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The End Is the Beginning Is the End

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | July 14, 2010 |

By Drew Morton | Pajiba Blockbusters | July 14, 2010 |

I had been pushing off my neo-noir retrospective review of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) for numerous reasons. Initially, I kept pushing it off so that we could run it the same week that his latest film, Inception — one of the most awaited films of the summer — hit theaters. Well, that week has finally come (I have my midnight tickets, do you?), yet I was still feeling a bout of procrastination when it came to writing about Memento. Despite my rationalizing, the main reason I kept pushing the review off was, regardless of my love of the film and noir in general, I simply did not know what original insights I could bring to the table. Memento, like so many other great films before it, has inspired a great deal of criticism and analysis. That said, I’m tapping out. I’m playing my get out of jail free card. I’m writing my first real-time review.

1:07: I had forgotten David Julyan’s score. It’s really quite haunting. He also did Nolan’s remake of Insomnia (2002). What the hell happened to this guy?

1:46: Oh, he did The Descent: Part 2 (2009). Despite my love of the first film, I still haven’t watched that sequel out of voluntary ignorance.

3:35: I find watching this movie again after almost ten years is personally depressing. As a senior in high school, I made a neo-noir about a guy who was hypnotized to kill someone. Basically, it was a rip off of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Memento. The most embarrassing part? I titled it Syncopes (a sudden loss of consciousness), after a musical cue from The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Anyone wanna take a guess at the name of Nolan’s production company? Syncopy.

6:37: Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) is referenced in one of the black and white sequences, bringing back memories of when I tried to watch this film with my parents and grandparents. Despite film scholar David Bordwell’s assertion that, despite going temporally backwards, the narrative structure of the film is “excessively obvious” thanks to overlap between scenes, my family felt really lost watching this one for the first time. For the film literate it may be “excessively obvious,” but not so much for Joe Popcorn.

10:29: I need to shave, too.

11:11: Ten years ago, Leonard (Guy Pearce) used Polaroids. Would he use a smartphone now?

14:39: I bleached my hair blonde once….once.

15:30: Couldn’t Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) have said something else to discourage Leonard? Perhaps something about his wife? Their relationship? Would Leonard have even listened? I forgot how paranoia-inducing this flick is.

17:44: I never really got on the Carrie-Anne Moss bandwagon. She’s good in here, especially when it comes to balancing wounded and bitchy, but I always tend to forget about her. I guess things really slowed down for her after The Matrix (1999-2003).

19:00: Leonard’s speech about vengeance….Foreshadowing!

20:10: I may not be on the Carrie-Anne Moss bandwagon, but Jorja Fox is kinda cute.

22:19: I had forgotten that the structure of the film perfectly oscillates between black and white (past) and color (present) every other scene. Nolan’s use provides clues on where we are in time (which we figure out thanks to props in the coming minutes) but also provides him with an excuse to give Wally Pfister to shoot in the classical noir mode.

23:46: “I go on facts, not recommendations.”—George W. Bush or Leonard Shelby?

26:15: “At least you’re being honest about ripping me off.” The film does a good job using memory loss as both a story device and as a source of comedy.

27:00: Holy shit! Thomas Lennon (“Reno: 911!,” “The State,” “Party Down”) is Sammy’s doctor.

29:00: I wonder if Kat Von D gave Leonard any of that ink…

30:28: “I’m not too great on the phone.” I take it Leonard forgot this before taking that phone call in the black and white sequences…

32:42: Has anyone ever watched this in chronological order? That’s an option on the DVD, right?

34:00: When driving, how does Leonard remember where he’s going? Does he put a Polaroid on the dashboard?

37:24: In the midst of Leonard’s heartbreaking speech. “I can’t feel time.” The genius of the structure is that we can’t either.

40:00: So one of the messages of the film is that habit and routine provide Leonard with a false sense of security. Spontaneity is the real way to live!

41:30: Teddy and Leonard arguing over the identity of the kidnapped thug is like an “Odd Couple” episode.

