The second part in our Chris Nolan retrospective. You can read Part I concerning his feature Following – HERE.
Often mistaken for the first feature film by Christopher Nolan, this is in actual fact the movie that launched his career as a professional filmmaker. Noted for its unusual narrative structure and amnesiac protagonist, Memento is one of those projects that could only ever come from the Independent arena. A lot of themes which run through Nolan’s work find their development within this film; most notably perceptions of truth, women as the Achilles heel for men (both for love and deception), detective noir storytelling, and betrayal.
Memento’s strongest motif is the way in which the story unfolds. In the film’s DVD release there was an Easter egg that allowed the viewer to watch the film in chronological order, and it should come as no surprise that this seriously affects the impact of the plot. Part of what Nolan does with Memento, is establish the idea that perception affects reality, and that the protagonist’s venture is only as reliable as the reality that he creates for himself. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is wholly reliant upon the notes and memories that he leaves himself in order to further the mission to catch his wife’s killer, and on numerous occasions we see the frailty of this method.
Before he went on to destroy Gotham and blow up Leo DiCaprio’s dreams, Nolan was first and foremost a storyteller (and still is). It can be safely assumed that although Nolan had no idea of what future awaited him, with Memento he was making a very clear statement – without creating interesting characters, your film will falter.
Stand Out Moment:
When Hitchcock first told the world of the McGuffin, he related it to a story of two men on a train. To paraphrase the anecdote; two men sit opposite each other on a train. One has a box at his feet, and the other shows interest in its existence. The first man sits and watches whilst the second looks and stares and ponders on the box, eventually asking, “what is inside?” The first man replies, “it’s a McGuffin”. The second man says, “what is a McGuffin?” To which he receives the answer, “it is a trap for capturing lions in the Highlands of Scotland.” Confused, the second says “there are no lions in Scotland.” The first man looks back at him as replies; “well that’s no McGuffin then.”
The point of this story is that every plot should have a driving element, a catalyst for the rest of the film’s events. In recent years the most obvious example would be the ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ in Mission: Impossible 3; we know it’s important, but what exactly is it? Hitchcock was always adamant that the McGuffin should only be used to propel the plot, not to control it. Most of Memento spits in the face of that idea, as Nolan creates multiple McGuffin’s for Shelby; with his memory loss being the main one.
One particular scene within Memento that always impresses is the moment when Shelby has an argument with Natalie. They exchange a poisonous dialogue that builds and builds until Shelby ultimately attacks her. Very shortly after this, Shelby becomes frighteningly aware that his memory will soon reset, and he will not remember this revelatory moment. He steams around the room trying to find a pen, a pencil, anything to write with, but Natalie has removed them; knowing that at any moment Shelby will be a blank slate, and she can use this situation to her advantage.
It is an amazing sequence with some terrific acting, and a prime example of how Nolan uses everything he creates appropriately and in a fitting manner. For Nolan, at this point, the McGuffin isn’t in the box; it’s the train the men are sitting in.
Nolan on Memento:
“Film makers should be able to experiment with narrative without alienating the audience and without creating something that’s impenetrable. I actually see myself as a very mainstream film maker and always have. Even though you aren’t going to get the answers to all of the questions in the film and it is a kind of unsettling film in lots of ways, if you watch it a couple of times it’s pretty much all in there. One of the things I’ve been most satisfied with about the film – after having now watched it with various festival audiences – is that it really lives on in people’s heads.”
Nolan is a big fan of detective novels. Something which plays a key role in the entire body of his work.
Check back tomorrow for Nolan’s first instance of adapting another man’s work with the stylish crime thriller INSOMNIA.