Memento {Essay}

~ an essay on the film Memento (2000)

It being next on my list — in the manifolds of my ‘Bingo Book’ — I just rewatched Memento for the first time in a decade. Hazy memories of its magnificence have just been revitalized within me, and I have set myself upon the page. I am reminded just how much I love this movie! And in my rewatching now, enlightened by time, experience, and many more cinematic expeditions hence, its brilliance unfolds with so much more clarity. Memories, mementos, meaningfulness. Leonard Shelby’s utterly fucked up world of anterograde amnesia is enmeshed in existential dread. So, so much existential dread … {I love it!}. But it didn’t strike me until the past year or so, when I decided I needed to write about Memento at some point soon, that I realized Leonard’s dread is also our dread.

We all lie to ourselves to be happy, don’t we?

Solipsistic narratives

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe in a world where my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world is still there. Do I believe the world is still there? Is it still out there? … Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different… Now, where was I?”

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These are the final lines of the film, heard inside the transiently lucid and solipsistic head of one Leonard Shelby, aka “memory man.” In true Memento fashion, I am placing them here at the start of this writing because remembering their essential message, and the final revelations of the narrative of this film, is what brought me back to Leonard’s world in the first place.

I honestly can’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I created the Memento card within my Bingo Book {or rather ‘book of things I am going to write about’}. But recalling this scene, I put down a note. It entailed something to the effect of how significant the stories we tell ourselves are. {I am very aware of the Memento-esque progression of these events as well.} These stories we craft within — generally about who we are, where we come from, and why we do what we do — keep us going; they keep us alive. Our self story is an inherent search to find meaning within our lives. Or they are an avenue to creating it. The ‘self story’ simply being our past and how we judge it, and let it motivate our actions in the future.

The beginning and the end.

What of Leonard Shelby, who has no past? Or at least, a past that ended, who is carrying a present that now lies within a sea of tattoos and psychosis, conditioned by carefully crafted lies to keep him focused. He cannot create new memories – a key to the whole endeavor of continuously building from your past – so he tattooed a story onto his body to notate a purpose into his chaotic existence. Note to self: Find vengeance for dead wife. For Leonard or anyone, must these self stories be true to be efficacious? Of course not. Leonard is case in point. He is absolutely prolific in his pursuit, even if he’s fooling himself.

Memento’s leading man and his quest present solid existential questions: What if the stories we tell ourselves about our life and what’s important in it are not true? What happens when we become estranged from the foundational beliefs making up our reality? What if our truest self story leaves us with nothing for us to do, with no real life to live?

In Leonard’s case, the first instinctual response to the banal truth of the end of his prior existence is simply to deny such a reality, and replace it with one of his own making. A new reality in the form of a puzzle. A game he can play with himself, unique to his person, continuous and unsolvable.

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I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world is still there. Do I believe the world is still there?

I believe everyone has a little solipsism in them. It is the subtextual element in the desperate inner monologue of Leonard here. In short, solipsism is the epistemological position that oneself may be the only real thing in existence. As in, your mind may be the only real mind. Or at least, it is the idea one cannot be certain that anything outside of it truly exists. You can only inhabit your own mind, and everything you see in the external world could just be manifestations of your singular consciousness. The position of solipsism can be neither proven or falsified, of course. Which makes it rather useless to ponder as a mere thought experiment. But paradoxically so, it is also quite intriguing… It is a natural byproduct of consciousness. “I think, therefore I exist.” Go down enough layers in thinking, and the external world may be regarded as a metaphysically unresolvable question. Everything outside of us must be filtered through the one singular consciousness we hold inside.

Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.” ~ George Orwell

Our own mind, however, can be proven to be, it can be examined with efficacy, it can be truly understood. For the very reasons that the world is unresolved, we can resolve in our mind… which itself is determining that to be so. It’s the one thing that can be judged as an absolute certainty… Maybe. This still only seems to be the promise of our singular consciousness. Can we be sure of even it?

Confusing I know. Think about “reality” too hard, and you might just lose it. That’s why most people don’t. Memento (and many other Christopher Nolan films) does a superb job of calling into question such foundational aspects of our consciousness, such as the content of our past, full of events and actions that we can only hold in post as memories. What if those memories are hazy, or utterly distorted? If one is confused about the core components of their life up to a point, if the gyre is turning and widening, and the center cannot hold, unreality consumes us and life turns over to chaos. Life becomes meaningless, aimless, impossible.