43:36: Maybe this is because I just started watching it last night, but I think I know where Bryan Cranston got his “Breaking Bad” look from: Teddy and his “sinister mustache.”

45:10: The black and white sequences keep reminding me to watch Nolan’s debut Following (1998).

46:54: Leonard forgets he’s stalking Dodd (Callum Rennie) and decides to take a shower. I guess conditioning seems to have failed him once again. Wait, why was Leonard going after Dodd again?

49:00: Again on how Leonard’s memory loss functions: The chase with Dodd seems to imply that it occurs all of a sudden. Wouldn’t conditioning work in this instance? Or is that the point, once again, that conditioning doesn’t help Leonard?

52:00: If that’s the case, how does he remember he’s suffering from memory loss?

54:08: Is it me, or is it sadly poetic that Leonard would pay a prostitute to pretend to be his wife?

59:13: Guy Pearce…. Now I feel guilty for not writing up L.A. Confidential (1997) yet! Let me finish this turkey club.

65:00: “Remember Sammy” gets Leonard off of Teddy. Why didn’t he say that later (or earlier)?

68:05: “That’s who you were, not who you are.” Traditional noir is notable for tending to put its protagonists through the hoops of fate, making them become aware that they have no control over their existence. Memento is noteworthy because it is about how Leonard has control yet refuses to acknowledge it.

69:40: There’s the tattoo Leonard needed to read…

73:20: Julyan has a way of turning ambient noise into a soundtrack. It reminds me of Carter Burwell’s work on No Country for Old Men (2007).

74:00: Now I remember why Natalie (Moss) wanted Leonard to go see Dodd…

75:55: …and the femme fatale reveal. Nolan really knows how to use editing and sound to get us in Leonard’s head.

77:35: Who was calling Leonard again? Was it Teddy? I sure could use some of those tattoos right about now. Wait, I have a tattoo here. Was it John Lennon?

81:53: Leonard has traded his blue dress shirt and suit for a plaid shirt. He kinda looks like he’s going redneck in that picture.

82:44: Oh yes, the beer stein. Tis a hoppy brew!

84:14: I’ve seen this movie a good ten times. How do I keep forgetting these little details? Nolan has a gift. He makes a mystery that retains its essence through repeat viewings, even after you know what the twist is. Case in point? How Leonard hooks up with Natalie. He mistakes the coaster in Jimmy’s car for one of his own clues. I think we tend to get so sidetracked putting the narrative into chronological order mentally that we forget certain plot points.

86:35: So does that mean that Leonard is powerless? Others do manipulate him into doing their will (Teddy, Natalie). Yet, the deception he puts himself through puts everything into motion.

90:02: There’s that wipe reveal: Sammy in the chair transitions to Leonard in the chair.

91:07: I think I brought a notebook to my first screening of this movie. I remember writing down that license plate number because I thought it was important.

92:13: Teddy’s talking about himself (the evil cop who is using Leonard for his own means), right?

94:15: I remember teaching this in a noir class and reading an article on post-modernism and the film. Given how well our discussion of Pulp Fiction (1994) and post-modernism went, I think I’ll leave that theory at the door.

95:10: Yep, it was Teddy, both on the phone and talking about himself. Also, Leonard continues his redneck progression, adding a vest and a pickup truck to the mix. Now we know how he went from Bob Villa to designer suit, but how did he get from business casual to home improvement?

97:54: Dody Dorn really knows how to edit a film subjectively, giving us glimpses of a flashback in a flashback, providing us both with a reminder of the stakes and an emotional hook. I had forgotten she was nominated for an Oscar.

100:34: Jimmy (Larry Holden) mentions Sammy and Leonard freaks out, worrying he’s done a bad, bad, thing. I think Teddy should have learned the safe word.

102:42: Oh, the film transitioned from black and white to color. I think it happened during the polaroid shoot.

103:37: “It was your wife who had diabetes.” Did Wilford Brimley send her the testing supplies?

106:55: “You’re not a killer… That’s why you’re so good at it!” There’s something really chilling about how Teddy says that.

108:28: “Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy, yes I will.”

110:08: I hope Inception is this good.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.