My worst essay by far-go here to see what this is about-focuses on Memento (2000, dir. Christopher Nolan), and I don’t think I’d publish it anywhere if I wasn’t a completionist. I blame the nightmare that was acquiring timestamps for this movie.
On Pens and Needles: The Ineffectiveness of Mementos
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) is a difficult film to give a neat and concise summary due to the structure that is employed, which alternates between color scenes that are played in reverse chronological order, and black and white flashback scenes that are played chronologically. The black and white scenes focus on the film’s protagonist, Leonard Shelby, having a conversation over the phone in a motel that he has been in for several days. The color scenes taking place in reverse order form the bulk of the film’s story, focusing on Leonard’s quest to find and murder the man who raped and murdered his wife, and gave Leonard a head injury so severe in an attack that he developed anterograde amnesia. The anterograde amnesia is a condition that means that Leonard’s memory of events in his life that happened before the attack are the same as any normal person’s, but he cannot make new memories and will forget everything that happened after a few minutes. In order to remain relatively functional while pursuing his attacker, Leonard has a system of tattooing critical information on his body, along with using Polaroid photographs with Sharpie pen descriptions to help keep track of the people who are involved with his quest. Memento uses the tattoo and photograph motifs as a way of showing via brutal irony that very little is permanent, no matter how hard we try to hold onto it.
Memento opens with what would be the closing sequence in a standard film that plays backwards, causing the film to form a perfect loop that never ends-a Polaroid photograph of a dead man reverts to the blank, undeveloped state, goes back into the camera, and shows the man being shot in the head by Leonard [0:45-2:33]. We learn that the victim of the shooting is an acquaintance of Leonard’s named Teddy when the next color sequence (or the previous scene) focuses on Teddy meeting with Leonard and following a lead from one of Leonard’s photographs. This leads to Leonard finding a photograph saying that Teddy is the one responsible for his wife’s death and he should kill him, which he does despite Teddy protesting that Leonard is wrong and dysfunctional [2:57-6:23].
To briefly depart from Memento’s false beginning, we will look at its true beginning with the chronological black and white sequences. Leonard’s most prominent tattoo, on his hand, says “Remember Sammy Jankis,” whose story is explained over the black and white sequences as a man who had the same condition thanks to a car crash [6:48-56]. Leonard, an insurance claim investigator, was sent to test this claim [27:14], and falsely ruled that Sammy’s condition did not fall under the contract [39:50-53], which meant his wife could not afford to care for him. His wife, who was a diabetic, tested the claim herself by having Sammy give her insulin injections repeatedly. He was completely unable to remember the prior injections delivered and she died from an overdose [1:27:16-29:35]. While Leonard is explaining the story over the phone, he is giving himself a new tattoo saying that John G. has drug access regarding the identity of his wife’s murderer [1:04:51].
Memento’s script has a twisted, ironic sense of humor which it uses as a motif of sorts, with Mrs. Jankis’ death being one of the darkest examples. The anterograde amnesia is also poked fun at even by Leonard himself, with him wryly noting that Mr. Jankis enjoyed commercials more than TV programs because they were quicker and easy to understand [27:30-36]. The aforementioned color sequence of Teddy meeting Leonard features Teddy attempting to trick Leonard into taking the wrong car as a joke [3:27-33], which he repeats almost every time they meet throughout the film. A later color scene with Leonard’s memory clearing itself when he is running away from a man named Dodd features Leonard asking himself “Okay, so what am I doing? Am I chasing this guy?” before a gunshot rings out: “No, he’s chasing me.” [49:25-42] Later, Leonard kicks down the door of a motel’s Room 9 as opposed to Room 6, knocking out the wrong man [50:40-51:00]. The irony is not just limited to amnesia jokes. Thanks to our glimpses of the future, we know that there is brutal dramatic irony to be found everywhere in Leonard’s hunt for his wife’s killer.
Leonard’s full spread of tattoos covers his entire body below the neck, with the most important ones being the Sammy Jankis tattoo, one across his upper chest that can only be viewed in a mirror saying “John G. raped and murdered my wife,” with a normal one below it saying “Find him and kill him” across the stomach. While on the phone in the black and white sequences, Leonard has a bandage on that is covering a prior tattoo that has not yet fully healed. The tattoos are all in different fonts and styles-some can only be seen in the mirror, some are upside down from the perspective of the viewer but can be seen right side up by Leonard when he is looking downward. The inconsistency and twisted angles of the tattoos are a big hint towards the instability of Memento and the fact that Leonard is a highly unreliable protagonist in more ways than those related to memory loss.
Memento’s ending in terms of the film’s runtime is actually the film’s climax when looked at chronologically and marks a transition from the black and white sequences to the beginning of the color sequences. Leonard’s bandaged tattoo, removed in the middle of the call, says “Never Answer the Phone,” a red herring for what is to come due to Leonard tricking himself [1:09:39]. Teddy, who is one of the callers, later tells Leonard that John G. is a drug dealer named Jimmy Grant and gives him information on where he is [1:33:59-34:03]. Leonard attacks him, takes his clothes and takes a Polaroid picture of him with his camera [1:37:52-39:28]. However, when Jimmy whispers “Sammy,” Leonard realizes that Jimmy might not be the attacker since he only tells the story to people who he has met [1:40:31].
