As we discussed in the previous posting, the color scenes in Memento are shown in reverse order. The BW scenes are shown in chronological order. In addition, within both of these sequences there are also some short sequences of flashbacks inserted. To discuss the internal structure of the film in terms of how these sequences interrelate without becoming cognitively tongue tied we need a set of vocabulary terms. First, we need a term that refers to elapsed time while we are viewing the film, call that viewing time. Some events happen near the beginning of viewing time during the opening credits, others in the middle, still others at the end during the closing credits. Second, we need a term to refer to the time line of the story being depicted in the film, call that story time.
In story time, there is an event that happens at what I will call time 0. All events in story time that happen after time 0 are in color, and we the viewers get to actually see them play out. In contrast, the events that take place before time 0 are all shown in BW, and we do not actually see any of these events take place with our own eyes and ears. They are relayed to us verbally by what the character Leonard is saying on the phone, augmented in some cases visually by flashbacks or dramatizations of these narrations. The story time transition through time 0 takes place in the scene (depicted near the end of film time) where the character Jimmy is murdered. This scene starts out in BW and changes to color after the murder. Every other scene in the film is either completely in color (depicting events after time 0) or completely in BW (depicting events prior to time 0). In viewing time, the BW scenes, depicting the events that happened before time 0, are interspersed with the color scenes that depict what happened after time 0.
The structure of the film can be mapped onto the psychological functions of perception and memory. As each of us carries out our ordinary day-to-day activities, it is the psychological function of perception that provides us with the “facts” about what is going on around us (what we see, hear, smell, touch, taste). However, in order to interpret those facts we also use the psychological function of memory. As we have discussed in previous postings, memory allows us to organize our current experiences into the framework of our “life story” that provides purpose and meaning. But, as we have also discussed in previous postings, memory should not always be trusted. Our memories consist of a mishmash of true memories, distorted memories, and implanted false memories.
The structure of Memento provides us with an analogous situation. The color scenes of Memento provide us with the “facts” of the story (the events that we are actually able to see play out with our own eyes and ears). In general, we should expect that we can trust the “facts” we see in these scenes shown in color. (Exceptions include a few short color flashback scenes that might reflect memories. They might also include a small number of “inside jokes” the director plays on us, but none of these are significant to unraveling the plot.) However, as we discussed in the previous posting, we, the viewers, have trouble interpreting those facts because the color scenes are shown in reverse order. To help us out as we try to interpret these facts, the director also provides us with some “memories” about what has happened in the past, a “life story” that gives the plot purpose and meaning. Those memories are provided to us in the BW scenes. And, just as in real life, we need to keep in mind that these memories (BW scenes) might not be trustworthy! Those BW scenes that influence how we interpret the color scenes as we watch the film might have been false memories, cleverly implanted there by the director. Caveat emptor!
To read my next post, go to Part 7