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Movie Reviews from the Film Gang

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Memento, Directed and Written by Christopher Nolan - Review by Cathy Soussloff

Memento breaks into a dazzling speeded up frenzy of Polaroid and cinematic shots from the first scene and just gets faster and better as it goes.  Premise is: the speed of the sequences is taking you back in time instead of getting you to the end of the story.  Christopher Nolan writes and directs with a sharp precision not possible in the ungainly Hollywood narratives of the 1980’s and 90’s.  He casts edgy actors—Guy Pearce, as in LA Confidential, Carrie-Anne Moss, as in The Matrix, and Joe Pantoliano, as in Memento—for edgy roles in which they excel at the dark repartee and staccato movements required by their characters.  But the allure of the film resides in the suspense of telling a who-dun-it noir backwards in the medium of film.  
More than you might think possible, Memento relies not so much on the concept of our faulty and suggestible memories, but rather on the marriage of text with the moving image.  Leonard Shelby, the short term memory loss guy and the film’s main character, writes obsessively to himself:  little notes on scraps of paper and beer mats; captions at the bottom of Polaroid snaps; and tattoos etched in mirror writing on his body.  These clues or mnemonics serve his handicap of short term memory loss, but more than that they help us the viewers READ the story that moves backwards instead of towards the inevitable progression of time we expect from narrative art. The major key to understanding the plot lies in the scene in which we find Leonard in a Tattoo Parlor, having the final clue etched into his body.  As we read the clue, the images on the screen suddenly add up to the solution to the puzzle of Leonard’s life and wife.
What, Leonard asks innumerable times, is life without memory?  Who are you, his co-conspirators Natalie and Teddy taunt, without a memory?  The answer Memento gives is an obsessive compulsion to find something that will always remain elusive, a self-knowledge that even time going backwards cannot provide.  Memento reminds us of the illusions upon which we build our own life stories.  As a warning about relying too much on the power of memory, Memento the film functions as a memento mori, a kind of image that reminds you of mortality, like the death’s head that the character Leonard comes to embody.  As a tour de force of movie-making Memento remembers the artfulness of the time-image that is the cinema:  at once a form of representing our world, but also a way to think through abstractions, such as time and movement, in order to know better what it means to be human.  Memento asks us to accept that death will be the only outcome of a life without both long-term and short-term memory—of a life without history.

For KUSP and the Film Gang this is Cathy Soussloff, having fun at the movies.

Copyright Catherine M.Soussloff 2001