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Complex Narrative Structure Of Memento

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 5181 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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Due to the nature and complex narrative structure of Memento (Nolan 2000), one has to closely evaluate the succession of events before one could make the assumption that this film is a ‘typical Hollywood mainstream motion picture’. It is easy to assume that this film would in fact fit the criteria of the Hollywood mainstream motion picture, only upon looking at the cast and A-List director- Christopher Nolan- who one could assume would use his ‘usual’ cinematic style to ensure the success of this film. The complex introduction to the film already creates the anxiety-driven need to finish watching the film, due to the unusualness of the opening scene that distinguishes Memento (Nolan 2000) from other classical Hollywood films.

Jean Baudrillard: brief biography

Jean Baudrillard, the “French sociologist, cultural critic, and theorist of post modernity were born in Reims on the 27th of July, 1929. Even though his parents were civil servants and his grandparents were peasant farmers, Jean Baudrillard was the first University graduate from his family. He later went on to teach sociology at University and was named one of the most “intellectual figures of his time”. Throughout his childhood, he was exposed to the Algerian war of the 1950’s and 60’s, which had a significant influence on the way he thinks and perceives society (Jean Baudrillard-Biography [sa]).

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After becoming an assistant at Nanterre University of Paris in 1966, he was quickly connected with Roland Barthes and used Barthese’s “analysis of culture” in his first book, namely The Object System (1968). When the students of Nanterre University revolted in 1968, Baudrillard joined in the action, and through inspiration, assisted with a distinctive ‘journal of the time’, Utopie. This journal was clearly influenced by “situationism, structural Marxism” and various media theories wherein he issued numerous theoretical articles about/on the environment of capitalist prosperity (affluence) and the evaluation of technology. Baudrillard then went on to teach at the European Graduate School (EGS) from the day that the school opened to the day of his death on the 6th of March, 2007 (Jean Baudrillard-Biography [sa]).

Marxism and (post-) Marxism: Marxist film theory

The Marxist approach to the study of films centres (focuses) on the continuous ways that cinema ideologically allow and even ‘betrays’ the devises that diminishes the middle-class (bourgeois) view of society and the world. These devises (mechanisms) of ideology comprise both the social organisations (institutions), as well as the industrial knowledge that vigorously function to create (produce) the middle-class culture which society consume daily. Several precise illustrations of such social and industrial organisations are: (1) the way labour is divided to ensure revenue (capital); (2) hierarchy (social order and class-structure); (3) industrial transformation of revenue of production; and (4) replacing services (commodities). Each (and all) of the mentioned devices (mechanisms) have been incorporated into (and informed) the film trade since it originated. In the sphere of cinema and film, these mechanisms shape the influential ‘culture-producing’ section of societal apparatuses that ‘Marxist film theorists’ calls “the cinematic apparatus” (Netto 2000:[sp]).

Jean Baudrillard’s opinion of Marxism

In his book, The consumer society (Baudrillard 1998:183), Baudrillard makes the conclusion and commends “multiple forms of refusal” of common ruling (convention), obvious notable and eye-catching utilisation (consumption), and conventional thinking and behaving, which can ultimately be merged (combined) into a “practice of radical change” (Baudrillard 1998:183). Baudrillard then goes on to describe a state (situation) where isolation (alienation) in its entirety cannot be improved on since “it is the very structure of market society” (Baudrillard 1998:190). Baudrillard argues that in a social order (culture), in which everything is seen as a product or service that can be purchased and put up for sale, that isolation (alienation) is total. Thus, isolation (alienation) is ever present in the social order where everything (from products to services) can be bought (Kellner 2007:[sp]).

In the early 1970’s, Baudrillard had an unsure (ambivalent) relationship with the theory of conventional Marxism in the since that he agreed with the Marxian analysis of the production of social commodities, which ultimately defined and critiqued the various notions of estrangement (alienation), dominant power, and exploitation that was shaped by capitalism. One could say that Baudrillard’s evaluation of these notions corresponds with the traditional (standard) “neo- Marxian” viewpoint which puts emphasis on the culpability of Capitalism and makes the assumption that Capitalism is homogenizing, domineering and ruled social class systems whilst depriving individuals of their liberty, originality and imagination, time, and potential (Kellner 2007:[sp]).

