Thursday, July 20, 2017

Top 56 Things I Love About Memento (that no one talks about)

Memento is a modern classic of cinema; not only my favorite Christopher Nolan film, but one of my favorite films period. It’s a unique, groundbreaking thriller that I have seen dozens of times, and studied endlessly. Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, opens today, and before we take a look at the new, I thought it’d be prudent to jump back and examine one of Nolan’s first.

The first image of the film fading in over the title card. And what an image it is.

This opening shot is reversed, but the sound in this scene is played straight. Purposefully mixing up these two elements immediately sets the tone for the film.

I love that Leonard (Guy Pearce) is crying in this shot. He finally got his “man.” But how long will the satisfaction last? Truly, where does Leonard go from here? Will he meet back up with Natalie? Will the “real” cops track him down? Will he actually remember? I’m talking about the movie like it’s the end, because it is. Sort of.

I didn’t know what the hell was going on the first time I saw this movie. I was 15, knew absolutely nothing about the film, and made my dad take me to see it. But when that damn gun flew back up into Leonard’s hand, I knew I was in for something special.

Chewing gum is hard to pull off in movies. Chiefly, it is a nightmare for sound mixers to deal with, but also, most people look ridiculous when they chew gum. As a result, gum chewing is pretty rare on film, unless it factors into the plot (as it does for Al Pacino’s character in Nolan’s film, Insomnia). Point being, the way Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) chomps on his gum in his opening scene tells us so much about the character. Mostly that he’s a little obnoxious, and doesn’t really care what others think.

“Roll up your window.”
“It’s broken.”
“I can’t get that fixed for ya.”
Of course Teddy is the type of guy who can get your broken window fixed.

Pearce’s low, baritone delivery of “Don’t remember.” I love the command Pearce has on his voice in this film.

Good time to mention David Julyan’s beautiful synth score, which really is a character itself. It guides Leonard (and us), but doesn’t force emotion. Juylan said he was influenced by the scores from Blade Runner and The Thin Red Line, which I can definitely hear here.

The way you can hear one of these bullets hit the floor of the truck. Such a nice touch.

And look at Leonard’s face in this scene, look at his vague remembrance of being here. You know that annoying feeling of waking up and having a dream slip out of your mind as the seconds pass? That’s how this dude feels all the time.

Teddy sighing audibly as Leonard suggests they look around inside. Pantoliano is so skilled at subtle comedy.

The way Teddy is smiling as Leonard holds a gun to his head. You really can’t tell if Teddy is afraid to die or not.

Memento contains some of the best narration in all of cinema. That’s thanks to the writing, and Pearce’s command of his voice. Listen here, as he discusses the motel room Bible. After he says “…which I of course read… religiously,” he chuckles a bit then lets out a slight “Mmmm” sound, as if he’s satisfied by the thought, but also embarrassed that he admitted to reading the motel Bible. Such a nice beat, that little “Mmmm.”

“Sammy Jankins had the same… problem, but he really had no… system.” The way Pearce takes pauses while delivering this narration, it’s as if Leonard isn’t really sure what he’s saying. Is he remembering correctly, or making it up as he goes?

Leonard’s demeanor after he settles on killing Teddy. His determination, his strut, adjusting the camera – this dude is ready. Until he isn’t.

Burt (the great Mark Boone Junior) toying with Leonard. Although Burt seems perfectly innocent, I love that Junior plays him in a way that makes us suspect him slightly.

The way Leonard casually gets a few towels when someone else walks into the bathroom, as if Leonard is embarrassed that he has all those tattoos.

I always thought it was weird that Leonard keeps his map above his bed. I mean, he walks on his pillows, with his shoes on, as he looks at the map. I suppose he’s so obsessed he doesn’t have time to care about hygiene. (Which, come to think of it, is probably true, since he never washes that damn shirt of “his.”)

The date that Teddy’s license expires. February 29 is indeed the leap year date, but 2001 wasn’t a leap year. Hmmm.

Leonard struggling to get Teddy’s Polaroid off the map.

The framing of this shot. The rusty vent, the door crashing the right side of the frame, Leonard’s most telling tattoo singled out – the genius of cinematographer Wally Pfister.

The disappointment in Natalie’s (Carrie-Anne Moss) voice when she tells Leonard he doesn’t remember her. Remember what happened the last time they met?

