Pass the Popcorn: Memento

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Hey, remember Memento?

No you don’t. You remember a really clever novelty act where they put you in the shoes of a man who can’t remember things that happen to him by telling most of the story backward. But memory is unreliable, remember?

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Back when you saw it, you realized that it was – in addition to being a clever novelty act, which of course it was as well – a profound meditation on the nature of human identity – on the sources of knowledge, motivation, and “habit” or “instinct,” which together make up who we are.

But since then you’ve forgetten all that. What you retain all these years later is:

Okay, what am I doing? I’m chasing this guy.

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No, HE’S chasing ME!

Which is just about the cleverest gag on film, I admit. But that’s a dog and pony show compared to this, which you don’t remember:

Just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?

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You can question everything. You can never know anything for sure.

There are things you know for sure…Certainties. It’s the kind of memory you take for granted.

Of course, “earlier” (which is to say “later”) in the movie Leonard deprecates memory to Teddy. Memory is unreliable. You want facts, not memories. But now look at what Leonard tells Natalie – certainties are the kind of memory you take for granted. What is your knowledge of “the facts” but a bunch of memories? In which case, how can you know anything? As Augustine demonstrates at length in chapter 10 of the Confessions, memory comprises virtually all of the human personality.

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It all comes down to whether or not you can take it for granted that there’s a real reality out there. Because if you can’t take it for granted, there’s no way to prove it. You can either assume it and be sane, or doubt it and go mad. That theme winds through everything in the movie. As Leonard tells Teddy at the “end” (which is to say at the “beginning”), whether or not he’s got the right John G. makes all the difference. It’s the only thing that matters.

But why? Teddy says we all just lie to ourselves to be happy. But Leonard knows that theory doesn’t hold water. If you really were lying to yourself, it wouldn’t make you happy. The fact that his quest for the killer does in fact motivate him proves that he’s not just interested in giving himself a purpose. He really wants to find the killer.

To Natalie, he simply asserts that the world doesn’t go away when you close your eyes. At the “end” (which is to say at the “beginning”) he pushes away the doubts Teddy has planted by insisting to himself that “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.” That’s the rub. If you take that seriously – not “I have to believe” in the sense that I want to, so I’ll lie to myself to be happy, but “I have to believe” in the sense that my mind actually cannot function in any other way – it solves the problem.

To take a parallel example, no one can prove that two contradictory statements can’t both be true, for the simple reason that the activity of proving things itself assumes that two contradictory statements can’t both be true. The law of noncontradiction can’t be argued for or supported; we believe it because our minds simply will not function unless we do. You can either assume it unquestioningly or go mad; ultimately there are no other options.

But why, then, does the movie end (i.e. begin) the way it does? (For the sake of those benighted souls who may not have seen the movie, or for those who may have forgotten the details and may want to go back and see it again, I won’t spoil the central twist.) I think it’s simply that Leonard’s exchange with Teddy makes him realize that a man in his condition is unable to do what he’s trying to do, so he’ll do the next best thing – rid himself of the person who’s using him.

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At any rate, I don’t think we’re meant to accept the claims we hear at the end about Leonard’s past. The movie itself undermines this in several ways. For starters, when those new “memories” start flashing into Leonard’s head, we get this image:

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Which is obviously absurd and impossible. That’s the point – mere suggestion can produce new “memories” that feel accurate but can’t possibly be real. Which is why we have no reason to accept the new “memories” at the end.

Also, think about that pivotal image of Leonard lying on the bed when his wife says “ouch!” (If you don’t remember what I’m talking about, for goodness’ sake what more excuse do you need me to give you to go back and see this movie again!) If the new “memories” are real, then the revised version of this image must be the true one and the original version a construction. But the original version makes sense and the new one doesn’t. Why on earth would he do that in that contorted position? If he were going to [activity deleted to avoid spoiling the twist] he wouldn’t do it lying on the bed at a ridiculously awkward angle while she read a frikkin’ novel. But that’s exactly the kind of absurd image your mind would invent under a false suggestion.

