Backwards sense make should this, or, Christopher Nolan, remember?

by TheLitCritGuy



If the title of the article hasn’t given away the name of today’s film then you clearly need to stop getting out so much and watch some more movies; clearly you’ve been having too much of a social life or friends to be paying attention to a BritishAmerican guy called Christopher Nolan. For those of you for whom this name only rings faint bells, probably associated with a certain Bat-Man, then consider this your movie education. Nolan is a director who is surprisingly little known apart from the trilogy of Batman movies that have proven that superhero films can be critically and commercially successful – for this alone he should deserve unending respect and creative freedom. Personally I also think he should be followed everywhere by the director of the horror that was The Green Lantern movie apologising for not paying close enough attention on how to direct a superhero movie.

Nolan is somewhat unique in modern directors as, speaking personally here, I don’t believe he has ever produced a bad movie. Ever. And when that’s considered in the modern gulag that is the cinematic world that is kind of impressive fact and places Nolan in the company of the hottest directors currently working. Nolan has a reputation as a consummate professional but his films have been played down by some for producing films that are too cerebral. Maybe too cold. Too interested in the intellect and too much emphasis on the power of the mind in getting through events.

Frankly, anyone who thinks this makes Nolan a poor director or someone who can’t communicate a decent story is…well…wrong. And for proof, we’ll turn to what was only Nolan’s second feature film; the staggeringly good film from 2000, Memento.

Now, again, as per usual I am going to try to avoid spoilers but rather than out of mere politeness as with usual films, Memento is a film that any spoilers would ruin. Let me say this, right now – if you haven’t seen this film, go out and find a copy. Buy it. Watch it and you’ll see one of the most creative, interesting films produced in the last fifteen years. The film follows Leonard Shelby, (Guy Pearce) a man who suffers from retrograde amnesia who is looking for the man who has murdered his wife.

So, on to some of the many, many positives  the film posses. Guy Pearce is Leonard Shelby, a man who can only hold things in his head for fifteen minutes at a time. He’s a great combination of driven, vulnerable and lost and the film’s incredible script brings all of this across; the rage, the loss and even the black comedy that comes out of the situation. One great sequence involves Pearce and a man with a gun. In the voiceover Shelby wonders whether he’s chasing this guy or being chased by him. A gunshot rings out. And dryly he realises which is the right answer…

The rest of the actors all do an admirable job but the film’s real strengths lie in the script – which won an Oscar and the direction. The film feels like a noir film with ADHD, splicing between artful monochrome, splashes of colour and an expert use of light and shade. The whole story unfolds in a non-linear fashion and as you watch you piece the story together alongside Leonard. It’s sad and strange and wonderfully done – its themes and the huge twist that the film’s end delivers is made even more brutal by being the beginning of the narrative told at the very end of the film. Once you put the narrative together in your own mind, you’ll want to watch it again. And again. And again. It is that good.

But as an adaptation? Well, here’s the thing, a lot of people don’t know, but the film is based on a very good short story published in Esquire in 2001. It was written by a successful screen writer who worked on projects such as The Prestige and a little known film called The Dark Knight. Yeah, that one. The writer’s name? Jonathan Nolan.

It must be genetic, at some level anyway…

The short story, Memento Mori didn’t really bear a close resemblance to the film but you know something? I think it’s a brilliant adaptation, thanks not necessarily to things like plot or characters but on the level of form and the similarities in ideas.  The story, written, (depressingly) when Jonathan Nolan was still at university, centres around a man called Earl who can only remember things for a few minutes at a time and who developed his condition when his wife was murdered by an assailant who causes Earl memory loss. He uses notes to himself and tattoos to keep track of new information. The temporal nature of the story is as fractured as the film’s. Earl story basically follows three different time scales. We see Earl escape from the mental institution where he’s kept, the next time line follows his escape and his search for revenge and then he manages to get his revenge and utterly fails to remember it.

As I said, the success or failure of this as an adaptation can’t really rest on the similarities between the two on the level of plot. This is an adaptation that works best on the level of form. As with the film, the notes that Earl leaves for himself are done incredibly well and the quest for revenge has a similar ultimate futility to it, given his fragile and broken mind. The question that the short story raises is one that the film will make you think about on around the third time you watch it. Namely, this….if you can’t remember anything that happened to you, then who are you? The most commonly held assumption about what philosophers call our  personal continuation throughout existence is that without the notion of psychological consistency, effectively it would be nigh on impossible to claim that you are the same person that you were. It may sound slightly odd but think about it, if the timescale of your memory was reduced to the length of time it has taken you to read this article, (thanks by the way) then who are you? What will happen when you stop reading? If you have no memory of it – does that make you someone else.

The most troubling implication is perhaps one the film has more time and space in its form to play around with – if everything you are, (in a mental state kind of way) is so fragile, how easy would it be to manipulate you? Who would you be? Could it be shaped? Changed?

In a way, both the story and the film are wake up calls. Who you are is indelibly a construct. A construct of lots of different things, yes, such as culture and nature/nurture and your own psychology but so much of this is dependent on your own memory. The scary thing is, it can all be taken away so easily. So simply.

This is what great art is meant to do folks, to jolt us out-of-the-way we look at the world and remember that life is fragile and precious. The saddest moments of the film and the short story aren’t the horrible things that have happened to them, or their wives. The true tragedy is that they can’t remember winning. Revenge is futile, because how can you take revenge if you can’t remember the hurt you suffered? Or who you’re taking revenge for? Or why?

Lots of questions, I know but if you haven’t watched the movie in a while, seek it out. But be warned, you’ll end up like me, putting your two cents in whenever someone brings it up. Disagree? Saw it and hated it? Great – join in the debate in the comment section.



Oh, I realise that there weren’t that many gags in this week’s column. I was going to do this whole thing where I wrote the whole blog backwards and you would have had to have read to the very end to figure out what I was talking about. Would have been awesome, though I decided it would be way too much hard work. Next time, promise!