FilmsFolded

Essays on cinematic narrative. The focus is a set of dynamics collected under the concept of folding, a related system of techniques to model agency and causality.

Memento (2000) Example 1

Published: 15 Feb 2014

This example models the agency of a key object in the film, a clock. The fictitious viewer is Sally Mindler.

The key cinematic device of concern in this example is the conveyance of information within the narrative, its dynamic and effect. We focus on the agency of an object in the film (the clock), and its associated situations.

At the moment of the example, we have seen a bit over an hour of the movie. We are presented with a certain object, a bedside clock that appears to be the key memento.

Memento Example 1 Background

Sally expects complex notions of time affected by object.

Sally Mindler comes to Memento for the first time.

She has a detailed knowledge of Following, which is Nolan’s previous and first film. It also is a puzzle film with a novel structure that features

  • shifted time
  • shifting characters controlling other characters
  • memories being manipulated, and
  • exploration of personal mementos

The main character in that film is fed a false narrative.

Based on what she knows of the first Nolan film and what she has heard of the second, she will expect and understand something like this in Memento.

About 'Following'

Elements of the earlier Nolan film which form expectations.

Following of 1998 is Christopher Nolan's first film and for a few years after was a cult favorite. It is the kind of movie that a casual viewer will understand simply but a serious viewer will see complex puzzles that need to be solved, requiring repeated viewings. Sally knows it well.

In that film, a con game is going on among characters, more than one as it happens. There is also the explicit notion that you can reify a person‘s memories (and therefore their identity) by valuing their special mementos enough to break into their house to examining or steal them. The protagonist steals several things from a certain victim, the blond.

Some inference is made that the obsession of the voyeur-thieves and the lives they invade being similar to us as the movie watchers, following them.

This narrative is punctuated by a shuffling of time. The protagonist follows people, and eventually goes into their homes (an idea from Kar Wai Wong's Chun King Express, which Sally also knows.).

We as viewers also follow the story with the main character, but Nolan has re-arranged the time sequence for us. This has the effect of performing a con on us the viewers, with (in retrospect) key narrative futures promoted by the time confusion.

Therefore the fact that the follower steals a clock is significant.

The whole thing is framed by a detective (played by Nolan’s uncle), to whom our protagonist narrates. The detective is fooled where we are not.

Our viewer Sally knows these things.

It is the situation she brings into Memento. She is therefore alert for:

  • playing with time and clocks
  • objects as mementos being tied to the notion of identity, and in fact she will be wondering what the object is that is the memento in question (the memento of the title), and why it matters
  • both of these will be associated with carefully engineered shuffling of scenes

So Far in Sally's Memento

What Sally notices just before the instant we model.

The example focuses on Sally's state a little over an hour into the movie. That state has been built by what she brings to the watching (before starting) and what she has watched so far. This section presents what she finds as key elements of the film leading to our moment of interest. For her, a key element is a fact about what objects are mementos. A summary of this section is in thisparenthetical.

A casual reader will want to skip to the next section, where she draws some conclusions based on what appears then in the context of the tentative interpretations outlined here.

Bullets as Mementos?

(Image) Rather early in the film, Sally expects some hints about what objects are mementos. We see three objects: glasses, camera and a bullet casing.

Sally's first guess is the bullet casings
Click image above to enlarge
Rather early in the film, Sally expects some hints about what objects are mementos. We see three objects: glasses, camera and a bullet casing. [0:02:28]

Is the Wedding Ring a Candidate?

(Image) At this point, six minutes in, Sally knows there is a method and that mementos are at the center of the method. The prominent display of the wedding ring makes it a possibility. At this point we already know that Leonard — who we only know as Lenny so far — has to rely on photos.

Maybe the wedding ring is the object with agency
Click image above to enlarge
At this point, six minutes in, Sally knows there is a method and that mementos are at the center of the method. The prominent display of the wedding ring makes it a possibility. At this point we already know that Leonard — who we only know as Lenny so far — has to rely on photos. [0:06:46]

Mementos as 'The System'

(Video) Here, already by the first ten minutes, Sally knows about the system and that it depends on mementos. By now we also are aware that the black and white segments go forward in the past and the color ones go backward from the future. Most likely, Sally surmises, we will see the objects only in the half of the film where they would have agency, the colored segments..

