Memento – Is “understanding” a movie necessary, or even important?

I have tried to avoid any “spoilers” in this blog.

In it I hope to address two closely related questions, primarily using the movie Memento as a vehicle.

First, is it necessary to “understand” a movie in order to enjoy it and derive some benefit from it?

Second, does a movie have to be “understandable” to be considered (choose the word you think is most appropriate here) good, great, moving, inspiring. …?

My answer to these two questions is emphatically no. I don’t believe one has to fully understand a movie in order to enjoy or benefit from it, or for a movie to be understandable in order to be considered a great movie.

Memento (2000) was directed by Christopher Nolan based on a short story written by his brother Jonathan (see Members of The Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) rank it number 27 among all movies covered on that site. It is available on DVD including a special addition that includes a director’s commentary (see for example )

The plot of Memento concerns Leonard Shelby, a disabled former insurance investigator, who is suffering from a particular form of amnesia that prevents him, in his own words, from “making new memories.” This condition is the result of a head injury sustained during a robbery attempt on his house. Leonard is the narrator of the story and he tells us that his wife was raped and murdered during this robbery and he is attempting to find the assailant and kill him for revenge.

The film has a complicated structure that makes it both interesting and challenging to follow. Black and white scenes alternate with scenes in color and, as one watches it, one quickly figures out that at least some of the movie is in reverse chronological order. In essence one sees the end of the movie and then is presented with the challenge of determining why it ended that way.

Thus on the first, or surface level, this is a mystery movie and the viewer is challenged to “understand” it by solving the mystery. Understanding at this level is accomplished when the viewer can explain the plot, the connections between and the motivations of each of the characters, and explain how each and every scene fits together with the others in a logical way. Some people claim that this challenge can be met through studiously watching the movie many times.

During the September discussion group of the Tacoma Film Club one member, undisputedly acknowledged as being very film savvy, claimed that most people who saw the movie did not understand it. He further claimed that he was able to understand it only after 5 viewings and then because Nolan’s depiction of Leonard’s condition was flawless in that it could have been taken directly out of the DSM-IV Codes (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association). I am not qualified to affirm or deny consistency of Nolan’s depiction with those codes.

In my opinion however, the film Memento itself, when viewed at a deeper level, attempts to establish that such an understanding is not possible. In other, simpler, words the message of the movie is that the movie itself cannot be explicitly and scientifically understood in any single consistent and coherent framework. Memento itself then disputes any claims of understanding.

This strange contradiction occurs because Memento is really about the nature of memory and the relationship between objective and subjective understanding. At the end of the day Nolan’s message is that all understanding is subjective and objective understanding is impossible.

At its core Memento is about memory and facts. In a key scene Leonard says
“Memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.”

And if there is anything clearly understandable in Memento it is that memories can be manipulated and facts can be invented, distorted and misunderstood. Thus objective understanding is impossible and we are left with only subjective understanding. That leaves us with the question: can a subjective understanding count as any understanding at all?

Now how can I be confident in claiming this? It is because Nolan is so clever that he has taken pain to tell us his intentions quite explicitly. For example Leonard says, “memory can change the color of a car” – and sure enough in the movie there is a scene in which, in Leonard’s memory, a car literally changes color and back in a matter of seconds. (As an aside one can find quite a bit about Memento on the Internet. I found one review that described in great detail almost two pages of “goofs” in the movie. It was a source of great amusement to me to go through the film and find that a number of these “goofs” were obviously inserted by Nolan to show us how memories can be manipulated and “facts” can be unreliable. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to both find this review and determine which goofs were real and which were Nolan’s clues. As a place to get started the car changes color 25 minutes and 47 seconds after Leonard tells us that it will.)

But if we need a crystal clear demonstration that Nolan intended Memento to demonstrate that objective understanding is impossible and therefore we must accept that our interpretations are all subjective, we find this demonstration in the director’s commentary in the limited addition DVD. There Nolan gives us not one but 4 director’s commentaries that differ in their explanation of the key scene that “explains” the movie. We should not be surprised that these explanations are mutually exclusive. How much more explicitly could he tell us that “understanding” Memento on a single objective level is impossible?

In that sense none of us really understand Memento. And that in turn is a reminder of how little of art and life we do understand. I have been a student of the Philosophy of Science my entire professional career. That discipline clearly tells us that science cannot prove – understand if you will – anything. Even in the hard disciplines like physics, scientists do not understand or prove what is true; they can only fail to show that what they believe is false (see Carl Hempel, Philosophy of Natural Science, Prentice Hall, 1966). If this be true in a hard science like physics, how much more so it must be true in the soft sciences like psychology?