Memento benefits from repeat viewings in a way very few films do. Initially, we have no idea what Natalie’s intentions are, but after we’ve watched the film a few times, it’s clear (to me, anyway) that she is the main villain of the film. Lying, cheating, beating, killing – it’s all done to benefit her. But why?

Another great line delivery.

Our first glimpse of Leonard’s wife (Jorja Fox) has a distinctly Terrence Malick vibe. Handheld, quick, abstract. We’re 20 minutes into Memento and the film introduces a sequence that is unlike anything we’ve seen in the film thus far. This is Memento’s magic – it keeps revealing itself to us up until the very end.

Leonard’s timid embarrassment after he looks up his motel name.

This jump cut. The change in his appearance is so startling.

Teddy trying to interject during Leonard’s “memory is unreliable” rant. Attempted interjections are actually pretty rare in film, especially when the actors are in the same shot like this. It’s all about timing and trusting your scene partner.

Leonard pushing on the pull door. 

Leonard ringing the attention bell even though Burt is sitting right there.

The way “old” Leonard sprints up the Jankins’ doorstep. He’s so eager and full of life.

Love this little moment between Natalie and Leonard. Why is she startled that he’s in her bed? (She came on to him, after all.) And his response to her shock is, “It’s only me.” As if he remembers.

And here we thought Sammy was such a nice, lonely guy.

I love that Memento isn’t afraid to live in dirt. Leonard’s motel is a shithole, Natalie’s house is a shithole, everyone drives pieces of shit – Memento lives in the real world, removed from the Hollywood gloss.

I’ve always gotten a distinctly Se7en vibe from this photo.

Leonard using a glass ashtray as a point of reference for memory. The way he spins it in his hand feels so authentic.

Another great line delivery, particularly how he throws away, “You know.”

This was the shot. All those years ago, as I sat in the theater with my dad, watching Memento for the first time, this was the shot that finally made my dad speak up. We went into the movie blind, knowing absolutely nothing about it. When he saw this gun, he leaned over to me and said, “Do you have any idea what the hell is going on?” To which I replied, while smiling, “No, not at all, but I absolutely love it.”

The chemistry between these two is perfect.

This scene breaks my heart. Mrs. Jankins (Harriet Sansom Harris) yelling “You did something wrong!” while her voice cracks, Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky) pleading “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” – it’s just so sad.

This little piece of paper flying out of Leonard’s hands as he tries to read it.

One of my favorite deliveries of the word “Fuck” in all of film. The way he just breathes it out. This is a Top 10 “Fuck,” no question.

This scene has been talked about a lot, but one thing that isn’t mentioned often is Pearce’s calm, relaxed narration. You’d expect the opposite. But Christopher Nolan fools us once again.

Leonard’s reaction when he realizes he kicked the wrong door in. Not quite as good as the previous “Fuck,” but another great “Fuck” all the same.

The most telling line of the film, brilliantly delivered by Pantoliano.

Always loved the wording of, “I’ll give him some bruises of his own.”

The composition of this shot. Straight out of film noir.

Leonard and Natalie’s first meeting is probably my favorite scene to pick apart on repeat viewings. The weight added to throwaway lines like, “You can’t come in here dressed like that…” is so heavy when you watch the film again. Also, why doesn’t she seem remotely upset that her boyfriend is (probably) dead, and his (assumed) murderer is sitting directly in front of her?

It’s crazy how wardrobe can inform a character. Leonard looks completely different here, based solely on how he’s dressed.

Teddy throwing his styrofoam cup on the ground.

Jimmy (Larry Holden) recognizing Leonard. I would love to know when and why they met each other previously.

This is the moment of the film. Rarely do movies click into place so thoroughly with just a single shot.

Pantoliano’s “I don’t know,” is absolutely hilarious, despite being said in such a tense moment.

I genuinely think Teddy cares for Leonard. Yes, Teddy does use Leonard, probably to help pick off guys that get in Teddy’s way, but I do think he also helped Leonard back in the day. Basically, I believe Teddy. But who the hell knows.

I absolutely love how the film ends, with the hero/villain digging through the weeds, while our hero/villain justifies his future actions. No one is perfect in Memento. Everyone is flawed. And that’s what makes it so intriguing.

So telling that the final frame of the film is Leonard looking away from us. 

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12 comments:

  1. This is a great film that I think is something that has to be re-watched over and over again. It is truly a masterclass in cinema. Just don't tell that to some asshole critic named Jack Sommersby who also used to write for Epinions.com and efilmCritic or something. He's a fucking piece of shit and I called him out as a fucking hack.

