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Time and Justice

June 20, 2001

Hit-in-the-head movies are usually pathetic. Some guy takes a fall and learns to see the world a new way, which invariably involves becoming more politically correct and marrying a feminist or some such. "Memento" is not to be confused with one of these. It is surely one of the most brilliant and innovative films to come along in years.

I can only compare my reaction to "Memento" to the first time I saw "Godfather": here is something completely new and unexpected, yet completely integrated and successful, that sheds all new light on the medium and the subject. That subject is time and how we perceive it. But it goes beyond that to touch even on the moral universe. This movie is so good, and so smart, that you want to watch the whole thing over again just as it ends.

"Memento" is a thriller that tells the story of Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce), who has the mission of finding and killing the survivor of two men who broke into his home raped and killed his wife. Leonard suffered a head injury in the attack, so now he has this "condition": he has no short-term memory. He knows who he is and where he is from. He knows that he was a happy husband and a claims investigator for a life-insurance company. But he cannot remember anything after the terrifying night when his wife was attacked. He does know that he has this memory problem and that he must seek vengeance.

Despite this crippling problem, he is determined to carry on. Because he cannot form new memories, he must snap photos of things he wants to recall later on. He carries pictures of the hotel he is staying at, the car he drives, and people he meets. He must make judgements about the character of people and write them down, because he knows that the next time he sees them, he will not remember their name or face. Once something is written down on a photo, or tattooed to his body, it is fixed in place. If it is not written down, the information is lost.

Each day he wakes up unsure about where he is and what he is supposed to do. He must reorient himself completely, not to remind himself of what he knows but to form a complete impression from scratch. He looks in the mirror to read that his purpose in life is to find the man or men who killed his wife. He finds notes, written the previous day, that tell him where to go and who to meet, and why he should meet them and whether he can trust him. His memory fades far more quickly than 24 hours, however. It appears to last about 10 to 15 minutes, so Leonard has to rush to keep himself on track, and so does the viewer of this film.

Leonard explains that there are advantages to living this way. Memory is notoriously unreliable as a guide, he says. But we can trust facts, and he records facts about the attacker as he finds them. This, he says, puts him in the same position as a police investigator who must put emotional distance between himself and the crime. He discovers the facts and with the aid of the police report, he pieces together the mystery to find the person he is after. He seems to get closer and closer to solving the mystery.

Leonard is once asked why he wants kill the attacker, since, after all, even if he finds the guy and kills him, Leonard is not likely to remember it. Leonard responds very intelligently. It's true, he says, that he may not remember. But vengeance is not a subjective state of mind but rather a fact of reality. So it doesn't actually matter whether he carries with him the subjective sense. What matters is that justice is done, period.

We cheer. In fact, we admire him because, all in all, Leonard seems to manage very well with his condition. We follow him in hot pursuit of the bad guy through many very intense scenes, and in this respect the film is old-fashioned. In one very funny scene, he is fleeing a man who is trying to gun him down and suddenly his memory fades. He thinks to himself: "Okay, what are we doing here? I'm chasing this man….no, wait, he is chasing me!"

Oh, but there's a bit more to it. You see, the film is cut up into some 30 or 40 separate pieces, and the viewer watches the film in backwards chronology, starting with the last scene first. At each scene, the viewer finds himself in a completely unfamiliar setting, which we then must back out of to discover how it is that we got there in the first place. As the action proceeds, or recedes, we know only what Leonard knows and only a fraction of what everybody else in the film knows about the same people and events.

To keep the story line stitched together requires that the viewer juggle scenes and dates, remembering places and characters from previous scenes that are actually in the future. This technique places the viewer in something like the same psychological state of mind as Leonard: a radical disorientation of time and place. We struggle to orient ourselves at roughly the same pace as Leonard. To top it off, there is a parallel story line that runs underneath (shown in black and white) that moves in forward chronology, until the forward and backward stories meet in the end (which is the beginning of the story).

The overall effect is spectacular. I know of no movie that is more flattering to the intelligence of the viewer. But I don't want to create an impression that this is some typical art-house psychodrama about the human condition. It's a corkscrew of a movie, but it truly works from top to bottom with not a hint of pseudo-profundity. You can't help but be intensely curious about every aspect of Leonard's life and how he handles it. You have to be, for if you turn your attention away even for a moment, you could miss some crucial piece of information.

What do we gain from this film? We come away with an understanding of how central the passage of time, and the gathering of information, is for our subjective impressions of the world. The ability to do this differs from person to person, and our own personal sense of the passage of time has the most powerful effect on how we behave, on how we regard our place in the social and moral order.

If that were all this movie was about, we might just dismiss the film as a typical lefty effort to say that the world is no more or less than what we make of it in our own minds. But no, this film doesn't stop there: it shows that no matter how we perceive time or events, there is an objective world, even an objective ethic, out there we must confront and cannot avoid. There is truth, whether we or not we see it and even if we choose not to see it–even if we cannot see it.

There's a political dimension here too. We learn that artificially shortened time horizons (which is what Leonard had and what government imposes on society through, e.g., inflation and welfare) creates internal panic and external chaos. We come to understand the degree to which civilization depends on the ability to plan for the long-term, accumulate information, make sound judgments based on that information, learn from error, and reverse our course of action if the need presents itself.

You sometimes hear of great movies that you must rush to see them on the big screen. It's probably not true with this one, so you can wait until the DVD comes out. It is a low-budget number Newmarket films, and has no special visual effects and no sex scenes and very little violence (but it is still rated R).

But judging by its numbers, audiences have warmed to it right away. After 14 weeks, it has grossed $17 million and stayed in the top 15. The number of theaters in which it is released broadens by the day. Writer/director Chris Nolan has done something spectacular here, and he deserves to be rewarded with commercial success.


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