This time around, Bamboo brought us a film that I had seen when it first came out, and never really had the urge to see again, because I had dismissed it as a gimmick film.

On seeing it again, I think I was wrong.

Not only was 2000’s Memento the breakthrough for director Christopher Nolan, allowing him to bring us great films like The Prestige, good films like Interstellar, interesting-if-overwrought films like Inception, and eye candy like the Christian Bale Batman reboots, but it stands on its own as not only a really good film, but one that leaves room for thought in a very satisfying manner.

After seeing the film the second time, I was already trying to figure out how I could possibly write it up. There are difficulties, including the mostly reversed narrative, the intercutting of largely non-narrative forward scenes in black and white, and the questionable relevance of the Natalie sideplot, that had me wondering what to do here.

But on my drive home one of my favorite songs from college came up on the iPod – Muzzle, off of the Smashing Pumpkins’ second seminal record, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And as I stopped thinking about writing up the movie to focus on singing along to Billy Corgan I was struck by the parallels between the song and the film. The idea that they are intentional would be silly – the song is about 5-6 years older than the movie and is abstract enough to be an incredibly unlikely source of influence for the screenplay. But a lot fits together, and if I can be allowed the liberty of a nonlinearity myself, transposing the interjecting C section of the song to before the B section, I think it might at least help me get through this review.

But before we talk about the film, let’s look at the lyrics:

Muzzle

I fear that I am ordinary, just like everyone
To lie here and die among the sorrows
Adrift among the days
When everything I ever said
And everything I’ve ever done is gone and dead
As all things must surely have to end
And great loves will one day have to part
I know that I am meant for this world
My life has been extraordinary
Blessed and cursed and won
Time heals but I’m forever broken
By and by the way…
Have you ever heard the words
I’m singing in these songs?
It’s for the girl I’ve loved all along
Can a taste of love be so wrong
As all things must surely have to end
And great loves will one day have to part
I know that I am meant for this world
And in my mind as I was floating
Far above the clouds
Some children laughed I’d fall for certain
For thinking that I’d live forever

But I knew exactly where I was
And I knew the meaning of it all
And I knew the distance to the sun
And I knew the echo that is love
And I knew the secrets in your spires
And I knew the emptiness of youth
And I knew the solitude of heart
And I knew the murmurs of the soul

And the world is drawn into your hands
And the world is etched upon your heart
And the world so hard to understand
Is the world you can’t live without

And I knew the silence of the world
And I knew the silence of the world
And I knew the silence of the world
And I knew the silence of the world
And I knew the silence of the world

Muzzle

muzzle
As the opening credits roll, we watch a Polaroid photo of a brutal murder scene being shaken as it slowly undevelops – and though we may suspect it, we realize beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are watching the film in reverse as the photo whitens completely and is then sucked back into the camera.  This clever parallel to the upcoming reverse narrative of the film sooner or later gives way to a literal muzzle – that of a gun – which our protagonist Leonard uses to murder Teddy.  Before he is killed, Teddy tells Leonard that there’s something in the basement that he really needs to see, but Leonard kills him anyway.  At this point, we don’t know why.

Adrift Among The Days

Memento

Leonard suffers from a severe case of anterograde amnesia.  He carries around his signature Polaroid photographs to help him to identify the people he knows, his car, the hotel he’s staying at.  Just as we don’t know who he is, he is a bit of a mystery to himself.  Everything he’s ever said and everything he’s ever done is gone and dead, at least everything following a particular trauma he has incurred.  Of course, you would expect that someone with his condition would be in a hospital or at least have a caretaker, but it’s the very nature of his trauma that makes it plausible that he’s out on his own.

Time Heals But I’m Forever Broken

john g raped and murdered my wife
Every morning the mirror reminds him of why he has woken up alone.  It explains the photographs, the police files, the maps, the motel rooms.  Have you ever read the words he has written on his body?  They’re for the girl he has loved all along.  We learn that Leonard remembers everything up to the rape and murder of his wife – he woke up one evening to hear a scuffle in the bathroom, and grabbing his gun surprised a criminal in the act, his wife beaten and wrapped in a shower curtain.  He kills the man, but there appears to be a second perp who gets him from behind, smashing his head into the bathroom tile and presumably causing severe bilateral medial temporal damage.  (Let’s ignore that in addition to his anterograde amnesia he’d probably have severe peritraumatic amnesia as well.  It’s a story.)  To Leonard’s chagrin, however, it appears that the police don’t believe the theory of a second attacker and with the known attacker dead and accounted for, they have closed the case.

