Synopsis from IMDB:
Leonard Shelby has short term memory loss resulting from an injury he sustained which was associated with the murder of his wife. He remembers his life prior to the incident, such as being an insurance claims investigator. He has learned to cope with his memory loss through dealing with a man named Sammy Jankis, a person he investigated professionally who also had short term memory issues. Some of these coping mechanism are to have a system of where to place things, talk to people face-to-face if possible rather than on the telephone as to be able to gauge their true intention, take Polaroids and write copious notes, the most important of those which he tattoos on his body so that they become permanent. Leonard’s current mission is to find and kill his wife’s murderer, who he believes is a man named John G., a name which is tattooed on his body. Over the course of a day, Leonard is assisted in this mission by a few people seemingly independent of each other, including a man named Teddy and a woman named Natalie. However, each time he meets them, he has no idea who they are, why they are helping him and if indeed they are working toward the same goal as him.
WRITING THE SCRIPT
The medical condition experienced by Leonard in this film is a real condition called Anterograde Amnesia, the inability to form new memories after damage to the hippocampus. When he was an insurance investigator Leonard prided himself on being able to ‘read’ people, that is, to decipher their hidden intentions through body language. With this medical condition he is transformed into the object of his own study. The body tattoos are the foundational text of his identity, consisting of guidelines, warnings, and numbered facts. He is effectively in a state of arrested development, able to remember everything up to the time of the accident but unable to make new memories, and is consequently immersed into the flux of events for which he can find only contingent explanations since any long-term perspective has been annulled.
Memento is sometimes classed as an existentialist film but it is far closer to the depiction of the self in postmodern theory. The prevailing notion within this theory is that history and identity is a narrative we continually revise and invoke like Leonard’s file; a collation of data in which we attempt to read the meaning of our situation, to contextualise and gain perspective on ourselves. The pivotal events are written on our individual and/or collective consciousness but the accretion and erasure of details renders us helpless and involved in a continual reinterpretation and rewriting of a story with no author but ourselves to authorise its narrative.
In this sense the character may be considered a fictional representation of the post-modern anthropology. Within academic discourse the textual metaphor of the palimpsest ( a manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely scraped off or erased and often legible) is often used to describe the unstable and indeterminate status of identity within the radically changing social spheres: an impermanent surface-phenomena prone to decay and open to variant interpretations, far removed from the timeless principles which were the concern of ancient philosophy and medieval theology.
The police file which Leonard carries with him is his palimpsest of identity. It is filled with redactions and revisions, marginal notes, summary conclusions, and missing pages. Of uncertain provenance and subject to interpretation and reinterpretation it offers nothing but a temporary anchor in the overwhelming tide of events which he cannot predict and to which he can only react. In this condition he becomes instrumental, manipulated as a murderous tool for unscrupulous characters such as Teddy and Natalie. From a postmodern perspective Leonard is creating meaning for his life by invoking the core value of revenge and the search for his wife’s killer as the ground of his being. His acts only have significance because he himself creates the context for their meaning and value but this awareness is necessarily held at bay:
I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.
CLEAR THE STAGE!
