On Forgetting Memento (h2so4 16)

Christopher Nolan’s Memento, despite its art-house feel, is commited to the same regime of quietism and despair that commercial “psycho-cinema” and TV are helping to insure today.

I have to remind myself to forget this movie. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t make it a truly great film. Well, OK, it’s a great “film” as in cinema, but it is, nonetheless, a horrible story. Not just that what happens/ed to the protagonist is horrible, for, no doubt, short-term memory loss must be a true nightmare, but Christopher Nolan’s film Memento is a horrible story because it wallows in the well-worked and extensively washed-out world of meta-cinema. Taken at this level, Memento can be seen as a weird kind of euroasian theatre of catastrophe. Memento rocks the stacked Russian dolls of meaning so hard that it ultimately mashes the viewer in the overly precise gearing of its Chinese box narrative structure.

This structure, the prominent backwards chronology of this tale told in reverse, is the real protagonist of the film. It appears in the opening image, of a polaroid shot of a murder, run in reverse, which fades back to the event rather than developing forward into the print or photographed image. Neat. And this idea that over time we elaborate our memories so extensively that they become indistinguishable from pure fiction is what underlies the anti-epiphany of the film’s dramatic resolution. At the end of Memento, we are aware that perhaps none of the key riveting points of pathos, of sentimental identification for the main character and his experience—none of these may in fact be true. It is perhaps not sad that this guy—Lenny is his name, we learn at some point—has been tattooed, like a pathetic necklace looped across his chest, with the phrase “John G. raped and killed my wife.” Perhaps this guy didn’t actually lose his memory as a result of the attack on his wife; perhaps he never had a wife, perhaps he has a birth defect or is just a kook who has never had a short-term memory; perhaps he is just an average person, an everyman character, a caricature of the mall-rat or postmodern consumer.

“Who killed the Kennedys? Well after all, it was you and me.” And this seems to be the big message behind Memento’s denouement: since we can’t be sure that we are really dealing with a sad man who seeks only to avenge his wife’s rape/murder, we are explicitly asked in auto-reflexive dialogue at the end of the film to consider the ways in which the protagonist is like us all: a victim of the abyssal transience, fungibility and ultimate fragility of memory. And the transience of our selves, too, given that our identity and “personality” are based on how we live with our memories. But somehow I don’t feel any sympathy for the murderous devil in Lenny, this deranged man with a short-term memory-loss syndrome that is supposed to stand for how all of us today have our identity threatened by the impossibly distracting abstraction of the high-tech world around us.

Another way to put this is to ask: If Memento is a tragedy, of what does it seek to warn us? Does it tell us that if you don’t stop smoking pot, your friends will take advantage of your short-term memory loss? That it must suck, in any event, no matter how you lost it, to lose your short-term memory? That people are just fuckers who will take advantage of anyone, even someone with advanced dementia like Lenny’s? Or is it more likely that we are invited by Memento to consider the deep fact that people today are in peril of losing their ability of—and are, in fact, actively discouraged against—making analogies between past and present experience? Is Memento a brilliant cinematic essay that presents a person with a highly specialized sort of disorder, who in some way allegorizes or “stands for” you and me, today, here, now? To put it in academese: Is Lenny an everyman character who shows us the absolute loss of metaphoric depth in postmodern experience? Does Lenny’s memory problem resemble the planned hyper-obsolesence of consumer experience today? Does his life show us the horror of a world governed only by the hyper-nominalism of the notes he keeps and the captions he lives by? Is Memento the tale of the semiotic tyranny of metonymy, the fragment and the overall loss of a soulful center or ‘soul’ for experience?

