the ordinary viewer, watching Memento is a challenging
experience. The film form is complex and difficult to comprehend.
Let's consider what a viewer has written to the community of "Yahoo
seen the movie three times now and may have to watch it ten more
times until I get it all straightened out.
viewers have enjoyed the experience: comments are enthusiastic,
despite the difficulties of comprehension. A more complex and
comprehensive comment is provided by another viewer:
movie was brilliant because it totally got me dizzy... never before
can I recall concentrating so hard on what was going on...
eventually, I hit a mind warp and got totally lost forgetting how
things ended thus making the facts in the beginning a dizzying of
feelings and a distortion of my OWN memory.
film is interesting because it reflects the absence of the past in
its narrative structure. As an effect of composition, the main
character's memory disease is directly perceptible to the viewers. In
one of the most revealing comments, we find a key to the study of the
loved this movie because it made me feel as if I had a short-term
the backward structure, fabula construction is difficult,
because facts are presented neither in chronological order, nor
following the causal relationships. In addition, it is hard to
provide a coherent version of the story, since at the end of the film
we touch the unreliability of the main character's recollections.
watching Memento, we directly experiment the retrogression of
the film form: we have to grasp the film structure, the diegetic
temporality, the structure of actions. We don't find it difficult to
place the narrative elements into a coherent structure, but we feel a
sense of difficulty in using our own memory. When recalling a part of
the film, we are not able to place a fact after another, because we
cannot remember if it was before or after; if we should place it in
the structure of the film or in the film's fabula. The mental
work we do while watching the film is my concern today. Let's examine
some of the cues the film provides, and some of the mental operations
the viewer performs.
film goes back: reverse motion and temporality
a way which is different from more traditional films, the initial
parts of Memento require the viewer to construct a specific
schema, to comprehend the way in which the film proceeds. In the
beginning of the film, the comprehension of what it narrates
is not difficult, it is hard to determine how the film is
the narrative form of a film constitutes a heuristic schema: the
viewer understands the narration when he or she is able to put the
narrative information into connected cognitive modules, which are
constantly revised as the film proceeds. At the outset of Memento,
we are not able to make an hypothesis concerning the film's form.
This is due to the characteristics of the film's composition.
credits sequence (C1) shows a Polaroid photograph, where
the image gradually fades to white: this aspect assumes evidence
because it is contrary to our normal perception. The viewer directly
witnesses the retrogression of the direction: the reverse motion of
the sequence is accurately prepared to show events moving in the
opposite direction. Time "turns back": the photograph
returns into the camera, the killer throws away the gun, the
cartridge comes back into the gun, the killer shoots, the victim
shouts a last, ineffective invocation.
question posed by the viewer at this point is obviously why this form
of presentation has been adopted. A possible hypothesis concerns
artistic motivation; another, more detailed, is about the possibility
of showing an event as inevitable, because it has already happened.
The reverse motion documents a fact which has already happened, and
goes back to the moment in which a different choice was still
watching the film, we are not able to express this argument in a
coherent and complete way. But we have the precise feeling that the
vision is giving us new information, and further details are about to
following sequence (BW1) does not offer a way to solve the
perplexity. While the sound of the shooting is still echoing in the
black of the fading out, an extreme close-up shows the eyes of the
main character. The voice over presents his interior flow of
thinking: Leonard is asking himself where he is. Also the viewer is
wondering whether a relationship between this black and white
sequence and the preceding coloured one exists. Are here any
temporal, or causal connections?
use of the fading, and the black and white cinematography create a
neat separation between sequences. The identity of the character is
the only shared element. No convincing hypothesis is possible at the
moment, except for considering that the colour sequence is a dream
that abruptly woke Leonard up.
following sequence (C2), a colour sequence, shows Leonard
at the motel reception office. From a photograph, the reception clerk
recognizes Teddy, who is arriving. Leonard goes out with him, and
they walk to a derelict building. Leonard finds some bullets on the
seat of a pickup truck parked in front of the building. Then Leonard
enters the house and finds a photograph of Teddy in his pocket. On
the back, he sees a handwriting reading: "He is the one. Kill
him". Leonard draws a handgun, he leaps on Teddy who has entered
the house, and after an impressive dialogue with him, he shoots.
last scream and the noise of the detonation enable the viewer to find
a relationship between the second colour sequence and the first one.
