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Memento: In Search of Remembrance


Notes: Cinema and the Brain Journal of Neuro-Aesthetic Theory #2

Memory is the most faithful of films … but who does not see the difference between a memory and the objective image that gives it eternal concrete form.
André Bazin[1]

In Marcel Carné’s Juliette ou la clef des songes (1950)[2] , the protagonist, Michel (Gerard Philipe), falls asleep in prison and dreams of a town on a hill in sunny Provence in which all the inhabitants have lost their memory. He wanders the streets looking for a woman about whom he remembers nothing except that he loves her and she is called Juliette. Through the streets and squares he calls her name and the townspeople try to help him. The accordion player (Yves Robert) is the only one able to bring back Michel’s memories, which he does with his music. He helps Michel find Juliette (Suzanne Cloutier), who is standing like a statue in her long dress from a past age. She is willing to admit she is Juliette and in love with Michel, but has difficulty in remembering it–and in staying with him. As often happens in dreams, Michel keeps losing Juliette and having to look for her again, until she is finally stolen away by a Bluebeard type. When Michel awakes, we discover that he is in prison for stealing money from his employer’s till in order to spend a day at the seaside with his beloved, Juliette. Back in Paris, in his everyday city on the hill, Montmartre, Michel finds out that the end of the dream was more or less true and that Juliette has agreed to marry his employer (the Bluebeard of the dream). He goes to see her, like Romeo entering the room via the balcony. But the real-life Juliette is more materialistic than the dream one. She wants security and has forgotten hers and Michel’s past love. Michel leaves her, walking through the darkened Paris streets, reminiscent of Carné’s Les Portes de la nuit (1946). He descends the stairs and passes through a door marked “danger.” It opens onto the sunny prospect of the city on the hill, which stands before him eternally.

In one particular scene in the dream sequence, Michel finds himself in a wood (artificial decor by Alexandre Trauner), once again calling for his beloved. When they are reunited, they enter a park where the townspeople have come to relax. In the middle is a vendor selling a special type of “souvenir”[3] which provides them with ready-made memories. He can offer an elderly couple a musical box, which plays what could be their “favorite song,” or a handkerchief for the lovelorn on which the tears have dried.

I Unstuck in time

Carné’s film can be compared to other postwar films on amnesia and loss of identity, such as Joseph Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night (1946). Nevertheless, the objectified memories of the “amnesiacs” in Juliette are similar to the various types of mementos used by Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) to remind him of his dead wife. Some of these are actual objects–a brush, a teddy bear, a brassiere, a book, a clock–others come in the form of photographs or the written word. Lenny has what he calls a “condition.” He has lost his short-term memory following a blow to his head by one of his wife’s assailants (she was raped and murdered, or so he recalls). He can remember events before then, but can no longer make new memories. So he takes Polaroid photos of new people and places–his car, his motel, his friend Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a woman he has met, Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss). Under the photo, he identifies who or what it is; on the reverse side, he adds a short explanation. He tattoos messages all over his body to remind him of events since his accident and the course he must now take in avenging his wife’s murder.

A memento is an object that has been infused with significance as a reminder of a person, place or event. Unlike the fetish object, there is not the intensity of obsession attached to it. The mementos in Lenny’s possession are all-purpose, like those of the townspeople in Juliette: his wife’s possessions, and photos identifying his car, hotel, a possible girlfriend, friend, and suspect.

Carné’s work provides a more structural perspective for examining Memento through Gilles Deleuze’s discussion of flashback in Cinema 2. Although Deleuze refers to other films by Carné, his analysis of filmic dream procedure is still applicable to Juliette. Like the flashback, the dream presents a closed circuit, a movement from present to past and back to present. To what extent does Memento fit into Deleuze’s schema? Since the late sixties, flashbacks, dreams or memories being recounted are seldom marked by cinematic devices of dissolves and/or superimposition.[4] The contemporary spectator is accustomed to dealing with mental flashes of past memory as in Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969) or narratives that intertwine past and present. Even then–as always, the sixties were not so much about inventing as reinventing things–these techniques can be traced back to the Silent Era. Mental flashes of memory, dream or wishful thinking were frequently used–for example, Rudolph Valentino imagining his childless wife with a baby in her arms in Blood and Sand (Niblo, 1921). Jane Gaines has described how African American director Oscar Micheaux used cross-cutting not to show simultaneous actions (as in a suspense-filled nick-of-time rescue scene), but to depict the present alongside a past event conjured up by memory, establishing a temporal and causal link between the two.[5]