Well, first of all, if these truly rhetorical questions make for such good academic parsing this is because this is truly an overly well-worked terrain. If Memento is about how people today can lose their core sense of identity, the film has woefully little to say about how it is that we lost this soulful core. One is tempted to suspect that what Memento really depicts is the social psychology of someone who honestly believes that biology and genetics will (or has already) explained away the phenomenon of personality, identity or what used to be called “spirit.” In this way, and curiously, the fine modernist aesthetic of the film (as it reaches for the Brechtian sublime of dramatic self-reflexivity) combines with the sparse “brain disorder” premise of the plot to present us with a protagonist who represents both the contemporary cinematic as well as the sociobiological subject.

Reflect for a moment on two truly classic filmic tales of biophysical disorder, Tommy and The Tin Drum. Tommy shows us how society produced the messianic pinball wizard, the deaf, dumb blind kid who taught the world to shut down the body’s perceptual system, the better to conform to the requirements of contemporary media by plugging the ears, covering the eyes and taping the mouth. In The Tin Drum, the little handicapped boy with the devastating scream has the power not only to unite people but, by doing so, to reveal how communication transcends language. By a similar paradox in Tommy we learn that even in an artificial world one can still search for a certain authenticity. Nobody says as much explicitly in these films, but we come away from the course of the drama feeling such sentiments because of how we come to understand the characters and their situation. In short, our identification with the protagonist is turbulent but resolved, and a properly tragic satisfaction of heightened awareness of human potential in the face of physical limitation is affirmed.

In Memento, we don’t feel anything for this guy, even if we believe that he and his wife were victimized by two junkies looking for cash to score drugs—one of whom might have been “Natalie,” whom Lenny has recently befriended in his search for John G., we know not how. We don’t know a thing about the love Lenny had with his wife. What we see most of all is that at work as an insurance investigator he was a merciless asshole to Sammy (who we learn about solely through Lenny’s flashbacks, and who, it appears, really did have dementia, though Lenny refused him insurance coverage for it) and Sammy’s wife, and that he contributed to their demise. Then, later in Memento, we are led to suspect that even these plausible elements of backstory are just psychic defenses, potential constructions of Lenny’s disordered imagination. We end up here at least two full degrees of separation from any real concern for Lenny’s core and central motivation. In the self-reflexive sublime of the film, we, just like Lenny, progressively cease to believe in his motivation. And that’s a potentially dynamic cinematic experience. But to have a film show you that the disordering of plot and chronology can make the audience feel the exact psychosis of the protagonist is certainly old hat. I myself have had “better” bad trips with this kind of thing (Natural Born Killers) and have enjoyed far more sophisticated narratives of the contemporary condition using the device (Fight Club).

Every Cassavetes movie makes you feel that your real life is more like a movie than you might have suspected, and every reality TV program makes you aware that the real world only requires a touch of pre-production and a splash of editing to take on a fictional flair. At the end of Cronenberg’s classics, Videodrome and Existenz, we even have to wonder whether the media game is really over and real life can ever begin again. But the problem here is that Memento presents us with a protagonist with just barely enough backstory (depth, roundedness, etc.) to explain how he came to be just like an actor who needs to be continually reminded “What’s my motivation?” Lenny’s memory is so bad that he has to use a chart that not only resembles the kinds of diagrams screenwriters use to emplot their stories, but which also looks like the exterior post-modern piping on the Pompidou center. Lenny’s memory problem is the dramatized emblem (objective correlative) of the screenwriter’s need to link up characters and motivation.

Where Memento offers us an extremely well executed story-within-the-story “Chinese box” style of plot (ask yourself: what is the “real” origin of Lenny’s disorder?) the characterization in the film is, nonetheless, a painful chinese finger trap. To the extent that we grasp that Lenny’s problem means that he cannot keep track of the characters in his life with his polaroid portraits of them and that he cannot deduce their motivations from his captions on these photos, we also become aware that we are not able to engage sympathetically with Lenny—nor anyone else in the film for that matter.

