Science and Art: Accepting the differences

First let me thank Ron for his excellent series of contributions on the psychology of memory and its application to Memento. I learned a lot from them and now can see more in this movie than I had before. As a result it has become an even richer movie for me.

But just for fun I want to challenge the methodology of Ron’s approach to understanding Memento. In doing so I hope to make a more important point: that movies should be seen as art and not objects of scientific investigation.

His approach seems to be based on three basic premises:

1. That there is only a single valid explanation of Memento – that is a single valid way to unravel the plot;
2. That he can use the scientific method to discover this interpretation; and
3. That the key “data” to be used by this method has been purposefully planted in the movie by the director, Christopher Nolan.

To take these one at a time.

A single valid explanation of the plot.
On the surface there is good reason to accept this premise. Nolan gave an interview in which he said exactly this.

But in Director’s commentary on the Limited Edition DVD Nolan presents 4 different explanations of the end of the movie (the DVD randomly selects one of these endings – in a separate contribution for those who want to get into this kind of detail, I explain how to access these different commentaries with a minimum amount of pain. These can be accessed at my earlier comment)

So Nolan on the one hand tells us that there is one explanation, yet goes to great lengths to give us 4 of his own. In fact one of these amounts to gibberish because, I have been told, it is one of the others played backwards.

This leads me, and a lot of others, to believe that Nolan is playing games with us. And if he is playing games with what he says about the movie, then we have to allow for the possibility that he is playing games with what he put in the movie. In fact, there turns to be a lot of evidence for this.

The scientific method can be used to find the single valid interpretation
This is too big a topic for this commentary so I am forced to just make a categorical statement that I hope the readers will accept. Here it is:

• The scientific method is a way to test alternative hypotheses about the nature of the physical world. Science attempts to understand the world in a strictly objective way. Science can never probe any hypothesis true; it can only perform experiments that have the potential to show the hypothesis is false. If it is not shown to be false, the credibility of its being true is increased. Repeated failed attempts to prove it false increase this credibility more. (Recall that for centuries people accepted Newtonian mechanics as “true” and then Einstein came along and showed they were false.)
• Movies are an art form. We react to them subjectively as well as objectively. They involve our unconscious as well with out conscious mind. Movies involve our feelings as well as our thoughts.
• Therefore the use of the scientific method may help us appreciate a movie but it can never give us a complete, unambiguous understanding – mostly because this unique understanding does not exist.

There is a good deal of philosophy written on this subject. If you haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, that is an interesting place to start.

The necessary data to understand Memento has been planted in the movie by the director.

Those who have watched Memento a few times would probably all agree that Nolan has planted all sorts of interesting things in it.

The web site lists no less than 24 items that Nolan may have planted on purpose; on the other hand they may be goofs.

This is key: when we see something incongruous in Memento it may in fact be something that Nolan planted there for our benefit and enjoyment, or it could be just a mistake. Mistakes are not uncommon in movies.

There is a scene in which Leonard finds out that the motel operator has rented him two rooms, taking advantage of Leonard’s memory problems. Leonard clearly gets irritated and calls the desk clerk by his name – Burt. But Nolan has already established that Leonard, because of his disease, “cannot” remember names over a period of time and we have seen this illustrated with Burt several times. However in this scene Leonard has not been reminded of Burt’s name, therefore he should not be able to remember it.

Ron takes this to be “proof” that Leonard is faking his disease and claims that this shows Leonard is in fact a psychopath.

But in fact, using the scientific method, one cannot come to that conclusion. All we can say is that this scene is consistent with the hypothesis that Leonard is a psychopath. It doesn’t prove it at all (see previous comment on the scientific method.)

There are alternative explanations for this scene. One is that it is simply a goof. Nolan may simply have forgotten to include the part where Leonard relearns Burt’s name.

Which is right? Is it a goof or is it an important hint?

Studying other parts of the movie we know that Nolan has deliberately inserted “false goofs” to make a point. For example early in the movie Leonard is talking to Teddy about how unreliable memories can be. He has something to the effect: “memories can change the color of a car.” And sure enough in the scene where Dodd is chasing Leonard his car turns from a red SUV to a blue pickup and back. (I have described how to find this event in the clues and goofs site.) It seems probable that Nolan has inserted this color change to underscore how unreliable memories can be.

But can all the anomalies in Memento be shown to be clearly hints by the director? If not, if there are real goofs, then we can’t say that any single anomaly gives us an understanding of the movie. The anomaly may be consistent with a certain hypothetical explanation of the movie but it is also consistent with the hypothesis that it is just another goof. We can’t use that anomaly to choose between these two hypotheses.

Yet Ron does claim that Leonard’s remembering Burt’s name gives us such a clear and unique understanding of the movie. But if we can find some clear real goofs then Ron’s proof falls apart. It may still be true, we just can’t use the scientific method to help us with our understanding.

Here are two likely goofs for example (see the IMBD url above). Natalie’s lip goes from cut, to uncut, and then cut again in the scene where she kisses him. There is no big window to the left side of the door before Leonard breaks into Dodd’s room but there is once he gets inside. I suppose these could be like the car changing color, reminding us that memories are faulty, but unlike the cars they are not set up by previous dialog.

But I think the clincher that shows there really are goofs is when you can see the camera crew in the side of Dodd’s red SUV as he is blocking Leonard’s Jaguar in the chase scene. For the life of me I can’t see how Nolan would be giving us a clue by showing a reflection of his camera crew.

(See the memento-goofs-and-clues section for more detail on these and other “goofs.”


Maybe Ron is right that Leonard does not have a memory problem but is instead a psychopath. I’m not saying he isn’t.

I am saying that using the “clue” that Leonard remembers Burt’s name without being told, does not at all conclusively show that Leonard is faking.

And in a larger more important sense, I am saying that use of the scientific method to dissect a movie for its meaning, is in general not a useful pastime.

Movies are art, made my artists. I think we understand them best when we regard them from that perspective.


One thought on “Science and Art: Accepting the differences

  1. Peter,
    Actually, I agree with (almost) everything you assert here. 🙂

    I don’t think I ever used the term “proof”, but if I did it was an unintended mistake on my part. My argument is only that I have an “interpretation” of the film that is “consistent with all/most of the facts portrayed in the film”. For anyone who disagrees with my interpretation, I ask only two things: 1) What facts portrayed in the film are inconsistent with my interpretation? and 2) If you think you have a different interpretation that is also consistent with most/all of the facts, spell out that interpretation so we can evaluate it.

    As you state eloquently, scientific theories can never be proven; they can only be disproved, by demonstrating that they are inconsistent with some of the observed facts. Similarly, with analytical/scientific interpretations of films.

    By definition, if a theory is not “falsifiable”, then it is not a “scientific” theory. However, I would consider it ludicrous to argue that a theory has to be “scientific” to be of interest or valuable.

    Similarly, I would consider it to be ludicrous to assert that all interpretations of films need be derived from an analytic/scientific perspective. I certainly hope I never asserted that, explicitly or implicitly.

    On the other hand (and here is where we perhaps have a disagreement), I also find the opposite argument ludicrous, that analytical/scientific approaches to interpreting films have no value.

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