In contradiction, Baudrillard could never emphasise any “revolutionary forces” and above all, didn’t argue the circumstances and prospectives of the working class as a driving force for an altered (changed) social order of consumption. Thus, with no suggestion of the subject as a participating driving force of societal modification, Baudrillard pursued the “structuralist and poststructuralist” assessment of the ‘truth-seeking’ (philosophical) and practical subject matter which was extensively governed in French deliberation. Practitioners of structuralism and post structuralism argued that bias (subjectivity) was shaped by verbal communication (language), societal establishments, and cultural appearances and wasn’t sovereign of its creation in these establishments and preparations (Kellner 2007:[sp]).

Classical film noir: Definition, Primary characteristics, conventions and historical surroundings

The role of the male protagonist

In (post-) Marxist noir films, the protagonist is frequently depicted as a single white male, who is usually psychologically troubled due to disloyalty or some form of loss of something in particular. The male protagonist is also usually emotionally crippled or psychologically injured. This summary of the post Marxist noir leading male is applicable to the post Marxist neo-noir picture Memento (Nolan 2000) (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

In Memento (Nolan 2000), Nolan presents the character of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce) who could be seen as a combination of the ‘typical’ private investigator that thrives in noir and neo-noir films and the defective (flawed) insurance salesman of the noir crime picture. The result is a “brain damaged insurance investigator”. This character in itself is already a complex and interesting one, but Nolen makes Leonard even more complex by turning Leonard into a serial killer who is unaware of the driving forces that influences him to commit these crimes (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

Further characteristics of classical film noir: mood, tone, visual and cinematic elements

According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), that did a study on films dealing with memory, and made the conclusion that in Memento (Nolan 2000)- different from other films dealing with the ‘memory genre’- Leonards character (with some form of amnesia) maintains/retains his identity and puts emphasis on a number of strenuous daily problems regarding recollection related to mental disorders (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

After watching this film one could argue that the disjointed, ‘mosaic-like’ quality of the succession of edited scenes in Memento (Nolan 2000) ingeniously simulates the “perpetual present” characteristics of memory loss related conditions. The film does not however merely represent mental/neurological illness, but furthermore supports the (post-) Marxian notion of the leading white male point of view. This notion is supported by purposely bringing in a cruel “femme fatale” character named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Natalie makes use of Leonard by lying to him, whilst telling him that she is using him, since she is fully aware of Leonard’s condition and knows that his memory will fade. Yet again, Nolan does so to make a victim of the protagonist in order to distract the viewers from the plot by making use of ’empathetic relation’ to the character (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

Neo noir films

In the 1990’s, spectators all through the world were presented with a newer and darker adaptation of noir, which was concealed within old methods, yet they were presented as ‘fresh and sleek narratives’ in magnificent colour. One of the things that make 90’s ‘neo-noir’ different from previous recreations of film noir is the reoccurring focal point on mental illness and the dilemmas caused by psychological struggles. Within this new ‘neo-noir’, a white male middle-class outlook was reflected, articulating the fear of becoming the solitary objective in an innovative “bold politically correct society”. ‘neo-noir’ also emphasised the increasing statistics of mental illness of the 90’s in America (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

‘Neo-noir’ films were made to retaliate against a variety of minorities occupied with complicated interior clashes that inhabits not only the minds of the characters, but also the mind of the filmmakers. Whereas this is a presumption as to why noir returned (resurfaced), it is evidently apparent that ‘noir’- exclusively composed of method (style) over matter (substance) – was a new way of thinking in (post-) Marxist filmmaking. By entering the unknown territory of the inner workings of the mind (psyche), as supposed to the usual “physical plane of existence” that regularly surfaces in the narrative cinema, the matter (substance) was produced (formed) (Szyszka 2007:[sp]). In these types of films, making use of the psychological (mental) state whilst attacking ‘unfit’ elements disrupting the social order, a new innovative way of filmmaking ensured an interesting and attention-grabbing combination (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

