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Time and Space in “Memento” by Christopher Nolan

Memento is a captivating film noir directed by Christopher Nolan that has received worldwide acclaim. Complex and confusing in both structure and subject matter, the film still attracts considerable attention and many interpretations twenty years after its release. The film explores various topics such as personality, moral responsibility, time and space, retribution, revenge, and memory. The intrigue of the film lies in the fact that the director skillfully manipulates time and space in such a way that it goes against the viewers’ perception of time as one-way. From the beginning of the film, the viewer has to strain his perception because the events here are presented in the reverse order. The depiction of time in a film through a reverse sequence of events contributes to the uncertainty in the film. Therefore, the temporal and spatial characteristics of the film differentiate it from the formulaic Hollywood narrative and immerse the viewer in completely new thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

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The plot is undeniably dark and desperate, so the viewer understands that this is not an ordinary narrative from the very beginning of the film. Leonard Shelby seeks revenge for the rape and murder of his wife during a brutal home invasion. An important detail is the disease of the protagonist – anterograde amnesia, which manifests itself as a memory disorder and a person’s inability to form long-term memories. Since Leonard only remembers what happened a few minutes ago, he captures it in various ways, including taking pictures with the camera, writing notes, and making tattoos on the body of the most significant events. At the end of the film, the viewer knows nothing more about Leonard than he knows himself, and experiences the same confusion as the main character. Some people, like Leonard, cannot put up with the past and plunge into a cycle of self-deception, from which it is not easy to break out.

The plot requires the utmost attentiveness and intelligence from the audience since the events here are characterized by a non-linear narrative and, in fact, are presented in reverse order. The film begins with an episode of a photograph, trembling in someone’s hand and depicting a dead body lying on a bloody floor. Trying to see the image, it gradually fades and disappears. From the very beginning, the viewer knows the end of the story – the murder of Catherine, Leonard’s wife, but does not know its origin. Thus, the viewer, together with the hero, actually restores time in the reverse order; each next episode is chronologically the previous one in the chain of events that led to the tragic denouement.

The fundamental object of experiments in Nolan’s films, including Memento, is time. It is not so much the fact of the choice in favor of time as an object and at the same time a research tool that is striking, but rather the wide range of layers of the film in which it is involved. For other directors, time and artistic techniques derived from it most often perform a rather narrow function, depending on the genre. As a rule, in action films, it is responsible for rhythm and drive, in thrillers – for suspense, in dramas – as a symbol of the flow of life and gaining experience. In Memento, reverse chronology, a rather rare technique when the film begins at the end and ends at the beginning, is used. Since the hero loses his memory all the time, he still does not remember the sequence of events; the end and the beginning are one for him. Thus, the chronological characteristics of Nolan’s films, including the Memento, are the most important artistic tool that elevates him to the director’s Olympus in the eyes of the audience and distinguishes his films from traditional Hollywood narratives.

Memento contains two main alternate lines, each with twenty-two episodes, ranging in length from twelve seconds to eight minutes. The main storyline is colored and edited backwards, the subplot is black and white and runs in chronological order. At the end, the two lines collide, creating a great ending. In the black and white scenes, Leonard is talking to someone on the phone in a hotel room. The audience does not know where he is or with whom he communicated, since Leonard himself did not remember this. The same understatement manifests itself in color scenes – the audience is not shown the entire context of what is happening because the main character does not remember it. The episodes, interrupted, alternate with each other, so that every minute it becomes clearer why this or that action was performed.

The technique of reverse chronology made it possible not only to make the drama more effective. With this technique, Nolan allowed the viewer to think in a way that Shelby did. It made it possible to deprive viewers of vital information and put them in the place of the hero. It is noteworthy that the Nolan himself later named the film a look inside, into the reality of a person. Moreover, medical experts assert that the director has achieved this goal quite successfully. Mooney notes that the film is called a scrupulous study of the work of the mind and the most precise reproduction of the effects of amnesia on the screen (15). Furthermore, the intricate drama responds to the director’s well-known conviction that cinema should appeal not only to the viewer’s feelings but also to the mind. With plot puzzles, Nolan makes the audience not only empathize but also think during and after watching. Thus, through the use of reverse chronology, the authors managed to convey the character’s attitude, put the audience in the hero’s place, and deprive her of important information.

Memento can be declared as film noir, as the film applies many of the visual techniques typical of this style. Among them are foreshortening, complex and contrasting lighting, and play of shadows. Black and white were also chosen because monochrome gives the image a documentary character, which Nolan needed in the chronological line. According to Mooney, the director did not want the visuals to seem deliberately stylized; the style had to be present, but at the same time not distract from the narrative (19). Therefore, to a large extent, the visual solution of the film gravitated towards realism, and it was set by the very environment in which the shooting took place.

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Visuals are used in Memento as another way of identifying the viewer with the hero. Nolan achieved this through the use of a set of techniques. The most obvious way is the subjective camera when the viewer sees the action directly from the person of the hero himself. It is noteworthy that due to the obviousness of the technique, the authors resort to it rather sparingly. Much more often, especially during dialogues, the camera is located at eye level, allowing to see what is happening as if from the side of the person next to them. Notably that the camera is always a little closer to the protagonist than to the others. Constant close-ups and details, especially in black and white scenes, help trace changes in the unstable emotional state of the hero. Another cunning way is that in repeated scenes, both the same takes and different ones are deliberately used as memory tends to reproduce the same memories in different ways.

Thus, in the Memento, Nolan used mise en abyme – a story within a story, further confusing the viewer. This creation should be watched especially carefully, and the viewer should even be afraid to blink once again so as not to miss the slightest detail. Memento is filmed so that the viewer understands how a person with anterograde amnesia sees the world. The story contains two main lines, each containing twenty two episodes. One line is colored and inconsecutive; the other is black and white, chronologically successive. Both lines, interrupted by flashbacks, gradually converge, at the end integrating in the most extended episode. Moreover, the whole action of Memento is accompanied by a voice-off commentary from the protagonist. It is another way to penetrate the mind of the hero. This kind of structure is necessary to keep the viewer in sync with Shelby. The director deliberately put the audience in a vexatious position and put her in the place of the protagonist, unraveling the tangle of the mysterious murder of his wife.

Work Cited

Mooney, Darren. Christopher Nolan: A Critical Study of the Films. McFarland & Company, 2018.

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