A brain injury leaves a young man with no short term memory. He can’t make new memories remembering the present for only a limited time, and then his memory reverts to the self that knows only past memories at the time of the trauma, an horrific event that consumes every waking moment in his eternal present. He uses tattoos on his body and Polaroid snapshots with captions as aides-memoires to his reason for being: to track down and avenge the rape and murder of his wife. Mementos that he recalls not in time but as memories of an indeterminate past. Each day he awakens to the baleful necessity of reconstructing the present.
Christopher Nolan’s clever and gripping noir thriller Memento takes the noir convention of the flashback and builds the film’s narrative as one long extended backward exposition that deconstructs what has gone before – yet deepens the mystery of the how and the why.
Some critics quibble that this central conceit is clumsy, that the chopping up of events and segues between scenes are too contrived and lack narrative cohesion. This is to miss the forest for the trees. As viewers we are active in the construction of the narrative and are privileged voyeurs who – unlike the protagonist – can inform the present from the future past. We think the hapless protagonist is stuck in the present and must re-learn where he is at each lapse of memory. But is he?
The revelation is that beyond memory, life for sanity’s sake cannot be borne without a narrative. Life without a purpose or end is not living. So the protagonist of Memento must destroy memories as well as preserve them. He is trapped in a vortex that has the same purpose but a different trajectory each time that purpose is achieved. A creative destruction that can end only in death, real or virtual. Virtual in that if he can longer act, through incarceration or incapacity, he can no longer reinvent the past to give the present meaning.
Nirvana is hell not liberation.