• The Curator

Christopher Nolan’s Memento

A person's identity is a combination of where they're situated in the world around them and how they react to it. Except, those two things don't stay constant over time. What is it that makes me continue to be me, even as I keep changing? If it's the continuity of memory, the fact that I mostly remember being the me from the recent past, then those who lack this continuity might be entirely different people every few minutes.

The Nolan brothers dig deep into this idea with Memento, through both form and plot. Plot because the protagonist, Leonard Shelby, cannot form long term memories, often finding himself in situations he doesn't know how he got himself into. Form because the main plot of the film is presented in reverse chronological order, so we're just as lost as he is. In the absence of memories to rely on, our protagonist uses other tools such as written notes to be able to make sense of the world around him, so his identity now relies on these tools as much as ours relies on our memories. Over the course of the film, we see these tools manipulated to give us many different Leonards based on what guiding notes he has available at the time, but accustomed as we are to character continuity in film, we think to ourselves, "I know him better than he does, I can know who he is as a person once I've unraveled enough of his past, I don't have to rely on notes." The film, as one would expect from a Nolan, shoots that idea down and then some.

A first viewing of the film leads the viewer to keep asking themselves, "who is Leonard Shelby?" By the end of the film, as we get into morally murky territory, we ask "Is Leonard Shelby a good person?" But the more we think about the film, the more we re-watch it, those questions disappear, and Leonard stops being one person, and becomes many. Some Leonards are kind, others are monsters. I myself could be a much better or worse person if my current set of memories and reliable sources was replaced with a different set. The Nolans won't tell us what to do with this realization. It can scare me to think that all my values are contingent, it can be liberating to think that all I can really expect of myself is to do the best with what I have, that's up to me. But all that armchair philosophizing only begins where Memento ends.

By Utkarsh Bansal


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