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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: MEMENTO

"What are you going to do when you find him?"In honor of cinematographer Wally Pfister's recent Oscar win (Inception) and the 10th anniversary of Memento's theatrical release (today), we're looking back on Chris Nolan's breakthrough for the season 2 debut of Hit Me With Your Best Shot.

Memory and its malleability are the skeleton themes which Memento's inky flesh clings to. Leonard (Guy Pearce), who has lost both his wife and his short term memory to a murder/rape, is out for revenge. He tattoos "facts", quotes intended, onto his skin to remember them and he also takes polaroids; these repetitive shots of skin and photography are the movie's signature images. My "best shot" naturally combines them both.

The most ingenious thing about the screenplay's reverse construction is that as you become acclimated to it you start to wonder how each scene will begin in order to get to where you know it's already ended. The same thing happens with the polaroids. After a few of them are revealed you begin to wonder how each was taken. So in addition to Memento's overarching mystery "What exactly happened with that murder?" you get the continually evolving mini-mysteries of what the hell is going on has just gone on?

The final crucial polaroid, which is actually the first in true chronology is this spookily cheerful one of Leonard, pointing to his chest. This is a space we already know he has left empty on purpose, for (maybe) hen his revenge is complete. But that's too literal as he's also pointing to his heart. He looks nothing like the Lenny we've come to know.

Look how happy you were.

Lenny flips it over but no clues await him on the other side. The clue we're looking for this late (i.e. early) in the game is not what happened but who Lenny is or has become. Later in the narrative (i.e. earlier in the film) he'll turn the photo over again while talking to a cop about how no one trusts him. It's an especially telling moment as it's the only time he's not looking for clues by flipping a picture over. "We all need mirrors" he says at one point in the film but he obviously doesn't want to see this particular reflection.

Chris Nolan has returned to these themes of self deception and adjusted memory in subsequent films, but it works best in Memento. Returning to this impressive calling card ten years later,  the biggest shock to the memory is how much fun it is. Each scene involving Dodd (Callum Keith Renne of Battlestar Galactica fame) in particular has a bracing dark humor.

This sense of humor is not referenced to imply that the film fails to intrigue or haunt with its disturbing undertow. It's just that Nolan's subsequent films have often been clever without exactly being "a gas" (just occassionally gassy). I'd be hesitant to call Memento Nolan's best film without rescreening The Prestige but it sure makes a strong claim.

Do I know you?
I urge you to check out these entries. I'm usually pretty proud of my own pieces for this series but I still felt a bit of the old disconnect with Nolan (I've always had to look at the critical reception of his work at a certain remove) and honestly I think some of these accomplices have outdone me with their pieces. Bravo.

FACT 1: Pussy Goes Grrr chose a vulnerable fleshy moment.
FACT 2: My New Plaid Pants sees the symmetries and the fog of memory.
FACT 3: Cinephilia & Sass remembers Sammy Jenkis.
FACT 4: Okinawa Assault identifies the bullet casing as totem.
FACT 5: Serious Film doesn't trust Teddy's lies.
FACT 6: Movies Kick Ass doesn't trust Nolan's eyes.

and my apologies...
I forgot to link to...
: Amiresque is waiting for Natalie to come into focus. Beautiful choice, Amir!

late arrivals!

FACT 8: Against the Hype knows that Memento knows from irony; "it peddles unabashedly in it."
FACT 9: Luisergho finds the facts touching.

Next Wednesday...
We'll be gazing at two bonafide immortals, Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, in the well-Oscared classic A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). It's part of our weeklong celebration for the Tennessee Williams Centennial. If you've never seen it, talk about a perfect opportunity to fill that void in your life. Will you join us?

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Reader Comments (15)

The Prestige totally is Nolan's best film. One of the most thematically resonant films of the decade for me.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fiore

pretty bummed that my post didn't make it here...
but these write-ups are all fantastic.
love that polaroid of lenny.

March 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

I know, Amir. And yours was first too. Appeal!

The Prestige might be Nolan's best, Memento is the most human. Unlike the deluded moralism of his Batman films, or the inevitable period film detachment of the Prestige, or Ariadne's Expository White Oprah in Inception, Memento sometimes forgets why Lenny's there and just lets him talk and laugh with Natalie and Teddy. And then he remembers and returns to his vengeful old self.

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

I've yet to see this (I know! I know!) so all I can really contribute is (in the most masculine way. hmph.) is that Guy Pearce is extremely handsome.

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathon

paolo- haha
yeah i talked to nat, and he's adding it ;)

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

All of these posts have convinced me to rewatch it. Haven't seen it in years and I'm curious to know what I'll think of it now, post-Inception and Dark Knight.

Great job everyone!

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominique

Haha yup, almost the same shot indeed...

Anyway, I'm with you on all the Nolan love. Simply don't get it and this is the only of his movies I'd watch more than once (only one I even own for starters...)

