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Time and Space Manipulation in Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Told in reverse chronology, Memento (2000) is a captivating film noir directed by Christopher Nolan that has gained worldwide acclaim. Based on a short story, Memento Mori, written by the filmmaker’s brother Jonathan, the film explores a number of themes such as personal identity, time and space, moral responsibility, revenge or retribution and memory. The story, on the surface, is not extraordinary more especially for the thriller genre. Leonard Shelby is seeking revenge for the rape and murder of his wife in a brutal home invasion in which he suffers an injury of anterograde amnesia (a memory disorder that is characterized by an individual’s inability to form long-term memories). What is intriguing about the movie, however, is Nolan’s manipulation of time and space in such a way that goes against the audience’s conception of time as unidirectional. The film’s depiction of time, through its backward sequencing of events, contributes to the uncertainty in the film. As Bragues (2008) argues, the movie contradicts the philosophic principle of what time is: the co-presence of different pasts in the current moment rather than a series of succeeding ‘now’ points (63). This essay analyzes how Christopher Nolan dynamizes space and spatializes in a way that make new our perception, thought and feeling towards the character.
Lenard Shelby, the movie’s main character, walks into his bathroom on one February night to find his wife being sexually assaulted by some home invaders. While he manages to kill one of the assailants in the ensuing confrontation, Leonard sustain a head injury that makes him unable to form new memories. His recollection of events ends at the point of attack on his wife who dies from the assault. As Bragues (2008) explains, Leonard, reflecting on the attack, comes to the conclusion that there must have been another man in the bathroom that night although the police are not convinced (62). Similarly, even though the injury has deprived him of the capacity to undertake lengthy undertakings, he decides to focus his energies on finding the second assailant with the intention to avenge the rape and murder of his wife. To remember the relevant facts, Leonard carries a police file on the crime as well as taking pictures and notes. He also tattoos the most essential facts about his revenge mission on his body. Along the way, Leonard is tricked by some individuals who take advantage of his amnesiac condition and vengeful state of mind to murder several people who have no connection with his wife’s other assailant (62). Leonard also ends up killing Teddy, the man behind the manipulative scheme that has led him to kill several other people. However, before Teddy dies, he tells him that it was Leonard himself who killed his wife, who also suffered from diabetes, by injecting her with an insulin overdose. Teddy also suggests that Leonard has reconstructed his memory of events leading to his diabetic wife’s death to conceal a horrible truth about his past while lending a new purpose to his existence. However, given Teddy’s manipulation of Leonard, his credibility is questionable. Similarly, owing to Leonard’s mental disability, it is difficult to determine whether Leonard or the rapist that killed the wife.
Time and Space
As temporal creatures, we are aware of space and time, and the impermanence of time. As such, we try to put everything in a particular context in relation to time. We also perceive events as occurring concurrently and in real time. However, the techniques and syntax of filmmaking provide the directors with the necessary means or tools to manipulate the confines of conventional time in story-telling. Renowned for his manipulation of time in story theme, narrative structure as well as film technique, Nolan crosses the boundaries of time and geographical space in Memento. While according to Einstein, as Brislin (2016) points out, time and space are the same dimension, which implies that time warps and space warps are real, Nolan uses the narrative structure to bring out the interrelatedness of space and time in a bid to challenge the audience to engage with the movie and the various themes he explores on a wider scale (3). Manipulation of time is nothing new to Nolan. His other movies such a Prestige (2006), Following (1998), Inception (2010) as well as Interstellar (2014) not only eschewed the concept of story-telling in chronological order but also flipped the concept of time with parallel narratives that happened simultaneously but at varying speeds. Nolan explains that with Memento, the whole point of the film was to distort the concept of time and space so as to enable the audience to experience something different by looking at the world from a different perspective (4). On his part, Jonathan Nolan, the author of the original story on which the movie is based, elaborates the manipulation of time for the audience by stating that unlike a straight-backwards movie which one can easily flip its two-dimensional time-line over, Memento has no time-line.
