Film Noir Elements in the movie Memento Essay
Film Noir Elements in the movie Memento
There is yet to be a definition to be created to accurately capture the genre of “Noir” in film. The concept was first coined by French film critics who “noticed the trend of how ‘dark’, downbeat and black the looks and themes were of many American crime and detective films released in France to theatres following the war”(“Film Noir”). The term ‘noir’ is a French word which literally means “black” or “dark”. The connotation attached to the term later on came to be those films which depicted crime, strangeness, cruelty, brutality, violence and similar other attributes.
The period for Noir films flourished in the 1940s up to the 1950s, which were aptly called the “classic noir” period in movies. Later on, from the 1960s up to the current times, other types of “noir” films were conceptualized like the “neo-noir” and the “science fiction noir”, all concepts of which were derived from or echoed the original “classic noir” genus. “Memento” is one movie which typifies the “film noir” genre in that it has numerous elements which categorically makes it as one. Primarily, the existence of a lonely, confused and troubled protagonist (Schoenherr) is there.
Add to this the other elements like the black-and-white scenes, the struggle, the seemingly bleak situations, the crimes perpetrated, the underground investigations, the voice-overs of the lead character, evil, paranoia and deception among other things. An interesting feature of this film though is the story unfolding from its end going up to the supposed initial scenes which took place. It is not narrated exactly in a circular motion but rather they are presented in chunks of about 10 minutes each.
Aside from this, there is the alternate presentation of the colored and black-and-white formats to add narration and further expound on the sequence of events. Film noir operates on specific social, cultural and historical contexts. In this particular film, the social context used is that of the protagonist becoming a different man after the rape and murder of his wife. Leonard or Lenny loses his memory after he shoots his wife’s rapist and he is shoved and clubbed by the rapist’s companion. His head hits the bathroom mirror, and from then on, he becomes afflicted with Anterograde Amnesia or not being able to retain his short-term memory.
Lenny’s memories before the accident are intact and his last memories are of his wife being murdered, hence, his ever- enduring quest to avenge her death. Most people now think of Lenny as a freak for not being able to remember thoughts, names, faces and events which are a regular part of the memory of “normal” people since he forgets his thoughts and the things he does after 15 minutes or so. However, Lenny struggles to keep his sanity by taking Polaroid pictures and immediately labeling them, writing down his ideas, and tattooing the more important thoughts on his body.
Having no family to call his own, he lives in a motel room and is suspicious of everyone. His life’s direction is motivated by vengeance and a major part of the film is spent on this desire to kill. The cultural context of the film is the type of culture that was used in the movie. The setting is sometime during the 2000s in Nevada. It is not shown if the protagonist had a lot of friends before the incident which led to his ‘condition’, but it is presumed that it was probably a case of not wanting to be identified with someone with a stigma of mental illness.
The only friend who was identified as someone who knew Lenny immediately after the accident was Teddy, who was the one who helped Lenny to find and kill the original murderer of his wife, and then again Jimmy G. who was also killed by Lenny. As such, it meant that the culture held a discriminating attitude towards this mental illness. Pertaining to historical context, the practice of tattooing as a body art was prevalent from the late 1990s up to the 2000s. This was a period when tattooing was no longer considered as objects of diversion done in prison cells but rather as an art form to express oneself.
In the movie, the lead character made use of tattoos on his body to remind himself of essential facts/details which he always wanted to be reminded of. Although not used as an art form, the existence of tattoo parlors in the locality denoted an acceptance of the practice of self-expression, which worked quite well for Lenny. It was also a time when Polaroids were popularly used and Leonard fully exhausted the Polaroids’ capability to assist him in remembering people and places with his depressing mental condition. According to Filmsite.
org, “the primary moods of classic film noir were melancholy, alienation, bleakness, disillusionment, disenchantment, pessimism, ambiguity, moral corruption, evil, guilt, desperation and paranoia” (“Film Noir”). These themes are evident in the seclusion, isolation and omnipresent monologues of the lead character who wanted to establish the links to find meaning in his life. A wide array of emotions ranging from suspicion, confusion, naivete, loneliness, alienation, hatred, and bewilderment among others were efficiently delivered by the lead actor to the viewers who empathized with him in his daily struggle to survive.
Noir movies characteristically have a protagonist who is usually reclusive, generally disturbed and commonly pessimistic. The lead character in “Memento” is not the typical protagonist since he lives his life everyday like a clean new slate. Just like the first part of this movie where a Polaroid picture was being undeveloped, Lenny lived his life always careworn to find out what he had been doing and what he should be doing next. His ultimate aim was to find his wife’s killer, a task which Teddy assists him with.
Although he is somewhat of the withdrawn type, Lenny is still enthusiastic about life and is confident that his Polaroids, notes and tattoos are taking him somewhere. Different noir styles were also apparent throughout the film. One is that “storylines were often elliptical, non-linear and twisting” (“Film Noir”) which connotes the unique presentation customarily associated with noir. Regular films are often presented in a manner where the story unfolds conventionally from beginning to end.