In 90’s American cinema, audiences were extremely wrapped-up in paranoia. It was a time of confusion and society was faced with a civic (public) crisis when the need for ‘truth’, the status of information, and the “determination of truth” surfaced (Szyszka 2007:[sp]). It is ordinarily noticeable that postmodern, post-industrial, post- Marxist, and post- cold war social orders (society) shaped and produced an ongoing concern to what is “real” and how “reality” could be established and the authorization thereof. The continuing psychological (mental) focal point in/of 90’s contemporary American cinema- mainly of neo-noir- revolves around the postmodern panic (fear) and uncertainty over ‘truth’ and reality. The internet (made available to the public in the 1990’s) not only brought an increasing stream of information, but made it more difficult for society to know what to trust and what not to trust. The 90’s is known as the era where it was the fastest and easiest way of distribution of propaganda and misinformation, which added a spiralling effect of cynicism and disillusionment of a nation (Szyszka 2007:[sp] ).

Strategy of the real

The way in which text positions and/or ‘fixes’ the viewer (consumer) is revealed first and foremost through a significant assessment surrounding the dominant (governing) structures of cinema, demonstrated by the Hollywood system (structure), and its utilization of “narrative and realist forms” (BaraÅ„ski and Short 1985:276). One could argue that the dominating shape of narrative used in mainstream cinema and Television creates a meticulous mode (way) of interpreting the world (dominant society): rather than focussing on the subject matter of the motion picture it is concerned with mysteries and anxiety that focuses on the attention of the audience to the method of narrative resolution, it demands and supplies endings which appear to present straightforward resolutions and conclusions to the struggles it has symbolized (represented), so that it gives a ‘closed’ view of the world (modern society); attention (interest) is frequently concerned on a single protagonist rather than groups, and driving forces is understood in the psychosomatic rather than societal conditions (BaraÅ„ski and Short 1985:276).

In the same way that it is impossible to rediscover a total (absolute) level of reality it is also impossible to stage a false impression (illusion) of what is real. The possibility of illusion is not possible anymore because the possibility of the real does no longer exist. for instance, should one fabricate (simulate) a break in at a local department store, it would be an interesting observation as to how one would be treated by the repressive state apparatus, as sopposed to what would happen to a person who organised a ‘real’ brake in. A real brake in would ultimately disturb the ‘natural order’ of things- individual property rights- whereas the simulation of a robbery ultimately obstructs the code of reality. Misbehaviour and aggression (committing a crime) are not as serious, because it simply challenges the natural (real) order and will be delt with. Simulation of the real is considerably more hazardous given that it constantly implies (suggests), in addition to its object, that regulation (law) and instruct (order) in itself are merely simulations (Simulacra and Simulations 1988:[sp]).

Nevertheless, after simulating a ‘fake’ robbery, how would one convince the repressive state apparatus that it was merely a simulation of theft? One couldn’t, for the reason that there is no ‘objective’ distinction. Identical motions (gestures) and identical signs are apparent in a simulated robbery as it would in a real theft. As far as the dominant power (Ideological state apparatus and repressive state apparatus) is concerned, they (the gestures and signs) resemble those of a real robbery. After the ‘fake’ robbery, one would- without knowing- find oneself instantly in the real (one of whose purpose is specifically and ideologically produced to consume all efforts of simulation) reducing everything to reality (Simulacra and Simulations 1988:[sp]).

Socialist and radical practitioner have been using realism as a narrative structure, and although they have been criticised since they are significant to the ‘realities’ they depict, have been presenting information of reality as trouble-free and doesn’t properly give possible methods of altering (changing) the world.

in addition, they present an uncomplicated ‘truth’ regarding society. This is the innermost predicament of realism: that it presumes a representation which it considers as the truth, neither inquiring the course of representation nor inserting audiences into position from which they have to work to create an understanding of the text. The significance to the workings of Marxism and (post-) Marxism is that dominant cinema and TV are viewed as two of the positions through which ‘dominant ideology’ is symbolized (represented) and accomplishes its effects. “Narrative forms and realist forms are ideological”, and their ‘naturalness’ and obvious impartialities are conducts of disguising the fact that they create a meticulous vision of the world (BaraÅ„ski, Z.G & Short, J.R 1985: 277).