Confirmation that mementos are the basis of the rediscovery system
Click image above to play video
Here, already by the first ten minutes, Sally knows about the system and that it depends on mementos. By now we also are aware that the black and white segments go forward in the past and the color ones go backward from the future. Most likely, Sally surmises, we will see the objects only in the half of the film where they would have agency, the colored segments. [0:06:37] to [0:07:00]

More about Mementos

(Video) Leonard explains to an unknown caller (over the phone) some details about his condition and how his system for rebuilding himself works. Sally reinforces her belief that specific objects will be important mementos but at this point she has cleared all previous guesses.

More about the system, particularly conditioning and reminders
Click image above to play video
Leonard explains to an unknown caller (over the phone) some details about his condition and how his system for rebuilding himself works. Sally reinforces her belief that specific objects will be important mementos but at this point she has cleared all previous guesses. [0:16:15] to [0:16:29]

Natalie Gives New Mementos

(Video) Natalie gives Leonard a motel key and an envelope of evidence. This is early enough in the story for Sally to suspect that Natalie is a manipulator of memory through objects and that they are central to both Leonard and us as viewers. Is Natalie the controller? Is she the caller? We know that Teddy called Leonard Lenny and is it a coincidence that she did also

Is Natalie the controller?
Click image above to play video
Natalie gives Leonard a motel key and an envelope of evidence. This is early enough in the story for Sally to suspect that Natalie is a manipulator of memory through objects and that they are central to both Leonard and us as viewers. Is Natalie the controller? Is she the caller? We know that Teddy called Leonard Lenny and is it a coincidence that she did also? [0:16:58] to [0:19:26]

Leonard as a Memento

(Image) Leonard notices that Sammy seems to recall him, a human memento. Sally already accepts this general notion of self as memento because of the tattoos. But if Leonard is Sammy or something like him, seeing himself as a memento is significant.

His body as a memory object
Click image above to enlarge
Leonard notices that Sammy seems to recall him, a human memento. Sally already accepts this general notion of self as memento because of the tattoos. But if Leonard is Sammy or something like him, seeing himself as a memento is significant. [0:26:45]

Remembering Misremembering

(Video) Right after Leonard says that Sammy remembers him, he tells Natalie that he will not remember her. Sally starts to get confused. All information about not remembering comes from someone who shouldn't recall. This complicates the search for key mementos in Sally's mind; the possibility of untrusted narrative opens the possibility that these key mementos may come from outside of the story.

A strange inversion in describing memory
Click image above to play video
Right after Leonard says that Sammy remembers him, he tells Natalie that he will not remember her. Sally starts to get confused. All information about not remembering comes from someone who shouldn't recall. This complicates the search for key mementos in Sally's mind; the possibility of untrusted narrative opens the possibility that these key mementos may come from outside of the story. [0:30:49] to [0:30:58]

We Hear a Clock-like Drone

(Image) The score of this scene uses a rhythm that reminds Sally of a clock.

A clock-like drone is heard in this scene
Click image above to enlarge
The score of this scene uses a rhythm that reminds Sally of a clock. [0:32:48]

Feeling Time

(Image) Ever alert for hints, Sally pays serious attention to the question of how he must feel time. Surely, she believes, it has to involve an object/memento.

A hint about feeling time
Click image above to play video
Ever alert for hints, Sally pays serious attention to the question of how he must feel time. Surely, she believes, it has to involve an object/memento. [0:37:32] to [0:37:45]

A Clock Sounds

(Video) We hear a clock ticking, more loudly than would be the case in natural life.

A clock is noticeably ticking in this scene
Click image above to play video
We hear a clock ticking, more loudly than would be the case in natural life. [0:39:51] to [0:40:13]

Sammy Was Tested for Months

(Image) ally learns that Leonard observed Sammy (or thinks he did) for months to see if Sammy learned things. The importance for Sally is how Leonard's theory of learning (through mementos) works.