The direct transitions from one type of narrative to another in Memento–the intertwining of narratives, as it were–is not incongruous with accepted filmic depictions of mental processes. However, Deleuze’s schema consists of narrativized mental processes that occur within a general linear narrative. This may not always be applicable to Memento. What is the main narrative in the film and who is behind it? What is dream, memory or flashback, especially within this system of objectified thought?

II R… for remembrance

Remembering has frequently been shown in American films. Certain films depict a collective memory, as in Judge Priest where a deed of bravery from the Civil War serves to clear a man of guilt. The story is told in flashback, with the voice-over of the teller, and his face in inset superimposed at times on the battle scenes.[6] This type of film presents memory in its historiographic form. More subjective uses of memory are to be found in All About Eve (1951) or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1940), in which a particular character’s life is related by several characters in order to gain a better understanding of the person. These accounts are told from a personal viewpoint as the narrators are also participants in the story. More intimate still are films in which the character himself is in search of his past, as in Somewhere in the Night or Confidential Report (Welles, 1955). As the above examples show, memory–and through it, identity–is the obsession of particular directors. Similarly, the theme tends to appear during particular periods. Several films of the late sixties-early seventies present the actual memories of a character as in Midnight Cowboy, Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Schatzberg, 1970), or The Panic in Needle Park (Schatzberg, 1971). By repeating the same memory as a mental flash on several occasions during the film, an attempt is made to give a “realistic” representation of memory. Nevertheless, these memories serve a similar purpose to the long flashbacks of films from the forties and fifties: they provide an explanation for the personality of the character.

Memento goes further than these previous films in situating the seat of memory within the subjective representation of a character. What appears as the main story is told backward, through a series of twenty-one episodes, each supposedly corresponding to a bout of Lenny’s short-span memory. The working backward does not mean that the film is run backward as if it were being rewound, which is the device used in the credit sequence and prologue. Each episode begins at a certain moment in time, runs to a certain point, which in fact corresponds to the beginning of the previous sequence in the film’s narrative. Chronologically, the previous sequence is the next one. Example:

Sequence 1 begins with Teddy greeting Lenny in the hotel lobby, “Lenny.” They drive off together, past some factories, to a low-lying, abandoned building out of town. They enter the empty building, argue, and Lenny shoots Teddy. Cut. Sequence 2 begins with Lenny holding a photo of Teddy on the back of which he’s written “He’s the one, kill him.” The sequence ends as it began, with Teddy greeting Lenny in the hotel lobby, “Lenny.”

This narrative, which for convenience sake I shall call Narrative 1, is in color. It takes us back through various events: Lenny’s meeting with Natalie who works in a bar and wants to avenge her boyfriend who has disappeared; Lenny being chased by an unknown man called Dunn; and other encounters with Teddy.

Through its episodic structure, Narrative 1 would seem to correspond to the episodic memory of a sufferer of short-term memory loss who is trying to reconstruct his recent past. One is aided in this by Narrative 2, which runs more or less simultaneously to Narrative 1. However, Narrative 2 is in black-and-white and consists of Lenny in the motel room, dressed in just in his boxer shorts, examining different parts of his body and the inscriptions on it, while he recounts his past to an unknown listener on the phone. Besides the absence of color and the confined space, this narrative differs from the former in that it moves forward in time. Although initially difficult for the spectator to situate temporally, we gradually become aware that this narrative precedes the first. This is induced by the choice of black-and-white and also by the difference in Lenny’s appearance. He wears a checked shirt at the beginning and end of the narrative, his hair is unkempt and, especially, he does not have two red marks of a recent wound at the bottom of his left cheek. Part of the suspense in the working back of Narrative 1 will be to find out how he acquired this scar.

