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Friday, May 26, 2023

May 26, 2023: Great American Screenplays: Memento

[I had planned to feature this week a pre-Memorial Day series on blockbuster films. But with the ongoing and very necessary WGA strike, I’ve decided to share instead a handful of older posts which have focused on films with particularly perfect screenplays. I’d love your thoughts on these as well as your nominees for other great screenplays and writing—in any medium—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity!]

[FYI: this post will focus on some key elements to the final sequence in Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000). Which if you haven’t seen, go watch and then come on back. I’ll be here.]

On the dark, cynical, and unquestionably human final words of a contemporary American classic.

I might be stretching things a bit by calling Memento (2000) an American classic—after all, it was directed by Englishman Christopher Nolan; adapted from a short story, “Memento Mori,” by his equally English brother Jonathan; and stars Aussie Guy Pearce and Canadian Carrie-Anne Moss in two of the three principal roles. But I’m sticking to my guns, and not just because the film is set in the western United States (specifically Nevada, I believe, based on the glimpses we get of license plates; key earlier events and flashbacks take place in California). To me, some of the film’s central themes, while unquestionably universal in significance, echo particularly American narratives: the idea, or perhaps the myth, of the self-made man, creating himself anew out of will and ambition, writing his own future on a blank page (or, in this case, his own body); the Western film trope of a lone warrior, a quiet and threatening man with seemingly no identity or past, traveling on a quest for justice and/or revenge, and entering and changing a corrupt town in the process. In those and other core ways, Memento is deeply and importantly American.

Given that Americanness, and given that it’s a mystery—if a highly unconventional and postmodern one to be sure—it’s likely no surprise that I love the film. But compared to many of the loves I’ve shared this week, and compared to my general AmericanStudying attitude for that matter, Memento is also strikingly dark and cynical; it takes that tone throughout, but most especially in its final revelations and in the interior monologue with which it concludes (that scene is more spoilerific than I’m going to be here, so don’t watch if you haven’t seen the film!). That monologue’s middle section feels logical and rational enough, particularly the lines “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still here.” But it begins with the speaker, protagonist Leonard Shelby, making one of the most blatantly and purposefully self-deceptive and disturbing choices ever put on film, while thinking, ““Do I lie to myself to be happy? … Yes I will.” And so when Leonard (and the film) ends by arguing, “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different,” it seems, in the specific context of what he has done and is doing, who and what he has been revealed to be, to be a profoundly pessimistic perspective on human nature and identity.

Maybe it is that pessimistic—it’s okay if so, not everything can end on notes of hard-won hope, much as I enjoy the concept. The world’s more complex and multi-faceted than that. But if we take a step back from some of the specifics of what Leonard is doing at this moment, it’s also possible to read his actions here, and throughout the film, as purely and simply and definingly human. He’s trying to make meaning out of the world around him, out of the details of his own life (and most especially the hardest and toughest of them), out of what has happened and what is happening and what he hopes to make happen in the time to come. What Leonard does overtly—in those tattoos on his skin, in his photographs and note cards and wall hangings, in his constant interior monologue—is what we all do more subtly but just as constantly: read and respond to the world around us, and make it part of our developing narratives and stories and identities. Granted, I hope that we can do it in less destructive ways than Leonard; he does have that unique condition to contend with, after all (spoilers there too!). But we all do it, and one of the things I love most about Memento is its ability to hold that mirror up to us and how we move through the world.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other great screenwriting you’d nominate?

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