Do we see Leonard looking at himself?
Click image above to enlarge
Over a period in the film, Sally learns that Leonard observed Sammy (or thinks he did) for months to see if Sammy learned things. The importance for Sally is how Leonard's theory of learning (through mementos) works. [0:32:03]

Leonard Burns Some Mementos

(Video) A key scene. Leonard goes to a cemetery-like spot and burns some items. First is a teddy bear; Sally thinks that it may be no coincidence that the guy Leonard kills is Teddy. Then burned is a hair brush which in a flashback we see was his wife’s. Oddly we see it burning on top of a book, which we did not see thrown in. Then he pulls that same book out of the bag. We see it also is his wife’s, again in a flashback where he says: how can you read that again? This reversal of time where the book is burning before it is thrown in is the only backwards action in a scene since the first scene. Sally makes the link that the book is like the movie, read again and again. He remarks that he thought the pleasure of a book was NOT knowing what comes next. So we know that these items are loaded with significance, metanarrative. Most profoundly, Sally recognizes the clock from Following. Now she has something to work with.

This is the first clear presentation of mementos
Click image above to play video
A key scene. Leonard goes to a cemetery-like spot and burns some items. First is a teddy bear; Sally thinks that it may be no coincidence that the guy Leonard kills is Teddy. Then burned is a hair brush which in a flashback we see was his wife’s. Oddly we see it burning on top of a book, which we did not see thrown in. Then he pulls that same book out of the bag. We see it also is his wife’s, again in a flashback where he says: how can you read that again? This reversal of time where the book is burning before it is thrown in is the only backwards action in a scene since the first scene. Sally makes the link that the book is like the movie, read again and again. He remarks that he thought the pleasure of a book was NOT knowing what comes next. So we know that these items are loaded with significance, metanarrative. Most profoundly, Sally recognizes the clock from Following. Now she has something to work with. [0:54:48] to [0:56:22

The Clock from the Previous Film

(Image) The clock from Following is a central token around which several versions of truth compete. Sally has this fact clearly in her mind..

Here is the clock from Following
Click image above to play video
The clock from Following is a central token around which several versions of truth compete. Sally has this fact clearly in her mind. [0:45:28] to [0:46:05]

Other Information Has Been Destroyed

(Image) This is the scene after we recognize the clock. We discover that some mementos from the police report are missing, perhaps destroyed by Leonard like he destroyed the clock. Now Sally starts to think that maybe Leonard has created his own gaps, anti-mementos as part of the system.

Did Leonard similarly destroy written mementos?
Click image above to enlarge
This is the scene after we recognize the clock. We discover that some mementos from the police report are missing, perhaps destroyed by Leonard like he destroyed the clock. Now Sally starts to think that maybe Leonard has created his own gaps, anti-mementos as part of the system. [0:57:32]

The Mementos in Situ

(Video) Now Leonard is recalling the past with his wife; he feels the empty bed. We see the book and clock and hear the clock. The clock is set to precisely the same time as when it was burned a few moments later. We see the teddy bear and then the clock again. At the end of the scene we see what we have already seen, Leonard taking the mementos out to his car to destroy. We know he subsequently burns them. Sally feels like she is gaining control of her understanding of the film.

The key objects, including the clock
Click image above to play video
Now Leonard is recalling the past with his wife; he feels the empty bed. We see the book and clock and hear the clock. The clock is set to precisely the same time as when it was burned a few moments later. We see the teddy bear and then the clock again. At the end of the scene we see what we have already seen, Leonard taking the mementos out to his car to destroy. We know he subsequently burns them. Sally feels like she is gaining control of her understanding of the film. [0:57:53] to [0:59:27]

These film experiences build a case in Sally's mind for the upcoming moment that we model a little over an hour into the film. There, Sally sees the clock again in a complex context where it has agency, relating to Leonard's conditioning as well as the (probably false) murder.

Sally is looking for objects to anchor her understanding of objects having agency in the story. After several false starts, she finds one in a certain clock that appears. This is the very clock that she knows played a central role in Following, the Nolan brothers' previous film.

The role this clock plays in Memento is profound, according to Sally's view.

The Clock in Question

(Image) The first time we see the clock.

The first time we see the clock
Click image above to enlarge
The first time we see the clock it is being burned in a context that implies Leonard is gaining some freedom from it and other mementos.