The revenge film

By convincing the viewer that Leonard’s murderous ways are driven by vengeance (Leonard wants to avenge the rape and murder of his wife by hunting down the alleged murderer, ‘John G’) one could say that Nolan relies on the aspect of sympathy .i.e. to sympathise with a character to justify his/her actions (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

Common characteristics

Although the film humorously simulates the authorative power of the case-hardened private detective (private- eye) by giving Leonard a “voice-over narration”, his weakening state-of-mind (short-term memory loss) undermines/and challenges any assertion that Leonard is creating a continuous, consistent narrative- either about himself or about other characters. One could say that one of the main purposes of the confusing “voice-over narrative” is to include ‘comical relief’ throughout the picture. This is applicable in the scene where Leonard is ‘apparently’ chasing a man: “Okay, what am I doing? I’m chasing this guy. … Nope. He’s chasing me.” (Szyszka 2007:[sp]). Memento (Nolan 2000), in addition to coming across as a series of ‘fragmented scenes’, is also edited so that the narrative plays out backwards. This becomes evidently clear as the protagonist (Leonard Shelby) vigorously lies to himself. One could make the assumption that Leonards ‘condition’ not only makes the creation of self- trickery (deception) achievable but also possibly fatal (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

Analysis of the narrative structure of Christopher Nolan’s Memento

Memento (2000)is a film written and directed by Christopher Nolan (and adapted from the short story of his brother, Jonathan Nolan), revolves around memory. In the film, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pierce), is the protagonist who has lost the ability to/of forming new memories when he was violently assaulted during the rape and murder of his wife in their own home. Now suffering from short-term-memory-loss, Leonard is not able to remember, nor recognise people even after just having interaction with them (people such as the clerk of the hotel where Leonard is staying). Leonard does, however, recall everything that happened in the past preceding his accident. The plot revolves around Leonard’s ‘condition’ (as he calls it) and the determination of avenging his wife’s death(He has a clear recollection of the actual murder of his wife) (Clarke 2002:167).

The combination of his ‘condition’ and the yearning to avenge the death of his wife requires him to constantly ‘refresh’ his memory, which he does by making and keeping loads of mysterious/ puzzling (cryptic) notes, by taking Polaroid pictures of everyone he meets (to remember them) and even going so far as to tattoo the ‘facts’ that leads his investigative search, on his body. Even though Leonard has all these clues, his memory is constantly fading and he has to function in ‘perpetual confusion’ when he meets people for the first time or when he finds himself at a different location. Thus, one could say that Leonard is constantly exposed to submission (he is easily persuaded or convinced). Leonards ‘condition’ is so severe that he can instantly forget what he was doing or talking/thinking about. One could argue the hilarity (comical aspect) of this situation of memory loss throughout the film (Clarke 2002:167-168).

One such an example is when Leonard is running but doesn’t recall why he is running. As he looks around, he quickly becomes aware that someone is running parallel/next to him, when suddenly, one can hear Leonard’s thoughts. He is thinking: “Okay, now, what am I doing? Oh, I must be chasing that guy” (Clarke 2002:168). The comical aspect arises when Leonard changes his course and starts to run after the unknown male, when suddenly, the unknown male points his gun at Leonard and starts chasing him (forcing Leonard to change his direction again when the gun is fired) after almost shooting Leonard (Clarke 2002:168).

Leonard is also constantly manipulated throughout the film, not only by his own mind, but also by the characters. Various characters (will be made clear later on) misleads Leonard due to his ‘condition’ and manipulates him into doing their ‘dirty work’ (Clarke 2002:168).