Well, like my interpretation of the end or hate it, Memento is still one of the most profound movies out there, and it’s well worth a reviewing if you haven’t seen it since 2000.

Oh, and I hear Chris Nolan’s made some other interesting movies since then. Guess I should check those out.

HT Movie Images for most of these shots, Beyond Hollywood for the one at the top

19 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Memento

  1. As always, Greg, you write a great movie review. But I’m not so sure about your interpretation of the ending. I don’t think we can really know what the true memory was. That’s the whole point. His memory, just like ours, is unreliable. And by extension, perception of reality or the truth also has inherent uncertainties.

    I know that you want to dismiss that view by saying that one cannot doubt the world one sees without being insane. But I think the point is that none of this is so black and white. It’s not that we entirely reject our perceptions and memory or completely accept them. We should just have doubts and must be cautious.

    And let me be clear — there is a truth and a reality out there. The limitation is not in the world, but in our ability to perceive it and remember it. The world is black and white, but our imperfection forces us to accept some grey.

    We avoid being insane by tentatively accepting our perceptions and memory. But we also avoid becoming a monster that arbitrarily kills to give one’s life purpose by checking our over-confidence in the accuracy of our memory and perception.

  2. Minnesota Kid says:

    Greg,

    Excellent post. I have two quick comments. First, I think another moral question central to the film is the timeless one of “does the end justify the means?” Teddy certainly thinks so, but Hollywood loves to depict morality plays whereby a heroic figure eschews attaining a desirable end by quesitonable methods, though there are notable exceptions (e.g. Dirty Harry).

    Second, your brief treatise on logic reminded me of the Parmenidian Principle that is central to Aristotelian thought (yes, I admit to being a philosophy nerd): “The same thing cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same respect.” Of course this principle strikes us as inherently and unquestionable true, but it doesn’t prevent us from arguing over what is and isn’t “the same thing” and what is or isn’t “in the same respect.” There is nuance even in fundamental statements of philosophical truth, as there also is in cool movies.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    That our *perceptions* are unreliable is part of the point of the movie, yes. But you knew that already – you didn’t need a movie to tell you. What the movie is mostly about is what we do with that realization – do we think that means nothing is really certain, like Teddy and Natalie? If so, life is meaningless and all things are permitted (as both Teddy and Natalie illustrate in their different ways).

    That’s the connection to the ethical theme you’re pointing to, MK. The root cause of ethical Nietzscheism is epistemological Nietscheism.

    But that path doesn’t really work even on its own terms, as Leonard tries in vain to show them. We are, in the end, sure of some things, even if (as the end illustrates) our perceptions at any given moment don’t affirm with what we know to be true.

  4. I’m with you, Greg, but I’m wondering if this is a change in your position. To say that we are certain of some things even though our perceptions and memories are unreliable is to say that we can know some things without resort to reason. We would have to perceive the truth of those things without observing or remembering them, which is the same as receiving knowledge in a non-rational way.

  5. Stuart Buck says:

    Memento is still one of the most profound movies out there, and it’s well worth a reviewing if you haven’t seen it since 2000.

    If you haven’t seen it since 2000, I’d recommend re-viewing it before reviewing it. 🙂

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Very clever, Stuart, but for the record I just re-viewed it last week.

    Jay, I wouldn’t call that “without reason” but rather pre- or trans- rational. My reasoning faculty does not validate my knowledge of the law of noncontradiction because my reasoning faculty presumes that knowledge and is validated by it. But my knowledge of the law of noncontradiction is not something simply other than, or separate from, my “reason.” That’s why propositions that violate the law of noncontradiction are called “irrational.” The broader label “reason” includes not only the faculty that reasons but the whole mental apparatus that stands behind that faculty. Aristotle called this type of knowledge “catagorical” and made it the basis of reason.

    So I don’t think I’ve changed my position, although I may be articulating it better now than in the past. (Depends on whether I’m remembering accurately!)

