Everything you wanted to know about "Memento"

By Andy Klein


Salon Staff
July 4, 2001 11:35PM (UTC)

Read the story.

The official "Memento" site can be found here.

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I enjoyed your article about "Memento," which is very well done. I have just one small observation to pass along. On my second viewing of the movie, I noticed a clue that you didn't mention in the article. When Leonard is looking through his police file in the hotel room (I'm not sure which scene this is), I thought I saw among the papers a court order adjudicating someone (I think Leonard) legally insane and committing him to an asylum. Did you notice something similar? Like you, I am looking forward to "Memento's" release on DVD.

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-- Heidi C. Doerhoff

Heidi: The only thing I've been able to read clearly among the documents in Leonard's file -- this is where a VHS tape can be only a little helpful -- is indeed marked "Psychiatric Evaluation." But I can't see anything more specific, and this might not be all that significant. There's no doubt that Leonard would have had plenty of such evaluations after the incident. (The "Memento" site, if we are to consider it "canonical," has much more detail about Leonard's recent psychiatric history.)

Your analysis of "Memento" is amazing -- thank you.

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Now can you explain "The Animal"? I didn't quite get the bit at the end.

Thanks!

-- Paula Carino

Paula: Sorry. Some films completely resist rational analysis.

Great article on "Memento" on Salon.com! The movie has spurred much debate among my friends also. I am not sure of the ultimate truth, either, but there are three things you didn't mention that I recall that may help you draw a conclusion:

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1) At one point Teddy says that Sammy Jankis was a con man. This could just be more of Teddy's lies, trying to save his own butt. Which actually brings me to my second point.

2) You said that some explanations that you might come up with break the "rules" of Leonard's condition. Most of the conditions stated were of Sammy's condition. There was one crucial difference between Leonard's and Sammy's condition (whether Sammy's was fabricated or not). Sammy could not be conditioned to subconsciously behave a certain way (recall the scene where he continued to grab the electrified object). Leonard said that he could be conditioned, though. This is the crucial difference, I think. Leonard conditioned himself to always look at his hand when he became "aware," and he conditioned himself to have his series of pictures, notes, etc. in his pockets. I interpreted the final scenes, with Leonard closing his eyes in the car, as him trying to condition himself to act a certain way in regard to the Teddy murder or the finding of John G. -- I'm not sure which.

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3) I agree that the vision of him with his wife and the "I've Done It" tattoo is a fantasy. I think he was envisioning it in order to condition himself. Somewhere deep in the documents on the Web site, my friends and I found a couple of dates that support the claim that his wife is dead, but not by the rapist's hands. I don't have the details (it's been a few weeks since we looked it up), but there is an article giving the month and year of the original rape, while there is another article referencing the death of Leonard's wife. The date in that article is months later than the original attack!

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Does it help you draw a conclusion?

-- Denis O'Connell

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Denis: I agree that it's clear Leonard could condition himself in ways that Sammy (at least in Leonard's version of the story) could not. But Leonard describes a fairly circumscribed sort of learning that someone with his condition should be able to do: If we are to believe Leonard about this -- and in this film it's up for grabs whom you should ever believe about anything -- he should be able to learn to look at his tattoos, to "instinctively" reach in his pocket for photos, maybe even to understand his condition the moment he wakes up and sees the Sammy Jankis tattoo. But he shouldn't be able to remember, for instance, killing his own wife (even transferred into someone else's biography).

The Web site says the attack took place Feb. 24, 1997. Leonard's wife is listed in critical condition, but there doesn't seem to be any clue as to precisely when she died. A psychiatric report, apparently from early 1998, refers to her as deceased but, interestingly, suggests that Leonard thinks she's still alive.

First of all, compliments on the article (and your impressive diligence in watching the movie all those times).

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Leonard makes a point of stating that an individual with a physical form of the disease can form learned responses to stimuli (such as pain). In fact, in one of his memories we see the test being performed with an electric shock. My theory is that Leonard has done just this, formed a learned response (altering his pre-accident memories) in response to the painful stimulus of the knowledge that he killed his wife.

I realize that such a killing would have come after the accident, and therefore be "unrememberable," but if you add in the fact that he is an escapee from an asylum, and previously possessed the full police report, it becomes possible that he would have spent a period during which he was constantly reminded of the death of his wife.

The destruction of the pages becomes consistent with his ability to trick himself (à la killing of Teddy).

