The Palm Springs International Film Festival seemed an unlikely place to find material for an article about Acquired Brain Injury, but having seen the 2001 thriller, Memento, twice, I was eager to have a few words with its director/writer Christopher Nolan who was honoured with the festival’s Sonny Bono Visionary Filmmaker Award.
Nolan has two other films to his credit (Following—his 1998 no budget, but strong narrative début, and Insomnia, 2002, a quirky murder mystery with Al Pacino and Robin Williams), which drew a telling comment from one of my media colleagues: “I’ve noticed that all of your films have something to do with mental illness.” Nolan replied immediately. “No, they’re about perceptual distortion and perceiving the world correctly.”
I was pleased to hear his response, particularly as Memento chronicles the life of a man (Leonard, played with eerie calm by Guy Pearce) who sustained an ABI trying to defend his wife as she was raped and murdered by an intruder. Once out of coma the film’s “hero” has such a limited short-term memory that he must write notes to himself to remember the “facts” of his life and take Polaroid® pictures to identify the people and places he knows. Throughout the film, which is shot in retrograde, reverse sequences, we struggle with Leonard as he seeks revenge knowing full well that he won’t remember having it.
The film is based on the short story “Memento Mori*,” written by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan. It has an interesting fictional perspective to persons with CRS (Can’t Remember Shit): “They [the doctors] won’t answer my questions. They don’t think it’s right for a man in your condition to hear about those things.” “Lists are the only way out of this mess.”
In the story (and reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man in the film), the “Leonard” character also writes notes on his body: “The rest of the upper torso is covered in words, phrases, bits of information, and instructions, all of them written backward on [Leonard], forward in the mirror.” He is conscious of his condition and has learned to deal with it: “Believing the lie that time will heal all wounds—which is just a nice way of saying that time deadens us.”
Having had the opportunity of interviewing so many survivors or reading of their experiences, I asked Nolan (Christopher) what sort of research he had done about ABI prior to writing the screenplay. “Well, to be honest, nothing. I haven’t had any complaints from any [health] organizations so far, but would be glad to have their input if I’ve missed the mark anywhere,” he said.
Never give me an opening like that!
Here then is an open letter to this remarkable filmmaker with a few observations about the role of ABI in the film.
Let me say right off that, like you, I have never sustained an ABI, so treat all of my comments as those of a self-informed outsider.
The plot device of severe short-term memory loss provided lots of fascinating twists and turns from beginning to end. One of my favourites is Leonard running madly through the city streets but we soon discover that he’s forgotten whether he’s being chased or is after someone—good job his pursuer was such a bad shot!
Then there’s the scene where Leonard’s new “love” hides every pen, pencil, crayon—anything (she knows) that would allow him to write down what had just happened (his beer-slinging female companion wants to trick him into killing a drug dealer). That seemed off. So many survivors use such an array of cues (including pocket tape recorders, beepers, et cetera) that it seemed unlikely that someone with Leonard’s intelligence and experience with his “condition” could be so easily duped.
But the sub-plot (prior to his injury Leonard had been a disability insurance adjuster and was so convinced that Sammy was “faking” that he managed to cut off his benefits, resulting in his wife’s suicide, which, ironically, proved conclusively that Sammy’s claim was valid) added intriguing drama but left more doubt than resolution in the our minds. The unforgettable line that must occur to every caregiver at some point (“If I could just say the right thing, he’d snap out of it,”) simultaneously revealed the depth of the doomed woman’s despair and success of the investigator’s efforts in planting the seeds of doubt.
The greedy motel manager charging Leonard for two rooms because he couldn’t remember already paying for one, was an excellent metaphor for those who shamelessly prey on the disabled. (But, plot point: if he had such a penchant for notes, why didn’t he demand a receipt?) And the notion of altering the truth, when convenient, by scratching out old words and replacing them with ones that permit self-serving actions (Leonard will go on killing John G.’s as long as he can find them) is so universal that portraying it as an understandable side-effect of the injury magnificently condemns those many “healthy” individuals who feed at the trough of denial.
Finally, the way you’ve told the story is confusing and as such adds another layer of reality to the depiction of those who may feel that, although “I can’t make new memories, there are things I know for sure.” For Leonard, the bittersweet paradox that “I can’t remember to forget you” will always remain.
Thanks for a great film, Chris. Despite it being a fictional thriller, you’ve managed to hit on many of the issues and situations in the lives of those persons living with the effects of ABI. JWR
*A memento more is a form of image that urged a European person of the late Middle Ages to “remember thy death.”