by GARY YAMASAKI What would it be like to be unable to remember anything for more than five minutes? Director Christopher Nolan attempts to capture this in his Memento (2000), sketching out a storyline in which protagonist Leonard Shelby works to discover who murdered his wife while hampered by anterograde amnesia, a brain dysfunction that prevents one from forming any new memories.
There is actually nothing inherent in this storyline that necessarily lends itself to providing the viewers with a taste of what it is like not to be able to remember anything for more than five minutes. Rather, it is through some innovative editing that Nolan is able to do so. Specifically, Nolan presents the various stages of Leonard’s investigation in reverse chronological order. This forces the viewers to experience each event of the storyline with no knowledge of any earlier events, and thus, in exactly the same way Leonard–with his total lack of recent memories–experiences them.
Consider the following scene. A mug of beer is plunked down on a table, and the woman who brought it says with a smile, “On the house.” Leonard thanks her, and takes a drink from the mug. The camera cuts to a man at the bar chuckling at him, and then cuts to the woman, the smile having disappeared from her face, saying to Leonard, “You really do have a problem, just like the cop said. . . .”
Leonard does not know why the man at the bar is chuckling at him, nor what has prompted the woman to say to him, “You really do have a problem,” simply because he has no recollection of what just happened in the bar a few minutes earlier. The viewers also do not know the reason for the man’s chuckling, nor the woman’s words, for the scene covering what just happened in the bar is yet to come. Essentially, the viewers are being given a taste of Leonard’s experience.
This is all to say that Nolan’s editing moves constitute an elaborate effort at manipulating point of view, that is, at having the viewers experience through Leonard’s point of view his quest to avenge his wife’s death. Specifically, it is point of view on the informational plane that is in play here. As was outlined here and here, an audience can be led to experience events of a storyline through a particular character’s point of view simply be ensuring the audience is given exactly the same amount of information possessed by the character. And Nolan’s editing efforts go a long way toward doing so. By presenting the scenes in reverse chronological order, Nolan deprives the viewers of knowledge of what has happened earlier, thus putting them in the same informational position as Leonard, whose anterograde amnesia prevents him from having knowledge of anything that has happened earlier. Therefore, Nolan’s masterpiece in editing also qualifies as a masterpiece in point-of-view crafting.
POSTSCRIPT: For those who have not seen Memento, a description of what happened in the bar in the few minutes preceding the beer-drinking incident is in order. The viewers will see in the following scene that the woman wants to test the veracity of Leonard’s memory-loss claim. So, she pours a beer, then has the people in the bar add their spit to the mug, and finally, gives the mug to Leonard to see if he will drink from it, and as we saw, he does indeed drink from it, prompting the man at the bar to chuckle, and the woman to say, “You really do have a problem. . . .”