One of my favorite movies is Memento. Which is cool, but also kind of sucks because that happens to be one of the favorite movies that’s listed on Stuff White People Like, which makes my love for what I think is a completely unconventional and complex thought provoking movie seem banal.
I’m going to try to rescue my love for it from this hideous pit of self-loathing by comparing it to Memento Mori. Memento Mori is a short story by Jonathon Nolan that appeared in Esquire magazine. Jonathon, as most people probably know by now, is Christopher Nolan’s brother. Christoper directed Memento. I’ve seen every movie he’s directed. With the exception of Interstellar, I’ve pretty much loved every movie he’s done.
He has replaced John Dahl as my favorite director, who some time ago made three awesome takes on film noir, Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction, all movies about not so bright guys and the way too smart and evil women that do them in. Those movies are typical of the much too densely plotted movies that I enjoy; the kind of movies where you’re scared to get up to use the rest room (yes, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, that is an occasional problem of mine) because you might miss something. You wait until you quite literally think that you’re going to burst, you run to the bathroom, frantically (yet still carefully) zip up upon completion, and then run back to the seat.
I thought that film noir movies were the ultimate in densely plotted movies. And then there is Memento. I’m sure that everyone by now knows the premise. A man is seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. The police have already caught the man that did it.
However, he’s convinced that a second man was involved and it is his life’s mission to find that man. This mission is somewhat complicated by the fact that he’s incapable of creating any new memories since the death of his wife.
There’s a couple of big ideas here. One of course is the idea of constant grief. Since he’s incapable of creating new memories, he’s incapable of getting over his wife’s death. The saddest moment of the movie is when he hires a prostitute to wait until he falls asleep and then get up and make enough noise to wake him. He wakes up, looks around, and for a moment, his wife is alive and he’s happy. Almost immediately, the feeling dissipates and he’s once again immersed in grief.
Another idea is the process. He’s convinced that the lack of short term memory should not deter him from his pursuit of his wife’s killer. He has built up an entire framework of processes to guide him. He takes pictures and labels everything. Key facts are tattooed on his torso. He has notes and maps. If he can keep it all organized, he thinks that he can ultimately succeed. Of course, he’s wrong.
Another idea is that everyone, and I mean everyone, uses him. The cop that uses him for amusement, the woman who uses him to avenge her man, even the hotel clerk that rents him multiple rooms. Despite his self assurance and hard work to try to keep on top of things, he is ultimately nothing more than a victim.
Interestingly enough, he kind of turns this around to his own advantage. Realizing that the cop that’s been pretending to be his friend has actually been using him both as a dupe to get some illicit money as well as basically just for his own amusement, he invents a clue on the spot (that he’ll know that he’ll almost immediately forget the source of) that he knows will lead him back right back to the cop, which brings us right back to the start of the movie.
And then, last but not least, is the mode of telling it. It’s basically told kind of backwards, with each succeeding scene explaining the background of the preceding scene. This is wonderfully effective because it puts you in the exact same place as the protagonist. You’re constantly, based upon minimal information, trying to figure out who’s who and what’s going on. You’re the one with insomnia.
Now, Memento Mori.
Apparently Jonathon sold Christopher on the idea of Memento the movie while on a cross country drive. Jonathon and Christopher co-wrote the screen play but Jonathon wrote Memento Mori on his own.
Memento Mori is the same premise yet different. The premise is the same in that a man’s wife has been murdered and as a result, he cannot create any new short term memories.
In both, grief is a dominant theme. In Mori, there’s a big sign over the man’s bed that says, Your wife is dead. He wakes up every day and that’s the first thing he sees. Every time he wakes up he weeps.
A key difference is the level of functional behavior. The man in Mori cannot be functional. He’s kept in what appears to be a hospital room (or possibly an asylum? It’s not clear). He leaves notes to himself about how to brush his teeth and how to smoke. He chuckles at the simplicity of the notes, but even so, he still finds toothbrushes laying around with toothpaste on them and smoking cigarettes lying around. He is simply not able to live on his own.
Similarities are the notes and the tattoos. They are handled differently though. In the movie, they are there to support his process of getting through the day. In the short story, they are something else entirely.
A major theme of the short story is that everyone, not just the protagonist, is basically a series of people ever changing. Picture a cartoon flip deck of a person walking. Each card in the deck is a miniscule point in time. Each card is effectively a different person.
Therefore, each person is made of a nearly infinite slice of point in time individuals. Most of these slice of time people in a person’s life are pretty much idiots. They just want to sit on a couch and eat potato chips. They’re non-entities.
However, every now and then, one of these slices of people is a genius. This person has a complete understanding of life, what is important, and how to get it. The tragedy, of course, is that this genius is then immediately followed by a series of potato chip eaters and thus nothing ever gets done.
In Mori, the notes / tattoos are communication devices from one genius to the next genius slice of time person. Kind of like smoke signals that get communicated from one mountain top to the next, these are the ways that the protagonist’s actions are planned and executed.
By the use of these notes and signals, the protagonist who otherwise is incapable of functioning, actually is able to escape from his room and execute his revenge.
At the end of story, there’s a dead body on the sidewalk. He’s sitting in the back of a car (a squad car? a taxi?) smiling. He’s accomplished his mission. His wife has been avenged.
He suddenly realizes that he’s about to forget this wonderful memory. Desperately, he tries to get a pen to write this down (there is a similar scene in the movie but in a different context). No pen is forthcoming. The car hits a pothole, which distracts him. Distracted, he looks down, sees one of his tattoos, and commences reading. The cycle begins again. You’re left wondering, how many men has he killed before? How many men will he end up killing?
A wonderful movie, and a wonderful short story. I love them, even if that does make me just an ordinary white person.