At first glance, the backward chronology in “Memento” might seem to be a cinematic gimmick. Surely, this manner of storytelling calls attention to the editing, which runs contrary to the seamless editing with which we are usually accustomed. Rather than passively allowing the story to flow before us on the screen, we the audience are forced to put the puzzle pieces together inside of our own minds. This takes a little more work on our part, and I recall having to think about the plot development more so than usual about twenty minutes or so into the movie. For some moviegoers, this amount of work (what might be called proactive watching of a film) is too much. For some, including myself, this is what makes the film so much more exhilarating than it would have been if told in a conventional manner. From beginning to end, the story is a rather basic neo noir “whodunit” with a dark and brooding investigator, a sexy femme fatale, and a pudgy, corrupt sidekick. We practically can see the “ghosts” of Sam Spade, Ruth Wonderly, and Kasper Gutman; characters we have seen many times already. Going from the end back to the beginning, though, the story is an act of discovery as much for the protagonist as it is for the audience. This allows the film to transcend its neo noir roots. Yes, this calls attention to the editing; but because this very fact enhances the cinematic experience for the audience, and flows naturally with the memory disability that the protagonist has, it would be wrong to write this off as a gimmick. Calling attention to the edit is integral to the story, just as the protagonist has to call attention to the edits he has made in the past by reading the notes he has made for himself.
As a general rule in this film, a sequence will end at the beginning of a prior sequence. It is critical to cut at a particular shot that the audience likely will recall from earlier in the film. Otherwise, the audience will have a harder time discerning where we are cutting further back in time. I noticed two points about where the editor decided to cut from a sequence to an earlier sequence: First, it is always a shot that had some sort of emotional poignancy, such as the protagonist hurrying nervously from his hotel room to the front desk to meet a person he had written on his notecard, or the troubled look on the face of the femme fatale when she returns home, or the sad moment when the protagonist is burning away some of his wife’s belongings at a junkyard. This calls to mind Walter Murch’s point about cutting in such a way as to enhance the emotional point of a sequence. Secondly, it is always a shot that is visually impactful and, usually, in motion. I recall one of the cuts is when the corrupt cop surprises the protagonist in the hotel parking lot.
Because the protagonist suffers from short-term memory loss, the encounters he has with the corrupt cop and the femme fatale are always new to him. He is always being surprised, or frustrated, or disillusioned with the intentions of the others with which he interacts, because he never gets a chance to get used to them. Since we the audience are on this journey with the protagonist, it makes sense then that we too are constantly surprised, frustrated, or disillusioned. In cutting from one sequence to an earlier sequence at these points, the editor invites the audience to experience the emotions critical to how the protagonist proceeds with his journey. The protagonist is almost always in motion, too. He is a driven man. We sense that he would succumb to his disability altogether if he did not push forward in reliance on his notes and his tattoos to discover who killed his wife. Therefore, the editor cuts on shots in motion, rather than the occasional moments of contemplation or stillness. We sense that these cuts tell the story the way the protagonist is able to understand it, and that makes the story much more personal and integral to the protagonist. We are not simply watching something the protagonist is doing to right a wrong, which would be the more conventional way of telling this story. Rather, we are watching who the protagonist has become since losing his wife. This is not a “whodunit,” so much as it is an expression of his disability and his underlying grief. For this reason, it really did not bother me that I lost some of the minor details along the way. What matters is not how he connects A to B to C, but that he has to connect A to B to C in a way that ultimately traps him in his own disability and makes him as much a victim as a perpetrator of the violence that takes place.
Just as important as the unconventional editing is maintaining throughout the film the storytelling rules established. As we the audience piece together the puzzles, we need to be able to rely on whatever storytelling rules have been established. Thus, it is critical that sequences that happened before what is happening in this story – namely, the encounters the protagonist had with the married couple when he was an insurance investigator – are always shown in black and white. Even when we are in present day, the scene is in black and white, when the protagonist is alone recounting what had happened to that married couple. This device aids the audience, of course, but is also highlights the difference between “present time” and “past time” as understood by the protagonist. For the protagonist, everything that has happened since he lost his wife is “present time,” and this consists of a series of short-term vignettes that are held together in his mind by notes and tattoos. Everything that happened before he lost his wife is “past time,” and this consists of normal chronological memories he retains. Along these same lines, while the “present time” story is told backwards, the “past time” story (his investigation of the claims made by the married couple) is told going forward. We see the wife die of the insulin overdose at the end of that segment, not at the beginning, whereas with the “present time” story we see the corrupt cop die at the beginning. The story within the story is the chief means by which the protagonist comes to terms with his own disability, but it is also more than that. The story within the story highlights how the protagonist must live simultaneously in “past time” and in “present time,” and how specifically the ghosts of the former drive his actions in the latter. In Greek mythology, the “past time” story shows us the Fates that drive the protagonist, and the “present time” story shows us his dark tragedy.