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'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby in Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) (IMDB)

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

By now, most of us are probably familiar with the attention economy. The past decade or so has been something of a long, slow realization of its detrimental effects on the human race. Set aside its geopolitical and environmental impacts -- a pretty large chunk to set aside -- the constant clamoring for our eyeballs has had far-reaching effects on our collective physical and mental health. Our devices, apps, and streaming services keep us in a hamster wheel of entertainment, stimulation, and anxiety. Our attention spans have gone down; our time spent on the toilet has gone up.

When looking for a film to represent our Huxleyian era, a few obvious choices present themselves: David Fincher's The Social Network (2010), which today screens like a supervillain origin story, and Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2014),which carries terrifying implications about surveillance and AI, come readily to mind. But neither of these films capture the struggle of life in the Distraction-Industrial Complex better than a little movie from the early aughts called Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000).

Those who've spent the better part of the past 20 years debating Memento won't need a recap. For those who haven't: Guy Pearce stars in a career-best role as Leonard Shelby, a man with a condition that leaves him incapable of forming new memories. He's on a mission to find and kill John G, the man who raped and (maybe) killed his wife. Famously, the bulk of the film's story unfolds backward; a clever narrative trick meant to mirror Leonard's disorientation.

Memento is a tough sell in our present techno-cultural moment. The most advanced technology used in the story is a Polaroid camera. More to the point, Memento is a film that depends entirely on its protagonist's lack of immediate access to information. As some have pointed out, the mechanics of its plot would be nullified, or at least fundamentally changed, by the existence of smartphones. (This is one of many reasons to be skeptical about the supposed remake in the works.)

But that's kind of the point. Memento is a film deliberately indifferent to the technology of its time -- it's an early-aughts movie with no computers or Nokia flip phones. Its vague, undefined era lends the film a retro-noir cred that's helped it age remarkably well. Even in a landscape of brainy thrillers shaped by its existence, such as Brad Anderson's The Machinist (2004) and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010), Memento still feels fresh -- and devastatingly relevant.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay

For all its formal wizardry and puzzle-box layers, Memento is a movie about memory and identity. In a review published in Time Out, critic Ben Walters describes Nolan as a filmmaker fixated on "the way we depend on the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and the little slips and dodges, ignorant or willed, that allow us to keep those stories straight – at least for a while."

Leonard Shelby is a man struggling to keep a straight story. His is an edgier, new-Millenium take on the hard-boiled private eye, a quiet American for the 21st century. His attention span is short, and his desire for revenge is long. His understanding of his past is a flawed. An attack on his home turf has spurred him into kicking ass and taking names -- even if they aren't always the right names. The film's fans will know (do I have to say "spoilers" here?) that Leonard's been killing a series of John Gs that are not responsible for attacking him and his wife.

There's a tradition in noir of the hard-boiled detective as a stand-in for America: think Bogey fighting a German baddie on the eve of World War II in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), or Nicholson losing to the rich and powerful in the era of Nixon and Vietnam in Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974). With Memento's wide release happeneg only months before 9/11, it's not difficult to see Leonard as an avatar foreshadowing all the worst impulses of America's War on Terror. He'll "put a boot in your ass", et cetera.

Leonard represents more than just a War on Terror portent. Nearly 20 years on, the film is still filled with unexpected resonance. Case in point: it's a movie with a protagonist who's always working, but constantly forgetting what he's doing. He's surrounded by false and incomplete information intended to drive him to violent action. He's manipulated by people who claim to help him but who use his desires to further their interests. He's so busy doing what he sees as his job that he rarely asks why he's doing it.

We live within the Distraction-Industrial Complex. Leonard's problems are our problems.

The Tattooed Detective's memory lapses have been a source of humor ("I don't… feel drunk") and serious forum debate for years. Yet almost two decades after the film's release, it's easier to understand Leonard's frame of mind than ever before. If you've ever blinked up from your phone after a notification spiral, you've felt it. Where did the last hour go? That's right. You're on Shelby Time.


Research doesn't paint a pretty picture of what our daily notification bonanza is doing to our brains. It's well-documented that the constant interruptions and enticements of our devices is eating away our ability to focus and eating at our short-term memory. But maybe this is an exaggerated comparison. There's some stark contrast between your average, plugged-in American and the oft-shirtless Leonard Shelby. Most of us (here's hoping) aren't out to avenge a signature Nolan dead wife.