So I go back to my two questions:
• Is it necessary to “understand” a movie in order to enjoy it and derive some benefit from it?
• Does a movie have to be “understandable” to be considered (choose the word you think is most appropriate here) good, great, moving, inspiring. …?

And my answer to both is clearly no. Memento’s greatness is demonstrated by it’s following and its high rating on IMDB. Yet it is a self-demonstration on the arrogance of claiming to have mastered objective understanding.

Finally I will argue that Memento is certainly not the only movie that is both great and fundamentally not “understandable.” Please watch my favorite movie of all time, La Double Vie de Veronique directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I will await with great eagerness any replies that claim to give a complete objective understanding of that masterpiece.

Peter Farnum


2 thoughts on “Memento – Is “understanding” a movie necessary, or even important?

  1. Peter,
    So glad to have you contributing to this discussion! I understand that you will probably not have a chance to post additional stuff to this discussion for a while, so I will set this comment as a placemarker to give you some ideas to be thinking about when you can return to the discussion.

    There probably are some grand metaphysical questions that are addressed in Memento, such as what are the differences between objective and subjective knowledge. However, before getting to those grand questions, I want to start with a few questions on a smaller scale. Then, we can work our way up gradually to the broader questions. So let me start with a simple assertion that Leonard makes in the movie:

    Leonard asserts that he has a “problem” that involves “anterograde” “short-term” “memory deficits”.

    Lets parse those terms a little. In my first posting on this topic (, I demonstrated that the symptoms exhibited by Leonard are related to “long-term” rather than “short term memory”. So that specific part of the assertion is incorrect; perhaps not very important to know this as Leonard could have easily just been misinformed or confused about the technical name for the disorder he is exhibiting. On the other hand, this could also be a clue put in the film by the director that we should be somewhat suspicious about other claims made by Leonard. Lets continue on and look at the other assertions.

    Leonard asserts that the form of his memory loss is “anterograde”. There is evidence in the movie that will allow us to decide whether his symptoms are consistent with that technical term. I will deal with those in a future posting.

    Next lets step back a bit and look at the more general assertion that Leonard’s problem involves some form of “memory loss”. There is evidence in the film that will allow us to decide this issue as well. So here is a task I would assign anyone who thinks they “understand” the plotline of this film. Answer the following questions:

    Is there any evidence that Leonard really has a problem that involves “memory loss”? If so, what is that evidence? and, if not, what is that evidence?

    And if the evidence ends up demonstrating that Leonard really does not have any “memory loss”, what exactly is his “problem”?

    The film provides evidence that will allow us to answer all of these questions. If you have some way of answering these questions without consulting the DSM-IV, go for it, and lay out your arguments and evidence. In the meantime, I will continue methodically building my case for an interpretation of this film that is (at least to me) highly satisfying, internally consistent, extremely clever on the part of the director/screenwriter, and that can only be unlocked, in my humble opinion, if one has knowledge of the DSM-IV.


  2. Peter,
    Now that I have had a chance to listen to the Director’s comments on the DVD, I would like comment regarding the distinction between “objective” and “subjective” knowledge. I am struck by the fact that these technical terms have different (opposite in some respects) meanings for a filmmaker than for a scientist. In the commentary, Nolan applies the term “objective” to the black-and-white scenes. What he appears to mean by this is that many of the camera angles are chosen so that the viewer has an impression of observing what is happening from an omniscient point of view. Nolan applies the term “subjective” to the color scenes, because he says many of them are shot in a manner to give us viewers an impression that we are immersed within the action that is taking place.

    As a scientist, I would apply these terms in the opposite direction: “objective” to the color scenes and “subjective” to the black and white scenes. That is because these terms are given a different technical meaning in scientific jargon. They refer to qualities of phenomena under observation (results of experiments in the case of science; what is portrayed in individual scenes in the case of a film).

    It would take way too much space to give a comprehensive description of this distinction here. I devote an entire chapter to this topic in my book “Perception of the Visual Environment” published before I retired back in 2002. In a nutshell, the distinction has to do with whether or not a scientist has any grounds to label a particular observation that is obtained as the outcome of an experiment as being “true” or “false”. Objective observations can be so labelled, but only by following a specific set of rules (operational definitions) that involve the use of “external referents”. Subjective phenomona cannot be so labelled. This distinction is important for all of the sciences, but is particularly important in my own speciality, the study of perception, in which the outcomes of experiments include both objective and subjective phenomena.

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