Everything, MDA 1700 Film Communicating in Film: Styles and Movements

Momento is the second feature film from director Christopher Nolan. It was also his first large budget, mainstream Hollywood film. The story revolves around a man suffering from an extreme form of short term memory loss, as he attempts to discover who murdered his wife. In order to do this, he creates a system, utilizing notes and tattoos on his body to remind him of his progress in his investigation.

The story is told in a very unique fashion. The chronology of the film is entirely non-linear; it starts at the end, and is told backwards. In other words, a scene will play out, and then the next scene will take place ten minutes before the previous scene in the chronology of the film, and then the next scene, 10 minutes before that. On top of this unique structure, the film is also inter-cut with a secondary timeline, a series of flashbacks that begin before the initial timeline, and work their way up to the present by the end of the film. The two timelines are divided visually, one is in colour, and the other is in black and white, simply to differentiate one from the other. The ultimate effect of having such a unique chronology, is a film that is told entirely from the first person, revealing information to the audience at the same pace as the protagonist is learning new information; there is no dramatic irony in this film, the audience know no more than the main character.

If the film were to be told in a linear fashion, it would not be a first person experience, as the protagonist, due to his memory loss condition, would have forgotten all of the information that he had previously learnt in the film, yet the audience would have gained information, causing dramatic irony and ultimately separating the audience’s experience from the protagonist’s. Because of this, Memento requires some active reading from the audience; the film is much like a puzzle, as the audience have to actively think about the information being communicated to them in order to make sense of the narrative.

In order to keep the reverse storyline comprehensible, each scene is related to the next. For example, if the previous scene consists of the protagonist talking to a woman in a cafe, the next scene will end with the protagonist entering the cafe and sitting down with the woman. Each scene overlaps into the previous one for a few seconds before cutting to the next one. The separate, secondary black and white timeline is also connected to the main, colour timeline via objects, notes and dialogue. The film is also narrated by an internal monologue of the protagonist to. The narration is not entirely necessary to the narrative exposition, as it could all be revealed through visual storytelling and dialogue, however it would be fairly incomprehensible without some kind of an explanation, so the narration does improve the film. 

The film fails in the final sequence. Up until this point, the entire film consists of brilliant, innovative visual storytelling. The entire mystery of the film is told almost entirely through a unique, visual exposition that not only complements the broken nature of the plot, but is entirely unique to film as a storytelling technique. It is a good example of a story that is far superior when portrayed through a visual medium; the use of notes, tattoos, objects, characters and locations to progress the narrative is close to perfect. Which is why I always find it odd when it comes to the ending of the film. This brilliant build up ultimately leads to a scene in which the entire mystery of the story is simply told to the protagonist in a dull dialogue scene. Nolan uses one of film’s most prevalent fallacies; he tells us, and doesn’t show us. Up until this point the film is entirely driven by excellent, innovative visual exposition, which leads me to believe that Nolan didn’t know how to finish his film, copped out, and just decided to literally tell everything to the audience in a speech at the end. This, in my opinion, is what makes the film fall just short of greatness.


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