Tattoos & Totems

Part II: Memento (2000)

Is our identity defined by our need for purpose?


“Remember Sammy Jankis.”

How did I get here? It’s the first question Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) asks whenever his short-term memory resets, since he’s unable to form any new memories. The story, told in reverse order, slightly resembles the jumbled nature of Following in the sense that we don’t know what happened directly before the present scene, only what occurred after, as well as the few hints of a previous existence that Leonard has tattooed all over his body. In telling the story this way, the audience is forced to sympathize with the character, not knowing any more than Leonard does about how he got where is and more importantly where he’s going. In effect, Leonard is forced to live a string of mini-lives of which he is forced to awakens in the middle over and over and over again, minus the early 90’s cheese of “Quantum Leap” or Bill Murray’s goofy hilarity in “Groundhog Day”, of course.


Short term memory can last up to a few minutes at most, and can store about seven things inside it at any given time – think about someone telling you their phone number versus someone telling you their credit card number – and our brains have a tendency to more easily remember the first and last items in a group, forgetting the jumble of the middle in a string of information. The structure of the film is completely reliant on that fact, and the connectivity of the scenes is what allows us not only to be able to follow the film as a linear narrative, but to have several of those subtle “Ah ha” moments (dare we call them a “kick”?) that Nolan’s films are famous for. Each scene, each mini-life, presents us with the end of the scene as the beginning of the previous (though chronologically the next) scene. Every scene of Leonard in the present – as opposed to sitting in his hotel room on the phone with a mysterious stranger or flashbacks, his only recollected memories, to his days as a claims investigator  – begins with Leonard asking himself two questions: How did I get here? and What was I doing? They relate to where he came from and where he’s going because with a mind like Harrison Bergeron’s father, what else is there? As a caveat to this thing we call life we are eternally linked to the steady ticking pace of time, and we only have so much of it, so we have to spend it doing something. And Leonard claims to know everything about himself, including where he came from – in a larger sense, not necessarily where he just was – and what his mission in life is, because he remembers everything about his past.

Leonard’s mission in life is to track down and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife in their bathroom as Leonard slept. This is also when Leonard received the blow to the head that caused his incurable short-term memory loss. The facts that he has discovered through his haze of mini-lives have been tattooed all over his body so that he knows certain things for sure, and they help him understand where he came from and what he’s doing. He comments about how proud he is that he has a system for his illness, unlike another man named Sammy Jankis, who previously had the same disease as Leonard. Sammy didn’t have a system, and couldn’t do anything other than sit and watch commercials. But Leonard was on a mission, and he needed all the help he could get.

Names play an important role in finding someone, considering again that it’s the most basic answer to the question “Who is that?” Leonard discovered through his investigation that he’s searching for a man with the first name of John or Jim and the last initial G. He’s enlisted the help of a man who calls himself “Teddy” (Joe Pantoliano) – although his name is John Gammel, with a G – to help him track down the murderer. We find out during the opening credits that Leonard eventually kills Teddy, whom he accuses of being his target. There is also a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss) who is helping Leonard in his quest, although we don’t find out until the end of the film exactly what her and Teddy’s motives are, although we are aware that even though they seem to him to be helping, that they have a certain sense of resentment for Leonard, via Natalie calling him a retard and Teddy constantly calling him Lenny”, which he hates (it was what his wife called him, a different identity). In the closing moments of the film, after Leonard killed who he thought was his wife’s murderer, we realize that both Natalie and Teddy had been using Leonard to get rid of a drug trafficker boyfriend and to steal his money in a pretend drug deal. Fearing that his search was over, Leonard made a deliberate decision to burn the evidence of John G.’s murder and to tattoo Teddy’s license plate on his leg simply to give himself something to strive for in this life.

One of the things that allow Leonard to keep moving is his inner battle of memories versus facts. Memories can change the color of a shirt, the layout of a room, they can, if manipulated, allow you to be whomever you want to be, where facts are more rigid and concrete, forcing you to see something about yourself that you don’t want to see. Twisting your memories, however, in order to create an illusion of happiness or to allow your existence to continue is more satisfying, especially if it allows you to keep living the only life you can know. Teddy didn’t do himself any favors when he convinced Leonard that he can lie to himself in order to be happy – in this case, to give his life purpose – and that he has been for some time, since they killed the real rapist (and a few guys since) over a year ago. So which is more important to who you truly are, memories or facts? Is the view you have of yourself more important than your appearance to others? At one point Leonard tells the voice on the phone – who turns out to be Teddy, identity revealed! – that, “You should never trust someone with this condition”, advice that he uses to trick himself into trusting that every tattoo he puts on his body is a stone cold fact. Teddy tells his killer in his final moments of panic that he (Leonard) doesn’t know who he is, that he doesn’t know what he’s become, that “…you should investigate yourself.” But what if I don’t like the things that I find?