  7. Minnesota Kid says:

    I think that Jay’s comment draws us into the world of Immanual Kant. Kant argued that certain principles are inherently and intuitively true regardless of what we perceive (which was his major break from Hume). Such inherent truths, such as the law of noncontradiction, create the foundation for reason, or something like that. I’ve got it in my notes somewhere. So, Aristotle, Nietzche, Kant — we’re covering some impressive ground here.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    Well, the concept of categorical knowledge goes back to Aristotle and is shared across a wide variety of philosophical approaches – so I just Kant see any reason why some 18th century philosopher should be able to claim it as his exclusive property.

  9. Hal Greene says:

    Great review and comments regarding one of my favorite films.

    I would like revisit the following sentence in Greg’s initial post “I don’t think we’re meant to accept the claims we hear at the end about Leonard’s past”.

    Perhaps the image showing “I’ve Done It” on Leonard’s chest confirms the following interpretation of events:
    1. Leonard’s wife survived the attack
    2. Leonard accidentally killed his wife through his injection of an overdose of insulin
    3. Leonard’s story of Sammy Jankis (sp?) is a manufactured memory in which Leonard is projecting his own circumstances
    4. Teddy’s assertions regarding Leonard’s self-delusions (including #2 above) are correct
    5. In addition to being manipulated by others (Teddy, Natalie, motel clerk, etc.), Leonard exploits his own condition to give himself a purpose to live … tracking and killing individuals that he convinces himself are responsible for his wife’s death … rather than accepting his own responsibility for the past and limited capability to function going forward.

    Even though clues are contradictory and limited (similar to our own memories and perspectives), it seems Jimmy provides the most credible version of events.

  10. Hal Greene says:

    Correction to last sentence above … it seems TEDDY provides the most credible version of events.

  11. I don’t think I agree with Hal or Greg. I think the truth is ambiguous in this case.

    And just because we can be certain about the law of non-contradiction and just because we generally should trust our senses, doesn’t mean that we still don’t have some uncertainty about our perceptions and memory. In some cases, our uncertainty is very high and this is one of them given all of the conflicting memories.

  12. Greg Forster says:

    Jay, I keep saying that I agree with you that our perceptions are uncertain. On what do you disagree with me?

  13. I agree with you, Greg, on all of the big points. I’m focusing on a smaller point: What do we believe is the truth about Leonard’s past?

    You say, “I don’t think we’re meant to accept the claims we hear at the end about Leonard’s past.” And Hal says “TEDDY provides the most credible version of events.”

    My view is that the movie intentionally makes it so that we can’t really know who to believe about Leonard’s past.

  14. Hal Greene says:

    Overall, it seems there is general agreement regarding the “big points” regarding the limitations of our memories and perceptions to find truth in a black and white world. In spite of such limitations, we make decisions every day using the best information available. Even with conflicting and incomplete data, we choose to believe in the most likely scenario. Hopefully, we recognize these limitations and we are willing to alter our beliefs based on updated information.

    With those limitations in mind, I think it is reasonable to select the most likely events of the story given the information provided in the film. While the plot events represent the “smaller point”, our interpretation of the lead character’s actions and motivations provides the basis for interpresting the film’s message on larger matters.

    It seems to me that Leonard’s version of events are less credible than Teddy’s version of events. In particular, Leonard’s story regarding his work with Sammy Jankis appears false due to the unlikely similarity to his own condition and the lack of corroboration in any other part of the film. Several points in the film demonstrate Leonard’s disability (e.g. paying for multiple hotel rooms) violence (e.g. targeting to kill Teddy for payback). Teddy points out several of these delusions and crimes.

    I think the film’s message focuses on the impact of refusing to accept the limitation of our memories and perceptions by revealing that Leonard’s condition and motivation have turned him into a serial killer.

    What is the most likely path for Leonard’s character after the film timeline ends? I submit Leonard continues to find Jimmy G characters that he murders in mistaken vengence for his wife’s death. Memento II coming soon to a theater near you?