A pattern of construction is recognizable. We have two connected
colour sequences, and a black and white sequence embedded between
them. The order of the events portrayed in the two colour sequences
is reversed: C2 is after C1, the event (e-1) in
sequence C2, is anterior to the event (e) portrayed in C1.
C1(e) + BW1 + C2(e-1)...
this pattern is recognized by the viewer, a primary hypothesis
concerning the film's form is possible: colour sequences and black
and white scenes are systematically alternated.
hypothesis is confirmed by the next scene (BW2), a black
and white one. The action continues from the break caused by the
change of sequence: Leonard is still sitting on a large bed and goes
on asking himself the same questions, while surveying the room. He
also says something about his disease, concluding that he has to
adopt a rigorous method to cure it.
worth noting that, while the viewer is still wondering about the
film's structure, a new schema is proposed to the viewer's attention.
And a very important one, because the identity of the main character
is a distinctive aspect of the initial stage of a narration. In a
similar way, the flowing of the film will propose an entire set of
schemata, concerning the other characters, the film form, and the
outcome of the story.
new colour sequence (C3) appears after a fade to black. Leonard is in
a motel room: he is writing "Kill him" on the back of a
Polaroid photograph. It is the same sentence he read (or I should say
"he will read"?) before Teddy was killed. Recognizing the
sentence is a way for the viewer to find a relationship with the
event depicted in sequence (C2): the sequence shown before,
presenting subsequent events. At this point, a more comprehensive
hypothesis about the film's form is possible: we find a reverse
concatenation of events. What we are seeing (e-2) temporally precedes
what we have seen (e-1) in the last colour sequence, and what happens
in the credits sequence is the most advanced event along the temporal
composition pattern of the film is now understandable, and it will be
confirmed in the ensuing sequences. The film structure alternates
colour sequences with black and white scenes. The black and white
scenes present a continuous event, interrupted by the changes of
sequence. The colour sequences show a flow of events that moves
C1(e) + BW1 + C2(e-1) + BW2
unusual and elaborate construction demands several points of control,
to confirm the temporal or causal relationships. For this reason,
each colour sequence presents matching shots, both at the beginning
and at the end. Shots which are shared with the preceding and with
the following sequences, using a precise disposition. We can see it
in the following scheme:
following sequence + SEQUENCE + MS previous sequence
repetition of already seen details helps to create a connection
between the related colour sequences that flow backwards and are
interrupted by black and white scenes. In this perspective, the
matching shots are mnemonic devices. They encourage the viewer to
make the operation of mental rotation which consists in putting the
events of the two sequences in the right chronological order in order
to verify the temporal and the causal relationships. The scheme for
the film's beginning is shown here.
C1.ms1 + BW1 + ms2.C2.ms1 + BW2
relationship existing between the sequences is found only at the end
of each colour sequence. As an example, we can take (ms2), at the end
of sequence (C3): it is a matching shot because we recognize the
beginning of sequence (C2), already seen. Thus, at the beginning of
each new colour sequence a tension is created: the viewer tries to
anticipate the relationship existing between the new events and the
events already seen.
is important to see the complexity of this construction, that is at
the same time chronological, as the film goes on, and retrograde, as
the events move backwards. The de-familiarizing effect is provoked by
the necessity of this mental work: we have to arrange the events
without the possibility of anticipating events that have already
happened. We can only investigate the causes at the origin of the
effects we have witnessed.
time goes back: diegetic temporality and retrograde construction
construction pattern we have found is bound to the temporality of
film presentation. From a diegetic point of view, things are
different. We have two main narrative lines. Black and white scenes
show a single flow of events that is continuous from scene B1
to scene B21. Only sequence B22 introduces some
sequences, on the other hand, show the story going backwards,
ascending time from the end to the beginning. In order to obtain the
sequence of events, temporally and logically ordered, we have to
perform a continuous mental rotation by putting the first sequence
into the final position of the story, and adding each new sequence as
a premise for the subsequent events.
