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 2

Published: 15 Feb 2014

This example models what we call noir, which in our view is a matter of who is controlling the story and the telling of the story. It features fictitious viewer Tony Smutzel. Tony is concerned with the tattoos because they tell the inner story.

Tony knows that the standard noir dynamic is that at some point the main character gains control from the viewing audience, who hitherto were jerking him around for their amusement.

The instant of interest here is at the end of the film, being the middle of the story, where Leonard does a hairpin turn, and resolves to be in control. He does take control of his life and the movie now shifts to color sequences, going backwards as if to grab the past.

Memento Example 2 Background

Tony worries about who is manipulating reality behind the scenes.

As with all three Memento examples, the viewer — in this case, Tony Smutzel — is seeing the movie for the first time. He experienced The Blair Witch Project first as a viral internet experience and later as the film. With Memento, Tony is repeating that pattern, having studied the complexities of the story at the web site, http://www.otnemem.com.

(This site is now defunct. It was a major influence in getting the movie distributed, and later gaining a following. It has far more detailed expansion of the story than can be obtained from the film.)

He therefore knows the backstory in great detail. Blair Witch had a rich following of fans, many of whom adopted all sorts of alternative explanations of the movie based on what they found on the site and Memento copied and improved on that model..

The standard explanation of Blair Witch was that the film/video could be trusted and the magic/curse was being filmed truthfully. Alternative theories held that the films were tinkered with in some way, or key details were removed by magical spell. The website encouraged this sort of thinking. The Memento website similarly encouraged confusion and ambiguity.

Note that Tony's understanding of the film is profoundly different than Sally's.

The Decision Point

The point chosen as the moment for this example is nearly at the end of the film. We are about a third of the way through the real-time narrative at that point. In theory, this is when a viewer will form a solution to what they have just seen.

The agents of influence that Tony follows are the tattoos, who made them, why and what influence they have in the narrative. In this sense, we see that Leonard takes control of one element of the system that governs his memory. Who controlled the system before? Who was he fighting against?

Noir

Tony knows from his film studies about the noir dynamic and how it works in modern noir films. A hapless ordinary guy, usually a man, finds himself buffeted by forces that seem capricious.

Coincidences occur beyond what ever could in real life, enough to convey that some capricious fate is shaping the story and ruining the fellow’s life. Modern noir lets us know that this fate or agency exists not because of any intrinsic evil, but because of the necessity of the story. The dynamics exist for our amusement as viewers; we are the god driving the fate. In the case of Memento, we are detectives with the onscreen investigator. A difference between us and the on-screen detective is that what we discover influences the nature of the world of the detective.

In this movie, it is clear that there is another off-screen manipulator, a chessmaster who is playing against both Leonard and us as watchers. Tony's chief concern in watching is to figure out through the tattoos who this is and why he is horsing with the world in such a way to deliberately fool us.

So Far in Tony's Memento

Tony comes to realise the wife is manipulating Leonard and us in the first part of the story.

Going into the film, Tony knows Leonard was committed to an asylum for killing his wife. He has escaped, with a suspected "anterograde memory dysfunction" (AMD), but the symptoms don’t fully line up. There are enough indications on the website that drugs were involved, that the wife’s death was not at all like Leonard recalls and that these seem to be planted memories in some way. Probably this was based on a genuine AMD case that Leonard studied earlier, a Sammy Jankis.

Clearly, some conditioning of Leonard has occurred as he eludes the police. (They are looking for him as an escapee from a mental institution.) We know that Catherine was raped and that she was obsessed afterward. Perhaps she was involved in the conditioning. A Teddy Gammell was the investigating officer in her death and there were many unanswered questions.

The movie seen through Tony’s eyes:

Tony Learns of the Method

(Video) Tony sees what he knew before, that Leonard has a condition, He finds that the movie has a similar, related condition. New information is that Leonard has a method, which he calls conditioning. The last thing Leonard remembers is his wife. The last thing Tony would expect him to remember is the person who helped condition him, so this throws him off suspecting Catherine, the wife as the one in control behind the scenes. In this scene: you (including the watcher) need a method. Tony learns that the tattoos are permanent notes, mementos, and are a key part of that method.

About the method
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Tony sees what he knew before, that Leonard has a condition, He finds that the movie has a similar, related condition. New information is that Leonard has a method, which he calls conditioning. The last thing Leonard remembers is his wife. The last thing Tony would expect him to remember is the person who helped condition him, so this throws him off suspecting Catherine, the wife as the one in control behind the scenes. In this scene: you (including the watcher) need a method. Tony learns that the tattoos are permanent notes, mementos, and are a key part of that method. [0:10:13] to [0:10:35].

