Thursday, December 17, 2009

MEMENTO - A Multi-Level Structural Analysis

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” – Rita Mae Brown

This is my eighth and second to last post in this series on structure. The film analyzed here is the most unusual to be put to the test of exhibiting multi-level structure. Because of its unique assembly I will discuss it in greater depth than I have with earlier titles.

Christopher Nolan’s remarkable film, Memento, is perhaps the ideal example of how structure is a function of character. Why? If story structure is linked parts in causal progression, Memento is backwards. But, if story structure is three proportioned parts linked by causal meaning to a growing hero/viewer, then Memento is the example that “proves the rule.”

This is because the conventional plot-based view of structure fails to account for Memento. As I said, it’s backwards. And a plot that is structured backwards is not merely a film backwardly structured. One can’t just pick up the film, turn it around, and plop it down, back-to-front and front-to-back. This is because a story is a construct one enters with little or no understanding, gaining it as one goes along. If it were akin to a building one entered from the rear rather than from the front, one would enter the rooms from the wrong way, not knowing where for certain one was, seeing people in relationships and activities one might not understand. Meaning would, if ever, be achieved at a greater cost in time, and then, probably only a part of what is required. Then there’s the issue of time. It, too, would have to run backwards. In Memento, except at the outset, it doesn’t. But a growth in illumination occurs as the film progresses. It’s just that while the growth is about the protagonist, it isn’t only within the protagonist. Additionally it is in the mind of the audience.

The film tells the story of Leonard Shelby, a former insurance investigator whom we are told was injured when an intruder broke into his home and murdered his wife. Shelby suffered a brain injury, specifically to his hippocampus, and this has resulted in Shelby’s inability to make new memories. Known as Korsokoff’s Syndrome, the condition leaves him with no short-term memory retention beyond the first few minutes. As a result, Leonard has been plunged into a world in which he is constantly at sea, unable to know for certain where he is, or what he is doing. His last memories, in fact, are of the events of his injury, and the rape and murder of his wife. Because of his plight and his final memories, he is determined to have vengeance, both for his wife, and the bleak and empty life with which he is left. He has single-mindedly set about that process, finding all sorts of ways to create alternative sources of memory. He uses a Polaroid camera to photograph key details leading him on his path. He writes notes to himself, incessantly. And, most bizarrely, he has had established facts tattooed on his body so that he can’t lose them.

Writer/director Nolan then sets out to tell Leonard’s story in such a way as to put the audience into Leonard’s own predicament. He re-orders his script and film so that the major sequences each run forward in time, but are assembled in chronologically-reversed order. The film opens with the final moments of the final scene—Leonard’s killing of Teddy (this part even plays onscreen backwards, signaling what lies ahead). Each reverse-ordered sequence begins with the very moment at which the next reverse-ordered sequence ends. This effectively keeps the audience from total confusion. And yet it also keeps the viewer off-center, uncertain what could be coming next, despite the fact that they are the very moments which got them there. It’s like a cinematic version of the game show, “Jeopardy,” where one hears the answer, and then must divine the question that yielded it.

Amazingly enough, on a meaning level, the story assembles itself correctly in its audience members’ heads, even as it goes along, yet unfinished. Nolan gives the audience needed mental breaks between each reverse-ordered sequence. He does this with recurring black-and-white scenes, shot mostly in Leonard’s motel bedroom as he talks to someone—eventually we learn the caller is a cop, the character of Teddy, in fact—on the phone. In this manner, Nolan gets out important back-story, even as the audience, reeling, rights itself and readies for the next reverse-ordered sequence in this bizarre narrative.