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On the flip side: Amnesia or not, freaky tattoos or not, what if we could actually correlate all of the contents of our conscious and unconscious mind into a coherent, perfectly recollected narrative. What if we could defy all the distortions and strange byproducts of our strange consciousness, and attain complete self-understanding? All of it comes together in a self-examination: Our past, present, the causes and effects of the events in our lives, what we’ve done and could’ve done, what is in our control and out of it, what is meaningful and what is not, all the lives that we could have given different twists of fate, all of our time wasted, all of the traumas endured and repressed, all of the good memories forgotten, distorted, interpreted, altered unto the sake of this self story.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”

— H.P. Lovecraft

What if everything was utterly clear to us? What then? I think many people would simply go mad. There’s so much we can’t think about, there is so much trauma, regret, dread, despair that comes along with the knowledge of the gaps in our present lives and the potential lives we could be leading. We simply cannot remember all of the things that must go in order for us to go on. Many people with truly ‘photographic memories’ describe it as a curse… At best, one is likely to be diminished by the stark awareness of a lack of meaning and control within the absurdity of life’s maddening condition. And so, our mind willfully limits this kind of completion – our consciousness disavows reality for our sake. Therein comes the creation of a puzzle: The game(s) we make for ourselves to play, creating a new reality in the hopes that it will come to generate some kind of meaningful existence for us.

‘I am a leader, follower, hero, villain, killer, savior… I am someone who matters – and this is why!’

Whether our memory is in jeopardy or not, whether the truth of our consciousness is endlessly questioned, or the external world is doubted into some kind of unreality — we can all come to psych ourselves into designing these new realities – and their conjoining personas – to effectively work within. ‘I’m not a killer, I am not even after vengeance, I am seeking justice!’. It is another natural byproduct of consciousness, and it is so easy, so complete; it is for us. This reality is our reality, and we can be certain of it. It may soon become the only reason we can find meaning at all. Because it works; it is extremely effective. It marks a path. The world we create for ourselves soon becomes the only world we can possibly live with.

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I may be fooling myself… But I’m no fool.

The world I believe in, the world you believe in — the world Leonard Shelby believes in — they are all madly different from one another. And none of them is reality. (Yay, postmodern existential dread! Huzzah, chaos magic! Hooray, Leonard Shelby, solipsistic icon!)

Amnesia x Presence

Throughout Memento’s expertly structured narrative — in which we follow Leonard’s day along two tracks of time, forward and back, eventually meeting in the middle — we are gifted with a peek inside the nature of his special psychosis. Just as he keeps finding himself in situations that he does not know how he got into and must get out of, the audience is along for the exact same ride, knowing only where it will lead to in the previous scene, which is Leonard’s inevitable future… The film’s reverse chronology is not just a gimmick, it is a priceless mechanism to understand just how chaotic this man’s life is. Leonard Shelby cannot forge new memories, and so he is lost in a sea of people, places, and things that he cannot recognize or hope to understand with the necessary efficacy to live without a compulsory pandemonium…

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Though I might say that in one strange sense, Leonard is free. By necessity, he lives in the present moment. In each vignette of coherence, where he can work with minutes of a past at his back, he interacts and influences solely with the present minutia of the circumstances before him. He’s waking up in motel rooms, instantly situationally aware, searching nearby drawers and doors for practical, utilizable clues as to why he might be there. He’s in a bathroom so he washes his hands, looks at his tattoos, gazes into the mirror, grounds himself to who he is. He’s chasing someone, or getting chased, he’s in bed with a strange woman, he’s answering the phone and talking freely of the long-term memories he does have, to stay sane… He’s always ready to go. In this sense, Leonard is not weighed down by the recent past, nor is he anticipatory of a future laced with his personal history’s expectations. The precious, present moment of his short instances of lucidity are all he has to work with now.

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Freeing. Or simplifying, one could say. This presence is the promise of many a spiritual tradition. However, we see in the context of the circumstances and the characters that he is playing within and alongside, it is all just chaos. He is unmoored from everything that makes life reasonable or fulfilling; he is free from the responsibility of memories, but also from their steady, foundational, meaning-making anchoring unto his existence. And in the stead of any foundation, Leonard forges his ill-fated quest from the spare pieces of his dark past that he can ‘remember.’ Or at least, the pieces that he chooses to remember, distorted for his own purposes. All the results of his actions within the film, all of the manipulations from the unscrupulous characters of Teddy and Natalie, are the natural outgrowth of the chaotic path he has undertaken.

Leonard: An action man driven by a personalized vengeance, with nothing to lose, easily manipulated because he has no self-awareness in the now, due to his condition. The perfect weapon for people like Teddy and Natalie to manipulate to their own nefarious ends. He is both a capable and disposable man. Most importantly, Leonard cannot understand his own role in the moment to moment plots of his oppressors. He cannot reliably trace anything back to them.

And despite these others’ pathological interventions to take advantage of his strange condition for their own benefit, the worst manipulator of Leonard Shelby’s life is undoubtedly Leonard Shelby.

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“She’s gone … and the present is trivia which I scribble down as fuckin’ notes.”

The path to meaningfulness

Leonard’s final revelation while driving down the road at the end of the film is a desperate inner refutation of the solipsism that seems to be settling onto him concerning his place in the world. His constant battle is that of the meaning of his actions within his post-memory realm. Does anything he does really matter if he can’t remember it? Ever since he and his wife were attacked, and he was put into his condition, Leonard’s struggle is to find a system that might restore meaning within his life and to his actions within the world, directly in spite of the fact that he cannot create any new memories housing such action. The seeking of a phantom justice for his wife’s death, against nameless foes in a quest of vengeance potentially endless in scope fits the bill quite nicely.

