Memento as a War Movie
What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget. They are lyrics from the song The Way We Were. It is a simplistic thought that has been made many times throughout the course of time. It is a philosophy that many people have lived by for ages. The blocking out of traumatic events is done by the best of us and it utilized prominently in war movies. A one-sided view point is the only way to create a plot. As the erasure of memories is used in war movies, it can also be seen by Leonard Shelby in Memento. Through this idea, I will prove that Memento is a type of war movie.
Jonathan Romney clearly summarizes Memento as an at-heart film noir in classic 1940s vein — the story of a man investigating his wife’s death. True to form, there is a mysterious femme fatale and a sly, ambivalent character who could be friend or foe. The first twist is that the hero and narrator, Leonard, suffers from short-term amnesia and forgets things almost as soon as they happen. The second twist is that the story is told backwards — it starts with Leonard getting his revenge and taking a Polaroid to prove it to himself. Romneys outline of the story describes the plot. He continues on But his bullet returns to the gun and the photo fades, then slides back into the camera. This is something more than an echo of the reverse storytelling of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. Here, it is as if events erase themselves the instant they occur — which, in Leonard’s mind, is exactly what happens. Romney introduces two of the tricks that Memento uses. The first scene is the only scene of the movie that is actually backwards as Romney explains. It succeeds in establishing the mood of the movie and confusing the viewer.Writer-director Christopher Nolan draws the viewer into Leonards world with this confusion and the syntax of the story. Romney goes on to describe this syntax like this: The audience starts off in Leonards position, as much in the dark as he is. But the more we learn, the more he forgets. And whenever we think we know more than he does, some new enigma comes along to redress the balance. A bizarre narrative construction keeps us shifting in and out of focus. Each section of the main story begins in mid-action, so that we do not know what is happening any more than Leonard doesTo make things more complex, another strand, apparently chronological, is interspersed between episodes. This explains how Nolan pieced the film together to draw the audience emotion. Leonard is cast as the hero by Nolan and the audience is brought along, trying to piece together the clues to solve just who the villain is. The film carries Leonard as the hero until the end (or beginning) when the pieces are all placed together.
Patrick McCormick, in the U.S. Catholic Journal, describes Leonard: At first we are sympathetic to Shelby’s plight and admire his daunting grit and ingenuity. He reminds us of The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble and the quest for the one-armed man. But as Memento unfolds in a backwards series of flashbacks, we discover things that Shelby has already forgotten, sometimes intentionally, and learn that neither he nor his quest is as noble as he wants to believe. The audience learns that Leonard has gotten revenge before and, at that moment, Leonard is cast from his hero pedestal. As the story reveals, Leonard, at one time, had proof of his revenge and chose to burn the picture. We find that Leonard has also blacked out information from police reports and changed his notes to fit the direction that he wants the story to go. He goes through his life creating a mystery that he cannot solve and a plot where he is always the noble hero avenging the savage death of his wife. If Leonard knew what he had done-that he had achieved his revenge-he wouldnt have anything to live for. His life would be over. It is too painful for him to remember, so he simply forgets.
There is a structure that Leonard follows to create his own plot line. Memento creates a hero in Leonard. He is attempting to avenge wrongs that were done to his wife. He faces life-or-death adversity to achieve his mission: to kill the man who raped and murdered his wife. Clearly Leonard is depicted as a victim as well. He suffers from his condition. This condition is the means that Leonard uses to devise his own battles. His battles are all intense and all lead him to his objective.
This structure is almost a parallel of the structure that war movies utilize. Patrick McCormick says that War movies have a built-in affinity for melodramatic stories and action-packed images – elements of cinema that promise box-office gold when packaged and promoted in aggressive (or belligerent?) ways. That built-in affinity is seen differently by different parties. Saving Private Ryan focuses on World War II, remembered by most Americans as a “good war” that justified great expenditures of lives and resources. That good war mentality is just as McCormick says, remembered by most Americans. The French, British, Japanese, Germans, and Italians all have different focuses of the war and, therefore, have a different perception. Those different perceptions are just like Leonard in Memento. That perception is used to create a good story. A story about how great the success of Pearl Harbor was for the Japanese would not go over well in the United States. The same can be said of Memento; if Leonard had seen Teddys (his cop-friend) view, his actions would not have been so justified.
Along with the plot structure, the idea of slanting a characters attitude is used to alter perceptions. In the movie Pearl Harbor, the Japanese leaders are seen as ruthless and merciless terrorists. This is a technique used to slant the viewer perception. The perception of the audience determines just who they root forespecially in a war movie. In Memento, Leonards character makes it very clear that he is to be the victim. There is a line when he is asked what his last memory is and he responds My wife and after a pause, dying. You cant help but feel bad for a guy like that. Through that sympathy, anything that Leonard does is justified, even murder. This is exactly what is done in war movies. A human life isnt as significant if the hero has a legitimate reason to kill them.
There are often films that can not be directly seen as war films but have many parallels. Memento is one of them. David Sterritt explains how movies can be rooted in tradition war idioms. Cats & Dogs is a farce with little connection to everyday life, but the focus of its comedy – felines and canines fighting tooth and nail – takes important cues from the high-tech fantasy of James Bond epics and the Austin Powers pictures. One of this winter’s mostly eagerly awaited releases is Lord of the Rings, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s brilliant books about warfare and other adventures in a mythological Middle Earth realm. Fans may not pigeonhole these as war films, but part of their appeal comes from their place in a long tradition of war-centered fiction stretching back at least as far as Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey have been cited as sources for Apocalypse Now and other combat films. It is sometimes seen in movies that they do not own up to being a true war movie, but there is a basic sense of what a war movie is. In The Things They Carried , novelist and Vietnam vet Tim O’Brien wrote that if at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been the victim of a very old and terrible lie. As a first rule of thumb, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.That is Memento; a movie that exposes all of the realities of its own story and leaves the audience ashamed of rooting for their fallen hero.
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