"Memento" and the Unreliable Narrator

The famous 2000 film that put Christopher Nolan on the map tells the story of a man on the hunt for the man he thinks killed his wife.
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The Unreliable Narrator and “Memento”
Narratology compares the fabula of a story, the story itself, to the szujhet of a story, also known as the discourse of the story or how the story is told. Through the szujhet, the fabula could be misinterpreted or completely changed. Because traditional narrations offer a trustworthy narrator, when the narrator is unreliable, it could be challenging to discern what to believe and what not to believe. If the audience is only given one perspective, the audience only knows the fabula through what the narrator decides to share or manipulate. This concept will become clearer when examining the fabula of Christopher Nolan’s film “Memento.” In “Memento,” the fabula is not clear because of how the discourse is presented; through the eyes of Leonard. “Memento” shows the relation between the fabula and the szujhet, as described in the theory of narratology, in the way that Leonard perceives information about the people around him and how his narration of events affects the audience’s knowledge of the factual story.

Memento: An Overview
“Memento” is the story of a man named Leonard who is searching for his wife’s murderer. Christopher Nolan, writer and producer, portrays Leonard’s story through the eyes of Leonard who suffers from anterograde amnesia, a form of short-term memory loss that prevents Leonard from creating new memories. The audience is introduced to Leonard’s story in the first scene where Leonard shoots Teddy, the man he believes to have murdered his wife. The audience is presented with the facts that Leonard has acquired which convinces both Leonard and the audience to believe that Teddy is responsible for Leonard’s wife’s death. The remainder of the movie is about how Leonard came to establish these “facts” and how he decided to kill Teddy. Nolan’s artistic film-portrayal of his narrative “Memento” gives the audience the perspective of living with Leonard’s condition. The difficult part in understanding this film as a whole is knowing that the story is, for the majority of the time, presented in reverse-chronological order, while smaller snippets of the film are told chronologically (e.g. see fig. 1). There are many possible reasons as to why Nolan chose this method for his story, however the most evident reason is the use of focalization through the lens of Leonard, our main character and unreliable narrator.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: ... meline.png
Fig. 1.
“Memento” timeline showing progression of time as presented chronologically when viewing the original release of the film from Steve Aprahamian; "File:Memento Timeline.png."; 3 December 2009; commons.wikimedia.org; 5 May 2014.

The image above shows the progression of movie time parallel to the progression of plot. In regards to his diagram, Dr. Steve Aprahamian states the following: “The chart only depicts the movie's storyline and the movie's plotline and their ordering. It does not breakout the numerous flashback sequences (with Sammy Jankis, Mrs. Jankis and Leonard's wife,” (Aprahamian). Because of this, the chart can be used as a general overview of progression rather than a completely accurate representation of all events that take place in the narration. The red lines show the color scenes in the movie, or those that represent events being experienced by the audience as Leonard would experience them, whereas the blue lines show the black and white scenes, which are shown in chronological order. This diagram clarifies that the duration of the story takes place over a course of three days. All of the blue-line scenes take place before all of the red-line scenes. At the end of the movie, the blue-line scenes merge with the red-line scenes in what could be imagined as a hinge, thus connecting the two storylines.

