”Memento” is like an existential crossword puzzle, or a pungent 50’s B-thriller with a script by Jorge Luis Borges. The film’s story and setting are boilerplate noir. Leonard, attired in an expensive silk suit, cruises a bleached-out Southern California landscape of anonymous motels and abandoned warehouses.
Major longform piece about Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Begins, Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar) in the New York Times:
Part of the reason his work has done so well at the box office is that his audience members — and not just his fans, but his critics — find themselves watching his movies twice, or three times, bleary-eyed and shivering in their dusky light, hallucinating wheels within wheels and stopping only to blog about the finer points. These blogs pose questions along the lines of “If the fact that the white van is in free-fall off the bridge in the first dream means that, in the second dream, there’s zero gravity in the hotel, then why is there still normal gravity in the third dream’s Alpine fortress?????”
Most people, of course, don’t take their Nolaniana to such extremes. But there are enthusiasts out there who lose themselves to the limbo of Nolan’s expansive, febrile imagination. The IMDB F.A.Q. about the meaning of the end of “Inception” makes “Infinite Jest” look like a pamphlet on proper toaster installation. The Internet has become lousy with intersecting wormholes tunneled by warring pro-Nolan factions.
That his films manage to be both mainstream blockbusters and objects of such cult appeal is what makes Nolan a singular, and singularly admired, figure in Hollywood.
Article in The Atlantic on how Memento was pivotal in Nolan’s career:
After its U.S. release on March 16, 2001, it was nominated for two Oscars in the Original Screenplay and Editing categories, and although it lost both, it established Nolan as a director to watch. His next project was a remake of the Nordic crime drama Insomnia with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in 2002, before Warner Bros. tasked him with reviving the Batman franchise in 2005, betting big on the hope that an indie director could make the world’s most famous superhero cool again. Nolan succeeded, and he hasn’t looked back since, mostly making widescreen genre epics with huge budgets. Nevertheless, every movie he’s made has one thing in common with Memento: extreme attention to detail.
And for obsessives:
- FAQ for Memento at IMDB
- What Really Happened in Memento at StackExchange
- Everything you wanted to know about “Memento” at Salon (by far the deepest, clearest assembling of “what really happened,” if you want it)
But I share this takeaway:
I believe the answers are all there in the film, but the terms of the storytelling deliberately prevent people from finding them. If you watch the film, and abandon your conventional desire for absolute truth – and the confirmation of absolute truth that most films provide you with – then you can find all the answers you’re looking for. As far as I’m concerned, my view is very much in the film – the answers are all there for the attentive viewer, but the terms of the storytelling prevent me from being able to give the audience absolute confirmation. And that’s the point.
– Christopher Nolan, From James Mottram’s “The Making of Memento”, 2002, Faber and Faber Limited, page 26.
Interesting point about how our image of a actor’s roles in other movies can affect our reading of a film:
The most interesting part of that for me is that audiences seem very unwilling to believe the stuff that Teddy [Pantoliano] says at the end and yet why? I think its because people have spent the entire film looking at Leonard’s photograph of Teddy, with the caption: “Don’t believe his lies.” That image really stays in people’s heads, and they still prefer to trust that image even after we make it very clear that Leonard’s visual recollection is completely questionable. It was quite surprising, and it wasn’t planned. What was always planned was that we don’t ever step completely outside Leonard’s head, and that we keep the audience in that interpretive mode of trying to analyze what they want to believe or not. For me, the crux of the movie is that the one guy who might actually be the authority on the truth of what happened is played by Joe Pantoliano … who is so untrustworthy, especially given the baggage he carries in from his other movies: he’s already seen by audiences as this character actor who’s always unreliable. I find it very frightening, really, the level of uncertainty and malevolence Joe brings to the film.
– Christopher Nolan
Note: Memento is another is another in a very long line of film and TV shows that use rape as a plot engine for a man to have agency and do heroic-seeming things. This trope is coming under increasing attack as just being lazy screenwriting.