The story told backwards and in bits and pieces was a unique way of entrancing the audience into being an active participant in the life of Leonard, trying to come up with his/her own conclusions or links to previous scenes and events. “Amnesia suffered by the protagonist was a common plot device” (“Film Noir”) which was obviously the illness which the lead character was afflicted with. This sort of justified the way with which Lenny killed the possible murderers without remorse or guilt since his brain was devoid of any emotions relating to pity and mercy.
Furthermore, it is said that “the protagonists in film noir were normally driven by their past or by human weakness to repeat former mistakes”(“Film Noir”) which is what happens to Lenny as the film unfolds. It is only later in the movie that it is revealed that Lenny had already killed his wife’s murderer, and Teddy had even taken a Polaroid shot of him after the said killing. It was due to his mental condition that Lenny was not able to remember the incident which Teddy later used to his advantage in getting rid of Jimmy G. who was a drug dealer.
The original story of Memento was an idea brought forward by the brother of the movie’s director, Jonathan Nolan in the late 1990s. The storyline was finished after several months and director Christopher Nolan came up with the idea that he wanted to tell the movie backwards, hence the screenplay was manipulated in a way where shot sequences were cut up into small bits. In between the colored takes were the non-colored shots to denote two timelines of what was the past and the present respectively.
At some point towards the end of the movie, the black-and-white scene becomes colored specifically when Lenny takes the Polaroid picture of the dead Jimmy G, who was the second murder suspect endorsed by Teddy. This signified the beginning of a new chapter in the life of Leonard, and the true commencement of the story which somehow tragically ends with the death of its instigator, Teddy. The artistry presented in the film being of a different genre is – as previously mentioned — largely seen in the story’s presentation to the viewer.
The lead actor was also shown in black-and-white scenes and colored ones which showed contrasting characters – one, the rugged, unshaven, unkempt, menacing and confused character who shoots the gun at Jimmy G. in black-and-white, and the other, the suit-clad formally dressed and more confident Lenny who drives a Jaguar in colored film. This implies that the main character had good and bad traits, although the bad traits were more emphasized but later exposed to be manipulations done by some of the other characters in the plot.
One of these characters is Natalie who represents the ‘femme fatale’ element in the movie, and who adds further intricacies to the plot and manipulates Lenny into a mental tug-of-war with Teddy’s statements. The cinematography of the film was excellent as emphasis was done where it was necessary, and accurate illumination was also appropriately achieved. Editing was also good especially in the cuts of the film that had to be fed in several lumps, and in two different formats of color and B&W.
Continuity in the film was smooth and flowed effortlessly. The film scoring was suitable and elicited empathy from the viewer in the scenes where dialogues were not really necessary. The closest thing to special effects in the film was the way that the first sequence was presented to the viewer where the Polaroid shot was being undeveloped instead of the other way around. It goes back up to the time Lenny shoots Teddy and the latter was screaming for his life.
Acting in the film was superb. Guy Pearce as Leonard was able to deliver all the emotions expected from him and thus elicited the required compassion from the viewer. Teddy, Natalie, Sammy Jankins and all the other actors also did a good job in making the plot more focused on the plight of the main character, thereby allowing Lenny to stand out. The movie “Memento” has some allusions to significant theories and concepts. One of these is the concept of Cultural Materialism.
The most active proponent of Cultural Materialism is Marvin Harris and the premise of this theory is that the social life of a human being is a direct response to problems arising from his earthly existence. Leonard’s actions can be rationalized as a practice of cultural materialism because he is merely responding to his problems instead of taking a proactive role in it. This is due in large part to his illness which he cannot control and which allows him to be manipulated by some shady characters in the film.
Existentialism is another concept which is apparent in this movie. The plot evolves around the lead character, Leonard, who tries to find meaning in his existence as he grapples with his affliction rendering him confused and stressed at most times. He tries hard to think and look back but cannot, and this is what leads him to try to devise ways in which he could remember things, events, places and people who have somehow played an important role in his life, after the accident which claimed his short-term memory.
Lastly, there is the hint of self-determination as seen in the main character as he tries his best to make decisions without the influence of others. Unfortunately, he was not aware of the subtle approach which was used by the movie’s disreputable characters who were always one step ahead of him in his plans. Still, it was revealed near the movie’s end that Lenny was also utilizing his selective memory to manipulate the situation in such a way as to be able to create and continually re-create his motives for vengeance.
Since finding the possible suspects to his wife’s murder was the only impetus which kept him alive, it was a need he had to satiate, and hence, an inspiration which kept him continually in pursuit of. References Schoenherr. Revised 4/11/03. Characteristics of Film Noir. Retrieved from http://history. sandiego. edu/gen/filmnotes/filmnoir. html Film Noir. 2010. Retrieved from http://www. filmsite. org/filmnoir. html Film Reference: Ryder, A. , Tyrer, W. & Ball, C. (Producer) & Nolan, C. (Director). 2001. Memento. United States: New Market Films.