Spectacle has always been the major field of entertainment, but in today’s society that is mainly concerned with infotainment, spectacle and entertainment have come into the area of society, economy, politics, and existence in significant original customs.

Building on the convention of manifestation, modern figures of entertainment stretching from Television to stage include spectacle society into their schemes, changing film, television, music, Drama and other areas of society, as well as creating original structures of society, such as cyberspace, multimedia, “virtual reality” and psycho-crime Drama (Kelner, D 2003:4).

A plot summery

Leonard Shelby had been struck in the back of the head by the rapist/murderer when trying to save his wife, which resulted Leonard to sustain severe mental and physical trauma and nearly destroyed the function of “memory making” entirely. After recovery, Leonard is now faced with the difficult role of functioning in society without any short-term memory reconciliation. Leonard is, however, able to function in society after learning to retain information through impulse (instinct) and repetition (replication) .i.e. conditioning. He does so by taking Polaroid pictures and writing short notes (information) on them, thus, using the pictures to simulate short-term memory. This simulation evolves further, one could say, due to the fact that Leonard tattoo’s the ‘fact’ of his investigation onto his person (like a bodily map of ‘facts’ and clues). In a classical (post-)Marxist ‘noir-ish’ style of filmmaking, Leonard is surrounded by characters who exploit his misfortune by helping (assisting) him, misleading him, and/or achieving a little of both (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

The narrative structure

In the film Memento (Nolan 2000) – which could be perceived as a (post-) Marxist film- it is evidently clear that the film relies on gimmick ( a devise used to grab attention). The fact that one has been hailed (interpolated) into a chain of lies can be terrifying upon watching this film, however, what is more terrifying is that the ‘lies’ were created by one’s own need to fabricate a ‘real’ narrative (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

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Just before the ending of Memento (Nolan 2000), Nolan actively places the viewer into Leonard shoes in the scene where Teddy tells Leonard the ‘truth’ about the death of his wife, creating final confusion to ensure that the viewer partakes in the movie. Nolan does so by actively ensuring that the viewer ‘takes on the role’ of detective (just like the role of Leonard Shelby) by trying to make sense of (decipher) the ‘narrative truth’. This however posts the question: Does one believe the character of Leonard Shelby who constantly confesses to his unreliability? Or does one believe the character of Teddy who discloses that he had been lying to Leonard and that he, himself, is also named John ‘G’ Gammell? (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

In order to answer this question one has to closely evaluate various scenes from the film. One of the scenes that stands out meticulously (by using flashbacks) is the scene just before the climax of the movie where Teddy informs Leonard that Sammy Jenkins (a man described by Leonard when he talks about his job where he had to investigate an insurance claim made by the wife of Sammy Jenkins) did in actuality, not exist. The viewer is presented with a sequence of ‘flashbacks’ that changes momentarily which furthermore contributes to the constant confusion of who and what to believe. One thing is certain though, given that the viewer is restricted to Leonards point of view (perspective), that when Leonard makes the subtle realisation (the flashback where he injects his wife with insulin) and squats down to the floor while convincing himself that his wife didn’t have diabetes that Sammy Jenkins is in fact just a fabrication in Leonards mind, thus, showing that Teddy tells a ‘version’ of the truth (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

Another scene that convinces one that Leonard is the one lying to himself, is the scene where Leonard tells the story of Sammy’s wife not believing that Sammy’s condition is real. She then goes on testing Sammy- according to Leonard- by telling him (Sammy) that it was time for her to be injected with insulin. After Sammy had injected his wife with the medicine she is still convinced that her husband is lying, so she turn back her wristwatch by 15 minutes and tells him that it was time for her to be injected with insulin (she was diabetic and relied on him to inject her even though he suffered from short-term memory loss). After repeating this process yet again Sammy’s wife overdoses on insulin and dies. Sammy was then placed into a mental asylum and in the final seconds of the black-and-white scene, just before it ends as the camera is closing up on Sammy a nurse walks past the camera-obstructing the view of Sammy- and for a brief second the shot is edited so that one sees Leonard sitting in the same chair as where Sammy sat, thus, emphasising that Leonard was in fact the one who was lying to himself through conditioning his mind and ultimately fabricated the story of Sammy Jenkins (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

One could say that in this particular scene, that Leonards memory of Sammy Jenkins is a simulation of himself in order to detach from the traumatic loss of his wife whom was raped and murdered before his very eyes.

