Quirky form of amnesia makes movie memorable

by Robert J. Hawkins | Sep 10, 2001
Quirky form of amnesia makes movie memorable "The sense of time in conventional movies is incredibly distorted," observes director Christopher Nolan. "I`m just doing it for a reason."

Nolan was right on two counts in this quote from an interview on his remarkable thriller, "Memento." First, his movie completely distorts our sense of time. Second, as he implies, "Memento" is a most unconventional movie.

In the most ordinary of situations, Nolan contends, "the process of memory is much more interpretive than we realize."

In "Memento," Nolan puts his lead character, Leonard, in the most extraordinary of situations. Leonard suffers from a disability called "severe anterograde memory disruption," caused by a blow to the left side of his head as he was trying to rescue his wife from her murderer. In short, Leonard`s brain has become Teflon. Nothing sticks. No memory lasts longer than 10-15 minutes.

Leonard is obsessed with tracking down his wife`s murderer. The problem is, he knows what he wants to do next, but he can`t remember what he did last. He remembers everything in his life that occurred before the blow to the head. He remembers nothing that occurred 10 minutes ago. He must write a note to remind himself to shave. He must reintroduce himself to the same people every time they meet. If he doesn`t write something down, it is vapor in minutes.

This problem is amplified when, for example, Leonard believes he is chasing a man named Dodd - only to suddenly realize, as Dodd pulls into view with gun drawn and blazing away, that Dodd is actually chasing him.

Ignorance isn`t always bliss. In Leonard`s case, it can be downright deadly. Not that we, the audience, know much more than Leonard.

The way Nolan has structured his movie, we begin at the end and must work our way backward through fragmented events, obscure notes, messages, scraps of conversation, encounters with people - until, with Leonard, we have pieced together the whole story.

Like Leonard we have no context in which to process this information. Fortunately, unlike Leonard, we can retain the information as it is revealed.

Leonard has his ways, though. He starts his quest with notebooks, police reports, Post-it notes, Polaroid pictures, diagrams, maps, scraps of information on pieces of paper. He soon realizes that the few facts he has must be organized in a more systematic way - so he has them tattooed onto his body.

He`s looking for a white male, named John or James, whose last name begins with the letter G. He also has a car license number and a note on his left wrist that says "Remember Sammy Jankis" and another that says "Do not answer the phone." Across his chest in reverse lettering is the statement, "James G. raped and murdered my wife." It helps Leonard remember each morning why it is that he now exists - to find and kill his wife`s murderer.

Two people keep floating into Leonard`s life, a barmaid named Natalie, for whom he may or may not have disposed of an abusive boyfriend, and a guy named Teddy, who may or may not be helping him find his wife`s killer. For all Leonard or we know, Teddy may be the murderer.

All this makes for one exhilarating movie. Each discovery is like a brilliant flash in a dark room, revealing one more aspect. Nolan completely stands movie conventions on their head and, boy, do we get an exciting experience for it.

Guy Pearce, whose previous credits include "L.A. Confidential," plays Leonard with a mix of charm and grit. Carrie-Anne Moss ("Matrix" and "Chocolat") is Natalie and Joe Pantoliano ("The Fugitive" and "The Matrix") is Teddy.

Nolan`s movie was inspired by a short-story, "Memento Mori," written by his brother Jonathan Nolan and published in Esquire. The story is republished on the DVD version of the movie. The disc also contains an intriguing pile of clues under the heading "otnemem." (There is also a Web site www.otnemem.com set up by the Nolans to entertain, tantalize and engage fans of the movie.)

You can`t classify "Memento," but if you were to seek familiar touchstones, I`d have to say it is a blend of "The Fugitive" and the old "Twin Peaks" TV series, with a structural bow to Mario Vargas Llosa`s time-

twisting Peruvian novel "The Green House."

We`ve become conditioned to expect movies to force-feed us details and provide instant gratification. A movie like "Memento" sharply reminds us how much we`ve lowered our expectations. Turn this movie on and you won`t be able to shut it off until every last mystery is resolved. When is the last time you could say that about a commercial film?


"When Good Ghouls Go Bad" (Fox, not rated, VHS/DVD) - Christopher Lloyd headlines this family horror tale based on a book by "Goosebumps" franchise master R.L. Stine. Dead uncle Frank (Lloyd) tries to help his nephew Danny (Joe Pichler) undo a Halloween curse that fills his Minnesota home town with prankish ghouls. (Look for the TV premiere on the Fox Family Channel closer to Halloween.)

"Bodywork" (Avalanche, R, VHS/DVD) - Virgil Guppy gets more than he anticipated when he opens the trunk of the slightly damaged Jaguar that he just bought. Now he finds himself framed for murder and must go to that vaunted Hollywood place - underground - to clear his name. Two other popular Hollywood devices figure in this tale: a rising body count and a junkyard climax.


Look for these fine titles to make their DVD debuts in a retail store near you this week: "Little Man Tate," "Home for the Holidays," and special editions of "The Princess Bride," "The Terminator" and "Fiddler on the Roof." Also, "Legend of Hell House," "The Fury," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Movie" and "Phantom of the Paradise."

Also, coming soon: 30th anniversary edition of "The French Connection" (Sept. 25); special editions of "From Here to Eternity," "On the Waterfront" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (Oct. 23); three-disc 1984 TV mini-series "The Blue and the Gray" (Nov. 6); "The Prince of Tides" and "The Age of Innocence" (Nov. 6); "It`s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (Sept. 18).


As a measure of cultural-commercial popularity, the activity on Amazon.com with 35 million customer accounts is not a bad place to start. For, example, although the animated movie "Shrek" won`t be available until November, preorders pushed it to No. 1 on Amazon`s DVD sales chart after the Aug. 10 announcement. What else is hot? "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (Oct. 9), which will be making its DVD debut. Preorders have kept it in the Top 5 since Aug. 1. Other hot DVD titles include the upcoming "Star Wars" and "The Godfather."

Amazon is currently charting the preorder "race" between the DVD "Simpsons: The Entire First Season" and "The Return of the Mummy" sequel. Amazon calls the match-up "Dummy vs. Mummy." Recently "Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth" a 1989 video release, made No. 25 on the DVD list and No. 2 on video, no doubt aided by a recent rebroadcast on public television.


Oct. 9: Comedian Margaret Cho`s 96-minute stand-up routine "I`m the One That I Want."

Oct. 16: It`ll be raining talking animals in "Cats & Dogs" on this day. (See "Dr. Doolittle" on Oct. 23.)

Oct. 16: Romantic comedy "Let It Snow" explores second chance at love.

Oct. 23: Eddie Murphy talked to the animals to the tune of $103 million in the sequel "Dr. Doolittle 2."

Oct. 30: Rob Schneider is a one-man zoo in "The Animal."

Nov. 6: Reese Witherspoon launches the full-court press in the romantic comedy "Legally Blonde."

Nov. 6: John Singleton`s critically praised urban drama "Baby Boy."

Nov. 13: Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusak are "America`s Sweethearts" but Julia Roberts and Billy Crystal have something to say about that in this hit romantic comedy.

Nov. 13: Another "sweetheart" will arrive on this day, Angelina Jolie as "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

Nov. 27: Two pals try to make it in organized crime in the quirky comedy "Made."

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Robert J. Hawkins


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