With this additional bit, I think the remainder of your analysis is dead-on, and explains exactly who the good and bad guys are.

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-- L. Stephen Bowers

One of the things I was hoping your article would answer, but didn't, was where Leonard got the name John G. from. I don't think that's ever explained, is it? It can't be the police report because Lenny tells us that the police don't believe in the second person who he claims hit him on the head. Have you ever come across an answer to this question?

Regarding the end of your article, which basically asks what is the truth, what really happened, I have a theory that was not mentioned in your article -- but of course, me not being Nolan, is purely conjecture:

I believe that Lenny was never an insurance agent. Instead, he was the person that he claims Sammy was, with one little addition. By this, I mean that Lenny suffered (perhaps) a blow to the head when he discovered his wife being raped. He then had this memory condition. However, one of the issues in the black-and-white segments is whether or not Sammy is faking the condition. I believe that Lenny is faking his condition (or, more accurately, that he was faking his condition). He wanted the insurance money and was determined to get it. In order to do so, he had to fool his wife. He loved his wife, but didn't want to get caught in this lie. Breaking his condition would have revealed his ruse and broken his wife's heart. So when confronted in such a way that he must either reveal the truth or hide behind it, he hides, and kills his wife.

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Now, I realize that this is a stretch on my part. However:

How do you interpret the black-and-white scene where Sammy is replaced by Lenny? I believe that this says absolutely that Lenny is Sammy. (Further proof of this, in my opinion, exists in one other moment of the film that I've not seen any critic mention: Lenny tells the story of how Sammy kills Sammy's wife. Well, unless Lenny is Sammy, how would he know what happened in that room? He wasn't there and certainly Sammy wouldn't have recalled it later.)

I think that because he killed his wife over greed or insurance (another film noir theme), this drove him crazy. Rather than admit that he'd do such a thing, he convinces himself that he has this condition and then uses it to go about living the rest of his life. In the film, everyone uses Lenny to get what they want. At first, we feel sorry for him because of this. However, what's ironic is that he was the person who started it -- he lied to himself before any of them lied to him.

Anyway, that's my take on the film.

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-- Lincoln Stewart

Lincoln: Where did Leonard get the name John G. from? Now there's the $64,000 question!

As for the issue of how Leonard could know what transpired in the Jankises' living room on the fatal day, I've always assumed that Mrs. Jankis wrote a note in advance of her "experiment." Wouldn't you have done so under those circumstances? So there wouldn't be any chance of Sammy being suspected of simply deliberately murdering her? (Also, if she truly misunderstood the insurance company's position, she might have thought that Sammy's accidentally killing her would at least result in a reversal of its decision on his claim.)

Great article dissecting what is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting films of recent memory, "Memento" (pun intended). I too have found that all of the negative reviews of the film were written by people who really didn't get it. However, I would like to point out a couple of key pieces I noticed that were not mentioned in your article:

I think that Sammy's story is essentially Leonard's story, and that Teddy was telling him the truth (more or less) at the end. The clue that leads me to believe this has to do with the watch. When Sammy's wife decides to shock him out of his condition by having him give her a number of insulin shots in succession, she continually turns back her watch before saying, "It's time."

The first time I saw the movie, this struck me as stupid. Why would she turn back her own watch? Sammy never looks at the watch. In fact, no one ever looks at someone else's watch -- it's a personal item that is usually only seen by the person wearing it. Now, if it was a clock on the fireplace mantel or on the wall, that would make sense. Turning back a public timepiece would certainly assist her in the attempt of fooling Sammy into thinking that it was time for a shot. But a wristwatch? No, that just doesn't make sense.

The second time I saw the film I noticed something else. In the scene with the paid escort, Leonard hands over a number of his wife's items for the escort to set around the room, as if they were hers. (Leonard later burns the items.) A hairbrush, an old teddy bear, a worn book (in a flashback we learn that it was Leonard's wife's favorite book), a bra and ... a windup clock! Which one of these items doesn't belong? Everything else is a highly personal item, why would he include a clock? In several of the quick flashbacks in the bedroom of Leonard's house, the same clock can clearly be seen in the background, next to the bed. The scene of Leonard giving his wife her shot is in the bedroom. It doesn't take much to fill in the blanks here -- that clock must have been the clock they used to time her shots. She must have turned it back in order to fool him.

