Over the past decade, director Christopher Nolan has left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Few movies will escape from the eclipse of 2008’s blockbuster The Dark Knight. But in 2000, five years before the Batman Begins reboot, Nolan delivered Memento, a mind-bending film that challenges the viewer to wrap his head around it.
For the 10-year anniversary of Memento, the Tribeca Film Festival put together a panel discussion entitled “The Science of Memory” for after the movie’s screening. Christopher Nolan was unable to attend due to our new favorite Icelandic volcano, but other panelists included his brother and co-Memento writer, Jonathan Nolan, actors Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano, academics Dr. William Hirst (New School Professor of Psychology) and Dr. Suzanne Corkin (MIT Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience), and NPR’s NPR’s Robert Krulwich as moderator.
Dr. Corkin reaffirmed one of my initial feelings of the film after a first viewing. She explained that the film gave the audience the sense of what it is like to be an amnesiac. The narrative of the film is presented in two directions: one path, in color, runs Leonard Shelby’s (Pearce) story backwards and another, in black and white, moves him forward till both meet in the middle. Leonard suffers from an inability to create new memories after a blow to his head, received when intervening with the murder of his wife.
Christopher Nolan came up with the idea to present the tale backwards, while he and Jonathan—whose short story “Memento Mori” the film is based on—struggled with the structure of the film itself. As Dr. Hirst noted, homo sapien is one of the few species that creates a narrative. Krulwich expanded this line of thought further as he pondered that if he kissed Dr. Corkin, would the memory of the experience change? Her response was affirmative, the retrieving of memory changes it. It is a creative process. The scenes themselves are fragmentary, like a deck of cards Nolan explained.
Dr. Corkin studied with an individual suffering the same condition as Leonard, the famous patient H.M., for over 40 years and, since his passing in 2008, is working on a book. Just like the sub-plot character of Sammy Jankis, H.M. was afraid to do something wrong because of his condition. Losing the ability to create long-term memories created caution about his language choices. In effect, Leonard incorrectly described his condition as short-term memory loss as that definition pertains to about 30 seconds. Yet the academics had no other criticism for the presentation of memory in the movie. Someone from Caltech called the film the most accurate portrayal of memory in pop culture.
Krulwich lead the discussion into an examination of the parts of the brain, like the hippocampus, used for memory and the varieties of memory, recollection or muscle. But one variety, the ability to learn through conditioning is of a considerable importance to humans and to our protagonist. In one example, if a person shook hands with another who held a pin in his palm, the prick would immediately register and in a subsequent meeting, the first person would avoid a handshake.
Pearce and Pantoliano talked about their memories of filming the movie. “Pants” laughed at the suggestion that his memory of certain scenes was lost due to drinking and Pearce joked that he was pleased with how his “eyes looked nice and blue” in the movie. The latter was chosen for this movie because of his terrific work in Curtis Hanson’s noir film, L.A. Confidential and because he was “cheap” in comparison to Brad Pitt. Pantoliano, amazed that people were still discussing this film, and other co-star, Carrie-Anne Moss, were recommended from their work in The Matrix, a film series that “Pants” laughed about as he was still trying to get his head around it.
Perhpas one of the most enlightening moments in he discussion came near the end, with Nolan talking about screening the film in various countries and the different cultural reactions. This then lead to the revelation of a potential plot inconsistency. At a Rotterdam film festival, returning for a Q&A, Nolan was surprised at the audience’s laughter. Someone in the audience asked “How did Leonard know to write Fact 6 on his notecard”? Fortunately, Christopher was there to step in and explain it as a film technique since they already explained the tattoos. It made me wonder what else I might have missed in the movie. Just like most of Nolan’s films (The Prestige or the Batman movies), Memento makes the viewer think and evolves with repeated viewings.
Pearce with Doron Weber who runs the programs for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Guy Pearce on the Red Carpet
Writer Jonathan Nolan (left) and Executive Producer Aaron Ryder (right)
Panel (l-r) – Guy Pearce, Jonathan Nolan, Robert Krulwich (moderator from NPR), Joey “Pants” Pantoliano, Dr. William Hirst (New School professor of psychology), Dr. Suzanne Corkin (MIT professor of behavioral neuroscience)