The first lecture in any intro to cinema course would mention that film, by definition, challenges our notions of time and space. The process of movie-making necessarily involves constructing an artificial world, both temporally and spatially, through the series of cuts that eventually become, when strung together, a feature film. The genius of the filmmaker is making this artificial world seem natural to the viewer.
What at first seems like a simple story being told on film reveals itself to be a complex web of cuts between locations, flashbacks, flash forwards and other manipulations of time all in the course of a movie. For years now, Hollywood has striven to minimize the shock caused by this otherwise disruptive approach to art by establishing narrative conventions that have taught us how to watch movies. These conventions are seldom challenged by filmmakers in the cinematic mainstream. The vast majority of films that will make it to any of the local theaters adhere to Hollywood’s standard narrative form, with rare exception.
Christopher Nolan is apparently not a man who values conventions too much. His most recent effort, Memento, finally made its stateside wide release this past week and is the buzz of the film world again, after having occupied the position of the “it” movie during the Sundance Film Festival in February, when it won the Waldo Salt Screenplay Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for best film. He takes an approach to narrative filmmaking not often seen and not easily described, either. Memento could appropriately be called elliptical, I suppose, but such a one word description wouldn’t do the intricacy of its plot development justice. The unorthodox approach that Nolan takes to developing the character of his protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), is what makes this such a memorable picture.
The story, written by the director’s brother, Georgetown alumnus Jonathan Nolan (CAS ‘99), demands a novel approach. Shelby witnesses his wife’s rape and murder at the outset of the film. The next we see him, he is a man in pursuit of vengeance for his wife. The complication is that the horror at the beginning of the movie has caused him to lose his short-term memory. In its place, he has developed an elaborate system of notes, Polaroids and tattoos to help him in tracking down his wife’s killer. Anything he learns must be recorded, because he cannot keep it in memory. The rest of the film then proceeds as a noirish whodunit, with a significant twist.
Nolan chooses to tell the story in a segmented, non-linear fashion. The first scene we see is in fact the most recent, which is then followed by the scene that immediately precedes it in real time, and so on. The end of each scene explains the beginning of the scene before it, suggesting the eerie reality of life without a short-term memory. This technique enhances the mystery of the story, and reminds the viewer that nothing he or she sees can be taken at face value. Nolan and Nolan have crafted a captivating mystery, and the elder Nolan’s direction makes it a pleasure to watch the story unfold and then pack itself back up again.
Shelby encounters the same characters over and over again in his quest: Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a woman who may or may not be trying to help him along, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a man who is either a cop or a murderer, and Sammy Jankins (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man suffering from the same lack of short-term memory loss, whose existence cannot be verified. But the acting is the chief deficiency of this film.
While Nolan has created a strong work that defies our typical notion of the mystery genre, he cannot escape Pearce’s sub-par lead performance. While Pantoliano steals every scene he is in, Moss ruins most of hers, suggesting a net-zero approach to casting. Often times films that attempt to challenge the Hollywood narrative structure can come across as gimmicky, as in the case of Run Lola Run. Memento escapes this fate, and for this reason deserves serious praise. However, its success only leaves the viewer wondering what the director could do if he was given a serious crop of actors to work with.