Because of his condition, Leonard isn't able to remember killing his wife, but because that act is so horrific, his mind can't completely forget it either. So he projects the story onto Sammy. Leonard does remember that his wife has diabetes, but he remembers it through Sammy's wife. He includes the bit about turning back the clock because that's what his wife did. But why does his mind project the public clock into a private wristwatch? Why doesn't his mind just transfer the bedroom clock into a living room clock? Because it doesn't make sense! It's a clue his mind is giving him (and the filmmaker is giving us) that there is something wrong with the story of Sammy as it is being told to us. It's not false, it's not a lie, but it's not quite the truth either.

With regard to the shot of Leonard and his wife lying in bed, with "I've Done It" tattooed on Leonard's chest, I've found this is the piece that confuses most people. As you stated, it's not possible that it's an actual memory. The way I've interpreted it is that Leonard, in an attempt to end this spiral of revenge he is caught in, is trying to create a kind of emotional imprint of the accomplishment of killing his wife's killer. At least that's my interpretation.

And we can take it to a whole different level and question whether that second intruder actually existed. Maybe the police were right to begin with and the whole need for revenge is merely Leonard's way of soothing his conscience about killing his wife; he is once again projecting his life onto someone else. One can actually question many of the basic premises of the entire film. The filmmaker doesn't give us enough clear information, so you have to decide for yourself at what point you are going to start believing what the characters in the film are saying. It's this aspect of the movie -- the way it forces the audience to think and engage through the entire film and beyond -- that I like best. Not many other films have such an entertaining story told in such a meticulous fashion that still leaves so much open to personal interpretation.

-- Dan Majoros

Dan: Terrific point about the clock.

Good article, but you there's one crucial action not explained at all in the film.

Why did Leonard switch clothes? Who puts on the clothes of his wife's killer prior to killing him?

Without this scene, there's no movie, but the motive is never explained.

-- Frank Showalter

Frank: In the e-mails I've received about this piece, by far the most frequently asked question is about the clothes. I've always had some (not fully developed) notion about Leonard wanting to assume the identity of his victim, though, to be honest, I can't imagine what sort of psychological sense this would make.

A better explanation is the one Leonard himself gives when Teddy tries to stop him: "I'd rather be mistaken for a dead guy than a murderer." (Of course, taking Jimmy's stuff would be more likely to make him a suspect than if he had simply left the crime scene.)

But the best explanation was given to me by Jennifer Boynton: "Are you kidding? Look at those great threads! Of course, he's gonna take them! Duh! You don't go around wondering why he took the keys to the Jag, do you?"

Er, actually, no one ever questions that one.

Interesting piece, and I, too, loved the film.

As I watching, I assumed from the beginning that Leonard had killed his wife and created a "John G." to assuage his guilt. In fact, I expected the ending to reveal this. (Remember the scene where John G's driver's license shows Leonard's face?)

I still suspect that John G. is really Leonard, that he killed his wife and that his affliction was brought on by insurmountable guilt -- he probably killed her in a fit of jealousy or some such. It would certainly explain his inability to avenge the killer. And the Polaroid could very well have been Leonard after having killed his wife, not the real murderer. It also explains the missing pages of the police report, as well as the rather extraordinary fact that a policeman is following him around.

-- (Name Removed)

Sara: First of all, John G's license never shows Leonard's face. It quite clearly shows Teddy's face. Beyond that, though, I think your theory creates way more problems than it solves -- the least of which are "Who took the Polaroid if Leonard deliberately murdered his wife?" and "Why in the Polaroid does Leonard already have the tattoo about John G. raping and killing his wife?"

Here's a scenario that might work:

After the attack, Leonard loses his ability to form new memories.

His wife doesn't die, but he himself does end up in a mental institution (for a reason yet to be worked out). He escapes from the institution, either by himself or, more likely, with the help of the detective who handled his wife's case (Teddy/John G.), who has realized what a great weapon he can be, if he can be convinced that his wife died and he needs to seek revenge. He gives Leonard the police file with the crucial pages missing, sets him up at the motel and puts him to work hunting down and killing various bad guys, and taking pictures of him triumphant, just in case he needs proof later to turn him off. Teddy keeps sending him back to the hotel because his wife is alive at home the whole time. The film plays out the way that it does, with Teddy (John G.) finally falling prey to his own Frankenstein monster in the end, at which point Leonard takes the photo to remind himself that he has done it, goes to the tattoo parlor and has "I did it" tattooed on his chest, and (somehow) wanders home to be with his wife, who has been alive the whole time.