And The World Is Drawn Into Your Hands

drawn into your hand
Before his world was turned upside down, Leonard was an insurance investigator, and one of his trickier cases has now become a touchstone for his life.  Remember Sammy Jankis, he has tattooed onto his hand.  He tells everybody he knows about Sammy Jankis.  Who was Sammy Jankis?  He was one of the insured who suffered an anterograde amnesia in an accident.  But insurance investigators being the cold automata they are, it was Leonard’s job to ensure that Mr. Jankis was in fact suffering from a physical debilitation before the company would pay out.  And just like anyone who is already suspicious, Leonard saw hints that Jankis was faking it – he would usually get a quick look of recognition on his face when meeting Leonard, even though he would not have been supposed to remember him.  He didn’t respond to conditioning learning as he ought to have.  And while Leonard was always careful to never directly accuse Sammy of faking it, he did tell Leonard’s wife, distraught at her husband’s condition, that he believed it was psychological rather than physical.

This was a big mistake, at least as far as the diabetic Mrs. Jankis’ well-being was concerned.  Although she could have dealt with her “new” husband if she believed that he would never recover, the idea that he might have the ability to become his old self was too haunting to her.  She tried to teach him out of his condition, and in a final desperate attempt to ensure that he was not faking it, she had Sammy repeatedly administer her insulin, certain that however thoroughly he might be faking his condition, he couldn’t possibly intentionally hurt her.  But he continued to administer it again, and again, and again.  He passed her test, and as a result – she died.

And The World Is Etched Upon Your Heart

etched upon your heart
But for Leonard, his search for his wife’s second killer has become his world.  It’s a world he cannot understand, but a world that he cannot live without.  And because of this, he has opened himself up to be taken advantage of.  He has one telling tattoo that says that “John G” might possibly be “Jimmy G”.  He has another saying that drugs are involved. He has yet another tattoo of a license plate number.  And a woman named Natalie who he meets in a restaurant, and whose relationship to him he cannot possibly remember, has run a DMV search for him and has come up with the information that the license plate he has tattooed on him is from a car belonging to one John Edward Gammell, whose driver’s license picture depicts the very same man he knows as Teddy.  Teddy’s picture already has a note on the back of it that says “Do Not Believe His Lies”.  Leonard adds “He Is The One.  Kill Him.”  And the opening scene to the film is now fulfilled, at least a bit.

But I Knew Exactly Where I Was

gone and dead 2
Of course, none of this goes to explain why Leonard knows Natalie in the first place.  And the answer to that is unexpected.  We trace their relationship back to him pulling a bar coaster out of his jacket pocket which says on the back to meet Natalie for a drink after.  After what?  And why is she so upset when he shows up?  Well, maybe it’s because he’s wearing her drug dealer boyfriend’s jacket and driving his car.  And why is that?  Because in the very same abandoned complex where we have already seen him kill Teddy, he has previously killed Natalie’s boyfriend.

And he was misled to do it by Teddy himself.  The boyfriend’s name?  Jimmy Grantz.  Jimmy G.

Of course, at the scene, Teddy was possessed with the idea to confess some secrets to Leonard.  If we are to take Teddy’s word (and I don’t think we really can) Teddy is an undercover cop who has in this case used Leonard to help set up a drug deal deliberately gone bad from which he is going to reap a lot of cash.  If we’re to believe him, he has already helped Leonard to track down and get revenge on the second killer a whole year ago, with the photo above as evidence – Leonard is pointing to the spot on his heart where he will tattoo his success as the ultimate memento.  What is unexplained is why that final tattoo never happened.  And, in a final indignity, if we are to believe Teddy, Leonard’s wife didn’t die in the attack, nor was there any Sammy Jankins.  Leonard himself is the person he attributes to Sammy Jankins; it is Leonard’s wife who was diabetic; it was Leonard who failed his own wife’s test.

At this revelation, as if to give credence to the story, though he insists his wife was never diabetic Leonard has flashbacks to his administering her an insulin shot.

Although he only lives in the moment, right now, for a few precious minutes Leonard knows the meaning of it all, he knows the secrets in Teddy’s spires.  And he takes a fateful step.

