The power of the film Memento comes as much from its structure as from the dialog and actions of the characters. There are two key elements to the structure of the film: color coding and temporal sequencing. Two kinds of color coding are utilized. Some scenes are shot in black-and-white (BW) and others are shot in color. There is an interaction between the color coding and the temporal sequencing because the BW scenes run forward in time while the color sequences run backwards in time. In this posting we will concentrate primarily on the color scenes. In the posting to follow we will discuss the BW scenes.
Having the color scenes run backwards serves two purposes. First, this structure allows us to get inside the head of the main character, Leonard. Second, this structure allows the film to provide a powerful demonstration, experientially, of how memory functions in normal individuals, namely, us while we are watching the film.
Imagine what the psychological experience would be like for someone having the clinical condition exhibited by Leonard, anterograde long-term memory loss. You would be constantly taking in the same information about the surrounding environment as individuals having normal memory systems. You would be seeing the same things, hearing the same things, etc. However, everyone else is able to interpret what they are seeing with reference to what has happened previously. You would not, since you have no memory for what happened more than a few seconds in the past. The screenwriter gives us some examples using dialog to help us understand what this condition would be like. For example, consider the scene where Leonard is sitting in a bathroom and sees a mostly drunk bottle of scotch setting on the back of the toilet. An individual with normal memory would know why the almost empty bottle is sitting there – only minutes before Leonard brought the bottle into the room to have available as a potential weapon. However, since Leonard has no memory of what happened minutes before, he speculates, wondering why he does not feel drunk if he has consumed that much scotch.
In addition to these kinds of illustrations based on dialog, we, the viewers of the film, are simultaneously also given a more immediate, intuitive feeling of what it would be like to have Leonard’s condition. Since the color sequences of the film are running backwards, we feel disoriented in somewhat the same way as Leonard. We, the viewers, have no idea why Leonard happens to be in this particular motel room at this time. We have not yet seen the scenes that show us what led to Leonard being in this motel room. If we were watching a “normal” movie, we would be able to interpret this scene based on what we learned from the scenes that proceeded the current one. But in Memento we are forced to interpret each scene without reference to a “memory” of the scenes that proceeded the current one.
In addition to helping us get inside the head of Leonard, the reverse sequence of the color scenes also serves another purpose for the film viewer. It gives us a sense of the role memory plays in ordinary people as we go through life. In my previous posting I summarized the scientific evidence demonstrating that memory does not function to provide an accurate record of what happened to us in the past. Instead, memory serves a different psychological function. It provides the unifying themes around which we organize and interpret all of the information taken in by our sense organs during ordinary life. For example, consider a person who carries around the memory, “My life was ruined by my parents, and I could have gone on to do great things if it wasn’t for them!” Each time this individual encounters a difficult situation in life, his interpretation of the events is, “This is another example of how my life has been ruined by my parents”. Next consider the reaction of a different person encountering the exact same difficult situation in life, but who carries around a different set of memories, “I was raised to be the kind of person who never gives up”. The interpretation of the difficult situation by this person will be something along the lines, “This is another opportunity for me to rise above these obstacles and prevail.”
As these examples illustrate, the function of memories is to provide the psychological scaffolding we use to interpret new situations and to bring meaning and purpose to our lives. When I teach these ideas in Introductory Psychology classes, one of the main “take-home” messages I try to instill in the students when we cover the topic of memory is that we should all be very careful about the memories we keep.
This property of memory is illustrated dramatically in the person of Leonard in Memento. Every new situation Leonard encounters is interpreted and organized around an underlying theme he keeps in his “memory”. Since he can not keep this memory in his head, he put it on his chest in the form of a tattoo. His life is organized around the theme that he needs to find the person named John G who raped and killed his wife. But here is the rub — We know that memories can be unreliable. So what if this is a false memory? In order to interpret the film Memento, one task we are going to have to take on is to evaluate whether this memory that is guiding Leonard’s entire life is true or false. We know that the memory is “true” psychologically for Leonard in the sense that it is the major theme organizing his life. But, speaking objectively in terms of what actually happened in the past we need ask some questions. Was Leonard’s wife raped? If so, was it done by John G? Was Leonard’s wife murdered? If so, was that done by John G? Is Leonard’s wife even dead? Did Leonard even have a wife? Yikes! Once one starts doubting the reliability of memory, it is hard to know where it might lead.
The next post in this series is Part 6.