Of course, short-term memory is only an entry point for Nolan. He has a maze full of larger concerns to navigate, the biggest of which is time. Nolan would go on to explore the "time puzzle" on a larger scale, but in Memento, he's interested mostly in moment-to-moment experience.

Leonard's experience of time is uniquely fragmented and disconnected. In one of the more affecting scenes in the movie -- there's a case to be made that Memento is Nolan's most emotionally accessible film -- he asks, "How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?"

At another point, he makes a frustrated attempt to explain his condition: "You feel angry, you don't know why... You could do anything and not have the faintest idea ten minutes later."

Like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter House-Five (1969), Leonard has become unstuck in time. His action is based solely on his desire, and facts are fragmented until they fit a prefab narrative. In the character of Leonard, the instincts that drive our click-happy lives in our respective echo chambers are distilled to their purest form.

If Leonard's "broken time and broken attention", to quote Lewis Mumford, seems utterly alien to you, consider author Neil Postman. In his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death the famed techno-grouch argues the downsides of mass media. According to Postman, the flood of trivialities inherent to the Information Age "[wrenches]... moments out of their contexts... the world is atomized. There is only a present and it need not be part of any story that can be told."

Postman's book came out in 1985, but you could hardly ask for a better description of life in the attention economy today: the isolated, algorithm-driven existence we live that, in at least a couple different ways, destroys time. We experience time as "a series of idiosyncratic events…[with] no beginning, middle, or end." Carried to its logical conclusion, it makes us all intoMemento's Sammy Jankis [Stephen Tobolowsky]: we like the commercials (or maybe the Quibis) best.

The fundamental contrast between your average 2020s American and 2000 Leonard boils down to this: Leonard's problem is that he has too little information at once. Ours is having too much. Yet both states of being bring us to a chillingly similar place: we experience time as a relentless barrage of "nows", existing in a constant feeling of being in the present -- but never being fully in the moment.

This is usually where the tongue-clicking chorus begins. It's beyond banal to point out we're spending too much time on our phones and streaming our lives away. And though that true, these are merely symptoms of the disease. Even Silicon Valley's explicit push to keep us addicted to its devices, insidious and disastrous as it is, is only part of a larger rot at the heart of Web 2.0. Every fake news share, crypto-Nazi meme, and Facebook-inspired genocide ultimately has the same point of origin: Big Tech's existential push to supersede individual identity with an endless cycle of digital consumption.

Since humans have had the language to express them, we've carried what Walters and others call the "stories we tell ourselves about who we are" in our heads. Now, outside voices in our heads are so loud, so constantly there, that they're capable of drowning out everything within. Perhaps at no other time in modern history has the colonization of the human mind been so complete. And like Leonard, we buy into it.

Leonard's raison d'etre is built upon a series of lies: some from other people, some his own. What he sees as his purpose is actually a prison cell. He didn't put himself there, but he has the key. And he can't stop throwing it away, seeking it, finding it, and throwing it away again. He destroyed the missing 12-pages of the police report that dould serve as a map for his confused journey. He burned the photograph of every John G he has murdered. The truth -- he may have been the one who killed his wife -- is too painful to face. In partnership with a corrupt cop -- the only kind of cop we meet in this film -- he builds a lie he can live with. When Joe Pantoliano's Teddy reveals the crumbling edifice on which he's built his identity, Leonard puts in motion a plan that will kill him.

Joe Pantoliano as Teddy and Guy Pearce as Leonard (IMDB)

What our screen-mediated world has given us in the opportunity to drown out, at any moment, the voices telling us that our stories might be wrong. Self-examination is crucial to finding real meaning in our lives; the first step to discovering whether what we are chasing is what we want. The seductive pull of our streaming services and apps work to keep us busy chasing shadows, the fear-driven quick fixes provided by devices replace the challenging, long-term work of memory - and meaning-making.

Facing up to the inconsistencies in the stories we tell ourselves is hard. It's made harder by the fact that under the attention economy, we've become terrified to spend time alone with our thoughts. We're afraid to face our frailties and failures, to face and admit the ways we've harmed others. We're afraid of aging and dying. We are afraid of time, and so we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

And without time, we can't heal. We can't grow in meaningful ways or find purpose in our lives. We'll constantly switch between the frantic-work mode of Memento's Leonard and the passive, sedate pleasures of Sammy Jankis. After all, they're the same person, kind of, maybe.

"So you lie to yourself to be happy," Teddy quips near the end of the film. "We all do it." As the attention economy shows no signs of slowing, we won't even need to lie. We just need to reach for the nearest screen.

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