Perhaps it’s not even sympathy we are talking about. Remember Travis’ reflections at the beginning of Taxi Driver? How he had to wash the streets of all the scum—and how we begin that film straight up in the point of view of Travis Bickel, sociopath and taxi driver? We are drawn along through Scorcese’s greatest film by our identification with Travis’ point of view, not our sympathy for De Niro’s alienated loser. Lenny, in Memento, is more alien than alienated: he is as distant from himself as he is from society. We don’t sympathize with Lenny—because he is an asshole and a murderer and any identification with him is at our own peril. Taxi Driver is tragic, whereas Memento is a nihilistic cul de sac.

But a film like Mike Leigh’s Naked is nihilistic as well, and yet Naked invites us to see the social consequences, or even, perhaps, lets us witness the deeply embedded social fabric that nihilism shreds. When the protagonist of Naked limps off at the end of the film we know that we identify with this pathetic rapist asshole at our own peril, but we take the risk in order to see what he sees, to see the world falling apart at his reverse Midas’ touch. What we see as well is the world that produces the subjectivity of Naked’s evil protagonist. Memento’s Lenny is not a socially produced subject, but a biologically produced one who elicits only the emotion of pity, or the infinite irony of a man whose entirely singular condition runs the risk of not being about us all, but about a miserable physical brain defect that all of us must be entirely grateful for not having!

A problem with Memento is that the brain disorder premise is selectively and not consistently followed through, and this, obviously, is done to retain the minimal levels of basic competency needed for Lenny to be an active agent. Lenny is not Sammy, for example: he is not a vegetable, and he remembers everything the script will require him to remember (like which car is his when he needs to drive, but not which shirt is his when it’s a cute moment of feminine characterization for Natalie). In this way, we gradually are smoothed into an awareness that Lenny’s life is literally like living in a horrible movie—like the Mexican soap operas that Slavoj Zizek describes as an allegory of contemporary subjectivity, where the actors are fed their lines through tiny headphones, just before they say them, to cut costs and eliminate memorization of the script. “What’s my motivation?” these actors are screaming to know, and Lenny can barely keep track of his. He has to tattoo it across his chest and read his cue cards every few minutes to remember.

It is stunning to think that something could be reducing all of our capacities for self-reflection to this abysmal level. But what is it? What danger lurks here? What contemporary experiences are leading to the possibility of audience identification with Lenny in Memento? We aren’t invited at the explicit level of dramatic portrayal to think about this, and this is Memento’s ultimate sociogenetic eclipse, its moment of commitment to the regime of quietism and despair that commercial psycho-cinema and TV are helping to insure today.

Lenny thinks that we are all like him, somehow. And we are offered only two choices during these passages in Memento: either we agree, “Yep, that’s what it’s like to live in society today”—we too quickly naturalize Lenny’s condition—or we decide that Lenny is just one single fucked up guy we don’t want to be like—we use our sense of pity to distance ourselves from Lenny’s condition. In either case, we don’t get a hint about how things got to be so bad, we don’t see any real human/social consequences other than a couple of other losers who get murdered by Lenny. We are just asked to identify, or else.

This is the ultimately fascist moment in much right wing psycho-cinema today: the idea, deeply embedded in the meta-dramatic conceits of Memento, that unless you learn to live with the ahistorical, plastic-carded consumerist society that offers you no further legitimation of power beyond the profit of the profligate, then you risk madness. Outside normality, the straightjacket. Watch Memento (or Natural Born Killers, or Lost Highway even) and learn your lesson. Memento’s Lenny is no Hannibal Lecter in his dire straits; we don’t learn any lessons about how normal people are deeply implicated in the horror of the abnormal. And Natalie is no Clarice—she gains no insight from contact with the dark side. She’s got the same bad karma as Lenny, using and abusing people in a cycle of violence that can’t be blamed on or assuaged by a lack of memory.

