Film Analysis: Memento

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The concepts of story and plot may have similar connotations, but when it comes to filmmaking, they are two different elements. In the context of the world created by a given film, the story is all-encompassing – it consists of the explicit events presented, as well as everything that the viewer can infer that is not explicitly shown or told by the narrative. Conversely, the plot of a film is comprised of actions and events that are deliberately chosen by the filmmaker in order to convey messages and manipulate the audience. Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento manipulates the viewer by telling through narration a story which may or not be true, and carefully selecting what it actually shows on screen as part of the plot. This is demonstrated when it is revealed that the main character of the movie committed a murder, but the viewer never sees it happen. The film also illustrates the often overlooked difference between story and plot by deliberately changing the order of the story’s events as they are shown, and by including what are called nondiegetic elements such as a musical score, as well as titles and credits, as these elements exist outside of the story.

The filmmakers behind Memento used several different narrative techniques to present the movie’s unique even structure. While the vast majority of movies follow a three-act format comprised of the setup, conflict, and resolution, Memento breaks that mold by presenting the action in two distinct lines. Each line of action in the film consists of twenty-two scenes, with one set filmed in color, and the other in black-and-white. What makes this film so unique is that the black-and-white scenes, most of which feature the main character Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) speaking with another character on the phone, are put in chronological order, while the color scenes, which feature the film’s action, are shown in reverse-chronological order. At the end of the film, both lines meet and join together in a crucial scene. The significance of this choice of structure, with the rotating color and black-and-white scenes, is that each scene shows the viewer how the previous one came to be. The film also employs first-person narration in the form of voice-over, as Leonard conveys information about the process he goes through to complete his mission, but you don’t see him actually speaking.

The film’s protagonist is Leonard Shelby, who is attempting to avenge the supposed death of his wife. Along with him, the other major characters in the film are Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), the police officer who is helping Leonard with his quest, and Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), a woman who he meets who reluctantly agrees to help him, but has ulterior motives for doing so. Any character in a movie can be categorized as either round or flat, depending on the complexity of their personality and traits, and whether or not they change in any way as the movie progresses. While Leonard is arguably the protagonist in Memento, he undergoes a transformation throughout the film, going from a seemingly good man whose only fault is that he believes that killing the man who he is convinced killed his wife will make things right, to a sociopath bent on killing again and again, repeating a mission that may already be completed. This change in his actions and motives makes him a round character. Similarly, Teddy, a jovial and likable undercover cop, seems at first to be genuinely interested in helping Leonard, but later on in the film, it is revealed that he is using Leonard to eliminate drug dealers via fake drug deals that he sets up, and pockets the proceeds. Teddy is also a round character, because of the way the audience’s perception of him changes with this revelation. Natalie, the woman who the viewer initially believes is being beaten by her drug-dealing boyfriend, turns out to be another user who tries to dupe Leonard into getting rid of her boss. She too can be classified as a round character, due to the complexity she brings to the plot, and her motives which are revealed during the proceedings. Although not a major character, the hotel clerk that Leonard converses with several times during the movie is a flat character, because he given very little in the way of personality, and is comparatively ineffectual to the plot of the film. Theoretically, if a film has a protagonist, it will also have an antagonist, which stands in opposition to the protagonist and the mission that character is striving to complete. However, unlike the protagonist, the antagonist does not necessarily have to be a person. In the case of Memento, the antagonist happens to be Leonard’s condition, which as the result of the head trauma he suffered during the attack on him and his wife, prevents him from being able to create new memories. This drives Leonard to develop a complicated system of clues and reminders, many of which he tattoos onto his body, that he uses to stay on track in his search.

Memento is a film that breaks the boundaries of the traditional narrative structure, shunning the three-act format in favor of a unique style in which one half of the movie is presented chronologically, and the other half is shown backwards, with those two separate sets of scenes alternating in order and color. The movie demonstrates the difference between story and plot in relation to filmmaking, as some of the events the viewer knows or assumes to have happened are not explicitly shown on screen. Much of the exposition of the film is presented through voice-over narration, providing backstory to events that the viewer does not see, and may not have even happened the way they are told. The film’s main characters are all round, offering surprises, twists and complexity. The fact that the film’s antagonist is a mental condition as opposed to a human being puts Memento further out of the arc of conventional filmmaking.

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