How is Narrative 2 related to Narrative 1? If Narrative 1 is to be seen as a remembering process, is Narrative 2 also part of Lenny’s recollection? From this perspective, Narrative 2 would be a memory within a memory, a flashback within a flashback. This is one possible reading of the two strands of narrative, but it is difficult to ascertain which launches which. The prologue—or chronologically, the conclusion—could set a memory process going, but it could just as probably be contained in the opening black-and-white sequence that has Lenny recounting his story to an invisible listener. The two narratives are intercut in such a way that they intertwine like the two strands of the DNA double helix. There is overlapping between the two: Lenny’s story is told and retold in both, and the same characters are referred to (Sammy, Teddy). A repeated reference to Sammy Jankis towards the beginning of the two narratives, verbally and through the tattooed reminder on Lenny’s wrist (“Remember Sammy Jankis”) leads to Lenny relating Sammy’s story within Narrative 2. Significantly, the use of color for one narrative and black-and-white for the other would suggest that one is the double, or reflection, of the other, as Deleuze puts forward in his analysis of memory circuits. But in the case of Memento, which is the real object and which is the virtual one? Could Narrative 2 be the “real” one in which Lenny is imagining the future action he will take? Narrative 1 must then be considered as a flashforward, part of Lenny’s wishful thinking of how he will avenge his wife’s death. Thus, the film moves backward episodically as Lenny fills in the gaps of the scenario he is devising.

III Warder of the brain

The story of Sammy Jankis, which Lenny recounts to an unknown listener on the phone, is inserted in Narrative 2 and is also illustrated in black-and-white. It appears as a conventional flashback, unfolding chronologically, even though related sporadically by Lenny as the first two narratives work their way backward and forward. Each episode begins and ends on Lenny talking into the telephone receiver, with shots in between returning to Lenny and his various occupations in the hotel room (examining his tattoos, etc). Narrative 2a fits in with a Deleuzian circuit as there is always a return to the former narrative and it advances along the way. Lenny describes a particular case during his job as insurance investigator prior to his brain damage. He was investigating Sammy’s purported claim of loss of memory after an accident. This narrative seems to correspond to Lenny’s actual memory, as it occurred before his own head injury. There is an obvious parallel between the two stories. While filling in Lenny’s background, this narrative could also be of the explanatory kind. Lenny feels guilty for not having believed Sammy, so he identifies with him and takes on his condition.

As opposed to Narrative 1, which is made up of action, Narrative 2 is almost entirely devoted to these phone conversations. Who is the listener? It is suggested that it is Teddy and that he is a police detective. When Lenny tries to put a stop to the phone calls, a Polaroid photo of himself slipped under the door forces him take them up again. His uninterrupted speaking on the phone, the minimal responses of the unknown listener, create a situation similar to that of psychoanalysis. The film ends when the two narratives meet, when the black and white narrative flows into the color narrative and when the temporality of both coincides. From a psychoanalytical point of view, the two strands of narrative function independently: Narrative 2 depicts the analytical working through; Narrative 1 corresponds to a post-analytical living out of fantasy.

Two other kinds of mental thought are shown: memory in the form of mental flashes (1a) and dreaming (1b). They are both contained in Narrative 1 and concern memories of his wife. In the color sequence preceding Lenny’s first black-and-white memory of Sammy, Lenny meets a woman called Natalie in a restaurant (Sequence 4). They have obviously met before. Natalie asks him what his wife was like and Lenny gives her a standard answer: “She was beautiful. To me she was perfect.” Natalie stops him: “No, don’t just recite the words, close your eyes and remember.” At this, Lenny shuts his eyes and conjures up a shadowy image of his wife with her back to him. Other images follow, showing fragmented images of her, as Lenny speaks, “You just feel the details, the bits and pieces you never bothered to put into words.” Later on in the film, although chronologically prior to this event, Lenny remembers his wife in this way, through isolated mental images of her. These are direct short flashbacks, often interspersed with a return to the present. They are either in close-up or medium shot, like a portrait. They are similar to the Polaroid photos except that the latter immobilize the subject in a fixed gesture. The mental picture allows the subject its full dimensional form as well as facial expression, speech and movement. The fragmented nature of the images, both in the framing and their brevity, could correspond to the fragmentary nature of memory.