The Clock from the Previous Film

(Image) This is the same clock.

This is the same clock
Click image above to enlarge
The clock in that film is a central token around which several versions of truth compete. [0:45:32]

The embodiment of time is rather obvious, as is the connection with the previous film. This allows Sally to develop her own folded narratives:

  • A meta-narrative from Following about viewers as voyeurs who capture time and memory in objects.
  • An interpretive narrative about how Leonard is controlled by his deceased wife through objects, and his escape from that control by destroying those objects.
  • A tentative connection to Alice in Wonderland where mirrors and time as clocks are conflated.

Sally's Memento Instant

Sally builds a whole retrospective narrative around this scene with the clock.

The instant we model here is when the prostitute lifts the clock and brush, revealing that the clock has a mirror on the back. We already know that the clock has profound significance, and here we discover this key feature.

The Clock Again

(Image) Later, we'll show the whole scene. For now what matters is that clock has a mirror on the back, and the prostitute started to look at herself in it before being interrupted.

On top of all else, the clock has a mirror
Click image above to enlarge
Later, we'll show the whole scene. For now what matters is that clock has a mirror on the back, and the prostitute started to look at herself in it before being interrupted. [1:02:02]

So, at this moment, Sally has the expectation that mementos matter. The clock is clearly significant, having been pulled from a past even outside the film itself. It is linked with his wife’s murder, which at this point is still largely a mystery.

It seems to have had the mirror added, plus the scene to convey special meaning. This scene is about using reflective mementos to recall things in order to change agency over the narrative, something Sally knows by now is part of the system.

What Happens

The prostitute arrives and Leonard tells her a routine that he cannot have remembered if the rules of his condition are followed. This underscores that something important is happening. We see the mementos dumped out of the same bag we saw earlier when they were later destroyed: the book, brush, bear, bra and clock.

He asks her to place them around. We see for the first time the bra (we had previously seen only a burning garment) and recall that we saw the wife wearing it in flashbacks. Perhaps, Sally thinks, there is a point being made that the clock is the only thing not starting with a B. Sally remembers some things about reversed time said earlier that were remarkably like Alice in Wonderland and she recalls The Hunting of the Snark, where everything but the snark started with a B. The clock must be important.

The prostitute, acting like they are her objects, picks up the clock, which we see has a mirror on its back, and holds it to see while she brushes her hair. Sally immediately think of the clock and looking-glass at the beginning of Through the Looking-glass. We know that this clock memento will be destroyed in some attempt to break a mirror-time cycle. Perhaps the other mementos indicate meaning as well. It cannot be an accident, for instance, that we know Teddy to have been the murderer and one of the objects to be a Teddy bear.

It is this moment of the handling of the clock, that we model as the moment in our first example.

The Entire Scene

(Video) The scene containing the key moment.

The scene containing the key moment
Click image above to play video
Sally finds this fascinating. [1:01:18] to [1:02:17]

What We Might Expect Happens Next

In Following we had a real triple twist involving the woman who had the clock. Known as the blond, she was a sort of prostitute, involved with drugs. She conned the hero — a fellow much like Leonard. So Sally might expect that this prostitute is not an incidental character, and that she is somehow behind things. There was a drug ring in Following. Possibly the prostitute and Natalie are connected through Jimmy. The hotel is used as a drug house? Drugs is the constant theme. Maybe Leonard’s condition is related to or caused by drugs?

Dodd may not be an incidental character either. As it actually happens, we see neither Dodd nor the prostitute again, but we do not know this at the moment we are in. Teddy may get burnt.

In Following there was a higher level con going on that ended up tricking and killing the blond. Perhaps there is a higher level conspiracy going on here, Sally concludes. Perhaps there are more Alice in Wonderland clues that Sally needs to be alert for, more reversals and logical quirks. The clock may have been connected, for example, to the spilled blue bath salts that dramatically were introduced when the clock was.

Maybe with the book burning reversal and the drugs and the mirrors, we will see some or discover some disconnect from reality — what we are seeing may turn out to be a drug vision or delusion. This opens up all sorts of plastic possibilities making this the highest point of cloudiness in the movie for Sally so far as quantum possibilities for future direction.

blog comments powered by Disqus
© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014