. Otherwise he’s not going to remember where he put them right? He also makes sure that he focuses himself toward instinct. He creates in himself the ability to take any situation he suddenly finds himself thrust into (because that’s what happens) and know how he should react.

Naturally, he has a system for getting on in life. He takes a lot of notes, and when there is something worthy of becoming a ‘permanent note’, he gets tattoos. His life is a complex web of notes, maps, Polaroid pictures, tattoos, and random occurrences. He’s on the trail of the killer though, and he thinks he’s getting close.

Leonard also takes us on an adventure. He’s looking for the guy that killed his wife and gave him the bump on his head. He’s not actually sure how long he’s been on this road, because he can’t remember how long it’s been since his wife died.

It’s a curious sort of memory problem, and throughout the movie we will see Leonard suddenly take on a particularly confused expression, and that’s the signal that he’s about to ‘start over’.

Leonard Shelby has a strange mental condition. The result of a blow to the head, Leonard cannot form any memories. He is aware of everything going on around him, and acts fairly normal. That’s all the workings (sort of) of short-term memory. Getting from short-term memory to long-term memory, however, just doesn’t happen. He talks fast because he knows that at any moment he won’t remember why he’s talking.

It’s difficult to talk about ‘Memento’ in terms of the things it does. What it does isn’t really that interesting. What it doesn’t do, however, makes it a thing of beauty.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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