Blog Directory CineVerse: Meet Leonard Shelby--the man behind some unforgettable tattoos

Meet Leonard Shelby--the man behind some unforgettable tattoos

Monday, March 1, 2021

Christopher Nolan’s Memento is regarded by many as one of the finest noir thrillers of the new millennium, and understandably so: By employing two narratives that ingeniously travel in opposite directions, the viewer is challenged to solve the mystery without the benefit of a traditional linear chronology. It’s a risky gambit, but one that paid off for the filmmakers. Our CineVerse club assembled the fragmented forensics strewn across this crime story and concluded the following (to hear a recording of our group discussion, click here):

What did you find memorable, distinctive, or impressive about Memento?

  • It’s a reverse mystery with diverging narratives: The main storyline, shown in color, is told in reverse chronological order, while an intercutting secondary storyline, shown in black-and-white, is told in chronological order. Each of these two narratives contains important clues that, by the end of the film, we can assemble to solve most of the mystery. Also, by the movie’s conclusion, the two narrative sequences converge and correlate.
    • Telling the story primarily in reverse chronological order creates a challenging but intriguing puzzle that can be much more satisfying for audiences to piece together; it also allows us to get into the jumbled and fractured mindset of the flawed main character.
    • The point of the secondary narrative – the Sammy Jankis story – is to suggest that Leonard may not be who we think he is; his condition may not be reliable or real, and who we think is Sammy is likely Leonard, a man who has inadvertently killed his diabetic wife through insulin overdose and who is or was in an insane asylum. For proof of the latter, consider the brief subliminal shot of Leonard sitting in the same chair that Sammy was; the face changes from Sammy to Leonard after someone walks in front of the camera.
    • By the dĂ©nouement, it’s difficult to conclude what is true and who to believe. After all, we are relying on the memory of a man with brain damage who has permitted himself to believe a lie (that Teddy killed his wife).
  • It contains elements and characteristics of classic film noir, including a femme fatale who leads men to danger, a flawed protagonist in a gritty and violent underworld, a pessimistic worldview, an unreliable narrator, and a flawed anti-hero who seeks justice and vengeance in an unjust universe. Memento is a “neo-noir,” which describes contemporary movies made after the classic noir period that spanned 1941 through roughly 1958.
  • The inside joke of the movie is that it’s actually testing your memory of events by telling the tale backward and forcing you to place things together in proper order, which requires strong recollective faculties.

Several questions are left unresolved by the end of the film, including:

  • Is Sammy really Leonard, who mistakenly killed his wife through insulin injection and ended up in a mental hospital?
  • How is it possible for Leonard to recall being in bed with his wife, still alive, and the tattoo on his chest that reads, “John G. raped and killed my wife”?
  • Why can’t Leonard remember that his spouse suffered from diabetes if he can’t recollect his life prior to his brain injury?
  • Why are there pages missing from the police report that Leonard possesses, and who removed these pages?
  • Why does Teddy keep helping Leonard find and kill different men he says are each responsible for the murder of Leonard’s wife? Isn’t this extremely risky for Teddy?
  • Why doesn’t Leonard use a tape or digital recorder to more accurately document facts and quotes?

Themes at play in Memento

  • The unreliability of memory, and the inability of time to heal emotional wounds. Recall how Leonard says “How my supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?”
  • The danger of lying to yourself and believing your own lies, and the repercussions of attempting to heal through violence and vigilante activity.
    • IGN essayist Siddhant Adlakha wrote: “Leonard re-enacts a story akin to a spy movie or detective novel in order to feel a sense of purpose. His lies are more gratifying than having to face the truth of having harmed his wife, and casting “John G” as a phantom mastermind (rather than a junkie he already killed) creates a neat narrative bow for him to chase in perpetuity. This is his “truth,” while his “facts” — manipulated and redacted to send him on his quest — have him returning to an abandoned warehouse to kill the wrong man over and over again. He’s caught in an impotent loop, forever chasing, in his wife’s name, a violent catharsis that will not and cannot last.”
  • Which is more trustworthy: memories or facts? Recall how Leonard puts faith in the facts he’s gathered for himself. But by the end of the narrative, fact and memory have blurred in his universe, with both open to interpretation.
  • Plato’s cave allegory: The philosopher Plato gave an allegory of people imprisoned in a cave since birth and tied up so that they could only gaze on the cave’s back wall; the shadows that fall on this back wall comprise reality to these captives, who have never viewed the outside objective world.

Movies that remind us of Memento

  • Puzzle films like The Usual Suspects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Mulholland Drive
  • Fugue state identity films like Fight Club, Shutter Island, Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder

Other films directed by Christopher Nolan

  • Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises
  • Inception
  • Interstellar
  • Dunkirk
  • The Prestige

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