  15. bkisida says:

    Damn, I am really dissapointed I got to this discussion so late. I have two things to add. First, I think Hal is right when he says Teddy is reliable, and I think this points to the clearest message of the movie: It’s not just that memory is unreliable, but that humans selectively revise truth to serve their own desires. The most important part of the movie is when Leonard decides to label Teddy as a bad guy when he really has no evidence to base such a decision. Teddy’s ultimate demise is set in motion by Leonard’s self-serving choice: Teddy is telling him true things he doesn’t want to hear, so he decides to tell himself that Teddy is a liar (Teddy: don’t beleive his lies). I think this act epitomizes the central them of the movie. Sorry Greg, but I don’t agree that Leonard is any kind of hero when he resists Teddy’s truthtelling moment of “we all just lie to ourselves to be happy.” Teddy is right, and Leonard later demonstrates just how right he is.

    Second, hats off to Greg for the following: …”the activity of proving things itself assumes that two contradictory statements can’t both be true.” Yes Indeed. Brilliant!

  16. Greg Forster says:

    Uhhh, the evidence establishing Teddy as a liar and a bad guy is Teddy’s own explicit admission that he’s been lying to Leonard the whole time, using him to kill off people who aren’t the real murderer and making large amounts of money in the process. But other than that your case is completely sound. 🙂

  17. Brian says:

    Ok, I preface all of this by saying I need to watch it again, so I could be wrong, but here goes…

    My claim isn’t that Teddy is always telling the truth, it’s a given that he is a bad guy and he lies. The important question is whether or not he is telling the truth to Leonard when he tells Leonard that–spoilers omitted–and Leonard decides he doesn’t want to know those things, and so he writes “Don’t believe his lies” on the polaroid, knowing that in a little while he will forget the truthful things Teddy told him that he didn’t want to hear, and knowing that the next time Teddy tries to tell him anything he will have his handy little polaroid to pull out as a device to discredit anything Teddy says. My recollection was that this was a willful act on Leonard’s part to hide the truth from himself. I would watch it again tonight if I could, but it is out on loan. Will re-watch soon.

  18. Brian says:

    I’m back! Spoilers below, stop now if you haven’t seen the movie.
    I found a copy and watched the crucial scene. I absolutely think we are supposed to understand that a lot of what Teddy says is true. About his wife surviving, about Teddy being assigned to the case, about them catching the real killer and Teddy being so convinced that the memory of that would stick, the photo of him (“see how happy you look?”) right after he did it, about who blacked out the police file…”You just wander around playing detective. You’re living a dream, kid. A dead wife to pine for and a sense of purpose to your life. A romantic quest which you wouldn’t end even if I wasn’t in the picture.”

    Later, Lenny says: “Can I just let myself forget what you told me? Can I just let myself forget what you made me do?…Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy, I will.” Now I assume you are interpreting this to only mean that Lenny is just doing it to rid himself of Teddy, but I think it is much deeper than that. He sets himself up to believe that Teddy is John G., which makes his speech about the “world outside existing when he closes his eyes” that much more of a surreal extension of the lie, not a confirmation that there is one real truth that he can truly recognize as real.
    It’s all here (start around 2:40):

    Also, this is a reverse viewing, which is really cool. I think it makes more sense this way, though I like the original more. Something really neat happens in this video at 2:41, don’t blink! And, yes, if you have read this far, you might as well see what I am talking about:

  19. Greg Forster says:

    But all this looks very different when you put it back into the context of the whole movie. With any movie it’s a bad idea to pick up one isolated scene and interpret it without knowing what went before. With Memento it’s an especially bad idea.

    I mean, we spend the whole movie watching Teddy feed Leonard a series of plausible stories that turn out to be lies. Now we’re supposed to believe this one? On what grounds?

    And yes, everybody remembers that Leonard remembers Sammy as himself for a moment.

    He also remembers himself lying in bed with his wife, covered in tattoos about how she was murdered and he’s tracking down her killer, with a big honking tattoo that says “I DID IT” right in the place he was saving (over his heart) for when he found her killer.

    THAT is the point of the movie – your perceptions will tell you things that aren’t true, even things you know are not true. You have to make a choice between trusting your certainty (in those cases where you really are certain) even when your perceptions conflict with it, or doubting everything and becoming like Teddy and Natalie.

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