Unreliable Memory in Memento

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Unreliable Memory in Memento

Thesis: The unique narrative structure of the film and the leading role, Leonard Shelby in Memento prove that memory is unreliable. .

In William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Samneric saw something moving, something large, which in reality was the dead body of a parachutist. But in the darkness and out of fear, in Samneric’s memory, the parachutist became a beast with leathery wings, teeth, and claws. He even claimed that he 'saw it slinking behind the trees'. In this case, Samneric's memory were mastered by his personal feelings — fear. Thus memory is unreliable, as it can be manipulated by personal feelings.

Similarly, the leading role of Memento, Leonard Shelby’s memory is also manipulated by his personal feelings. Leonard distorts his memory due to his desire to find and kill 'the one and only' murderer of his wife. In the following, I am going to prove memory is unreliable through the unique narrative structure and Leonard Shelby, the leading role of the film.

Memento, the story features a man called Leonard Shelby, who has anterograde amnesia, a disorder that caused his brain to be unable to store new memories. From Leonard’s memory, the disorder was a result from a concession caused by the rapist murderer of his wife. From then on, Leonard's life is all about finding 'the one and only' murderer of his wife and get him killed in order to take revenge.

Firstly, it is the unique narrative structure. The film's events unfold in two separate, alternating narratives — one in color, and the other in black-and-white. The black-and-white sections are told in chronological order, beginning by showing Leonard conversing with an anonymous caller in a motel room. Leonard's actual investigation is shown in color sequences that are in reverse order. By the end of the film, when the two narratives converge, revealing the investigation and events that lead up to Leonard’s friend, Teddy's death.

The narrative structure is literally a memory test that the director of Memento, Christopher Nolan gives to the viewer. As each color sequence begins, the audience is unaware of the preceding events, just like Leonard, giving the viewer a sense of his confusion. With the structure arranged in this alternating and reverse way, the confused viewer would be lost, in a way that they have no clue where the story is heading. At the end of the film, which chronologically is the first sequence, would only leave the viewer more question marks. Therefore, the narrative structure of the film, which is also the memory test, proves human memory is unreliable. For relying only on memory, the viewer cannot group all the puzzles — the reverse chronological scenes — together and have a full understanding of the events. Confusion is brought on by unreliable memories. As time goes, memory fades, based on this principle that everyone knows and even experiences, Nolan first gives this ‘memory test’ to let the viewer a firsthand experience that ‘memory is unreliable’.

Zigzagging through the two separate and yet related narratives, Nolan brings out memory is unreliable not only due to physical reasons, but also mental ones. The black-and-white sequence is indeed the narration of Leonard, a former insurance investigator, telling the story of one of his claimants, Sammy Jankis before his injury. Jankis, just like Leonard, appeared to have anterograde amnesia after a car accident. Leonard explains how Jankis's diabetic wife tested Jankis to see if he really had a memory disorder or just faking to claim disability insurance, by repeatedly requesting insulin injections from him. She is desperately hoping that Sammy did not have a memory disorder and would remember the previous injection. As a result, she died from an insulin overdose from Jankis. While the viewer is puzzling why Leonard remembers Jankis so vividly, Nolan reveals a parallel story of Leonard. Because of Leonard's condition and his denial of possibly killing...
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