Confusing Narrative Structure
The director starts off the film with a fully developed Polaroid shot of a dead man that gradually fades from a clear image to a white blank. It is at this point that the audience realizes that it is dealing with a different telling of time and that the movie is actually running backwards as the white blank emerges from the camera. The Polaroid blank slides back into the camera while the bullet that killed the man goes back into the gun. Leonard’s mind, just like the Polaroid, registers his actions. However, just like Leonard’s amnesia, the audience is left to learn without context. The audience may know where they are but they do not have an idea of how they got there (5). To further reinforce his framing of time and space, Nolan makes use of the Polaroid motif, the alternating black-and-white as well as color sequences, and the body tattoos in the scene. It is in the fourth scene that the audience finally begins to realize that the color sequences are running in reverse chronology and that each ends at exactly the point where the previous one began. Nolan’s intention is to enable the viewers to see the sequences from Leonard’s perspective, rather than their own. Similarly, the color sequences are mostly shot with a hand-held camera to create an unsure, tense and jittery atmosphere. As Brislin argues, the director’s decision to reverse the color sequences is aimed at providing the viewer with an experience of a reversal of their ordinary experience of time (5). This essentially means that concept of who we are and where we are is as a result of the memories we build moment by moment. This is what gives as continuity. We also know who we are due to our ability to recall where we were before. Leonard’s amnesia, which leaves him with perpetually no idea of what he just did or where he is though he knows what he will do next, is Nolan’s way of deconstructing and reconstructing the normal human experience of time and space.
While Nolan’s reversal of human experience of time is used to highlight Leonard’s world that has no immediate past, and is therefore perpetually disorienting, it also gives vital clues in trying to understand the film’s narrative structure. It starts being clear that the two color sequences are in reverse order while the black-and-white sequences (steady and sharp) are chronological arranged. Nolan uses various techniques to manipulate the film’s narrative structure to create a disorientation of the human experience of space and time. For instance, he deliberately alternates the story by telling it from the beginning in chronological order while the end is told in reverse chronological order (7). The beginning and the end then meet in the middle. He also expertly uses the technique of crosscutting, a technique traditionally used to relate actions and events taking place at the same time but at different places, for a different effect. Rather than crosscutting to relate concurrent multiple storylines, Nolan uses the technique to give the audience the same character in a different place and space- not different sets of characters at the same time but in different spaces. The main idea behind the manipulation of medium is to create disorientation for the audience so as to participate in Leonard’s short memory condition. Just like Leonard, the viewers are left unsure of who they are and what is happening. It is not until the end when the two segments of the gradually fading Polaroid and Leonard killing Jimmy G are pieced together that the viewer begins to comprehend the chronological relationship between Leonard’s present and past life (7).
As Brislin (8) further explains, the audience is left to decide whether Leonard is thrust into what can be described as ‘Nietzsche’s nightmare of eternal recurrence.’ In the film, time is finite for him in an infinitely repetitive, frazzled world (8). It is also important to note that the length of the movie’s two storylines is unequal. While Memento’s dramatic focus is in the color sequences which include a lot of dialogue and drama, the black-and-white segment much shorter for a number of reasons. First, the shorter black-and-white scenes are meant to create a time gap between the color scenes. This not only enables the viewer to understand the complexities of the action taking place in the color sequences but also helps to redirect the viewer’s attention to an entirely different story time and space. This is what makes the return to Leonard’s short-term memory a dramatic experience for the audience. Secondly, shot from an angle just above eye-level, the black-and-white sequences thrust the viewer into the role of a witness instead of a participant. A mix of vital information is given in these sequences such as what Leonard knows and what he does not remember, and by using black-and-white segments similar to those used in documentaries, Nolan invites the audience to not only observe but also make their own judgments about Leonard’s condition and actions. Third, Nolan realized that it is difficult to sustain the story of a man stuck in an inherently static position while speaking on the phone for a long period of time. While the main focus of attention is Leonard’s explanation of his traumatic experience after the horrible event, it would not be possible to maintain the audience’s attention if his monologues were to be allowed to run for longer. That Leonard’s monologues are much longer is effectively masked by the fact that they are broken into twenty-two short scenes. The director also employs the use of color contrasts between the two segments of the film to give the audience a visual clue that the story regularly shifts between the two separate and distinct times in the life of Leonard. As a result, the audience is plunged into Leonard’s world to get an experience of his two different times. Just like Leonard, each shift of color sequence leaves the viewers wondering who they are and what is going on because the film momentarily allows them to fully experience Leonard’s short-term memory loss.
Memento is a mind-blowing movie directed by Christopher Nolan. Told in a backward sequencing of events, the film showcases Nolan’s adeptness at using filmmaking techniques to create rich stories and creative narrative structures that go well beyond our normal perspectives. Through the manipulation of time and space, Nolan creates a narrative structure that not only challenges our concept of the interrelatedness of space and time but also engages the audience’s feelings and emotions on a much wider scale.
- Brislin, Tom. Time, Ethics and Films of Christopher Nolan. University of Hawaii, 2016.
- Bragues, George. Memory and Morals in Memento: Hume at the Movies. Film-Philosophy, 12.2 (2008): 62-82. Print.
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