If one applies the Fieldian and our own notion of structure to Memento, reverse-ordered and all, the structure that emerges is nonetheless front-ordered, and a function of the hero, Leonard Shelby. This is because, when all is said and done, structure is not in the film so much as it is in the mind of the audience, assembling, as the mind does, disparate facts, and attempting to make sense of them, no matter what order it receives them. (1)

The thing to remember, in this case, is, it may be a movie on the screen, but it’s a story in your head! To illustrate this, imagine looking at a movie unspooled across a long corridor floor. You can’t see the story even by looking at all of the shots of the film unrolled before you on that floor. It only becomes a story when the mind relates the scene or idea presently before it to ideas or scenes from the past, or, anticipated scenes or ideas from the future. The connection happens entirely in the mind. So, in effect, there is no meaningful story structure in any film. Story structure, in fact, is only a construct of the mind, the mind of the audience. (2)

For the audience, the story structure of Memento assembles as follows: Leonard executes Teddy in the abandoned building. We want to know why. As the first quarter of the film progresses, we learn Leonard’s amazing plight, how he deals with it through notes, photos, and tattoos. We learn that he can trust no one, not even his motel desk-clerk. Everyone takes advantage of Leonard’s disability. We learn that Leonard has managed to connect Teddy to the mysterious “John G.,” the person his notes tell him killed his wife.

So, how is the connection made? Precisely at the Fieldian 25% mark, just under half an hour into this nearly two hour movie, Leonard receives a copy of Teddy’s driver’s license, identifying him as John Gammell—“John G.”—complete with photo, from the bartender, Natalie. This is the part-2/part-3 transition, and we assemble it in our mind that way because we know that we are seeing the story from end to beginning. We trust the story to tell us its secrets in its own manner, and accept the reverse-ordered dénouement because we can order it correctly in our heads even as we assemble it in the reverse, as it is given to us.

The film continues to unfold, and we re-gress (chronologically backward; meaningfully forward) from part three into part two, getting to better know Natalie, the woman Leonard tries to help, but whom we discover is using him just like everybody else. We learn the details of the case which serves as a model for Leonard’s memory-loss problem, the Sammy Jankis sub-plot. And we encounter the man Leonard must confront for Natalie, possibly a dangerous drug dealer named, Dodd. Eventually, this is confirmed, and Leonard’s rough treatment of him is justified, as we watch Dodd try to kill Leonard on their initial meeting.

Regressing deeper into part-2, after we watch him destroy the few possessions left to him of his wife’s, we watch Leonard cope with his condition by trying to fool himself into believing his wife is still alive. With the help of a prostitute, he creates a warm bed and the fleeting scent and presence of a just-departed woman to which he can awaken. Later, we watch as Natalie’s true colors emerge, and she is seen to be manipulating him for her own purposes.

We learn that Sammy Jankis’s wife, not believing that his condition was genuine, had gone to Leonard when he was the insurance investigator on Sammy’s case, and begged him to tell her what he really believed: was Sammy faking it, or is it a real condition? Leonard confides that he, in fact, doesn’t believe it. Sammy’s wife, a diabetic who receives daily injections of insulin from Sammy, then sets out to test her husband to expose his charade of memory loss. She has him repeatedly inject her every fifteen minutes, expecting that if he has lied, he will come clean, and if he has not, she will let him kill her because she can’t face life with him in such a state anyway. Her test succeeds, Sammy isn’t lying, and she goes into an irreversible diabetic coma convinced that their life together is, indeed, over. This gives us a clear sense of the hopelessness of Leonard’s condition. It effectively exonerates Leonard from the evil act we’ve seen him commit. Or, so it seems.

Then, just past the 75% mark, ninety minutes into the film, from within part two, we reach the part-1/part-2 transition. Teddy—here revealed as the cop Leonard talks to on the phone in the black and white scenes between time changes—gives Leonard the initial information on John G. This will send him on his quest toward eventually deciding Teddy, himself, is his wife’s killer. Acting on Teddy’s information, Leonard lures Natalie’s boyfriend, Jimmy Grantz, the drug dealer working with Dodd, to an abandoned building. Believing him to be John G., Leonard kills him, strips him, puts on Jimmy’s clothes, and takes his wallet and car keys. Then his memory fades. Running outside, Leonard encounters Teddy - a stranger, once again - and now, having forgotten what he’s just done, and believing he’s found someone who may be hurt, he asks for help.