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    1. Ohhh damn. What'd he do, trash the movie? I would love to read your comments calling him out. Haters are gonna hate, I suppose. So happy you like Memento though.

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    2. I don't know what I said to him. I do remember that he didn't like any of the films I liked and I think he set me off one time and I got into some trouble and this was in the time just before I left the site for good. I think all of those comments are gone now. I haven't heard from him for years and don't want to. I like to believe he is off somewhere not doing a damn thing knowing that I owned him.

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    3. Haha that's awesome. Well I'm glad it didn't discourage you from writing reviews. You're one of the best, most prolific bloggers out there.

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  2. Such an excellent post! We should make lists of our favorite 'fuck'. I actually have a same point made in part 2 of Logan list where my favorite 'fuck' is mentioned

    This is the only movie in the history of films I've seen that made me think so hard I head a headache for a day. The constant need to remember how each scene began not to get lost - just so confusing but also so much fun and so rewatchable. I think with this, the fun in looking for clues on rewatch in Prestige and the brilliant surprises in Dunkirk's structure Nolan makes some of the most rewatchable films ever when it comes to sheer film-making craft. And they are all so rich, so much is hidden, so much is so well-thought. I may not like Inception like most do but I respect Nolan for ambition and attention.

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    1. Thanks! I have definitely drafted that Fuck list in the past, but it's so hard to narrow down. I should revisit it though.

      And that's the thing... even if you don't dig Nolan's films, it's hard not to appreciate their ambition. The man makes huge movies and he always does it in a fresh way. I love rewatching them and picking them apart.

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  3. Still my favorite Nolan movie (The Prestige is just right below it) and one of the movies i love re-watching the most. It one of the most unique and cool movies i have ever seen. The entire cast just kills it, but i have never seen Stephen Tobolowsky better than here. This is the first movie i really noticed how great of an actor he is instead of just that guy that pops up in 80 percent of movies ever made. I can't wait to go see Dunkirk next week, but i think i have to give this another go again first after reading this.

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    1. Nice man, it's definitely my favorite Nolan film as well. Though I admittedly love then all, even Dark Knight Rises. Dunkirk is such an astounding achievement. I just love that Warner Bros. let's Nolan make the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them.

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  4. This is my favorite Nolan film too! I haven’t seen it in a few years and this post is making me want to watch it asap. I'm also thinking the movie world needs more Guy Pearce! The first time I saw him was as Felicia/Adam in Priscilla and I thought he was terrific. I think the last performance I really enjoyed from him was his role as the dad/musician in Breathe In.

    I love Memento’s atmosphere… the awkwardness of some details/characters has a Silent Hill 2 vibe that I love, or at least when I was playing that game it made me think of this film. I loved all that confusion that the character goes through. I tend to love those characters and films where everything it’s like a puzzle, as I got the same vibes with Angel Heart, Lost Highway and Jacob’s Ladder and I loved the experience of watching all those films.

    I also like a lot that bed moment and the film noir style of some scenes. And I didn’t remember Mark Boone Junior was in this! I think he was in Batman Begins too… I binge watched Sons of Anarchy last year and he was quite cool in there.

    You've mentioned Insomnia, as lately I'm a lot into Nordic noir I watched the 1997 Norwegian/Swedish one. I don't know if you've watched it, it's quite different to Nolan's version but I thought it had some terrific moments, specially because of the great Stellan Skarsgård (big fan) and Bjørn Floberg, who I haven't seen before, was great too.

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    1. Oh I love the original Insomnia. Hard to pick a favorite between the two. But Memento... love that it's your favorite Nolan film as well. It's such a strong movie in vision, tone, execution. And yes, Guy Pearce should be in everything! I'm still surprised he hasn't worked with Nolan since. I always wondered if they had a falling out or never really got along. Plenty of roles in subsequent Nolan films were suited for Pearce. Strange.

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  5. A clever movie which I too can watch endlessly. Joe Pantoliano is fun to watch here. The dvd allowed me to see in chronological order, though I did feel that was cheating! Must be a nightmare to have Leonard’s condition, although it makes for an interesting story.

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    1. I remember flipping out when I heard about that chronological easter egg. It still kind of works - "Will he actually kill Teddy?!" - but it's much better as it is now. Still, that's such a groovy special feature! So happy you're a fan of this movie.

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