By: Jessica Pu (Bugle Team)
Recently, I have been binge watching psychological thrillers, and the most distinct among them was Memento. The non-linear narration, intricate plot and protagonist’s internal struggle make this movie remarkably fascinating and unique.
Memento is a neo-noir psychological thriller directed by Christopher Nolan. The film is interspersed by two plotlines. The first plotline depicts the sequences of events in chronological order. The scenes here are entirely in black and white to represent the past. The second plotline, on the other hand, is colourful and shows the present in reverse sequence. The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, is a patient suffering from anterograde amnesia. Anterograde amnesia is the loss of ability to generate new memories after the event that caused amnesia. Thus, although Leonard immediately forgets who he has met and what he has done after 15 minutes, he still remembers his deceased wife. He believes that she had been raped and murdered in an attack, in which he himself was clubbed, resulting in anterograde amnesia. He desperately tries to capture the attacker through the clues that he provided for himself, aiming to murder him in vengeance of his wife.
The portrayal of anterograde amnesia in this movie is accurate in the sense that Leonard retains procedural memory (such as learning how to drive and talk to people) but fails to recall episodic memory (events and new people). However, the time span of his short term memory seems to be much longer than many cited in the literature. For example, Clive Wearing and H.M.’s short term memory spans were limited to 15-30 seconds (Wilson, Baddeley, & Kapur, 2008; Milner, Corkin, & Teuber,1968). Also, Leonard’s amnesia is peculiar in the sense that information in his long term memory store is prone to distortion, particularly by his own willpower to remember or forget certain events that occurred before his amnesia started. The reason for that has not been clearly mentioned in the movie, but I believe it was a self-defence mechanism, to prevent himself from physical or mental harm. This leads to our (and his own) doubts about the clues that he had left himself, which might also be distorted by self-defence. Leonard would not recall any distortions he made because he would be unaware of the mental state he was in when he took down the clues. Therefore, he is prone to self-deception, a widely practiced tactic all over the world to increase self-esteem and eradicate physical/mental pain (refer to references). Another problem about the clues is that they were generated according to his perception of the world during the short span that he retained his episodic memory. Hence, the clues may be inaccurate since some people may have deceived him into writing down false clues for their own gain. This could be detrimental as Leonard might pursue a false target if he follows erroneous clues. As Leonard chooses to believe himself, he finds several conflicting messages interwoven between his clues and struggles to find the truth behind them.
Personally, I found it a bit difficult wrap my head around the first 30 minutes of this film because of its double plotline and the reverse narration in one of them. However, after gaining bits of critical information, it became easier to understand the plot and I was eager to find out what preceded each scene and what caused the first scene of the movie to happen. This film is 2 hours and 18 minutes long so it’s rather heavy, but the satisfaction of the ending (which explains the reason behind Leonard’s quest) makes it worthwhile for the time and effort taken to digest the information in the first part of the show. It was also very insightful to watch Leonard’s internal struggles (e.g. his trust issues, his frustration towards the incongruity between his clues, his attempt to redefine himself and his purpose) as he provides a valuable portrayal of how amnesia patients cope with the world. The movie also brings up many questions about how memory works, how we perceive things, why we choose to believe certain things but not others, and more importantly, how we shape our life’s purpose. I would definitely recommend it to people who are interested in the topics above!
Source of image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/c7/Memento_poster.jpg
Milner, B., Corkin, S., & Teuber, H. (1968). Further analysis of the hippocampal amnesic syndrome: 14-year follow-up study of H.M. Neuropsychologia, 6, 215-234.
Wilson, B., Baddeley, A., & Kapur, N. (2008). Dense amnesia in a professional musician following herpes simplex virus encephalitis. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 17(5), 668-681.