And I Knew The Silence Of The World

the silence of the world
The world will indeed be silent soon as to Teddy’s revelations.  So Leonard acts.  He burns the photographs of both the dead Jimmy G. and his allegedly triumphant self from a year ago.  He writes down Teddy’s license number as a clue.  And he tags Teddy’s picture with the first line that will lead his future self to doubt him.

Sure, he could have killed Teddy outright, but by giving himself instead some clues that will certainly lead him to believe that Teddy is the real killer, he ensures that his future self will accomplish his quest – even if Teddy had nothing to do with it.

Leonard embraces the silence of the world.

And that’s your film.

The single most interesting thing to think about when you think about Memento is the unreliable narration, not from Leonard, but from Teddy.  The final scene in which Teddy makes his revelations is extremely suspect.  He’s an undercover cop?  Really?  He’s rogue at best.  And given that the only actual reason we have to believe he really is an undercover cop is a quick badge flash (could be faked, of course), and given that Teddy is clearly using Leonard for his own purposes (whatever exactly those might be) I’m not terribly inclined to believe him.  Why the “criminal mastermind confession”, and a possible lying one at that?  Well, Leonard is not the most stable guy to have around. He’s useful of course because of his quest for vengeance combined with his inability to remember exactly what he has learned in said quest.  But given that he has just manipulated him, Teddy has to keep Leonard from turning on him (in fact, I believe that at the beginning of the film he was going to bring Leonard to the body of Jimmy G. in the basement as proof that he had killed “John G.” – if Leonard hadn’t killed him instead) and he likely says what he needs to say to buy enough time for Leonard to forget what has just happened.

Only it backfires in the end, as we see.

But what about the flashback that showed Leonard giving his wife an insulin injection?  Doesn’t that confirm everything?  You might think so, but what about this other flashback image from the same moment:

Not Diabetic2
Here we see Leonard, his living wife…and his tattoos.  There are two points of disconnection here.  The first is the fact that his “raped and murdered” tattoo exists at all.  If she is alive, why would he have that tattoo?  How would he get to that point?  The second is even more convincing.  “I’ve Done It”?  Right there, etched upon his very heart itself, is the tattoo indicating that he has succeeded in his task.  A tattoo which Leonard does not have.

One could theorize as follows:  After the attack, he mistakenly believes his wife is dead whenever he isn’t actively seeing her because he doesn’t remember her recovery.  For some bizarre reason he is given enough alone time to come up with a cockamamie John G. theory and get that (and probably at least the “Find Him And Kill Him” tattooed on himself.  His wife manages to get the “I’ve Done It” tattoo on him in hopes of preventing any further quest, but after she has died, somebody (presumably Teddy) has the tattoo removed to turn him into a relentless killing machine.  And the picture of Leonard pointing at his chest could be more of a “hey, the tattoo is gone” rather than a “hey, I’m going to fill this spot”.

But I don’t like that theory at all.

I prefer to think that this flashback image, like the one of the injection, is not a true flashback but more of a visualization, something Leonard is imagining in reaction to the situation (in one case to Teddy’s suggestion…in the other case an image of the two – mutually exclusive – things that would make him most fulfilled, his wife and the memento that he has avenged her).

So who’s Teddy?  I’ve got a guess.  I think Teddy is the motel manager.  For one, it seems to me that there is one look of recognition between Teddy and the motel desk clerk – the same clerk who sold Leonard two rooms and admitted it was because his manager encouraged him to do so.  And it is revealed at one point that Teddy is the one who checked him in to the Discount Inn.

So why is Teddy involved with Leonard?  Well, he might just be opportunistically taking advantage of the guy.  But maybe it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that Teddy is in fact the John G. that Leonard is looking for.  Leonard has successfully tracked him down, but his condition makes it a bit more messy than stealthy.  Teddy figures it out and realizes that his best course of action (outside of “shooting first” as Han Solo would say) is to convince him that he has accomplished his quest while taking a bit of advantage for himself.  And he gets a little too greedy.  He may or may not have gotten Leonard to commit one murder for him (the “chest-point” photo does appear to be bloody), turns his attention to another close-enough victim (“Jimmy G.”) and doesn’t fully anticipate Leonard turning himself into Teddy’s own assassin.

That’s the story I like.  But barring a revelation from Nolan or his scriptwriter brother, I don’t think we’ll ever know.

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