The First Sight of Tattoos

(Image) This is where Tony first sees the actual tattoos that are clearly part of the conditioning. Later, at least one big tattoo is hand done with a mirror, probably the first one. Most subsequent ones were professionally done, probably planned by the conditioner. We see that the tattoo of the license number is what causes the death. Knowing that clues will appear in the first ten minutes of the film, Tony notes that Leonard says SG137 “eye” U (but tattoo says SG137 “one” U). The license photocopy says SG13 7IU with a space. California plates do not have a space, Tony knows. Leonard writes “he is the one.” Since there is confusion about the “one” and the “I” in the major clue, we think we are on top of something.

We see the tattoos
Click image above to enlarge
This is where Tony first sees the actual tattoos that are clearly part of the conditioning. Later, at least one big tattoo is hand done with a mirror, probably the first one. Most subsequent ones were professionally done, probably planned by the conditioner. We see that the tattoo of the license number is what causes the death. Knowing that clues will appear in the first ten minutes of the film, Tony notes that Leonard says SG137 “eye” U (but tattoo says SG137 “one” U). The license photocopy says SG13 7IU with a space. California plates do not have a space, Tony knows. Leonard writes “he is the one.” Since there is confusion about the “one” and the “I” in the major clue, we think we are on top of something. [0:11:25].

Natalie and the Discount

(Video) Natalie knows about the Discount Inn, leading Tony to believe that “discount” may mean something and Natalie could know a lot. She becomes a leading suspect as the person behind Leonard’s conditioning, especially as we now know she directs him to the place of the killing. There are many flashbacks of Catherine (the wife) here, making the connection more likely. She calls him “Lenny” which he says he hates and that only his wife called him that. The goodbye is “We are both survivors, take care,” followed by his apparently connecting that phrase to the “remember Sammy Jankis” tattoo.

Natalie knows about the Discount Inn
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Natalie knows about the Discount Inn, leading Tony to believe that “discount” may mean something and Natalie could know a lot. She becomes a leading suspect as the person behind Leonard’s conditioning, especially as we now know she directs him to the place of the killing. There are many flashbacks of Catherine (the wife) here, making the connection more likely. She calls him “Lenny” which he says he hates and that only his wife called him that. The goodbye is “We are both survivors, take care,” followed by his apparently connecting that phrase to the “remember Sammy Jankis” tattoo.[0:21:16] to [0:21:31].

Memories can be Distorted

(Video) The talk about Sammy could indicate that Sammy is the controller. He has been mentioned too many times, too early in the movie to not be a possibility in Tony’s mind. By this time, it is becoming clear that the black and white segments may be traditional noir, where Leonard is controlled in the ordinary way with the color sections having him more lucidly in control. Teddy says that the other day, Leonard said he thought someone was trying to set him up. “Memories can be distorted.”

Memories can be distorted
Click image above to play video
The talk about Sammy could indicate that Sammy is the controller. He has been mentioned too many times, too early in the movie to not be a possibility in Tony’s mind. By this time, it is becoming clear that the black and white segments may be traditional noir, where Leonard is controlled in the ordinary way with the color sections having him more lucidly in control. Teddy says that the other day, Leonard said he thought someone was trying to set him up. “Memories can be distorted.” [0:24:08] to [0:24:16].

How Does He Know What He Will Remember?

(Video) There may be some indication here that his controller has given him a memory of who he will remember. It makes no sense that he would know for sure that will not remember her unless this is imprinted somehow.

He knows who he will remember
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There may be some indication here that his controller has given him a memory of who he will remember. It makes no sense that he would know for sure that will not remember her unless this is imprinted somehow. [0:30:50] to [0:30:58].

Things You Know

(Video) Leonard says “There are things you know for sure.” In this scene Natalie’s relationship to the wife is strong. He sleeps with her and gets up. She feels the empty bed like he does. When he first arrives there, he thinks that someone has made him kill the wrong guy. It is the deep suspicion that someone is controlling him that matters.

Things you know
Click image above to play video
Leonard says “There are things you know for sure.” In this scene Natalie’s relationship to the wife is strong. He sleeps with her and gets up. She feels the empty bed like he does. When he first arrives there, he thinks that someone has made him kill the wrong guy. It is the deep suspicion that someone is controlling him that matters. [0:33:58] to [0:34:01]..