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“My wife deserves vengeance — it doesn’t make any difference whether I know about it. Just because there are things I can’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it?”

Without the quest for vengeance, without a ‘wife to pine over’ as Teddy says, his life has no path before it. And his handicap makes it nigh impossible to try and imagine a new one. All he has to go on is the material of his final memory: the aftermath of his attack — his wife’s seeming death and his brain damage. He’s got his notes, his police report with blackouts and missing pages, his body and his movements in the world. Given the nature of his struggle, it is quite remarkable how rational, how focused Leonard is. He still has his wits, and he’s as good of a private investigator, and fighter, as he was an insurance investigator. He follows the facts he has to their ends; he is effective in getting to the bottom of the trail that is laid out for him. Even if he can’t remember the details, his instinctual drive to get to the truth, dispatching any and all obstacles and foes in his way to it, is admirable. Leonard implicitly understands that he must have a system to make his life work. Unlike Sammy Jankis, Leonard won’t let his life become meaningless and ineffective. He has to move on facts and not emotions, or the contents of the recent events he has not transcribed. And his system does work, for a while…

“Facts, not memories. that is how you investigate. … Memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. Memories can be distorted. Their an interpretation, not a record. And they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

There is a meaningful progression to the end of his journey — it’s just that the origin of the journey itself is corrupted. Midway through the narrative, one could guess that the whole thing spawns from his inability to heal, as he so muses one night ~ “I know I can’t have her back. But I don’t want to wake up in the morning not knowing that she isn’t here. … How am I supposed to heal? How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” Leonard is living a life of 15-minute phases, at the start of each, his wife is still alive, just out of bed, looking him in the eyes… Continuously, he has to remind himself that his wife is no longer amongst the living, and it is his job to pursue her killers in the now. Every single time. Continuous trauma. He cannot put it out of his mind save to drive his next action.

But we know the truth is even darker. The originating point of the self story this man has woven is guilt, shame, denial. Through the words of Teddy, ones we have every reason to believe at that point, Leonard accidentally killed his own wife. It was the fault of his condition and his wife’s inability to live with it. We come to find that the ‘Sammy Jankis’ story he keeps telling everyone is his story. And ironically — perfectly — the only real progressions Leonard has made in his path to successfully conditioning a new memory in his mind is the externalization of his own self story, and the true aftermath of he and his wife’s attack, into a man named Sammy Jankis. His past, post-amnesia, becomes someone else’s, a real person he interacted with in his former career as the subject of an insurance investigation. Leonard successfully creates a new memory in the form of a lie that he believes and lets drive him. Though we don’t know how long it’s been since his accident, and neither does he, by Teddy’s words he has believed it and acted it out now for over a year.

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The truth seems to be that Leonard was right — Sammy should be able to make new memories. The condition is mental and not physical, not actual brain damage. Leonard does remember the death of his wife, by his hands, and he has successfully conditioned a new story into his consciousness, in the form of the Sammy Jankis story, in order to go on. The new story is his puzzle and his path: His wife died by the hand of a white male named John G., who is still out there, and who will be found and killed by Leonard’s hand. She didn’t have diabetes, Leonard didn’t kill her by continuously giving her her shot at her command, to test him, hoping to snap him out of his condition somehow.

At the end of the film / beginning of the day, Leonard’s chase is still on, because Teddy just manipulated him into killing the wrong guy for $200K in drug money.

The final sequence of the film, and the beginning of the day that ends in Teddy’s murder, is the center of the spiral of Leonard’s life. We learn everything from Teddy, telling Leonard the {seeming} truth for perhaps the first time in the film. And it is also Leonard’s longest span of lucidity that we see. From that, one could almost believe that with all of the revelations of his true past, the tragic fate of his wife, and the nature of his unsolvable puzzle of a self story he has crafted all laid out before him, there might’ve been a coming breakthrough for him from the prison of his psyche. But Leonard makes his choice. He keeps the spiral going. He consciously chooses to continue the cycle for at least one more loop, with a new target in mind in Teddy. A man who also happens to be the only person left in the world who knows his truth. The simple scratching of a “Don’t believe his lies” on the back of his fresh photograph pulls all the weight of his remaining choices in the narrative pushing forward from there, sealing crooked cop Teddy’s fate. It flicks the first domino that demolishes all the others, all the ones we’ve already seen fall.

“I’m not a killer. I’m just someone who wanted to make things right. Can I make myself forget what you’ve just told me? … Can I make myself forget what you’ve made me do? … Do I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy, yes I will.”

In a choice with all facts before him, Leonard goes forth with the effective killing of what remains of his past. With a body, a photo of the deed, and certain markings on his body to narrow the identity of his John G down to a singularly slain ‘Teddy,’ might he finally be finished with his quest? Alternatively, will Lenny find another cycle in him, another John G to hunt? Can he survive without one? ‘We all lie to ourselves to be happy.’ Was Teddy even telling him the truth? Can there ever be peace for a man like Leonard Shelby with the truth in hand?

Can there be peace for any of us?

Now … where was I? ~