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Stefano Ghislotti 
Backwards: Memory and Fabula Construction in Memento by Christopher Nolan

Watching Memento


For 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 movies".


I've seen the movie three times now and may have to watch it ten more times until I get it all straightened out.


Yet, viewers have enjoyed the experience: comments are enthusiastic, despite the difficulties of comprehension. A more complex and comprehensive comment is provided by another viewer:


This 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.


The 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 film:


I loved this movie because it made me feel as if I had a short-term memory deficit.


With 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.

While 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.


As film goes back: reverse motion and temporality


In 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 narrating.

Knowing 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.

The 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.

The 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 possible.

When 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 come.

The 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?

The 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.

The 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.

Teddy's 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)...

When 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.

This 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.

It's 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.

A 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 line.

The 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 backwards.

[ C1(e) + BW1 + C2(e-1) + BW2 + C3(e-2)...

Such 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:

MS following sequence  + SEQUENCE + MS previous sequence 

The 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 + ms3.C3.ms2...

The 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.

It 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.


As time goes back: diegetic temporality and retrograde construction


The 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 ellipsis.

Colour 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.

(...C3 + C2 + C1)

The 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 seeing.

The 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.





It 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 action.

Another 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 "natural" way.

[ C1 + C2 + C3... >

And we have a progressive concatenation obtained by mental rotation.

< ...C3 + C2 + C1 ]

While 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.

Image. Rubin's vase-face

With 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.


Schematizing Memento: the syuzhet and the fabula


To 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 the film.

The 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.

Two 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.

The 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.

In 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

Let's 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.


- Film's overall structure -


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
K J I H G F E D C B -A
13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22


The syuzhet's structure starts from the last event (shown in sequence W) and alternates colour sequences with black and white scenes. It reads as follows.

- Syuzhet's structure -



The structure of the fabula' needs to postpone and to invert all the colour sequences. It reads as follows.


- Fabula's structure -



In 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.

The 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.

As 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 them briefly.


Organizing information: memory and mnemotechnics


The 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.

Each 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.

All 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.

We 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.

I 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.


Recurrent elements

We 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 is similar.


Equal or similar shots

One of the best achievements in the film is the use of this kind of mnemonic tools. Let's consider the five shots illustrated below.

1. The Jaguar passes by the oil reservoirs (going to the building)

2. The Jaguar enters the area in front of the derelict building; a pickup truck is parked near the building

3. The pickup truck passes by the oil reservoirs (going to the building)

4. The pickup truck enters the area in front of the derelict building and stops

5. The Jaguar passes by the oil reservoirs (coming from the building)


These 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.


Elements anticipating events

Each 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 the seat.


Elements recalling past events

When 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.


Elements suggesting a (temporal, or causal) relationship

When 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?


Elements to be completed

The 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".


Elements we understand later

Leonard's 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.


Thematic elements

Finally, 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.


Final considerations


Memento 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.

The 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.

Memento, 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 viewer.


I 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.


And let's finish quickly with another line.


This movie is definitely the "thinking man's" movie.


This is exactly what we want to study: how films move human thought.


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Stefano Ghislotti,  "Backwards: Memory and Fabula Construction in Memento by Christopher Nolan", Film Anthology, Internet Review of Film and Cinema, 2003 []
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