About the Szujhet
As mentioned before, Leonard is suffering from a form of Post-Traumatic Anterograde (PTA) Amnesia. Anterograde amnesia is defined by Robert Cantu as, “a deficit in forming new memory [sic] after the accident, which may lead to decreased attention and inaccurate perception,” (Cantu 245). In Cantu’s article Posttraumatic Retrograde and Anterograde Amnesia: Pathophysiology and Implications in Grading and Safe Return to Play, anterograde amnesia is memory loss due to a traumatic event that impairs the injured person to develop new memory after the traumatic event. This is important because Leonard’s condition literally is the discourse, or as Stephen Bonnycastle says, Leonard’s condition is how the events are put into language (Bonnycastle 163). Leonard’s condition mediates how the events of the story take place. For Leonard, the traumatic event that leads to his amnesia was a result of trying to fight off his wife’s attackers. When Leonard finds his wife being attacked, he either kills or renders the attacker unconscious—neither is explicitly told in the film—then is hit in the head from behind by what he believes to be a second attacker; thus rendering him unable to create new memories regarding his wife’s death or recovery, the investigation that pursued after the attack, and how much time has passed since the incident. The controversy over the number of attackers plays a huge role in the film because this is Leonard’s driving force throughout the whole movie. Leonard is driven by his memory of there being two attackers in the bathroom where he found his wife. When reviewing the case files, Leonard says that he is looking for the second attacker because the justice system failed to do so. Leonard’s comment on memory suggests that the justice system believed Leonard’s memory had been damaged too severely to be reliable.
No, really. Memory’s not perfect. It’s not even that good. Ask the police, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The cops don’t catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that’s how you investigate. I know, it’s what I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It’s an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts. (Christopher Nolan)
Leonard states that he has personal experience on the investigation side; however, when Leonard is reviewing the case files, the audience is led to believe that he has experienced the eyewitness side as well. Because Leonard never saw both attackers together, there was no other reason for the investigators to believe that there was more than one attacker.
Leonard uses facts that he gathers over time to make important decisions. These facts are denoted in various body tattoos, Polaroid photographs with handwritten captions, and other scraps of paper to keep notes on. The first fact that is revealed to the audience states that Teddy is the second attacker. Leonard has a photograph of Teddy with his name and the note saying, “Don’t believe his lies. He’s the one. Kill him,” (Christopher Nolan). At this point, neither the audience nor Leonard knows where this fact came from; however, Leonard trusts his notes so the audience, based on traditional narrations, trusts Leonard’s judgment. Teddy gives a desperate speech before his death attempting to defend himself from Leonard by telling him that Teddy had already helped Leonard hunt down the real murderer. Teddy tells him that he had given Leonard’s life purpose by helping him continue hunting down “John G.’s.” As far as the audience knows at this point, Teddy is a known liar who is trying to cover his tracks by telling Leonard lies about what has already been done.
We are then introduced to a character deemed trustworthy by Leonard, Natalie. It is revealed that Natalie gives Leonard a packet of information connecting Teddy to Leonard’s manhunt. In the packet of information given to Leonard, Teddy’s real name is discovered to be John Gammel. Leonard decides to trust Natalie because she has lost someone close to her also; Leonard believes that she will help him out of pity. As the movie progresses, more “facts” are acquired and the audience learns more about each of the characters involved with Leonard. The more the audience discovers about the characters, mainly Teddy and Natalie, the less factual Leonard’s notes become.