Teddy's Behavior Is Inconsistant

(Video) Teddy’s behavior seems genuinely unlike any controller; he asks if the guy in the closet was John G. This scene has intense flashbacks. Tony assumes that the frequency or intensity of the flashbacks are correlated with the controller, but we do not know negatively or positively. He tentatively assumes that it is positive, which means that drug dealer Dodd is possibly involved in some way with the controller or his/her situation..

Teddy's behavior is inconsistant
Click image above to play video
Teddy’s behavior seems genuinely unlike any controller; he asks if the guy in the closet was John G. This scene has intense flashbacks. Tony assumes that the frequency or intensity of the flashbacks are correlated with the controller, but we do not know negatively or positively. He tentatively assumes that it is positive, which means that drug dealer Dodd is possibly involved in some way with the controller or his/her situation. [0:42:07] to [0:42:19]..

The License Plate.

(Image) It is in this scene that Tony first sees Teddy’s license plate. It is not as shown on the official document we saw. Neither is it as pronounced by Leonard. It is as it is mistakenly drawn on his leg, as if the tattoo creates the reality. This tells Tony that Leonard’s world is more plastic than he supposed and that at least some of what he sees carries that plasticity. The details of the plate are pretty strange. The character is question is not drawn like an “I,” nor like the number “1” that is seen earlier in the number. It is neither, something in between..

The license plate
Click image above to enlarge
It is in this scene that Tony first sees Teddy’s license plate. It is not as shown on the official document we saw. Neither is it as pronounced by Leonard. It is as it is mistakenly drawn on his leg, as if the tattoo creates the reality. This tells Tony that Leonard’s world is more plastic than he supposed and that at least some of what he sees carries that plasticity. The details of the plate are pretty strange. The character is question is not drawn like an “I,” nor like the number “1” that is seen earlier in the number. It is neither, something in between. [0:44:16].

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Significantly, we have a scene now that mentions how Sammy’s wife tried conditioning. And we see Leonard prepare a tattoo needle. The associations are clear. Leonard’s wife Catherine is the likely conditioner and the tattoos are a part of that. Leonard’s memory — his long term memory which is supposed to be okay — is not so far as this is concerned. Elsewhere, this ties into the notion that drugs were/are part of the conditioning. [0:45:25]

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Another small discrepancy is here. Natalie directs Leonard to the “MonteRest” Inn, and he goes to the “Mounterest.” Since Tony noticed that Leonard’s cognition changed the license plate, this could be significant, especially since Natalie’s writing is highlighted and the effect is underscored by Leonard’s mixing up of rooms 6 and 9. The implication Tony gets is that Natalie and Leonard may be involved together, and their shared narration is untrusted. [49:25]

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This is a key scene for the Tony, knows by now that someone has implanted memories. He knows that Leonard is aware of this and that he is being manipulated to kill. Tony suspects it is the wife. Now we see Leonard deliberately burning her mementos. Why? He is trying to purge her from his conditioning. [0:53:46]

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Clearly, someone has modified the police report; but it is not consistent with the purported condition that Leonard be capable of this. This report must have been engineered by his controller. It is significant that Tony sees this artifact right after seeing the artifacts from the wife. Leonard says that the police found heroin but were not looking for John G. Knowing that we just had a twist of a word (“MonteRest” for “Mounterest”), could he mean that they found heroin but were not looking for ganja, though 15 ounces of it found? Was Dodd dealing pot or smack? [0:56:38]

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Tony’s notion of how Catherine may have conditioned Leonard is becoming a bit plainer. Now Tony sees the surrogate wife doing drugs, conflated with Leonard’s other mementos of her, which he subsequently destroys. It seems that his conditioning could have involved drugs and his wife somehow. [0:57:32]

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Some one on the phone is pushing Leonard’s conditioning buttons. Previously we have heard Teddy and Natalie both call him “Lenny” which could be some sort of conditioning word, or confidance cue. It could be Teddy on the phone, Natalie, or someone else. The person on the phone has an immediate effect. The tattoo is modified. [0:59:31]

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Here we have even more indication that Catherine could have been the conditioner. Sammy’s wife tries to condition Sammy. Leonard seems to define himself in part as being similar to Sammy in having the “condition,” but being different in having the “conditioning.” Sammy’s wife failed. Did Leonard’s wife succeed. Is Natalie connected to the wife, or is she the wife? [1:02:42]