The self of existentialist theory is likewise located in a meaningless void, and is thus compelled to create a new self and a new value system as an ‘authentic’ foundation. These ideas were popularised by Camus and Sartre and were reflected in the French genre of the film noir which Memento references. These ideas could also only find purchase in a world of urban anonymity and instrumentality, consequential upon the sundering of any integral order embodied in the traditional communities of the pre-industrial age. The existential stance is dependent upon a ground cleared of all metaphysical reminders by the radical scepticism of modern philosophers such as Hume and Kant and culminating in Nietzsche and Heidegger. From this ground zero of the Western philosophical tradition emerged the doctrines of revolutionary ideologies, intent upon remaking the world in their own image, initiating with a messianic fervour the advent of a nihilistic epoch:
Generally speaking, this advent is reflected in the above mentioned ideologies of progress and evolution, which have distorted with a scientific irresponsibility any superior vision of history, promoted the definitive abandonment of traditional truths, and created the most specious alibis for the justification and glorification of modern man. The myth of evolutionism is nothing else but the profession of faith of the upstart. If in recent times the West no longer believes in a transcendent origin but rather in an origin from below – in the notion that civilisation arises out of barbarism, religion from superstition, man from animal, thought from matter, and every spiritual form from the sublimation or transposition of the stuff that originates in the instinct, libido, and complexes of the collective unconscious and so on – we can see in all this not so much the result of a deviated quest, but rather, and above all, an alibi, or something that a civilisation created by both lower and higher beings and the revolution of the serfs and pariahs against the aristocratic society necessarily had to believe in and wish to be true. There is not a dimension in which, in one form or another, the evolutionary myth has not succeeded in infiltrating with destructive consequences; the results have been the overthrow of every value, the suppression of all sense of truth, the elaboration and connecting together (as in an unbreakable magic circle) of the world inhabited by a deconsecrated and deluded mankind. In agreement with historicism, so-called post-Hegelian Idealism came to identify the essence of the Absolute Spirit with its becoming and self-creation. This spirit was no longer conceived as a Being that is, that dominates, and that possesses itself; the self-made man has almost become the new metaphysical model (Julius Evola: Revolt From the Modern World)
Evola’s statement above would be dismissed by postmodernists as a ‘grand narrative’ inhabited by the ghost of metaphysical delusions. The curious aspect of the postmodern anthropology is that it is underpinned by an insistence on freedom, freedom from all overarching narratives, all authoritarian and hierarchical structures which marginalise the complex and indeterminate elements which evade its conceptual grasp. At the same time it is involved in a displacement and interrogation of the philosophical concept of a sovereign subject. The question arises: who or what is there then to be freed, from what and for what?
THE CAST OF CHARACTERS
This is an example of the current postmodern consensus about identity:
In the everyday world, the modern idea of individuality was replaced long ago. People have more than one way of being, and they have relationships and connections with one another. They are also made up of many, often conflicting, parts. As they move in and out of different contexts, cultures, and sets of ideas (and/or between the different parts of themselves), they think differently, and behave differently in relation to others. They know that there are different rules of conduct in different contexts, that they are constructed—and can construct themselves—differently in these different contexts, and that they perform better in some contexts than in others. The postmodern person is thus a hybrid. They have, not one core, permanent self, but many selves. Their self—and their identity—are not fixed, but continually in process, as the boundaries between themselves and others, and between the different parts of themselves are negotiated.(shiftingthinking.org)
This anthropology is perhaps merely a reflection of the global, industrialised, urban environment of modernity which has, to a considerable degree, refashioned the citizen into an alienated and instrumental fragment subsumed within a mechanistic, utilitarian system. If the theorists delineate the human identity from within such a realm it should not surprise us that it recalls the symptoms of a patient diagnosed with a form of identity disorder. But should we not also inquire into the identity of the doctors who deliver such a drastic diagnosis?
BEHIND THE SCENES
Since much of postmodern theory developed as a response to the failed student revolution of May 1968 in Paris, it is possible (in some degree) to situate the pessimism and hostility which pervades it in the thwarted desires of the Marxist revolutionaries turning from the overthrow of the real world and unleashing their destructive intellectual energy on the very concept of a real world through a type of cultural warfare within the education system. It might even be considered as an act of vandalism by the intellectual vanguard against their own philosophical heritage. This revenge motive is echoed in the story of Memento, as is the displacement of identity. The arrested development of an embittered mind unable to move on from a traumatic event and obsessively dwelling on it could so disconnect a person from life that the reality outside of their thoughts diminishes to an almost spectral quality. On a more basic level the cloistered academic mentality having little contact with the vicissitudes of life may come to believe that reality is a mental and social construct.
Marxists now became culture and literary critics. These theorists invested their energy in multiculturalism, with branches such as feminist studies, queer studies, and African-American studies. The inclusion of voices often left out of the traditional academic canon certainly enriched the university. But multiculturalism, rather than leading to a critique of structures and systems that consciously excluded and impoverished the poor and the marginal, became an end in itself. Stripped of a radical idiom, robbed of a utopian hope, liberals and leftists retreat in the name of progress to celebrate diversity. With few ideas on how a future should be shaped, they embrace all ideas. Pluralism becomes a catch-all, the alpha and omega of political thinking. Dressed up as multiculturalism, it has become the opium of disillusioned intellectuals, the ideology of an era without an ideology. (Chris Hedges: Death of the Liberal Class)
WHOSE IDENTITY POLITICS?