+ C2 + C1)
effect of "a missing past" is due to the fact that we are
going back and each time we need a new premise for the events we are
operation of mental rotation is not simple. We can do it at a point
in time, but not for the whole range of the story. Each time we need
a mental representation of the fabula, beginning from the end,
and we have to consider a great number of elements. A sketch of the
required structure is shown in the following scheme.
is impossible to keep more than few (five) elements in the short term
memory. While the film continues to present new elements to be
processed, we cannot keep the ordered fabula structure in
mind. So, we tend to keep a local map of the events, mainly those
that are under the focus of attention; as we shall see, we need
mnemonic devices that remind us former or subsequent stages of the
difficulty in the mnemonic reconstruction of the events, comes from
the backward direction. Except for the first sequence, that is in
reverse motion, the colour sequences are to be placed in the opposite
direction of the vision of the film. The flowing of the film invites
us to make progressive mental representations. It is difficult,
especially the first time we see the film, to make a clear
distinction between the two different mental representations. We have
a regressive concatenation, presented by the film, that flows in a
C1 + C2 + C3... >
we have a progressive concatenation obtained by mental rotation.
...C3 + C2 + C1 ]
watching the film, it is very difficult to keep the film's stimuli
distinct from our mental construction. So we experience, also after
repeated visions of the film, a confusion between the two temporal
dimensions. They interfere with each other, and we are not able to
see them at the same time. A similar effect is the well known Rubin's
vase-face: we see the form which prevails over the other form. When
we see a vase, we don't see the two human faces, and vice versa.
Memento, this effect lasts until we are able to control the
two different schemata: the syuzhet, and the fabula.
Let's see a diagram, useful to control the film's overall structure.
Memento: the syuzhet and the fabula
complete the mental representation of the film structure, we have to
wait for the final sequence. The sequence B22, which begins in black
and white, and goes on in colours, is the solution we have been
expecting since the third sequence, as we have seen. It's a solution
that consists in the explicit statement of the temporal relationship
existing between the black and white and the colour sequences. At
this point, the viewer can take a look at the whole fabula of
transition between the first and the second story line is made using
the Polaroid photograph taken after Jimmy's murder. As the image
appears, the colours become progressively more definite, bringing the
colour also in the entire shot.
photographs, two mementos of past events, are at the beginning and at
the end of the film. It's indeed a stylish choice, but it's also the
use of mnemonic devices like photographs that appears to be a
characteristic of the film. A choice which deserves a comment.
relationship existing between the two story lines concerns
consecutiveness: the sequence BW22 ends in colours, and it
is, at the level of the fabula, the first colour sequence. The
viewer can summarize the story: it begins at the Discount Inn, room
21, then Leonard kills Jimmy, the scene turns into colour and we join
the colour sequences that we have seen: the last one is temporally
the nearest, the first one is temporally the farther.
order to understand and schematize the film overall structure, it's
worth using a more subtle notation. I have followed the suggestion
made by Andy Klein in a review of the film ("Everything you
wanted to know about Memento"), available at Salon.com.
number the black and white sequences from 1 to 22, using alphabet
letters for the colour sequences, A being the colour part of sequence
22 and proceeding in chronological order (i.e. moving backwards from
the end of the film). If we do so, we obtain not only a list of
sequences, but also a mental diagram of the film. A diagram that not
only recalls mnemotechnical schemes of oratory teachers but which
also helps us recognize the film's overall form, and the structures
of syuzhet and fabula.
overall structure -
syuzhet's structure starts from the last event (shown in sequence W)
and alternates colour sequences with black and white scenes. It reads
Syuzhet's structure -
structure of the fabula' needs to postpone and to invert all
the colour sequences. It reads as follows.