About the Fabula
It is difficult to define the true fabula of the film because of the szujhet and there is still a large debate going on, fourteen years after the release, as to what the true story is. In this section, this is one interpretation of the many possible. This interpretation is based on knowledge gathered solely from the film itself. Through the plot progression, many of Leonard’s facts become disproven, as the audience is able to recall all events that have taken place rather than fractions of events only moments at a time. The conflict between the Leonard’s rationale and the true facts that are revealed through the plot progression constructs the fabula. The two biggest examples that compare Leonard’s rationale to the true facts would be Leonard’s perceptions of Teddy and Natalie. As stated previously, the audience is led to believe that Teddy is a liar who cannot be trusted and Natalie is trustworthy because she is helping Leonard out of pity and a shared experience.
Beginning first with Teddy and excluding the opening scene, everything in the film that Teddy as told Leonard pans out to be true. Teddy seems to have an genuine interest in helping Leonard but also takes advantage of his condition by trying to make a quick profit from the drug dealer that Leonard kills. Teddy explains that he is the cop that was assigned to Leonard’s case. If one chooses to believe that Teddy truly was a cop, then he had to have been a dirty cop. He seems to have the greatest understanding of Leonard’s condition, which implies they have known each other for quite a bit of time. Teddy has proof that he helped Leonard track down the real John G. by showing Leonard the Polaroid photograph of Leonard triumphantly standing over the guy he murdered with blood all over his body. When Teddy realizes that Leonard will never remember killing the real John G. he begins to take advantage of Leonard’s condition and sets him on the path of other criminal John G.’s, such as Jimmy. Jimmy was a drug dealer who Teddy had convinced was responsible for Leonard’s wife’s attack. Teddy then attempts to take Jimmy’s car for the money he knew was in the trunk. This attempt is unsuccessful because Leonard takes Jimmy’s clothes and keys, which, after a few minutes, Leonard believes to be his own clothes and keys. Although Teddy may be a dirty cop, he is shown to at least be an honest dirty cop.
The next character of importance is Natalie. Leonard decides to trust Natalie because she had recently lost her boyfriend Jimmy. Natalie never tells Leonard how Jimmy was killed but shares enough of the story for Leonard to trust her. Towards the end of the film, beginning of the fabula, the audience sees Natalie manipulate Leonard time and time again.
One of the biggest scenes where we see this happen is in the scene where Natalie comes home from work, where Leonard is waiting, getting upset over someone named Dodd. She claims that Dodd is upset because of a drug deal gone wrong and he is blaming Natalie. When Natalie enters the scene in chronological order, she has no physical injuries, but she is charging through the house, grabbing all pens and pencils accessible. Once she collects the writing utensils, she begins insulting Leonard’s wife, trying to upset him, bragging that she can say whatever she wants about his wife and he would never remember. Leonard becomes so infuriated with Natalie’s insults that he hits her. Natalie gets upset and walks out of the house with all of the writing utensils. Leonard knowing the importance of needing to remember what just happened searches through the room looking for something to take notes with. At this point, Natalie slams her car door and re-enters the house, causing Leonard to forget the prior argument, and tells Leonard that Dodd had abused her. Later, it is revealed that Leonard is the one who murdered Jimmy, and Natalie is trying to get back at Teddy. Natalie has this vendetta on Teddy because the last place Jimmy was known to be was meeting up with Teddy at an abandoned building in the middle of nowhere when Leonard shows up at Natalie’s bar in Jimmy’s clothes and with Jimmy’s car. Natalie realizes that Leonard truly doesn’t remember killing her boyfriend so she goes after Teddy. Throughout the plot, Natalie is seen to be the liar and manipulator rather than Teddy.
Leonard: The Unreliable Narrator
In “Memento,” the szujhet is presented through the focalization of Leonard, who at this point is rather unreliable. When referring back to his comments about memory, it is ironic that he so strictly discredits the validity of memory, yet focuses his life purpose on the last solid memory he has. Throughout the film, there are multiple scenes that cause the audience to question Leonard’s pre-injury memory. In a scene where Leonard is experiencing a flashback to his last memory, the audience sees Leonard facedown on the bathroom floor, facing his wife who is wrapped up in a translucent shower curtain, also facedown on the ground. Leonard states this as his last memory; the memory of his wife dying. What is interesting about this scene is that there is a close-up on his wife’s face where we see her blink, suggesting that she was still alive in Leonard’s last memory. She was dying, yes; however, he has no memory of her death, funeral, or possible recovery. The only reference we have to her possible post-attack presence was a different flashback where Leonard experiences two alternatives to the same scenario.
Teddy explains that Sammy Jankis didn’t have a wife and it was really Leonard who had killed his own wife by overdosing her with insulin. The two alternatives to this scene is the first scene where Leonard gives his wife and insulin shot in her thigh while lying in their bed, the other alternative shows Leonard playfully pinching his wife’s leg while lying in their bed. This flashback is a memory from before the accident, but going off of the possibility that Leonard’s wife could have survived the attack, it could very well be possible that Leonard accidentally killed his own wife. In this scene, Teddy has told Leonard that he had confused the Sammy Jankis story with his own. This could be possible in consideration of Leonard’s explanation of Sammy Jankis’ injury, Leonard shows through experimentation that certain types of memory could be learned through instinct by repetition, while some actions, often times very complex routines, are done innately.
Another factor to consider when validating whether Teddy is telling the truth about Sammy Jankis and Leonard, is Leonard’s skill set throughout the film. Leonard believes that he was an insurance claims investigator before the incident, which is how he justifies his new wardrobe (taken from Jimmy) and his car (money from his wife’s life insurance. However, he seems to have a high quality in combat skills, weapon knowledge, and criminal investigative skills. To recall Leonard’s previously quoted comment on memory: “The cops don’t catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that’s how you investigate. I know, it’s what I used to do,” (Christopher Nolan).
It is possible to say that Leonard was in fact a detective who was removed from the case because it involved his wife and confused the stories of himself and Sammy Jankis for two reasons: the first because he may have developed a psychological block preventing him from remembering that his wife was diabetic and it was he who ended up killing her; and two, because he may have read his own report from Sammy Jankis, the real insurance claims investigator, about his condition enough times to be able to recall the story innately. The audience cannot even build a just timeframe from when Leonard’s wife died and the first black and white scene where he is on the phone.
In conclusion, it is challenging to state a definite fabula for this narrative because of the fallibility of Leonard, the narrator. Christopher Nolan has yet to give a clear answer as to what the true fabula is, but says all the evidence can be found in the film itself. In the end, we see how Leonard manipulates his own memory by riding the evidence that led him to kill Teddy. That gives a total count of two murders that he has committed and fails to make an effort to remember. If there are two proven murders that Leonard had removed from his memory, the audience cannot be sure how many times he had done so before the film began. When taking all of the factual information from the film, the closest the audience could get to build the fabula would be to try and focalize the story through Teddy’s point of view. Throughout the film, Teddy is seen to be the most honest character despite Leonard’s “facts” about him.