-- James V. Cordova

James: A number of people have suggested the interesting possibility that Catherine Shelby is still alive. But the Web site is unambiguous that she has indeed died. Much of the rest of your scenario, however, coincides closely with what the Web site tells us. Check it out.

Thanks so much for the insight you offered into "Memento." By far it's my favorite movie of the year. I'm a relative babe in the woods, having seen the movie only once. I'm anxiously awaiting its release on DVD for further viewing, though. My question for you is, How can I get ahold of the short story upon which the movie is based? Is it available on the Web? Any help is greatly appreciated.

-- Jill Haynie

Jill: Thanks. The short story -- which is very different in its details -- can be found here.

I read your story on "Memento" (along with others and discussions running in newsgroups), but I still couldn't find an answer to my question. I don't know if you noticed or not, but at the Web site, if you click on "questions" in the subheading, a new page appears with the question "who did I kill?" and, underneath, there is a blank where you can type. It looks like the truth Nolan is talking about is to be entered there by the viewer. I tried several possibilities, but none of them worked. If you haven't noticed that before, you might give it a try.

-- R. Orkun Acikgoz

Orkun: At the Web site, in the spot you're referring to, I've tried entering a bunch of different names, including "My wife." All of the names simply send the word "Question" back to its original spot -- except one. If you type "Teddy" and then click on the lower-left corner of the paper (or wherever the cursor becomes clickable), you get a montage of frames from the opening credit sequence showing Teddy's murder in reverse; then you're sent back to the main page.

I just read your article about "Memento." It's excellent! Great job.

I was a little surprised, though, that after so many viewings, you missed (or didn't find significant enough to mention) the change in Teddy's license plate. It's an important clue to the unreliability of Leonard's memory.

In scene "22/A" (great notation you've invented!), as Leonard is copying down Teddy's license plate, he reads: SG 137 IU.

(I think -- I've only seen it twice, and my memory is imperfect -- ha-ha.) But he writes the "I" without its serifs, and when he gets it tattooed on himself soon thereafter, the "I" has become a "1." In the rest of the movie, Teddy's license plate reads "SG 1371U"!

What does that mean? I think it can only be a warning to the viewer that everything in the film -- including the evidence of our "own eyes" -- is filtered through the perception of a narrator of questionable mental reliability. That's not Teddy's license plate we see; it's Leonard's perception of it.

What do you make of it?

-- Bob Glickstein

Bob: I didn't notice that one myself, but a number of people I spoke to before I wrote the piece brought it up. On both the license plate and Teddy's registration, it says "SG13 7IU." Leonard indeed writes the "1" and the "I" identically, which can be confirmed at the Web site. In shots of his tattoo, the "1" is clearly a "1", but it's a little tough to tell -- at least in my VHS copy -- whether the "I" was tattooed as an "I" or a "1." With luck the DVD will clarify this. I didn't bring it up because it's my understanding that nonpersonalized California license plates have certain standard letter/number patterns, though I'm not sure if Teddy's plate fits one of them. (My last three cars were all one digit, three letters, three digits.) Also, I have been told that if the DMV doesn't come up with an exact match, the computer tries interchanging 1's and I's and other look-alikes.

Dude -- you are nuts.

Bravo.

-- Mojo Nixon

What a waste of my goddamned time! The headline to Andy Klein's piece promises to deliver the goods, but the piece itself delivers only questions, and questions that are not questions at all but the writer's own personal confusions. There is a truth at the heart of "Memento," one that does not require four separate viewings, copious notes or special scene numbering. It requires only one viewing, and a brain unravaged by mad cow or some other clearly debilitating illness. Klein quotes directly the relevant line, in which Leonard quips that memories cannot be trusted. Does this not scream out, "Do not trust the flashbacks"? Klein asserts that manipulated flashbacks would be unfair, but the line he quotes is exactly and precisely what makes it fair. Why would Nolan include a line about the fallacies of memory if he was not saying something about his own work, if he was not warning the viewer? Klein can run around in circles in his own freaking time. There's no need to drag me along for unpleasant accompaniment.

-- Michael Batz

I'm a little sick of critics jumping on the "indie film of the moment" "Memento" bandwagon. What this film boils down to, for me, is a clever gimmick; the narrative structure may be impressive, but only as a trick. Like most summer blockbusters and most indie films, it has a lot of style and not a lot of substance. Just because a film has a hard time being distributed doesn't mean it's brilliant. I wish more critics would call attention to the elegant, refined, formal and intelligent structure of "In the Mood for Love," for example. While it may not be as slick or entertaining a film as "Memento," its achievements in marrying structure and meaning are dizzyingly effective and smart.

