A few nights ago I sat down with my 15-year-old son to watch Memento. Finally! I’d been waiting patiently for the past couple of years until I felt he was ready for the mental gymnastics required to follow the brilliant reverse order story structure. Not quite time for Goodfellas. Definitely not ready for Scarface. But I felt the time was right for Memento. I was right.
He loved it. Immediately placing it in his top five favorite films. Quite a slot. Say what you will about my 17 kids, they don’t all tip 20% and a few have been known to talk in their sleep – but they see a lot of movies. And a lot of good ones.
Ten years ago we were introduced to a young filmmaker named Christopher Nolan through an independent film getting film festival buzz called Memento. Inspired by a short story (“Memento Mori)” written by the director’s brother, Jonathon Nolan, Memento was the low-budget word-of-mouth film of 2000. For good reason.
Guy Pearce plays ‘Leonard Shelby,’ a man with no short-term memory since a beating he took the night his wife was brutally murdered. His condition, clinically known as Anterograde Amnesia, makes life difficult for poor disheveled ‘Leonard.’ Not knowing who to trust because he literally remembers no one, he carries with him a collection of Polaroid pictures with names and ‘facts’ written on them – the thinking being that this will help him piece together his reality repeatedly during the course of each painstakingly frustrating day.
Joe Pantoliano plays his most frequent memory trigger, ‘Teddy.’ We’re never quite sure what game ‘Teddy’ is playing with the gullible ‘Leonard,’ but his Polaroid tells us “Do not believe his lies.”
Carrie–Anne Moss plays his love interest, ‘Natalie,’ kind of, mainly because her Polaroid says “She has also lost someone too. She will help you out of pity.”
All of these “clues” and potential red herrings add up to one heck of a good ride. Nolan strings together his images at a breakneck pace that leaves us both exhausted and exhilarated by the film’s end.
At the heart of the story is the fact that ‘Leonard’ has lost his wife, and in the most poignant dialogue exchange of the picture, he asks ‘Natalie’ with profound sadness “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”
A challenging condition and predicament for an actor to ‘play’ – and Pearce has given us a performance to cherish, making his scruffy bleached blonde, homeless Miami Vice looking character close to iconic, ala Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Brando in The Wild One.
But the star of Memento is Christopher Nolan. I often tell my readers and fellow film enthusiasts that it is much wiser to follow directors rather than actors if you want to hone your sensibilities. If you see a promising trailer in the theatres or hear about an interesting project in development, the first question you should ask is “Who’s directing?”
Memento is still being talked (and blogged) about ten years later because of a director’s vision of a piece of material. A singular vision is crucial to conceptual brilliance. This is not to say that collaborative screenwriting efforts cannot bear fruit. The beauty of filmmaking is the collaborative spirit required to achieve completion. But the collaboration has to be working towards a singular vision – and Memento is a prime example of this rule.
Take Revolutionary Road as an example of visionary misfire. Kate Winslet found and fell in love with the critically acclaimed novel by Richard Yates. After years of waffling and wrangling, she was able to talk her husband, director Sam Mendes, into making the film. She was also able to convince her Titanic pal Leonardo DiCaprio to come on board. This was a studio’s dream trifecta plus: DiCaprio & Winslet reunited for the first time since Titanic, working with an Oscar winning director from source material with a significant built-in audience. This should have worked. Why didn’t it? Because it was Winslet’s vision of tragic protagonist ‘April Wheeler’ that more than likely dominated the project’s development, not Mendes’ vision of Revolutionary Road.
Mendes is a perfectly capable and relatively talented director. But let’s look at his resume. He won the Oscar for American Beauty in 1999, then delivered the promising, but ultimately disappointing and miscast Road to Perdition (2002), the misguided anti-Marine film, Jarhead (2005), and the quirky, semi-likeable Away We Go (2009). Now he is taking the helm of the next James Bond installment, Bond 23. Given his track record, do we know what this film is going to look like? Or should I say, feel like? Mendes the director – or visionary – is all over the place.
Good directors establish a feeling in their films – an overall aesthetic that the audience can identify as a consistent signature. That feeling almost always comes from an absolute committment to only attaching themselves to material that inspires them. This is why I was so disappointed with the massively overpraised Oscar winner The Departed (2006) and the watchable but hollow Shutter Island (2010). Martin Scorsese is undeniably one of the finest and most accomplished directors in the history of cinema. But even the great Scorsese stumbles, and I submit to you, my loyal readers, that in both of these cases he was not inspired by the material.
Look at Christopher Nolan’s career post Memento: Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), and Inception (2010).
We now know what a Christopher Nolan film is going to look and feel like. He has become one of Hollywood’s most reliable storytellers. His films are dark but not gloomy. His characters are searching with a purpose – and they are cast well. His stories have an urgency that are always meshed beautifully with the musical score. His films have heart. He always has a vision.
As ‘Leonard’ says to ‘Natalie,’ “There are things you know for sure.” Well, I know for sure I will always remember ‘Sammy Jankis.’
And it all began ten years ago this week with a ‘little’ film called Memento.