What is I LOVE That Scene? It is a regular feature on our website in which we detail one single film scene we adore. Typically, the scenes we discuss are those that force us to involuntarily exclaim “I LOVE That Scene!” when they are brought up in conversation, thus the name. It is our intention to turn readers onto films through exposure to single scenes. As such, any spoilers will be clearly indicated.
THE FILM: Memento (2000)
THE PLOT: Christopher Nolan’s second film, and the film that put him on the map, Memento presents protagonist’s Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) and his quest to find and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife. The problem? Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia. “What does that mean,” I hear you ask. Well, it means that, since his wife was killed and he sustained an injury during the struggle, Leonard is incapable of making new memories. As he states, he cannot “feel time,” and his last memory is of his dying wife, so his grief remains raw and unassuaged. To keep his investigation organized he takes Polaroids of people, places, and objects he encounters in his everyday life, labels them with important information, and tattoos his body with information that is critical for him to remember. The facet of the film that makes it noteworthy is its dueling narrative structures: The film features two separate linear paths that converge in the film’s final minutes: one going backwards in time (meaning we see each scene without knowing what has preceded it, much like Leonard himself) and the other going forwards. The film is loaded with the narrative slight-of-hand that has since become synonymous with Nolan’s filmography.
(FOR EVERYTHING BELOW: SPOILERS BELOW. READ ARE YOUR OWN RISK. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)
THE CONTEXT OF THE SCENE:
Biases first, I think Christopher Nolan is the best director to emerge from the indie scene in the last twenty-five years. Of the filmmakers who have found mainstream success from independent roots, Nolan is a unique presence.
Compare him to another director who began in low-budget thrillers and then proceeded to high-budget thrillers: Quentin Tarantino.
Tarantino, another filmmaker I really like, as long as I’m seeing one of his movies and not hearing him speak, is Andrew Lloyd Webber to Nolan’s Stephen Sondheim. I don’t mean that as an insult, but the comparison is valid. Nolan, like Sondheim, is coolly detached during interviews, amazingly even-keeled, and places importance upon narrative trickery and philosophical/ ethical dilemmas the way Sondheim seems to value articulate lyrical dexterity. Nolan appears to live in his head, and finds puzzles the most interesting aspect of film. That doesn’t mean his films aren’t emotionally engaging. Quite the contrary, most of his films pack extreme emotional punches. However, the narrative complexities almost always on display during his films often mean their emotional centers are overshadowed during initial screenings. Multiple viewings reveal the emotional depths at the films’ hearts. Tarantino, in contrast, is all bombastic enthusiasm during interviews (and there may be no filmmaker he loves more than Quentin Tarantino), and his films, like Webber’s musicals, are visually flashy and frequently create a successful, if uneasy, blend between emotional engagement and visual overkill.
Looking at a film like Memento, it’s difficult to see what encouraged Warner Bros. to feel he was the man who could resurrect the Batman franchise, and the fact that he was able to do that through three successful films (say what you will about Dark Knight Rises, but I think it is brilliant– it made more than one billion dollars worldwide, and has an 87% critic approval rating) is all the more impressive.
The scene from Memento that I love (and there are several I could have discussed) really works most effectively when paired with scene that occurs just before it (or just after it, narratively). However, that scene is not available on youtube, so I’ll just have to post the “twist” scene. In the scene right before it (or again, after, if we’re talking chronologically) features Natalie (Carrie Anne Moss), the young woman who has befriended Leonard, walking into her house, face bloodied, claiming she has been beaten by a drug dealer named Dodd (a man we have already seen Leonard encounter, but it hasn’t happened yet if the movie is played in chronological order- confused yet? Don’t worry. It will make sense when you see it.). She convinces Leonard to find Dodd and take care of him for her. Leonard leaves the house, and the viewer knows he is later forced into a confrontation with Dodd. Overall, the scene plays as pretty straight-forward. However, the next scene (which is the scene that would have come right before the scene just discussed), turns it on its head. Natalie storms into the house, takes special care to hide all of the pens she has in her house (as we’ll see, so that Leonard cannot write down what he soon learns about her), provokes him to strike her, goes out to the car, waits for his memory to fade, comes back inside, and claims Dodd beat her up (as we had previously seen).
WHY I LOVE IT: Firstly, I remember seeing this movie in a movie theatre with about twenty other people, and I remember the breath intakes uttered by both myself and the other in attendance. Secondly, it demonstrated something that the viewer should have realized far before this point: Leonard, a man who cannot remember anything he has done, is not the most reliable of narrators.
I know that sounds obvious, but the viewer has been working so hard to keep up with the film’s uniquely structured narrative that he/ she hasn’t had time to think about Leonard’s reliability as a narrator. We’ve kinda just accepted everything we have seen (and everything Leonard has told us) at face value. This scene drives home a point that should have been clear far earlier: that point is that Leonard can be easily mislead and manipulated. And if it can happen here, how many other times has it happened, and how much of what we’ve been told is actually accurate? It brilliantly foreshadows the film’s sucker punch of a resolution, and perfectly displays the narrative talents Nolan continues to utilize throughout his filmography. It’s a brilliant scene from a brilliant writer/ director who has never made a cinematic misstep.
Memento is available to stream through Netflix and for purchase through Amazon’s streaming service and Vudu, as well as available to purchase on DVD or a gorgeous Blu-Ray transfer. I highly recommend it. It’s still one of my all-time favorite movies, and multiple viewings simply reveal how air-tight Nolan’s plot structuring really is.
So, what do you think? Do you have a different favorite scene from Memento? Do you also love the scene we’ve highlighted? Do you have another scene from a different movie you feel we should cover? Peeved that we gave away so many spoilers above? Let us know in the comments.
- “Memento”: a Masterpiece in Point-of-View Manipulation – GARY YAMASAKI (perspectivecriticism.com)