One dream is shown (the beginning of Sequence 7) when Lenny wakes up in a strange hotel room. In it, he has been reliving his last memories before the blow to his head: a scream, a light under the bathroom door, the tiled floor of the bathroom, breaking glass as he hits his head against the shower screen. These are shown in a series of rapid one-shots.

IV

But oft in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure.
Tintern Abbey

Lenny has no recent memories to “flash upon (his] inward eye,” no bliss to his solitude. Since his brain damage, his mind is constantly the blank slate that Wordsworth attributed to a newborn infant. A century later, the founding fathers of emerging sciences such as sociology, linguistics, and psychoanalysis (Durkheim, Saussure, and Freud) were of the opinion that the world we enter is fixed and what is necessary is to decipher the multitude of signs assailing us. There was no doubting, however, the importance of past experience and memory and the necessity of this for the present. In what is similar to C. S. Peirce’s conception of the sign, Henri Bergson notes that there is always a preceding memory. He divides memory into two types. First, he states that any perception must be impregnated with memory: the present is always mixed with past experience. Generally, memory acts on our current perceptions, which are transformed into signs whose purpose is to recall the past. Second, memory enables a contraction of reality, it allows many separate moments to be contracted into a single one. In other words, it enables us through associative processes to synthesize and analyze the real world around us.[7]

Due to Lenny’s brain damage, his memory has become frozen. He no longer has the ability to build up new memories. The two types of memory described by Bergson are thus reduced: his present can only be construed from a very distant past and he has lost the ability to connect and associate different circumstances. Lenny’s “condition” is not just a physical ailment: it is existential.

The difficulties that Lenny encounters since the blow to his head are obvious. Bergson distinguishes between two types of recognition of an object: objective and subjective, with the former linked to movement and the latter to representation. With brain damage, parts of memory are destroyed. Brain lesions are capable of reaching movements (objects). They cannot reach memory, however, as that is subjective representation.

It is as if a sensory mechanism has been cut in Lenny’s brain. It would seem, and the episodic nature of the two strands of narrative would corroborate this, that what has been severed in his brain is the ability to associate and connect. He has retained certain behavioral mechanisms in his everyday life of washing, dressing, driving, writing, and language. He has maintained the social behavior of eating in restaurants and renting a motel room. He can do anything he learnt before his head injury. And, according to Lenny, he has the ability to acquire new habits. He says, “Conditioning did not work on Sammy. It works for me. Habit and routine make my life possible. Acting by instinct.” He has even invented a “system” for himself: taking photos, writing himself messages on scraps of paper and on the back of photos. But as these can be lost or destroyed, the best support is his body. Even then, he has to remind himself to shave parts of his body that he did not use to shave, like his legs, so as to read the self-tattooed messages.

The Bergsonian-Proustian view is that memory is not linear. Bergson distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary memory. The former is seen in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as the narrator endeavors to recall the past by recounting his life from his early childhood. Involuntary memory cannot be called up at will. It needs the unexpected experience of tasting a madeleine dipped in herbal tea to bring to the surface seemingly forgotten events and sensations. Both types of memory are shown in Memento.

Referring to Sammy’s wife and her attempts to make her husband remember things, Lenny says, “You can’t bully someone into remembering.” The story Lenny recounts about Sammy could be seen as his voluntary memory at work. Indeed, the one remembrance from Sammy’s former life that Lenny is able to picture almost in its entirety is one that resembles his own. Yet, Lenny’s memory of the past is confused. He is seen as if in a past age. He is conventionally dressed in white shirt and tie, or suit, his hair neatly combed, as is suitable for his job. What period does the Sammy episode belong to? Sammy, his wife, and the psychologist with his Skinner-type conditioning all seem part of the past in dress and attitude. The black-and-white images and characterizations place this narrative in the fifties or early sixties, before the regular employment of color for narrative films.

Another type of forced memory is through the different mementos Lenny makes for himself: the Polaroid photos, the inscriptions on them, the notes he takes, the tattoos on his body. Prior to the dream, he had attempted to recreate the assault on his wife. He hired the services of a prostitute (Sequence 12), who spread the objects belonging to his wife around the hotel room while he fell asleep, and then went into the bathroom and banged the door to attempt to wake him up. Unfortunately, the experiment did not work, and Lenny took all the mementos in a brown paper packet and burnt them.