We then get the big reveal from Teddy: after a year of trying to find Leonard’s attacker even when Leonard had already found and killed his wife’s real attacker a year ago, he decided to take advantage of Leonard’s lack of memory to capture a drug dealer and make some money for himself [1:41:50-42:22]. He also snaps at Leonard, claiming that Leonard is lying to himself about Sammy Jankis’ wife and Leonard is actually responsible for killing his own wife with insulin shots [1:42:45-43:01]. Whether or not Teddy is telling the truth is deliberately left ambiguous, with a scene of Leonard injecting a needle into his wife’s thigh becoming a scene of him jokingly pinching her thigh [1:43:45-53].
Needles are one of the most prominent motifs in Memento, specifically ones that go into the skin and affect the human body. Syringes of insulin and tattoo needles are specifically focused on, with the insulin shots controlling the life of Mrs. Jankis (and possibly Leonard’s wife depending on how the viewer were to interpret the reveal from Teddy), but also killing her from her dependency and abuse of them just to prove a point. Leonard’s tattoos are literally his entire life (one tattoo reminds him to eat, which seems unnecessary), but they also contribute to his secretly cruel nature, with the Sammy Jankis tattoo’s vague wording and prominent location serving to condition him into delusion over time.
Teddy also reveals that John G. is too common a name to make it possible to find someone that is a viable suspect in the attack, with even his own real name being John G., and therefore Leonard is doomed to repeat his search over and over again because of the amnesia even when it will mean nothing and he will just feel the need to continue forever [1:44:15-25]. We then see Leonard make a decision that is all the more alarming by the fact that we have seen everything before and after up to this point, including Teddy’s inevitable death: he consciously decides to make Teddy his new John G., and burns the photograph of Jimmy Grant’s unconscious body before getting a tattoo of Teddy’s license plate number, setting into motion the events of the color sequences and making Teddy a victim [1:47:14-48:13].
The photographs of Memento are just as dangerous as the needles and tattoos, albeit not as visually striking. While the tattoos and insulin shots are focused more on how Leonard’s unstable nature due to his condition and cruelty can make a difference between life and death due to the highly suspect nature of the information, the photographs are an examination of the film itself. Polaroids visibly develop, and when Leonard’s photograph of Jimmy Grant develops, the film itself develops from black and white into color [1:39:47]. The reverse development of the opening shot is also the closest thing to a hint about the backwards structure of the color scenes, and Leonard’s dependency on the information written on the photos with a pen often turns out to be the result of others manipulating him easily.
Leonard effectively steals Jimmy Grant’s identity when he takes his clothes, and when he finds a note in the jacket pocket telling him to meet someone named Natalie at the bar where she works [1:32:47-33:43], it results in him being manipulated for profit by Teddy’s mirror image of sorts in Natalie. Natalie is Jimmy’s girlfriend, and while Teddy effectively causes his own demise by trying to manipulate Leonard for his own gain, Natalie is far shrewder even if her sympathies extend in a different direction. She manages to extract from Leonard that he did not kill James based purely on the information she observes about his condition in another example of irony [1:22:31-41], likely assumes Jimmy is dead, and begins aiming directly for the other source of Leonard’s memories in his marked up Polaroids.
Natalie hides all of the pens in her house so Leonard cannot write anything down for later [1:13:49-53], which is effectively her cutting off Leonard from being able to function and made all the more disturbing by how friendly she seemed at the film’s beginning (chronologically the ending). She then insults Leonard’s wife until he hits her, then leaves [1:13:58-16:22]. Leonard tries to find a pen to remember that this has happened but he is unsuccessful [1:16:24-17:00], and the final message on Natalie’s photograph when he meets her again and checks his references ends up focusing on her assisting him out of pity since she too has lost someone she loved [17:16-19] after they spend an evening together. Leonard arguably being responsible for the deaths of both his and Natalie’s partners, then spending an evening with Natalie [28:33] which results in another death via some later information, is one of the most hidden but brutal punchlines in Memento.
When Leonard’s memory refreshes itself, a beaten up looking Natalie claims that Dodd, who was Jimmy’s boss in the drug dealing business, was the one who hit her [1:10:10-17]. She then asks Leonard to kill him for her. She is doing this purely to ensure Dodd does not come after her looking for Jimmy’s money. Leonard successfully removes Dodd from the town [44:14-23], and she gives him the DMV records for the tattooed license plate number, revealing that Teddy is John G [18:00-21:34]. Her motives for doing this are left ambiguous, whether she has realized that she can use Leonard to kill Teddy for her as revenge or she simply wants to help Leonard in his quest are up to the viewer’s discretion.
Memento is a strong example of how looking into the future makes irony evident, even if most viewers who watch Memento without knowledge of the plot or structure will not appreciate it without further reflection or a second viewing. Leonard’s world is one where tattoos and notes on photographs control everything, and the ever changing world and the self-serving nature of the humans in the film makes consistency a hard thing to hold onto despite Leonard’s best efforts. A single misplaced word can lead to someone dying in the world of Memento, and memories are not something to be trusted when they do exist.