"I have to believe that my actions still have meaning ... even if I can't remember them."
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
A distinct pleasure of any film lover is the discovery of that rare film that challenges and provokes as it entertains and thrills. I'm talking about the type of movie that, as the end credits scroll, sparks fire in your cerebrum and in your heart, prompting you to discussions about the magic of that particular film and even about the peculiarities of the human condition. Certainly, the film reminds you why you love the cinema. Such a film is Christopher Nolan's Memento.
Told from the point of view of the ultimate unreliable narrator, Memento is about memory—specifically, the manipulation of memory to horrific effect. A central line from the film encapsulates its primary theme: "Memory can change the shape of a room. It can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation. They're not a record. And they're irrelevant if you have the facts." But what if your grasp of facts is shaped by a manipulated point of view?
Memento stars Guy Pearce (star of the terrific L.A. Confidential) as Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator struggling valiantly to solve a crime in which his wife was raped and murdered and he was robbed of his short-term memory. Despite his new affliction, Leonard is desperately seeking revenge, using scrawled-upon Polaroids, and even informational tattoos etched in his flesh, to keep track of who's who in his search for an elusive—and probably unattainable—truth. There are two other primary players in Leonard's mad quest for justice: Teddy (Joe Pantoliano of Bound), a seemingly crooked cop who's either Leonard's greatest ally or most malicious adversary, and Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss of The Matrix), a mysterious bartender with questionable motives.
The masterstroke of Nolan's film is his choice of structure: the main thrust of the story is told backwards. The first scene of the movie is the final scene of the story. A secondary forward-moving thrust, shot in black-and-white, provides key expository background, including the seemingly ancillary but essential story of Sammy Jankis, another victim of short-term memory loss. The effect of this structure—which in any other film might be only a gimmick—is that you are afflicted with Leonard's stunted perception. You experience his confusion, and you are as stranded as he is amidst the flow of sinister events. You feel the same bewilderment, the same frustrations, so that by the end of the film, you share a strange kinship with Leonard. You're in a unique place to understand his otherwise inexplicable and dooming actions. And although this backwards structure dictates that Memento's climax occur just as the film begins, the events lead suspensefully to a powerful and logical ending (i.e., starting) point.
Memento is a tremendously rewarding film, and I remain stunned and appalled by the fact that no major studio snatched it up for its theatrical run. None saw the film for the groundbreaker that it is. I could launch into a rant about corporate money-grubbing sensibilities at this point, and decry the tastes of filmgoers in general, but I'll simply offer my warmest and most heartfelt thanks to the tiny distributor Newmarket Capital Group for taking a chance.
Memento is particularly well suited to the DVD format, which gives you ample opportunity to study the film scene by scene, to deconstruct the puzzle and see how its pieces fit together. I've watched the film five times, and each time I've gained something new and thought-provoking; I've gathered new questions and new answers. This is a DVD that demands multiple viewings—in fact, thanks to the intricacies of human memory, Memento provides a new cinematic experience each time you watch it.
WHAT ABOUT THAT OTHER DVD?
You might (or you might not) remember that Memento debuted with a good DVD presentation in September 2001. That edition offered excellent image quality and a fine soundtrack. The standouts of its sparse supplemental material were a 23-minute interview with Christopher Nolan and the original Jonathan Nolan short story, Memento Mori, upon which the film was based. Apparently, Christopher Nolan was busy with his remake of Insomnia at the time and couldn't devote his energies to a special edition last year. In essence, the disc provided a movie-only presentation, and I for one was glad to have it. (If you already own that version, you might want to hang on to it! It provides a much more straightforward video presentation than the disc at hand.)
Now, however, Nolan has found the opportunity to create a fascinating—if somewhat odd—"limited edition" of his masterpiece. Suffice it to say, if you're a fan of Memento, this new 2-disc set is a must-own. Nolan has discovered some head-scratching ways to use the DVD format to enhance the experience of his mind-bender film.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Columbia/Tri-Star presents Memento in a fine high-definition anamorphic transfer of the film's original 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. In direct comparison with the previous release, this new edition provides a noticeably improved level of detail (further into backgrounds) and brighter, more vivid colors. I also noticed fewer instances of grain. Unfortunately, I witnessed the same instances of edge enhancement that plagued the earlier release. Although the halos are minor, they prevent this otherwise pristine image from capturing my highest rating. Overall, though, this transfer is a significant improvement over that of the original release.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seems very similar to the audio track presented on the original release. It's a very fine presentation that offers rich dialogue, occasionally aggressive surround activity, and in general a wide, involving soundstage. This limited edition adds a DTS 5.1 track that is especially dynamic, and I recommend it as the preferred audio experience. I felt more surrounded by ambient sound and music, and bass seemed more energetic. You also get a matrixed Dolby Surround track.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
When you first insert the first disc, you are—appropriately—confronted with a test of your memory. A series of words flashes by, and you are required to remember those words to navigate the main menu, which is a test of text retention. As music from the film plays, and as Leonard whispers "Where am I?", a five-column list of words appears. To get deeper into the menu and even to start the film, you must choose the words that did not appear in the opening stream. After you look over the list for a few minutes, the correct choices become clear. In fact, the incorrect words fade into the background at certain intervals. You might think that this little game is just frustrating nonsense, but it really gets you geared up for the film.