Leonard is involved in an endless reconfiguration and revising of his identity based on dubious facts and set adrift in a continuously shifting and unpredictable environment. This is a recurrent motif in postmodern theory: a human subject with an uncertain historical ‘narrative’ and an indeterminate identity cast adrift amid contested social contexts and impelled to create their own reality since the notion of a transcendent reality is redundant. Postmodern thought influenced and continues to articulate the flourishing field of identity politics, whose fragmentations and divisions preclude any possibility of a unified consensus and will result in smaller and smaller subdivisions clamouring for recognition and priority. Nevertheless the fluid postmodern self, hybrid or not, is still the very real object of political will and the vicious and cynical manipulation of Leonard by Natalie is an example of the type of political will potentially empowered by the postmodern conception of the self.
You know what? I think I’m gonna use you. I’m telling you now because I’ll enjoy it so much more if I know that you could stop me if you weren’t such a fucking freak! You sad, sad freak. I can say whatever the fuck I want, and you won’t remember. We’ll still be best friends. Or maybe even lovers. You know what one of the reasons for short term memory loss is? Venereal disease. Maybe your cunt of a fucking wife sucked one too many diseased cocks and turned you into a fucking retard.
The construction of the movie is itself enmeshed within the philosophical and political context of postmodernity. It merges an objective linear narrative (black and white flashbacks and exposition) with the disjointed and subjective immersion within Leonard’s perspective (colour film and a reverse episodic structure). The black and white sequences reference the film noir genre while the colour sequences present the unreliable and disorientating nature of subjectivity. The black and white thread is largely of Leonard explaining the strategy of his coping mechanisms:
I’m disciplined and organised. I use habit and routine to make my life possible.
The scenes in colour represent the action as it occurs where the context is as absent for the viewer (at first) as it is for Leonard. The potential for disorientation is suggested within part of the linear black and white exposition:
… with my condition you don’t know anything… you feel angry, guilty, you don’t know why. You could do something terrible and not have the faintest idea ten minutes later.
In the final sequences of the movie there is a confusion of this distinction to emphasise the chaos encroaching on Leonard’s constructed reality. The notion that we project meaning onto an essential chaos and that a cross-contamination of reality and fantasy is an ever-present threat are some of the issues being explored in this movie. It is somewhat as if the existential hero of the past, the film noir detective who stoically and in full consciousness creates a world of values to inhabit within the void (represented by a corrupt environment), finds even that construction dissolving under his feet and his heroic resolve undermined by a radical scepticism turned on itself.
The polaroid snapshots which develop before our eyes are symbols of this projection of the will onto the flux of reality. Just as the memory freezes the fluctuations of time and transforms it into distinct segments, re-presents it to the mind, re-plays it and constructs a cohesive narrative from the pieces, so too Leonard re-members his wife from fragments, moments, which cohere and re-create her existence in a diminished form. Leonard’s own provisional identity is drastically undermined when Teddy informs him that the story of Sammy Jankis (who suffered from the same medical condition) is in fact Leonard’s own story, distorted and rewritten to project his own screenplay onto events. Teddy also suggests that Leonard removed pages from his own police file:
…to create a puzzle you can never solve… I’m the one that has to live with what you’ve done. I’m the one who has to put it all together. You just wander around playing detective. You’re living a dream, kid. A dead wife to pine for and a sense of purpose to your life. A romantic quest which you wouldn’t end even if I wasn’t in the picture.
FORGETTING TO REMEMBER
In a moment of lucidity and reflection on his condition Leonard asks the question:
I lie here not knowing how long I’ve been alone. So how can I heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?
This is a moment when the film becomes a cinematic memento-mori. In antiquity the practise of remembering that one will die was considered a salutary activity. The ability to focus on what matters and disregard what is trivial was crucial to building character and perspective through detachment and self-control. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, advised his students
Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible. By doing so, you will never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.
There are traditions across many other cultures from the Samurai to the Sufi which prescribe such practise and reflection. The modern, or postmodern, West has largely disengaged itself from the roots of such traditions in the intoxicating pursuit of progress. Global connectedness is shrinking our consciousness of time and space; instantaneous communications and international travel networks create the illusion of unity and development. Unless we make a conscious effort to detach ourselves we are easily caught up in the information overload which promotes a short attention span and a consequent superficiality of understanding. The disorientation of modern life can cause us to lose our footing on reality and, like Leonard Shelby, lose our grasp on the important matters and forget the reason for our being here. The rare moments of stillness and solitude are regarded as mere dead zones, blank spaces where morbid introspection threatens to dismantle the counterfeit identity built on a culture of self-interest and hedonism.