Inside, Teddy identifies himself as a cop. Suspicious of Teddy, because of his memory problem, Leonard knocks him over the head, takes his keys and gun. Stunned, Teddy gives himself away by calling the so-far unidentified Leonard, “Lenny.” So, Teddy’s forced to come clean to Leonard: he’s a cop who set Leonard up to kill Jimmy, a drug dealer working with Dodd. Jimmy was someone he wanted to “rip off” and then kill. Teddy tells Leonard that the Sammy story is a lie Leonard’s told himself and others to cover up the truth: that his wife survived the attack, was, herself, a diabetic, and that Leonard, suffering just like his “Sammy,” actually (and unwittingly) killed his wife with an insulin overdose. She had descended into depression and couldn’t face the memories of the attack and rape, nor the prospect of life with her “new” memory-less Leonard.

Teddy explains that he helped Leonard kill his man - “the real John G.” - a year ago, but that Leonard forgot, and continues to look for him incessantly. The guy he killed a year ago was only a rapist, not his wife’s killer. Leonard was. Leonard has a memory flashback of himself injecting his wife, and realizes Teddy is telling the truth. Finally, Teddy tells Leonard that his own real name is John Gammell—my mother calls me Teddy”—and that there are lots of John G.'s in the world “for us to find.”

Leonard can’t deal with this. He does the only thing he can: he throws Teddy’s car keys into some brush and runs. But as he flees, with Teddy behind him, scrambling through the scrub, trying to find his keys, Leonard realizes the way to free himself. It won’t give him his memory back, but it will free him from Teddy’s manipulations forever. Tearing up a note he’s just written to himself that he’s “done it,” he’s avenged the death of his wife, he writes a new one, deliberately identifying Teddy’s license plate as his wife’s killer’s. Teddy’s fate is sealed. And Leonard will finally get some measure of revenge, even if it can’t be against his wife’s killer.

So the arc-of-transformation hinges on Leonard’s quest to find the murderer of his wife. In Memento-time, he links the photo of Teddy to the name John Edward Gammell, or his quarry, “John G.” Further on in Memento-time (but earlier in real time), he learns from Teddy that the killer is a “John G.” But we are filtering all this through our increasing body of memories informed by our knowledge that Leonard kills Teddy. We are seeing Leonard being set up, time after time, and suspect “Teddy,” already a manipulator, to be a liar. So, we watch, gripped, waiting to learn the truth. And, when Teddy comes clean late in the film, and Leonard is told he killed his own wife, we are tempted to disbelieve. The conspiracy theorists among us probably still do.

But, if we do, if we disbelieve Teddy at this crucial point in the film, we have nothing left to us toward understanding Memento’s story. It becomes a meaningless exercise in which Leonard merely goes through his motions, forever unaware. And since he is unaware, is he a murderer, or merely a force of unbridled nature, run amok? But Leonard doesn’t disbelieve. He realizes Teddy is telling the truth because of his flashback. And in that single realization, Leonard creates for us the needed final “act” crescendo: he sees a way to achieve some level of success, not revenge for his wife, but freedom from Teddy and his manipulations.

Let me digress for a moment. In the Limited Edition DVD for Memento, there is an Easter Egg, or hidden feature, that allows one to watch the film re-edited into chronological order. It is an interesting exercise, but it points up the necessity for assembly as it was in the released version: the story holds few secrets or surprises. It becomes a dreary and odd tale, one quickly forgotten even by the viewer. Ironically, it recalls the Lewis Carroll quote: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward,” suggesting that here, for us, it may be the best memory. But it also points up the remarkable level-upon-level of structure operating within this film’s world.