As long as you keep in mind that this is just a DVD menu, it's pretty simple to navigate. You can use this menu to choose your sound options (including commentary), access a chapter list, and play the film. However, the resulting submenus are rife with easter egg opportunities. At one point, I found a coded question that needed to be deciphered, and when I solved it, I discovered an error within it. But perhaps the error is some kind of clue? A series of multiple-choice questions follows, but I began to get irritated.
The scene-specific commentary by Christopher Nolan is a terrific track, loaded with insight into the making of—and the meaning of—Memento. Nolan's whispery British voice speaks nearly without pause about everything from location shooting to the intricacies of memory. He articulately talks in-depth about character motivation, complex plot machinations, and filming techniques. Nolan sounds genuinely and endlessly fascinated by what he's captured on film and is deeply in tune, still, with the workings of the maze-like script. Occasionally, he falls into the trap of narrating onscreen action, but this is one film in which that's not so much a problem: He almost seems as if he's reminding himself where he is in the story as a whole—just as you might. At one point, he suggests that the film requires multiple viewings and even laughingly admits that he's seen it "thousands of times." Some of the more interesting and humorous tidbits are Nolan's comments about the nightmare of continuity on a film such as this.
The second disc continues the psychological-testing theme of the first disc. This time, you're required to click through a series of images to access supplemental features. At this point, I felt deeply frustrated. I wanted to access features, but the disc wouldn't let me do so until I figured out a series of complex riddles, or simply stabbed buttons until a certain combination worked. Using the latter method mostly, I did stumble onto some cool features.
One extremely interesting extra is the "director's script," which lets you view the entire annotated shooting script as the film plays. You use your angle button to switch from the film to the script. I found myself totally absorbed by this feature, watching the subtle deviations from the scripted dialog, as well as the notes that Nolan wrote to himself.
Next, I found a 25-minute full-frame documentary called Anatomy of a Scene. Originally aired on the Sundance Channel, this is a nicely produced piece that contains interviews with key cast and crew. I recommend watching this piece after watching the film, as it reveals a great deal about the plot. At first, the documentary focuses on deconstructing the first few scenes of the film. Then, it goes into casting and art design, talking about the influence of film noir iconography. Finally, the film's shooting, editing, sound designing, and scoring are covered. So, considering the breadth of this short documentary, its title is misleading.
I also stumbled on the original Nolan story Memento Mori, behind-the-scenes photographs, a series of advertising art, a collection of props used in the film, two theatrical trailers, and the DVD credits.
After I'd spent a significant amount of time playing around with these twists and turns, I stumbled on a menu that listed (supposedly) all the Disc 2 features. (I wished I'd had that from the start.)
SO WHERE'S THAT ELUSIVE CHRONOLOGICAL VERSION?
Soon I started feeling as if I had to solve one specific riddle: Where does the rumored "chronological order" version of the film reside? I knew (hoped?) that it was buried here somewhere, and I was determined to find it.
Although Disc 2's menu displays 24 graphic icons, only six of them get you into submenus: the compass, the clock, the book, the globe, the skull, and the binoculars. On most of the submenus, you need to answer a strange, out-of-left-field multiple-choice question before you can advance to the next question and the next submenu. Most of the answers seem to be arbitrary, but some require a correct answer to access a feature. After a significant amount of time playing around, and inevitably reading too much into each screen's question, I unearthed the chronological presentation.
If you don't want to know how to access this feature and would rather discover it for yourself, skip the following paragraph.
While paging through the screens and answering psychological questions, you'll soon come across a quiz that shows four illustrated panels of a woman changing a flat tire on her car. (Depending on the way you answer questions, you'll get to this quiz from any of the six workable icons.) The quiz asks you to place the panels in chronological order. The trick, of course, is to place the panels in backwards order. After you do so, the film begins playing its scenes in chronological order. Playfully, this cut starts with the end credits rolling downwards. After that, the film's forward-moving black-and-white sequences begin, focusing mostly on the Sammy Jankis back story. (The chapters have simply been rearranged in chronological order.)
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Memento is an intricate puzzle of a film, an endlessly rewarding, sharp-edged thriller that is at once deeply grounded in the film noir tradition and wholly original in its structure. It comes as close to perfect as any motion picture I've seen, and I have no doubt that history will look on Memento as one of the most important films of this decade. The design of this new set enhances the purpose of the film, but will be inevitably frustrating to those who value a straightforward DVD presentation. If you're into games, though, you'll be all over this one.
I must offer kudos to Columbia/TriStar for a DVD package that is truly striking. The set has the look of a certain mental patient's dossier, including loose sheets of paper on which are scrawled details about his case. Unfortunately, the package is not quite as sturdy as I hoped it might be and will be prone to some wear-and-tear. Constructed mostly of paper, the set is in tune with the design of the Vista Series titles (e.g., The Sixth Sense, Tombstone) and, most especially, the design of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. On the packaging, you can find at least a few clues about how to navigate the puzzles within.
(Edit: For an exhaustive guide on how to access this DVD's elusive and hidden features, go to the following URL: http://www.dvdtalk.com/mementoleguide.html.)
Now…where was I?