Here, the (post-) Marxist notion of neo-realism hits the most confusing plane of paranoia by making use of a protagonist who will never be able to believe himself and must constantly remind himself of where he is by leaving himself a ‘postmodern’ network of clues to function in society (Szyszka 2007:[sp]).

‘unified social reality’

In cinema, spectacle is presented as ‘all of society’, forming a part of the social order and as an instrument of unifying the general public, all at the same time (simultaneously). The spectacle is not a compilation of imagery, but rather a way for people to relate to one another socially, by mediation of imagery. An immense variety of obvious ‘phenomena’ is explained and unified by the notion of spectacle. Measured in its own conditions, the spectacle confirms how ‘everything should look’ (appearance) and confirms the nature of humanity (how humans should live), i.e. social life, ‘as mere appearance’. However, further analysis of the ‘truth’ of the spectacle depicts it as noticeable contradictions of life, since spectacle is no longer about ‘visual aesthetic’ and enriched text, but rather about mainstream ‘cinematic ideology’ and revenue (Debord 1967:[sp]).


“The master/slave dialectic is the story of the actualisation of a unified social reality. It is also an extension of the story of how the identity of the self is constituted in and through another. It is the story of desire” (Diprose 1994:46).

Even though the above mentioned excerpt speaks of the female form in modern day society, one could argue that just like the ‘master/slave dialectic’, that Leonard represents the slave and everyone else that is using and deceiving him- even his mental condition- are the masters. One could make this conclusion since Leonard is the one being used and mislead (just like the ‘typical’ female character is usually exploited) without his knowledge. He thus creates, within himself, the longing (desire) to avenge his wife’s death. One could thus conclude, that due to the fact that one is presented with a male protagonist, driven by loss and vengeance, in order to find closure and ‘move on’ with his life, that Memento (Nolan 2000) does represent some form of ‘unified social reality’ .i.e. the need to move forward. The fact that he never does move on with his life, almost contradicts the previous statement, except, the fact that Leonard is unable to realise this tragedy due to his mental trauma-paired with the fact that he is in actuality a serial killer- ensures the ‘unified social reality’ (in accordance to the dominant power) that he gets what he deserves, an ongoing struggle of redemption.

Sources consulted

Barański, Z.G & Short, J.R. 1985. Developing Contemporary Marxism. London: The Macmillan Press LTD.

Baudrillard, J. 1998. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Gateshead: Athenæum Press Limited.

Clarke, M. 2002. The Space-Time Image: the Case of Bergson, Deleuze, and Memento. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16(3): 167-168.

Debord, G. 1967. Society of the Spectacle. [O]. Available:


Accessed 5 October 2010

Diprose, R. 1994. The bodies of woman: ethics, embodiment, and sexual difference. London: Routledge.

Hurd, R. 2003. Christopher Nolan’s Memento – Analysis of the narrative structure of a noirish revenge film. Paper presented at the Seminar: “Decadence and Modernism in Late 20th Century American Cinema”, 23 February 2003, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University

Jean Baudrillard-Biography. [Sa]. [O]. Available:


Accessed 2 October 2010

Kelner, D. 2003. Media Spectacle. New York: Routledge

Kellner, D. 2007. Jean Baudrillard. [O]. Available:


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Netto, J.A. 2000. Marxist film theory. [O]. Available:


Accesed 2 October 2010

Simulacra and Simulations. 1988. [O]. Available:


Accessed 30 September 2010

Szyszka, E. 2007. Brain Damage: Neo Noir in the Nineties. [O]. Available:

http://thecinephilenewyork.blogspot.com/2007/08/brain-damage-neo-noir-in nineties.html

Accessed 3 October 2010


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