I watched the movie Memento
twice during its first release at the Palm Theater in San Luis Obispo. That was eighteen years ago. It was a fascinating movie with a very challenging plot. Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan went on to create a list of important films, among them a few of my favorites. Memento appeared, or perhaps I just noticed it, on the 99¢ list at Apple iTunes, which gives me the opportunity to comment on a mistake in the movie that no one I knew when the film was out considered important. It wasn’t really a tiny mistake, it’s just that there was so much else in the film to concentrate on, and also because almost no one I knew at the time actually saw it, they just heard about it.
A story is told in the film about someone with no short term memory. That, of course, is the main character’s problem. The story has him giving shots of insulin to his wife who doesn’t really believe he can’t remember. She tells him every few minutes that she needs her insulin. He stops watching television and gives her a shot. A few minutes later she tells him the same thing and, of course, he does the same thing again. He does this over and over until she dies. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I won’t go into that. The question is: Whose story is it?
I remember a program on 50s television that discussed film directors. It showed a scene from a foreign movie, if I remember correctly, where the action ends with a shot from the fire place. In a dramatic scene one sees over the flames and catches the action of the main character. The commentary stopped at this point and asked the question: Who was in the fireplace? Whose point of view was represented looking over the flames? Of course no one was in the fire place and it made no sense to film from that angle except to include fire in the frame. I have no idea what program that was, or what movie, but the analysis has stuck with me for at least sixty years.
So, whose story was the death by insulin? The dead wife had no story. She did something unexpectedly and died. The man with no short-term memory also had no story because he had no memory. So, neither the wife nor the husband could tell the story and, therefore, there was none.
I have wondered for a very long time if the Nolans placed this error in the movie for some esoteric reason or if, because so much else was happening, they simply didn’t realize it was wrong. My theory is that the story overwhelmed them and they missed it. But it’s an old opinion about a movie that grows older by the day. A good movie that will certainly be worth 99¢ for a very long time to come.