Fabula's structure -
the diagram the structure may seem simple, and one can think it's
easy to master it. But let's consider what we were thinking, when
watching Memento for the first time. Only after the film
analysis, are we able to manage its structure.
diagram we have shown is a mnemonic device. It helps us to remember
the film, not only by rote. The diagram also helps us think of
Memento without the uncertainties which come out when we are
watching the film. Unfortunately, we cannot use it during the vision
of the film. Yet, it reminds us that a film like Memento must
possess particular orientating elements, allowing the viewer to
understand what he or she is watching. In fact Memento
presents a mnemonic system: a structured set of memory aids.
any element of the film can become a mnemonic device, we can
appreciate this mnemonic system if we consider the network of both
internal references and matching elements. Mnemonic connections are
different from temporal or causal connections: they are free from a
rigid direction as well as from strict chronological binds. They can
be used as a differentiated set of memory functions. Let's examine
information: memory and mnemotechnics
complex construction of the film implies the necessity of processing
and organizing the information provided. We have already considered
the difficulties in dealing with multiple story lines, which can be
progressive, regressive, recounted, fragmented. For this reason,
Memento shows a rich structure of elements capable of
reminding previous stages of the story, or to announce possible
developments, or also to show effects whose causes are still unknown.
element of the film can become a memory device. Its main function is
to shift the focus of viewer's attention to some significant details.
For instance, if we consider the beginning and the end of Cast
Away, the entrance to the sculptor's house shows two names, and
then only one: this reminds us that the marriage ended.
films have memory devices, but when we watch Memento we do
need memory devices. Other films work by accumulation, through
a linear, progressive presentation of narrative information. Memento
shows a systematic use of diegetic breaks, and we can find a linear
narration only in the final sequence, even if many other short shots
of Leonard's wife are shown. Mnemonic devices are necessary because
Memento works in many different ways: its circular narrative
schema presents cumulative information, fragmented information,
anticipating elements, and so on.
call these elements mnemonic devices with a large signification:
memory here is a key function of cognition; cognitive schemata are
drawn and then promptly revised when necessary. In a similar sense,
the same used in the field of cognitive studies, the masters of the
Memoria artificialis consider as mnemonic devices all the
elements able to establish a certain relationship, a certain ratio.
Our attention capabilities, as well as cognition, inference making,
comprehension, imagination and judgment skills are activated by the
relationship we find, or we think we can establish between different
aspects of the film.
shall present now a quick inventory of these elements in Memento,
a list with a few explications and a few examples. It is a primal
sketch of a research work which is suggested by the film we are
considering, and that I'm doing within the framework of cognitive
film studies. I think that if all films have mnemonic devices, this
is due to the fact that they are essential for any film that demands
a direct intervention of the viewer in constructing a coherent fabula
from the syuzhet's presentation.
see or hear at least eight times the sentence "Remember Sammy
Jankins", which becomes a sort of motto of the film itself.
While the sentence is intended to remind Leonard of his weakness, it
becomes a sort of label, placed in parts of the film where it is
necessary to remind the situation of a man without memory. The
systematic use of this tag is a reminder for the viewer. While it is
difficult to construct a story that flows from the end to the
beginning, we are invited to a different type of activity. We are
invited to compare the situations of the characters. Sammy Jankins'
story is a way to connect our attention to Leonard's condition, which
or similar shots
of the best achievements in the film is the use of this kind of
mnemonic tools. Let's consider the five shots illustrated below.