Enter Sammy Jankis. Sammy was a man who Leonard, as an insurance claims investigator in his good remembering years, investigated because he claimed to have no short-term memory. They put him through a series of tests that were designed to train Sammy through conditioning to physically create new memories which, in Leonard’s opinion, he should have been able to do. Sammy just couldn’t do it, and ended up accidentally killing his wife as she called his bluff by asking him repeatedly to give her more insulin than she actually needed. We eventually discover that “Remember Sammy Jankis” is Leonard’s plea to himself; that he actually is Sammy Jankis, that he has inadvertently projected his own memories onto someone else, allowing him to forget that he himself killed his wife after she survived the rape, and that the search for her killer, thus his existence, is futile. This is the first instance where we discover that Leonard, unlike Sammy, actually cancreate new memories through his own form of conditioning, or at least alter old ones in order to suit his purpose. This possibility is made rock solid once he deliberately decides to burn both the photographs of a dead Jimmy G. and a smiling Leonard in order to give him something to live for. Through the conditioning of killing several John G’s, of which there is no short supply, in the name of vengeance, Leonard is able to physically create enough of a new memory to keep himself on a wild goose chase for at least the foreseeable future. And who knows how many times he’s done this to himself. Given the unending chain of mini-lives he’s forced to live, Leonard does his best to put into practice what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, and to what all of Nolan’s films adhere: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” If you get there too early you’ll just get bored and want to take the trip again.

“Memento” first displayed Nolan’s notion that human beings have a predilection for, inadvertently or not, taking advantage of someone in order to get what they want; we will use another person, especially someone perceived as confused or lost (gullible, vulnerable), to suit our purpose. Everyone in the story quickly took advantage of Leonard once they discovered his disability: Natalie wanted him to kill her boyfriend, Teddy wanted him to make him some money, even the motel guy rented him two rooms in order to trick him out of more cash. You couldn’t help but feel for him when everyone at the bar drops a loogie into his beer before he takes a big, frothy gulp, but we’re soon enough reminded that Leonard is a human being, too, with all the same faults and inherent dubiousness as the rest of us. When he burns the photographs and writes down Teddy’s license number as that of the murderer he’s not only using poor, devious John “Teddy” Gamell for his own needs, he’s using what little he knows about his own condition against himself in order to have some semblance of a meaningful existence, faking the only thing he can call an identity so that he isn’t forced to call off the search. And as despicable as everyone around him appeared throughout the film, none of them were going around killing people in their journeys, because they all had the whiff of a conscience, or at least enough memory retention to recall their bad deeds, so they found someone who was medically relieved of morality every ten minutes to do what they couldn’t.

There was one place on Leonard’s body that was left blank so that once he finally reached his goal – enlightenment in the form of killing his wife’s murderer – he could place a final tattoo over his heart so that he would know always that he had accomplished what he had set out to do. We are even allowed to see his own personal paradise; as he burns the photographs in the car we are shown a glimpse of Leonard and his wife laying in bed together, and she runs her hand over his heart where the words “I’ve done it” are tattooed. This is the Heaven that he strives for, but knows is unattainable in this life. He can avenge her death and tattoo his accomplishments on his chest, but what is after enlightenment? There is nothing that will ever bring her back. With that knowledge, and with his condition, he can only obtain a small piece of everything he wants, albeit he can obtain it over and over again. This is the only life he can know, and remaining stagnant and unmotivated in that life is akin to not being alive at all. It is the body’s natural inclination to hold on to life at all cost, so Leonard has no other choice but to keep searching, and purposefully not finding, a desired yet unobtainable goal that if reached would only bring him into a living death, a non-identity.

Since “Memento” touted Nolan as one of the brilliant new young directors, he was given a little bit more money and a lot more star power to craft his next story, although Hollywood wanted to see how well he could adapt an idea that he hadn’t concocted himself. Considering the story line, it made sense that he would choose to remake a 1997 Norwegian film in which a cop with questionable history (and a questionable morality to go along with it) is brought in to a small remote town to assist with the murder case of a young local girl, albeit Nolan added a slew of changes to plot and character in order to evoke different aspect of the same unanswerable Ouroboros of questions that his first two films (and subsequently every film after) would pose. Like his most recent protagonist, he changed the parts he didn’t like in order to suit his purpose; the harmonious synergy of life inspiring art inspiring life inspiring art. But as for Nolan’s first true Hollywood film, the search for oneself takes a turn from an introspective and collaterally damaging quest for self-approval in “Memento” to a story of one cop’s outright and fevered chase for his criminal counterpart in “Insomnia”.

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