Give me smart over clever any time.

"Memento" is still a film for MTV: Its difficulty is engrained in its deliberately confusing plotline, not in its philosophical profundity. The intense intricacy of "In the Mood for Love" makes "Memento" look like a video: nice to look at, quickly forgotten.

-- Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

Jocelyn: Most of the critics I know -- myself included -- ranted and raved over "In the Mood for Love." I think there's room for both.

I appreciate Andy Klein's analysis of "Memento" -- a great movie that I enjoyed enough to see twice -- but I think that he missed the boat in his final conclusions. And interestingly enough, he asked all the questions he needed to come to a more likely conclusion.

Toward the end of the article, he asks about the thematic purpose of the Sammy Jankis story. He says, "Is it a hint that Leonard's condition may not be real? As Leonard tells the tale, the crucial point is whether Sammy had suffered physical brain damage or if his affliction was somehow psychological." And later he accuses Nolan of "dirty pool" in leaving holes in Leonard's condition for the sake of the plot, "without giving us some hints."

The hint is there. Sammy Jenkis is how Leonard has adapted information about himself, minus the guilt of acknowledging that it was really he who killed his wife. The Sammy story tells us, though perhaps not directly, that Leonard's condition is psychological rather than physical; his brain is not really damaged. He has the capacity to make memories, but some part of him doesn't want to. The guilt of killing his own wife could very well be the kind of force it takes to create a memory in Leonard; but his coping mechanism forced him to turn that memory into the Sammy Jankis story (just as it forced him to remove those pages from the police report). The flashes of memory, of Leonard giving his wife the insulin shot, were adapted by his mind into something innocent (pinching her leg).

The fact that Leonard is somehow able to describe his condition in detail throughout the movie is another clue to the same thing: Leonard remembers a little more than he wants to; he is always trying to forget.

-- Eric Musall

I enjoyed Andy Klein's article on "Memento." I too have seen the film several times, and I believe I can answer a few of Klein's questions, enriching our understanding of the film and allowing us to find Nolan not guilty of having "cheated like a two-bit grifter."

Once you accept that Leonard's condition is at least partially psychological, the most compelling question is whether he killed his wife. I propose that he did and that his condition, consciously or (more likely) subconsciously, gave him an excuse to do so -- because on some level he wanted to.

One assumption Nolan allows us to nurture without justification is that Leonard loved his wife. But nowhere in the film is there any evidence for this, aside from the fact that he is obsessed with finding her killer. In fact, the main thing he recalls about her (to Natalie, at the diner) is the extreme moments in a relationship that one doesn't want to remember, and the main scene we see between the married couple (in flashback) ends with her telling him, with some irritation, "Don't be a dick." This is not to suggest that Leonard was out to murder his wife, but all we see of his feelings for her are colored by hostility (illustrated also in his later portrayal of Sammy Jankis' fictional wife) and he is a violent person (punching Natalie, regardless of the provocation, is not the act of an especially decent fellow -- nor is revenge, for that matter). His condition gives him a license to do just about anything, to indulge his baser instincts -- as we may! -- in dreams.

"Memento" is a terrifying film about responsibility, identity and guilt.

-- Alexander Rubens

Andy Klein, in his excellent article on "Memento," doesn't mention my favorite thing about the movie: It's a perfect metaphor for the filmgoing experience itself. Every two hours or so, Leonard Selby finds himself in an entirely new situation. He has two hours to decide who the good guys are, who the bad guys are and who he should act against or kill. Does he get it right? Well, it doesn't really matter because in two hours the slate will be wiped clean and he will be able to start fresh -- to assign new heroes and villains and be someone else. No conscience and no consequences. The moral vacuum in which Leonard lives is the moral vacuum of cinema itself. Nolan reminds us of the danger in it.

-- Matt Bird

Matt: Great point. Unfortunately, there are many more such ideas that come up in discussion that couldn't fit into an already rather long article.

"Memento" is a gimmick movie that has no soul. When you understand the general story and backward plot device the film becomes tedious. And then you reach the unsatisfying ending. As in the movie, "Memento" is forgettable five minutes later.

-- Scott Dobson


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