Leonard’s limited ability to recall new events as well as his manipulation of his own memory shows just how unreliable Leonard as a narrator can be. He cannot willingly remember past events, but also takes steps to intentionally forget important facts that he should want to remember. He chooses not to remember them though, because without his quest for vengeance, his life would have no purpose. Through the narrative of “Memento,” the potential affect of the szujhet on the fabula is very clear. When done artfully, the use of narratology in film can make the difference between a good film and a great film. “The real test of a story’s value,” as stated by Stephen Bonnycastle, “ is the pleasure it provides on a second reading,” (Bonnycastle 165).  

Works Cited
Aprahamian, Steve. "File:Memento Timeline.png." 3 December 2009. commons.wikimedia.org. 5 May 2014 <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: ... meline.png>.
Bonnycastle, Stephen. "Structuralism: Narratology." Bonnycastle, Stephen. In Search of Authority, An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory. Third. Toronto: Broadview, 2007. 160-169.
Cantu, Robet C. "Posttraumatic Retrograde and Anterograde Amnesia: Pathophysiology and Omplications in Grading and Safe Return to Play." Journal of Athletic Training 36.3 (2001): 244-247.
Memento. By Jonathan Nolan Christopher Nolan. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano Guy Pierce. 2000.

Works Consulted
Olson, Greta. "Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators." 11.1 (2003): 93-109.
Williams, G. Christopher. "Factualizing the tattoo: actualizing personal history through memory in Christopher Nolan's Memento. ." 23.1 (2003): 27-37.

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Does he recall his significant other's passing? By making a unimaginable riddle would he say he is subliminally attempting to rebuff him self for it? Is Sammy Jenkins genuine or only a dream of Leonard's psyche, a story made up to assist Leonard with foregetting and legitimize his better half's demise, a modify personality of himself. The finish of the film leaves you nearly as befuddled as the start. Leonard's regressive forward examination; with every scene probably carrying you closer to reality leaves you unavoidably baffled, exactly who was the hero?

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