The industrial and technological juggernaut of the last two centuries has also refashioned our awareness of time and space into quantifiable sections, regardless of the qualitative nature of the human relation to these factors. The anonymous motel rooms and the urban landscapes that Leonard finds himself in and the disorientating feeling that he has just woken up can be seen as an analogy to the new citizen fabricated by ideological forces to inhabit the new monoculture of the global marketplace. Yet for all the postmodern insistence on its malleability, and all the distortions induced upon it by modernity, human nature still corresponds remarkably well to the models set forth in antiquity. Even Leonard is still aware of his moral freedom to choose truth or lies:
I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve told me? Can’t I just let myself forget what you’ve made me do. You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? You’re John G. So you can be my John G… Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy… yes I will.
The texts of postmodern theorists are often replete with astonishingly complex and playful linguistic performances (e.g. Luce Irigaray: Speculum of the Other Woman and Jacques Derrida: Plato’s Pharmacy) and it might be wiser to regard their philosophical writings as unintentional artistic self-portraits rather than serious advances in understanding. These texts can cast a seductive spell on the reader through the ingenuity of their word play and the intellectual challenge in grasping the threads of meaning woven into the structure. To be introduced to philosophy through the texts of postmodern theory is analogous to experiencing the bewilderment of Leonard Shelby’s daily existence. It seems to be an impasse in the tradition of philosophy, a kind of labyrinth filled with distorted echoes of earlier philosophical terminologies but incoherently applied and without a discernable objective. It is indicative of a mentality stubbornly insisting on the horizontal plane of socio political and historical analysis within a tradition of thought which was always, until recently, concerned primarily with the vertical plane. Despite this the texts are suffused with an atmosphere redolent of millenarian sects: deploying opaque neologisms like incantations; promising revolutionary transformations through a conceptual dismantling; exegesis and linguistic mystique; the etymological excavations of the textual field to unearth a buried wisdom; the heralded advent of a new epistemology and a new humanity etc. Yet in the sphere of reality they have only enabled the more bizarre distortions of identity politics and the paralysing effects of political correctness. In Memento there is a fundamental dishonesty at work in Leonards mind. He knows he is lying to himself and his condition makes it easier for him to forget this.
Susan Sontag has written of the epistemologial impasse of postmodernism:
Ours is a time in which every intellectual or artistic or moral event gets absorbed by a predatory embrace of consciousness: historicizing. Any statement or act can be assessed as a necessarily transient ‘development’ or, on a lower level, belittled as mere ‘fashion.’ The human mind possesses now, almost as second nature, a perspective on its own achievement that fatally undermines their value and their claim to truth. For over a century this historicizing perspective has dominated our ability to understand any thing at all. Perhaps once a marginal tic of consciousness, it is now a gigantic, uncontrollable gesture – the gesture whereby man indefatigably patronizes himself. We understand something by locating it in a multi-determined temporal continuum. Existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future. But even the most relevant events carry within them the form of their obsolescence. Thus, a single work is eventually a contribution to a body of work; the details of a life form part of a life-history; an individual life-history is unintelligable apart from social, economic, and cultural history; and the life of a society is the sum of ‘preceding conditions.’ Meaning drowns in a stream of becoming; the senseless and over-documented rhythm of advent and supercession. The becoming of man is the history of the exhaustion of his positions ( Susan Sontag: Introduction to Temptation to Exist by E. M. Cioran )
This is the intellectual context within which Memento operates. It recalls the ‘specious alibi’ evoked by Evola in the earlier quote. The claim to inhabit the demolished edifice of all thought is part of the apocalyptic/revolutionary rhetoric embraced by these theorists. It is also disingenuous as postmodern theory is today more or less the academic orthodoxy. Funded and promoted by corporations and media it constitutes part of the socio-politico-economic structure it claims to be dismantling. It may be less of a dead end than a case of arrested development suffered by a clique of intellectuals whose theories are influential because they are conducive to the current configuration of power. It is worth revisiting the philosophy and theology of antiquity to understand that this impasse is not the inevitable end of thought. Indeed it may be that it is the movement of thought into the ‘stream of becoming’ that transforms philosophy, once regarded as the handmaiden of theology, into the whore of an oligarchy.