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJose

No one should hesitate in calling Memento Nolan's best film. Along with Insomnia, it's also by far his least pretentious.

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Nat, love the shot you chose. Great write-up on the chronology of the film! I have to say my favorite though is your write-up on Dodd. So so so so hilarious.

It makes me happy that nobody has gone all fanboy and declared 'The Dark Knight' as Nolan's best film. I think that's a great work, but 'Memento' is certainly him at his best. Not to mention it's some of his best work with Pfister. So many great moments.

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMattyD.

Although I'm a "Nolan fanboy", I have no trouble saying that Memento is his best work. It's his most fluid film in terms of structure and pace. The Prestige and Batman Begins are close behind with minor problems holding them back (I can't really pinpoint The Prestige's problem but every film has one, so why not it. Batman Begins, on the other hand, just overstates its theme. Unlike others, however, I don't think it felt like two films. The opening with the League of Shadows and the stuff in Gotham felt very cohesive to me).

Inception and The Dark Knight come up behind them but have more significant problems holding them back (Inception has too much exposition and the characters aren't strongly written, while The Dark Knight has scene flow problems and is a half-hour too long). Insomnia was too boring to ever watch again and Following was a pretty decent script but the movie messed around with the structure too much, and it felt very much like a "first film" (It shows Nolan's potential but also shows his lack of experience with directing a feature and is compromised by its low budget).

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

My beefs are Inception and Batman Begins. Inception for the utter childishness of EVERYONE other than MAL, giant pacing problems (I have the complaint with Inception that some level against The Dark Knight: Trim 1/2 an hour and we'll talk) and the blandness of the dreamscapes. Batman Begins, on the other hand...55% Katie Holmes, 15% the cheesy "philosophical debate" script, 25% the uninteresting cliffhanger, 5% The Bat-Growl. Those problems combine into: B. The Dark Knight still has the philosophical debate and Bat-Growl problems, but it's cliffhanger is much better, Katie Holmes is gone (now has a perfect cast) and there's LESS Bat-Growl here. Overall: A. (If they overcome those other two problems (a less...ridiculous Bat-Voice and a more...natural script) with the next one, I could actually see an A+ from this series. Otherwise, that's still a second A.) Still have to see Insomnia and Following.

March 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

okay. i made a few minor changes to the post. My god. I should never write at 11 o' clock at night. way too many dropped points and typos. But now it's spruced up.

two new links added. PLEASE READ THE LINKS. really good posts. thanks for participating to all.

March 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I have only seen Memento once, just a couple of weeks ago, and I'm not totally sure how much I like it. I think quite many people, the average Joe popcorn movie goers basically, see the ending ******possible spoiler alert*******(last scene, i.e. middle of the story chronologically) and just accept that Teddy is telling 100 % the truth here, which would be pretty unsatisfying to me, and would make me hate the movie. But I think it is actually intended to be open to interpretation, and you can interprete it this way or the other way.

Volvagia is sort of describing what is also my problem mainly with "The Dark Knight" and "Inception". I think both are good and interesting movies, but the philosophical debate in Batman is a problem, but it bothers me less in Batman Begins than in Dark Knight, Maybe I just don't get it in Dark Knight, because it seems to be law that you have to like it much more than the first, but in Batman Begins I sort of BUY IT that it's all highly philosophical, while in the Dark Knight this ascept feels pretty little pretentious and forced to me. I still like the movie.

And in "Inception" it feels all a bit too much in your face "see how incredibly smart we are having that brilliant basic idea for the movie and making it so complex, complicated and smart." for me. But I still like the movie.

I haven't seen "The Prestige"... so my favourite Nolan movie almost has to be "Batman Begins", and I'm aware I'm probably pretty alone here. I actually can never resist watching it again when I catch it on TV. Though, yes, I do ask myself every time "Why does it have to be Katie Holmes?". But maybe before I state this as a FACT "BB is my favourite Nolan movie", I should watch "Memento" at least once or twice more.

March 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

Still think his best is "Memento," followed by "The Dark Knight," and then, oddly enough, "Insomnia," which I liked much much more than I thought I ever would. "The Prestige," despite nice work from the cast (Rebecca Hall really works the hell out of such an orrrrrrrrdinary role - first time I ever saw her, and I my first thought after the movie ended was "whoever played Christian Bale's girlfriend did a really good job...") and great production values left me pretty iffy aside from the killer twist and ending. It probably deserves a re-watch, though.

March 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjbaker475

I'm a HUGE Nolan fan, and MEMENTO is my favourite of his films. You're right about the great darrk humour, and I especially love how casually it plays out (the scene in which Lenny and Teddy find Dodd in the closet, for example).

BATMAN BEGINS is great I think because of how well it explores Bruce Wayne's psychology (arguably it really is the only Batman film where Batman is the main focus). THE DARK KNIGHT doesn't do as good a job with this, but it works fantastically as a crime thriller (one that just happens to have Batman and The Joker in it).

March 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Clift
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