For Leonard, the film of Memento, re-edited into chronological order, is a kind of third act in a larger story, the first 2 acts of which extend backward into the period before the start of the film. These, perhaps, consist of an act-1, which includes the rape and death of his wife, with Leonard’s killing of her concealed in his memory loss. And an act-2, introducing Teddy helping Leonard find and kill the real John G., followed by Leonard being unable to remember it, and Teddy taking advantage of this to have Leonard do his own dirty work. All of this comes to Leonard (and us) in a rush in the final minutes of the film.

As such, the information at the end of Memento in which Leonard remembers his own killing of his wife, and his determination to end Teddy’s manipulations, is a 3rd act crescendo both for our larger Leonard movie and for our own understanding of Memento’s story as we assemble it in our heads. This, then, is how the film’s “act-1” (edited to be at the end) is our story’s “act-3.” And that, in turn, is how Memento structures around its transforming hero.

In this way, the three parts about a transformation, have fallen into place, and the structure - a hero-in-transformation structure - emerges. The transformation only happens given all of the information we’ve gained over the entire film, information we’ve re-assembled into coherent meaning despite the assembly of the film. Effectively, then, the only valid or useful structure Memento has is Fieldian and Transformational. The Campbell-Vogler model, however, seen in reverse, is present. Interestingly, the archetypes all alter as the film progresses, but the patterns are present. Teddy is, in Memento-time, initially the Mentor, later the Trickster. So, too, are the others. The elixer is the connective information of John G. eventually linking back to Teddy. A conventional, plot-based view of structure, also works. But, like Campbell-Vogler, it only works backwards.

The really delicious irony of Memento is that we believe Teddy’s ultimate story at the film’s end because we see the flashback of Leonard and his wife with the insulin. It must be true because Leonard remembers it after Teddy reminds him. But Leonard also remembers the entire Sammy Jankis story in flashback earlier in the film. Both flashbacks were equally real, but at least one is false. Which one? It is left to us to decide, and, for my money, I’ll take the latter. Only then does Memento make sense structurally.

“A lot of people mistake a short memory for a clear conscience.” – Doug Larson

I have attempted here to look at story structure with fresh eyes. It has been so completely obfuscated by the successive waves of guru publications (Field’s evolving paradigm; Truby’s system; et al) and vogues-of-the-moment (Christopher Vogler’s journeying hero; Epstein’s and McKee’s de-emphasis of structure), that writers are left much like Leonard in Memento: disoriented and set adrift to find their own way. Ten distinctive films have shown that we can apply a single conceptual model to describe and understand all of commercial narrative film. That model is multi-level structure, and it is the primary tool writers can use to fashion their stories.

This, then, is the eighth and second to last article on what I have to say about narrative film story structure. I invite reader comments and/or questions. I am willing to prepare a single, albeit lengthy, document of all nine of the posts, combined, should anyone want a copy emailed to them for reference. Let me know at the address accessible from my bio page. Thanks for staying with me through these posts.


(1) This is how Annie Hall’s post-production assembly during editing, with time jumps, and causal time-ordering almost entirely ignored, nonetheless remains comprehensible.

(2) In the case of Pulp Fiction, both the past and the future aren’t even the real ones! Instead they are versions constructed by the mind in order to render meaning to the story’s non-causal events!



Lee A. Matthias


  1. This is my own opinion about Memento, If you hate reality-based film-making this is awful. If you hate Film Noir, this is ugly. But for me, Nolan has convinced me he is one of the most important directors out there. I was even thinking, "It must be easy to edit a movie so that it's all backwards." But it's not, it's not any easier - and he leaves you straining and watching from scene to scene, searching for the truth. Even the final revelation will affect each viewer and leaves them searching for their own "ultimate truth" according to their own experience.

  2. Interesting deconstruction and analysis of the psychological cognitive aspects of the film. Despite certain critics/viewers insisting it isn't, this is a tightly linear narrative, once you can break the boundaries between the A,B, and C storyline. A would, of course, represent the b&w sequences, B would represent the color sequences and C would be the Sammy Jankis storyline. They are all three threads of the same fabric that tie neatly together by the end, all of which are completely pivotal to the progression of the film.