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Teddy warns Leonard that Natalie may be manipulating him. This is yet another, albeit confusing mix of Natalie and Catherine. Leonard’s saying that he needs “a place of his own” may mean he needs to escape her control. Again, the place of his own is the “Discount Inn,” which we have seen Natalie ask about, chronologically after this scene. [1:04:57]

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This scene is a big deal. The tattoo is new. Clearly someone has been controlling Leonard over the phone. [1:09:22]

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Here again, Natalie calls him “Lenny,” which by now Tony knows is a power word. After the previous scene which indicates that someone is controlling Leonard over the phone, Tony sees Natalie openly controlling Leonard. Again, this has something to do with drugs. [1:09:57]

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Leonard is trying to escape the control by asking that no calls be put through to him. [1:13:01]

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Natalie plainly, in front of Tony and Leonard sets about to control Leonard. Leonard hits her when his wife is insulted. Is he capable of having similarly murdered Catherine? Will he have to “murder” the memory of his controller? [1:13:25]

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Another indication of control is in this scene. Leonard is listening through a glass to the room next door. There is nothing else like this in the movie. All the color scenes have him confident, and here he is paranoid about something. Tony gets the feeling that whatever control he was under in the black and white is gone in the color segments. [1:17:18]

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Leonard speaks to Natalie of Catherine and the “murder.” It could be that repeating this story is essential to the control. Natalie leaves and comes back after some long time. She has a changed attitude. She has discovered or been told something disturbing. [1:17:52]

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The photo is passed under the door. Whoever is controlling Leonard over the phone, knows that he can also be controlled by photos. Tony appreciates the symbol which he encounters often: film within the movie playing a similar role to what he sees and is manipulated by on the “film” of the movie.[1:21:44]

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Leonard puzzlingly admits to having done “something bad, maybe.” This is in the black and white section, so we know it happened before the movie started. [1:23:18]

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Natalie mentions “the discount.” There is something fishy about that place. [1:23:40]

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Leonard says that “he could do anything.” And this is conflated with Sammy’s killing of his wife. In this scene we have Leonard in a flashback, superimposed on Sammy in the hospital. (This is used as the poster image because it goes by quickly). Tony knows from the website that Sammy was never institutionalized, but Leonard was. [1:26:33]

Hospital shot is at [1:30:02]

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[1:30:09] (color) We know that Emma is Nolan’s girlfriend and the producer of the movie. We know that the tattoo is what kills Teddy. We know tattoos are conditioning devices. Here, Nolan is starting to wrap up what has happened. Perhaps he will tell us who is in control and how Leonard escapes. Emma, the producer and tattooist, makes a mistake in the license tattoo. He finds coaster with message in pocket; note that there are — deliberately — two different versions of that message. They both are in the same hand with the same words, but different. Leonard’s untrusted memory again?

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[1:33:59] (black and white) Leonard kills Jimmy, as controlled by Natalie. Before killing him, he has Jimmy take off clothes, probably to check for tattoos. During this sequence, the black and white turns to color. This is the scene where Teddy tells Leonard that all his memories are fabricated

What Tony Might Believe Happens Next

Tony has a rich set of possible futures and solutions.

This is a unique example because all the future events that Tony will see, he has already seen. So it is a matter of taking the far richer collection of futures than one would normally have, and stringing them together. Also this is unique in that Tony has the time to do so as he leaves the theater.

It is possible that Leonard dies in an accident. There are two distinctly different tire screeches in the two versions of this scene. One of these is more “accident-like.” In this case, all the color scenes are his last vision. He could even be Sammy, who was in a car accident.

It is similarly possible that Catherine was raped by someone. In order to get revenge, she conditioned Leonard to be a killer. We know he is not a killer by nature, so she conditioned him with key words, tattoos and a method. She then arranged through this conditioning to “set” the conditioning by sacrificing herself, programming Leonard to kill her and be driven by guilt seen as revenge.

It is also possible that Natalie was his wife, and she has been manipulating everyone. She is the only one who has touched everyone, including those at “the discount.” It is alternately possible that Natalie is a friend or relative of Catherine. She says she lost someone dear, and it may not be Jimmy.

There are possibly many complications and combinations of players in the drug trade. Teddy has it that the partners are Dodd, Jimmy and Natalie. But it could involve any of them and him and/or Burt plus Leonard.

The whole thing of course could be the imagining of the Leonard we see in the mental hospital.

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© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014