The Jaguar passes by the oil reservoirs (going to the building)
The Jaguar enters the area in front of the derelict building; a
pickup truck is parked near the building
The pickup truck passes by the oil reservoirs (going to the building)
The pickup truck enters the area in front of the derelict building
The Jaguar passes by the oil reservoirs (coming from the building)
shots, placed at the beginning and at the end of the film, serve the
function of summing up the whole film. Let’s examine the major
point we made when we saw Leonard killing Teddy. We can consider the
fact that Leonard has been used by Teddy to kill Jimmy, and then used
by Natalie to kill Teddy, and son on. The final shot, which is close
to the end of the film, shows Leonard leaving Teddy, going in a
direction that we know is senseless. We understand, I dare to say,
all the film in this shot.
photograph of either characters or situations we haven't seen yet
creates a tension. The broken glass of the Jaguar, at the beginning
of the film, generates a question: the answer is delayed till Dodd's
shooting. The same function is performed by the pickup truck (in
sequence C2, or V), and by the bullets Leonard finds on
recalling past events
we see the pickup truck in the last black and white sequence we can
make a comparison with Leonard's situation in the colour sequence.
When we see Leonard opening Teddy's revolver and dropping the bullets
onto the passenger seat of the pickup truck, we recall the initial
colour sequence and the mystery of the bullets over the seat.
suggesting a (temporal, or causal) relationship
Leonard loses the key to room 304 (the room of colour sequences), he
asks Burt, the reception clerk, to open it with another key. Burt
opens the wrong door, the door of room 21 (the room of black and
white scenes). Leonard recognizes his handwriting, and the viewer
recognizes the ice bucket, the shaving foam, and maybe the large bed:
the now abandoned room where we saw Leonard in the initial black and
white scenes (note that all the shots are cleverly filmed from
different angles as regards the black and white scenes, to avoid any
authorial intervention or judgment). What is the temporal
relationship between the two rooms?
to be completed
shot in which Teddy passes the envelope with the Polaroid photograph
under the door to Leonard is of great effect. The first time we have
seen it, we are not able to place the image in time or space, nor is
Leonard, who has completely lost the memory of it. The second time we
have seen it, Teddy explains its origin: "I took that, right
when you did it. Look how happy you are. Before you forgot".
we understand later
mental images, recollections of his past life are seen as flashbacks.
On two occasions, we see what Leonard is remembering, when he is
speaking to Natalie. At the end of the film, we have to reconsider
all these elements, because we are aware of the unreliability of the
character's memory (Teddy: "You lie to yourself to be happy").
All the story about Sammy Jankins has to be reconsidered, as well as
the story of Leonard's wife.
let's consider those elements which recall memory and oblivion. The
facts of remembering and forgetting are at stake in this film; they
remind the spectator of the condition of the character. Certain
elements are concrete representations of mind functions. The chart
with photographs, tacked to the wall, is a representation of memory.
As in the classical tradition, memory is presented as a space, a
mental map that in this case is externalized and fixed upon a wall.
is a film about memory and oblivion. It tells the story of a "ten
minutes guy", who would be unable, as Sammy Jankins was, to
comprehend an entire film. Memento is a film about time passed
by, and about remembering. The viewer is invited to use his cognitive
and memorial skills to comprehend what the main character is unable
to comprehend. If Leonard lacks the possibility of seeing the
situation of his current life in its totality, the viewer can take
this wide range look. And what the viewer can understand is the
center of our interest.
whole film is immersed in the past. We can say that it is entirely
based upon a memorial dimension, structured and reconstructed on the
base of the viewer's memory. In the temporal dimension of the film's
diegesis, the most advanced point in time is not an action, but an
image. The Polaroid photograph taken to document the past, after
Teddy's death. We can see no future events, no successive actions
from this point. If we want to know something more about the causes
of the killing, we have to turn back in time. So memory is at the
stake, as well as the lack of memory. While watching the film, we can
"feel" our own capabilities, because the main character
lacks his own.
like other contemporary films, offers the opportunity of considering
this particular form of aesthetic response: we can study the viewer's
experience of his or her mental absorption in a complex film, and the
ensuing effects. To conclude, let's take another suggestion from a
saw it and was impressed by the direction and the order of the
scenes. It's been two days since I saw it and am amazed how it
triggered my memory of things and how we put things together in our
minds. I would recommend it. It may not win any awards, but it did
provoke some thought.
let's finish quickly with another line.
movie is definitely the "thinking man's" movie.
is exactly what we want to study: how films move human thought.