The sequence in which Lenny throws each object onto the fire provides an example of involuntary memory at work (Sequence 11). As he burns these last remaining objects, other memories of his wife are conjured up in a Proustian fashion and are related to the senses. He touches her brush and sees her brushing her hair. She is sitting on the bed in T-shirt and panties; he is lying face down next to her. “Ouch,” she says as he pinches her thigh while she brushes her hair. He smells the pages in a tattered novel and sees her reading it in bed. But this memory, too, shows discord between husband and wife: he is criticizing her for reading the same book over again; she seems to be shutting him out by reading. Both memories, which relate back to the marital bed, point to a lack of sexual desire. Lenny sits sadly watching these objects burn, and a dissolve takes us from the yellow light of the fire to the gray morning light. Lenny gets up and walks away. End of sequence.

Proust also noted the importance of the position of one’s body for recalling memories. Lenny’s dream seems to have been produced by the way he is lying on the hotel bed. Previously (that is, later) with the prostitute he failed to recreate intentionally the former state which he hoped would jog his memory, leading him to burn his wife’s possessions. He relives the assault through his dream but it brings him no closer to the truth. It resembles the account he (gave) gives to Natalie (Sequence 18), retold in images and words.

V Storytelling

Without a continuous thread linking them, the twenty-one episodes comprising Memento could be considered as so many autonomous stories, each with a beginning and an end. In each episode, it is as if Lenny is starting anew: “It’s like waking. It’s like you just woke up,” he tells the hotel receptionist (Sequence 2). The fact that the same characters appear in several “stories” is not incongruous with traditional storytelling. As Walter Benjamin points out in The Storyteller, a collection of stories frequently features the same characters. The chain of story telling as in Scheherazade’s tales, in which each story announces the next, can be seen in reverse in Memento: the beginning of each story announces the end of the previous one. Benjamin compares the different ways that novels and story relate to memory. The former depicts the “perpetuating remembrance of the novelist,” the latter “the short-lived reminiscences of the story-teller.” The novel concentrates on a single event—one hero, odyssey or battle—whereas the story implies “many diffuse occurrences.” Whereas the novel is concerned with the meaning of life, the short story is centered on a “moral.” Based on these definitions, Memento could fit into the genre of “story” instead of feature film. Lenny would then be the storyteller and his audience the spectator and later the listener on the phone. Indeed, before he starts the phone conversations, Lenny seems to be addressing an unknown listener or spectator. Benjamin’s listener is active, seeking to “retain” what he is told. This is just the mental exercise that is required of the spectator of Memento. Each visual and aural moment is essential for understanding the film as it unfolds, connecting the various parts, and especially remembering, during and after the viewing in order to reconstruct the whole.

Sammy’s mind can focus for the length of a commercial; Lenny is supposed to be able to “think straight” for about ten minutes. The short story could find its filmic equivalent in the television serial with its stock main characters, repeated situations, recapping of previous events and suspense-filled ending. With this in mind, the twosome of Lenny and Teddy can be seen as a sort of Starsky and Hutch. Indeed, Sequences 9 and 10, in which Lenny is chased by Dunn, are reminiscent of non-diegetic action sequences in a TV serial. In Sequence 9, he suddenly finds himself running in the street and up and down stairs and saying to himself, “What am I doing? Am I chasing him or is he chasing me?”[8] Then, in Sequence 10, he is driving along a highway when a car starts to tailgate him.

Within the sequences themselves, there is a false sense of continuity. First, each sequence does not correspond to the supposed ten-minute span of Lenny’s memory. Second, breaks in the narrative may occur within a sequence. I have already noticed the temporal change within Sequence 11 (burning his wife’s possessions). An example of temporal and spatial ellipsis can be found in Sequence 7: the action is situated in a hotel with Dunn and Teddy, leaving the hotel, and dropping off Dunn somewhere. It cuts abruptly to Lenny back in his car and ends on him in front of Natalie’s house, knocking on the door.

VI Did she die before or did she die hereafter?

