Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Movie Review: Momento and the Death of Memory (Nov-Dec 2001)

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By Darryl Tippens
November-December 2001

Christopher Nolan’s award-winning movie about a man trying to find the killers of his beloved wife is an experimental film noir thriller, which doubles as a provocative inquiry into the nature of truth and reality. Whether taken as violent murder mystery or a visual essay on the problem of knowledge, Memento is entertaining, provocative, and decidedly thought-provoking. Ultimately for Christians the movie may serve as a haunting parable of the danger that arises when a person decides that he should be his own exclusive judge of the truth.

As in any mystery, the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce) must piece together the clues that will tell the tale. However, in this case, Leonard (Lenny), an insurance investigator, is severely handicapped in his quest for the murderer because he has only fleeting recollections of events and persons. The night of the murder the intruders struck Lenny in the head, destroying his capacity to store short-term memories.

The film requires the audience to experience the events only as Lenny recalls them. They come to us fragmented, fleeting, and most importantly, backwards. Thus, viewers see a photograph develop backwards (going from full picture dissolving into white; a gun firing in reverse, etc.) In this movie, as in the life of Lenny Shelby, there is far more here than first meets the eye.

One great pleasure of Memento resides in its multiple levels of meaning. On one level it is inspired movie-making–a scintillating story, cleverly delivered, with a surprise ending. Nolan has constructed the story with extraordinary care using carefully repeated scenes, rich with essential clues, which entice the viewer to join Lenny in his obsessive quest to discover the murderer. I cannot think of another film that demands so much from the audience. It absolutely requires the audience’s collaboration in making sense of the story. Yet along the way, the whodunit plot proves to be a mere frame for director Nolan’s much more substantial concerns.

At another level the film is a remarkable visual essay on the way the mind works to construct reality, as it shows us, with almost scientific precision, how Lenny’s mind collects and pieces together sensory impressions into a coherent whole. Memento is an amazing picture of a disturbed and obsessive mind at work.

At still another level, with its repeated ruptures and reversals of the narrative plot, as recalled by a doubtful and perplexed narrator, the film qualifies as an intriguing, though accessible, discourse on epistemology. The film raises basic questions about the nature of the self and reality. What do we know and how do we know it? What happens to a person when he loses his memory? What happens to his sense of self, to his relationships, values and beliefs? What, finally, is the relationship of empirical fact and ultimate truth?

Even before the murder of his wife and his traumatic wounding, Lenny–an insurance investigator–was a man who lived his life by the facts. And long before his own tragedy, he should have seen (but did not) what happens when one reduces his life to fact, ignoring the human, the personal, and the intuitive. Now, as self-appointed detective, Lenny becomes obsessed with finding “the facts” and piecing them together. Yet because of his brain injury, he cannot hold the facts for long. He therefore takes instant photos of all the evidence he can, writing brief explanatory notes on the backs and margins of the photos. He plasters the walls of his room with the facts. He even tattoos his body with crucial clues. It appears that when all “the facts” are in, Lenny will have his murderer, but will he?

Behind this question lies the pleasure (and the conundrum) of the film: What if “the facts” do not add up to the truth? Lenny, with the audience, continues to collect fact after fact, clue after clue. Yet the viewer may wonder if William Faulkner’s paradoxical observation is apropos: “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.” Only the ending (and perhaps multiple viewings) will settle the truth of this tale told by an amnesiac full of sensory confusion.

Memento may at first seem like mere entertainment or celluloid philosophy, far removed from spiritual concerns, but the film raises important questions for all people who take truth seriously. The film is particularly challenging for rationalists who believe that reason and truth are synonymous. Great thinkers as diverse as St. Paul, Pascal, and Blake have taught us to recognize and respect different kinds of knowing. There is a spiritual knowledge which passes earthly knowing says the Apostle (Eph. 3:19). Pascal elaborates: “The last act of reason is to recognize that there are an infinite number of things that are beyond its grasp.” William Blake expresses it bluntly: “Rational truth is not the truth of Christ, but the truth of Pilate.” Unfortunately, Lenny knows nothing of this.

Lenny’s failure is two-fold: naive trust in his own rational powers to read the facts correctly and the greater failure–a tragic lack of awareness of what is required beyond the brute facts: namely, history, an interpretive framework, a heuristic lens – in other words a worldview through which to read the facts.

In this respect Memento is a parable of modernist persons (which includes some contemporary Christians) who have no concern for tradition or the past. Their robust self-confidence leads to a fateful indifference to memory and tradition. Like Lenny, they confuse fragmentary, present-tense “fact” with the whole truth. Confusing the facts with the truth can sometimes lead to comedy (and there are indeed moments of ludicrous absurdity in Lenny’s dark story, as when in a tense chase scene Lenny forgets whether he is the hunter or the hunted). Such confusion born of forgetfulness more often leads to misfortune. Without giving away the plot, one can say that Memento is Exhibit A in what happens to those who forget the past. They are doomed to repeat it.

Memento is a sophisticated reinterpretation of the classic murder mystery. It is a thinking person’s thriller–what Raymond Chandler might have conceived had he been touched by postmodernism. But the film is also a sober warning to anyone who is cavalier about the past. In Memento there is something almost as horrifying as the killing of Lenny’s wife, and that is the brutal murder of Lenny’s memory. What is true for a fictional character may also be true for a living person or even a social group, like a church.

As many church historians and theologians have argued in recent years, a driving principle of American religion has been the impulse to repudiate heritage and tradition, that is, cultural memory. There is ample evidence of this tendency throughout the evangelical tradition, but it is especially visible in the Restoration tradition, the early leaders of whom celebrated their glorious freedom from theology and the historic Christian tradition. In this light, Lenny easily stands as a type of the self-made American Christian in that he privileges the individual will over the collective, and he practices a solo hermeneutic, unbounded by a community or memory.

The final tragedy of Memento is not the death of Lenny’s wife or his memory; it is Lenny’s absolute isolation. Lenny has no one to help him discover the truth. He has no understanding that meaning is communally constructed; all epistemological authority resides in himself alone. Alexander Campbell once declared, “My mind was, for a time, set loose from all its former moorings.” This could have been a line from Memento, for in certain ways Campbell, Stone and many other figures in American religion are like Lenny in the way they came to function without reference to historic communities of interpretation–or at least they tried to. Campbell and the other Restoration fathers, of course, did not cause the American religious scene to turn so anti-traditional; but they participated in the process, and they encouraged the tendency within the Stone-Campbell movement. Today we face the consequences of having forgotten our historical roots.

Memento, taken as cautionary tale and spiritual parable, warns us of the eminent danger inherent in the revolt against memory. Spiritual amnesia is, finally, not so much a strike against others as it is a perilous self-wounding. Perhaps we will come to understand with Somerset Maugham that “tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” Perhaps the day will come when we will confess the tragic misfortune that the disregard for historical consciousness has been for evangelical Christianity generally. Simone Weil is right: “Destruction of the past [and memory] is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”

Memento released on VHS and DVD Tuesday, September 4, 2001.

Rated R for violence and language.


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