Remembrance of things Memento — Part 6: BW Scenes

This is Part 6 in my postings about the movie Memento. The previous post was Part 5. The first post in this series was Part 0.



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 



One thought on “Remembrance of things Memento — Part 6: BW Scenes

  1. Ron:

    My God, sir, you have unloaded a 6-part treatise on both MEMENTO and memory, and I am so overwhelmed, as are most others except Peter who is so busy climbing mountains in Nepal that he has not added to his pertinent original comments yet.

    I went back and rewatched MEMENTO, and actually the spelling of MOMENTO is also acceptable grammerically, but director Christopher Nolan just made up his mind he liked the “E” spelling–and you certainly have brought to light a million and one things relative to the structure of the mind and the film.

    I have been struggling with just how I was going to respond to your narrative, your grand sprawling essay, and after speaking to David yesterday, we decided that actually you are correct in assuming that TFC needs to make this film one of its picks. You are already aware that December will be a holiday fare for films, with many changes in November for our meetings –but what David wants to do is pick MEMENTO for the January selection, and add to it two other films that have “strange and unique points of view”. He and I were considering LADY IN THE LAKE with Robert Montgomery, and D.O.A. with Edmond O’Brien.

    So I will reserve my response for next year, when the film has been seen by everyone, and is discussed in the meeting. It certainly is a gem of a film, and it is amazing that Nolan went on to direct BATMAN BEGINS, and THE PRESTIGE. I certainly do appreciate your half dozen viewings of the film. Rober Ebert did not like it too much, felt it was stiff and very contrived, settling for just setting up a structure that keeps the audience guessing, and not adding to the impact of the film, the plot, or the lack of closure by the ending. I also appreciate your considerable scholarship relative to the psychological aspects of the premise and the film. You will have your day in the sun soon, sir. Are there more sections and parts to come?


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