Whether short story or feature film, Memento contains several possible stories. It could be a cop story, a love story (Lenny meets Natalie), a buddy story (Lenny meets Teddy) with all the latter supposes of complementarity and doppelganger. In American films or TV serials of the past thirty-odd years, the cop and buddy stories often coincide.

The suspense for the spectator of Memento could be that of the detective story, which in itself draws on the basic suspense of narrative.[9] Indeed, memory loss and identity-search films often combine with the narrative structure of an investigation. Through its partly first-person narrative, Memento takes up a tradition of detective narratives. However, the “I” of the traditional detective story is more character than omniscent narrator, as illustrated by Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. In recent times, the two have merged, such as in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) in which he creates a bumbling Philip Marlowe (Eliot Gould) who has to earn his stripes in the field. To move from suspect to private eye, Marlowe has to gain control of things (in other words become an active “I” within the narrative). He ends up a total participant, exercising justice himself by killing the man behind it all. The highest point of the introspective narrator-character-detective is to be found in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy novels, in which the abstract setting combines detective story with a search for self.

In Memento, Lenny is storyteller, the avenging “I”, detective, suspect, and victim all in one. This can be seen in the similarity of names of his alter egos. Moreover, Lenny, Teddy, Sammy are all nicknames. Lenny prefers the more serious Leonard of his insurance investigation days. He disliked his wife calling him Lenny. Teddy’s real name is John Gambler and he is really a cop–or so he says. In the final sequence of Narrative 1 (its chronological beginning), just after Lenny has killed Jimmy G., Teddy tells him that everything he takes for reality is false: Sammy was faking and was not married. It was in fact Lenny’s wife who had diabetes. She survived the assault and, in despair over Lenny’s condition, committed suicide like Mrs. Jankis of Lenny’s tale.

Indeed, one is struck by the physical resemblance of the three women in the story: Natalie, Catherine Shelby, and Mrs. Jankis all have medium-length brown hair, parted in the middle. A vigilant spectator may have noticed a rapid mental flash of a diabetes needle when Lenny watches TV in Natalie’s house (Sequence 15). The close-up of a hand preparing the needle shows a similar gesture to that of Sammy’s in Narrative 2. The fact that it is in color and seems to have been provoked by Lenny touching the remote control would suggest, however, that it is an involuntary recollection on Lenny’s part.

The spectator is finally faced with the question that has been haunting him / her all the way through this thriller: where is the truth? Up until the end, everything one might have taken for true–even Lenny’s involuntary memory of his wife–has been deconstructed. Do we ever discover the “whole truth” at the end of a detective story? Even the most classic example, Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) ends in a pseudo-solution and confusion for the spectator who tries to reconstruct the plot.

The guideline for measuring truth is usually to be found in an image. In All About Eve, for example, each character tells their version of the story through a flashback. When it comes to Eve to tell her story to the other characters, her account is purely verbal. With no images to substantiate it, the spectator can be wary of its veracity and it turns out to be false. Yet the truth of the image has been whittled away over the years. Altman’s Marlowe learnt to his detriment that the clues he focused on in close-up in The Long Goodbye were fakes.[10] Memento plays with the accepted belief of the camera never lying. For André Bazin, film takes precedence over memory due to the objectivity and the permanence of the former as opposed to the subjectivity and ephemeral nature of the latter. He traces the visual arts back to the Egyptians, for whom embalming was a way of saving a person by fixing his/her appearance. If the portrait today is no longer a means of survival–unless one is Dorian Gray–it helps us to remember.[11] Lenny seems to be following Bazin’s train of thought when he describes to Teddy the deceptiveness of memory and its uselessness as material proof:

“Memory is unreliable… Memory is not perfect… Ask the police … Cops go on facts, not memories… Memory can change the shape of your room, the color of your car … Memories can be distorted… They’re just an interpretation…” (Sequence 5).

Yet material proof such as Polaroid photos, also seem to belie the Bazinian postulate. They cannot be reproduced and can be destroyed by burning, as Lenny does with the photo of Jimmy G., whom he has just killed. In this way, he is able to begin his search for John G. again. The imperfections of memory are revealed at the end, but the facts that Lenny has numbered and tattooed all over his body also prove to be faulty.