Jean Baudrillard writes that Disneyland exists not to persuade people that its artificial world is somehow real—no one is fooled, we are adequately cynical subjects to be “in” on the joke that the Magic Kingdom is a commercial put-on—but that Disneyland exists primarily to create the sense that the world outside the theme park is truly real. In this way, much of conservative psycho- cinema (the entire oeuvre of Peter Greenaway comes to mind) serves to draw the line in the sand that marks where sanity begins and ends—and to forget, therefore, that there is nothing performative or “socially constructive” about doing so. The categorical limits of madness, intelligibility and meaning, generally, are mapped in films like Memento (or Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and The Pillow Book for that matter) to naturalize distinctions and statuses that are socially conveyed and understood, but that get treated in these films as some kind of bedrock biological or cognitive fact, like having that portion of your brain destroyed, in the premise of Memento.

Given the parallel world connection in the casting between The Matrix and Memento (The Matrix’s “Trinity” is played by Carrie Anne Moss, who plays Memento’s Natalie; The Matrix‘s Cipher is played by Joe Pantoliano, who plays Memento’s “Teddy”), it is endlessly diverting to compare the way the two films treat the problem of false consciousness (which is one way to understand what the problem of false memory might really be about). In The Matrix, we witness a deep conflict between Trinity’s conviction and Cipher’s cynicism about the very value of questioning the sociogenetic basis of belief in the first place. Cipher so greatly regrets having had his consciousness raised that he betrays the revolution to have his body inserted, with no memory, back into the Matrix, to be someone rich and successful, like an actor, in the virtual world that the sentient agents control.

The oscillation in Memento, between Lenny as a biologically impaired individual and Lenny as a figure for the consumerist subject, leads one to view the film as if the sentient agents had reinstated Cipher into the Matrix as an avante-garde film director whose cinematic debut is a retelling of the The Matrix from the sentient agents’ point of view regarding the possibility of social change. In this version of the plot, the Wachowski brothers’ brilliant allegory of hypercapitalism, biopower and consumer mentality is entirely abandoned to leave us with a rather coldly cynical view of what it means to be cold and cynical. This is a shame, too, because if we find Memento persuasive in its diagnosis of the way we think about ourselves, our past, and our ability to shape the future, then we are today all perhaps much more like Cipher than like Lenny—much more attuned to tuning in rather than turning on and dropping out. Virtual steak never tasted better than when Lenny is presented as someone who really gets it, who represents what we all feel and are going through—as if his experience as an asshole reflected what it is like when people today slowly are stunned into cynicism and despair as a way to cope with the quasi-syphilitic overflow of gigabytes and information.

Memento introduces us to the world as seen through the eyes of Lenny, and does this in order to affirm that it is basically good to have your fully functioning memory. But there are limits to this feel-good normality. What are they? In the implicit worldview of Memento, these threats are found in the kinds of things biology, brain function, cognitive science and genetics can describe—how memory builds individual personality. There are no threats worthy of considering and, by extension, no social changes that merit the bother that would involve learning more—through our experiences of art—about how community, social interaction, the bodily experience of gesture and ritual and deep bodily memory might actually have the consistency they do. In fact, Lenny has all that stuff from before “the incident”—he just can’t form any new memories. And what would be the point of consuming pleasure then?

Consumerism is haunted by its own contradictions, contradictions which classical philosophy associated with the problematic connection between pleasure and the pursuit of virtue and justice. Would Cipher have sold out to the sentient agents if the virtual steak had not tasted so good? Perhaps If he thought he wouldn’t remember it as soon as he tasted it, he would never have betrayed the resistance, and Neo would truly have been The One (and Morpheus would have been literally rather than merely symbolically correct)—but, instead, in The Matrix we get an ambiguous outcome: Neo flys away to fight baddies in The Matrix II, and Trinity is abandoned at the end of The Matrix I. Memento stands as a warning that indulgence in the vice and egotism of consumer values can ultimately retard the ability to be a good consumer. Here then, is the kind of moral story that can get funded and still hold itself out as radical art: “Watch out—if you take the lures of advertising, credit and status acquisition seriously, you might end up like Lenny, without enough memory to appreciate the joys of the game!” And that is not a moral critique, it is the moral of the basic Hollywood excess story. •

©2001, all rights reserved, Matt George