Thursday, 20 December 2012

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000)While the kind of short-term memory loss suffered by our main lead Shelby is rare, but a condition we're all suffering from time to time. This happens when we walk into a room and couldn't recall why we're there. And while this condition of short-term memory loss is temporary for young people, this condition deteriorates when we get older. This is shown by the fact that a 70 year old person would have no problem recalling what happened to him/her some 60 years ago, and would repeat the same childhood story they just told you 10 minutes ago. While they have little problem with long-term memory, their short-term memories perform at a fraction of their youth. Old people have others to take care of them, but not our hero, who has to do it on his own.

I love the writers' idea of using a photograph to preserve his memories (and it's the theme for the movie poster). This is the opposite of photographic memory to describe somebody with a phenomenal short-term memory. Quite ironic.

What makes this movie groundbreaking is its narrative structure. Traditional narrative is linear and chronological. Sometimes with an occasional flashbacks that deviate from that simple structure. For viewers who have problem following the story, the following explanations may help.

In this movie there're 2 narrative threads: one is older than the other. To help the audience to tell the difference between the 2 threads, it's colour coded. To be exact, the old narrative thread is shown in black and white (as usually the case), while the newer narrative thread is in colour. The 2 narrative threads are then told in parallel. Because it's physically impossible to tell the 2 narrative threads in TRUE parallel, they're told alternately (the only way they could be told in TRUE parallel is to have a split screen and shown the 2 narrative threads in each halves of the screen. This is ridiculously hard  - if not impossible - for us to follow the story).

To complicate this 2 thread narrative structure even more, the newer or coloured narrative thread is told in reverse while the old narrative is told in chronological order.

Actually, it's much easier for me to show you graphically than to explain it in words.

A book is typically made up of chapters while films are made up of scenes (it's more accurate to use the term 'sequence' instead of 'scene'. I'll use these 2 terms interchangeably in this article).

In a normal movie with traditional narrative style without any flashback, the scenes will be shown as follow with Scene 2 occurs before Scene 1 in time, and Scene 3 occurs before Scene 2 in time, etc. I think you get the drift:
Guy PearceScene 1
Scene 2
Scene 3
Scene 12
Scene 13

Pretty straight forward, isn't it?

In Memento, the narrative structure is much more interesting. The older narrative thread that links Scene 1 to Scene 6 are shot in black and white while the newer narrative thread that links Scene 7 to Scene 13 are shot in colour. And then if you interlace these 2 threads, i.e. show the scenes from 2 threads alternately, you end up with the following rather convoluted narrative flow:

Guy PearceScene 13 (Colour)
Scene 01 (B&W)
Scene 12 (Colour)
Scene 02 (B&W)
Scene 11 (Colour)
Scene 03 (B&W)
Scene 10 (Colour)
Scene 04 (B&W)
Scene 09 (Colour)
Scene 05 (B&W)
Scene 08 (Colour)
Scene 06 (B&W)
Scene 07 (Colour)

Of course, the movie might have more than 13 scenes (I'm quite sure it does). It doesn't really matter the actual number (I didn't keep count. Even if I did, my short-term memory will make me forget). Where was I?

Ah Yes. In the opening scene - Scene 13 above - where our hero flips his Polaroid photo, and the scene is being fast-rewind, signalling to the audience that this narrative thread (in colour) is going to be told in reverse all the way until the end of the movie.

Note the last 2 scenes - Scene 06 and Scene 07 - are actually in the correct chronological sequence. This is indeed the case in the movie. Scene 7 is important because this is where our hero makes his critical decision that would govern how he acts in the rest of the story, which didn't end at the end of the movie! It end in the begining.

In one sense, this narrative structure is revolutionary. There's no question about it. On the other hand, this kinda of all jumbled up, out of sequenced scenes are actually how a movie is typically shot. Movies are rarely, if ever, shot in the same chronological sequence as the story. Think of the following story:

Scene 1 - takes place in NY.
Scene 2 - takes place in Paris.
Scene 3 - takes place in NY.
Scene 4 - takes place in Paris.

It would be pure madness  - and huge time and financial budget overrun - for the director to shoot Scene 1 in NY, and then move the whole crew to Paris to shoot Scene 2, and then back to NY to shoot Scene get the drift. They shoot all the scenes in NY, and then all in Paris. And let the editing room put all the whole mess in the desired sequence. And Scene 1 isn't necessarily shot before Scene 3 either even if they're in the same location. The 2 scenes might be in different seasons, time of day, weather conditions, and other considerations, for example. The point is, every movie is made with the kind of jumbled mayhem that viewers have to tackle in this movie. In fact, there's logic in this movie in its apparent chaos that lacks in the movie making.

I had involved in a few big budget Hollywood production like Superman Returns as studio extra. :-)

Now that we understand this somewhat complicated narrative structure, the question is why? Oh why? Are the writers - the Nolan's bros - trying to screw with our heads? Nah...

It's actually done, as far as I can see, for 2 valid points.
  • To get a feel of what our hero feels, which is total disorientation of events, because of his loss of short term memories. This complicated narrative structure is quite bewildering for us at least in the beginning as we figuring out the narrative structure. This is what our hero deals with everyday with his medical condition. Also, we're better in understanding the story as the movie progresses just as our hero is getting better at coping with his memory condition.
  • The story is a mystery for the audience to constantly guessing why our hero does what he does. It isn't revealed until Scene 07 above. If the story is told in a linear chronological order, the mystery reveals itself in Scene 07 will leave the rest of the movie - Scene 08 through to Scene 13 - rather uninspiring to watch because there's no more mystery to solve.
 So what's the mystery?

For readers who want to keep their suspense of mystery about this movie as much as possible, skip the rest of the paragraph, even though I won't give that much away anyway. Simply to say that the mystery in this story is in a sense not too different from Shutter Island (2010). You could even say Shutter Island (2010) is a simplified version of Memento (2000) with traditional linear chronological narrative structure. After you have watched Memento (2000), you won't find anything too original in Shutter Island. But if you've seen Shutter Island (2010) and enjoy it, you would find this movie more meaty.

This movie is also for the fans of time travel movies. After all, time travel narratives contains all kind of flashbacks where the movies showing events out of the normal chronology.

The narrative structure of the Chinese made movie The Man Behind the Courtyard House (2011)  is probably - I said probably - borrowed from this movie because of its striking similarity. I have a feeling that it isn't going to be the only one in the future.

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