Material proof is all that Lenny has to go by. But what if he altered it himself? The final sequence shows Lenny burning Jimmy G.’s photo, and making Teddy (John Gambler) his new John G. He writes down Teddy’s license plate number and it is that number that we see him having tattooed to his arm (Sequence 20), and which enables him to identify Teddy as his wife’s supposed assailant (Sequence 4) and kill him (Sequence 1). The film has come full circle, as the spectator can now establish a link between Teddy’s death and its original cause.

VII

The film also goes off at a tangent. It ends in color, with Lenny having appropriated Jimmy G’s designer clothes, convertible, and money. He drives off confidently to find a tattoo parlor and have Teddy’s license plate number inscribed on his body. He now has two red marks on his lower left cheek, where Jimmy G. scratched him during their fight.

Lenny has passed from the black and white of Narrative 2 into the color world of Narrative 1. He has also moved from the position of storyteller or narrator to that of actor. His decision to eliminate Teddy is not gratuitous. He will be freeing himself of his double, of his black-and-white, negative image. As storyteller, he will be doing away with his listener, the entity that dictates the story to him and makes him narrator and not actor–the hypocritical reader, as Baudelaire called him. He will also be getting rid of his source of comfort, his “teddy” bear, which is appropriately found among his wife’s objects and which he burns.

Lenny takes over Teddy’s life and invents a new identity for himself. With no past, his future is an open book. He can make it what he wants, even change the course of his destiny. Part of the anguish of memory loss is not so much the loss of the past, or even the difficulty of adapting to the present, as the emptiness of the future. Lenny finds freedom at the end of the film by creating his own future. We have a glimpse of it as he drives off with his new flashy identity. The scar on his face—the one mark on his body he does not try to decipher throughout Narrative 1—is like war paint or a tribal initiation mark. His metamorphosis is complete: he has entered the filmic world of Scarface.

Notes

1. A. Bazin, “The cinema and exploration,” in What is Cinema?, Berkeley: California Press, 1967. Bazin is commenting on Maurice Herzog’s descent of Annapurna, wrapped like a mummy on the back of a Sherpa, having been unable to film the party’s exploit as the camera had been torn from his hands, with his gloves, by an avalanche: “La mémoire est le plus fidèle des films, le seul qu’on puisse impressionner à n’importe quelle altitude et jusqu’à la mort exclusivement. Mais qui ne voit la différence entre le souvenir et cette image objective qui l’éternise concrètement!”

2. The title translates literally as “Juliet or the key to dreams.”

3. The French word for memory – or, memento.

4. For examples of these, see Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) or Suddenly Last Summer (1959) or John Ford’s Judge Priest (1932).

5. Gaines analyzes Micheaux’s Within Our Gates (1921) in which a rape scene in the present is intercut with a lynching in the past. See J. Gaines, “Fire and Desire: Race, Melodrama, and Oscar Micheaux,” in M. Diawara, Black American Cinema, New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 49-70.

6. In the revised version of this film, The Sun Shines Bright (1953), past heroism is condensed into the image of a gun and a purely verbal reference as Judge Priest dissuades irate townspeople from a lynching by reminding them of their participation in the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

7. More recently, cognitive scientists Schank and Abelson have used association to describe how memory is organized and stored. Personal experiences or episodes are retained by memory. Associations are made between episodes that are reminiscent of others, so that similar episodes are stored or remembered in terms of a standardized, generalized episode called a script. See R. Schank and R. Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human knowledge Structures, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977, pp. 17-19.

8. This sequence can also be interpreted as an existential Richard Kimball-type fugitive (or, man-on-the run) scene. The frequent cross-cutting, the lack of continuity and the rapidity of certain sequences, also give the impression of an active TV viewer, zapping from one channel to another.

9. I have discussed the links between suspense as a structuring force of narrative in P. Starfield, “Thinning the Plot: l’affaiblissement du suspense dans le cinéma américain des années 1960-70,” Proceedings of the Third SERCIA Conference, September 1996, La Licorne, Poitiers University, 1999.

10. Ibid.

11. A. Bazin, “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in Bazin, op. cit.

Penny Starfield teaches American civilization and film at Paris 7 University. She has published a number of articles on film and is currently preparing a book on the representation of minorities in American film.
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