There's a powerful bond between movies and memories. When we watch a film, we make sense of it by remembering the bits of information it gives us, fitting each new image and sound into its overall story pattern. We also connect this story with our own recollections, judging its ideas and emotions according to how these mesh with the experiences we've gathered in our lives.
"Memento" is one of the few recent films to recognize how closely a movie can resemble a memory bank. And going one step further, it questions how much either of these can be relied on for accuracy and truthfulness.
The movie begins with a literal bang, as a man is killed by a point-blank pistol shot. It also begins with a literal reverse twist, since the filmmaker shows this violent action backward - and precedes it by showing a Polaroid photo in reverse motion, displaying an image of the killing before fading to blankness and retreating back into the camera that took it.
This unconventional style continues throughout the film, generated by an equally unconventional story. The main character is a young man (Guy Pearce) desperately hunting the criminal (Joe Pantoliano) who savagely murdered his wife. The problem is that our hero suffers from a physical condition that obliterates his short-term memory on a day-by-day basis. He knows his own identity and long-ago past, but recent events inevitably fade from his mind.
How do you conduct a life-or-death quest under such circumstances? You write yourself endless notes, tattoo crucial information directly on your skin, hope for the kindness of strangers, and trust that your cause is just enough to deserve success.
"Memento" moves at an energetic pace, spurred by high-intensity editing, vigorous camera work, and a string of clever variations on conventional film narrative. Most of these are crisply connected to the twists and turns of the story, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, who is clearly a newcomer to watch.
Thinking about "Memento" more deeply, it's interesting to recall philosopher Gilles Deleuze's theory that movies went through a fundamental change around the middle of the 20th century. Before then, cinema was based on a desire to convey movement, reflecting society's excitement over the modern world's new possibilities for mobility and speed. In later years, serious films have been preoccupied with the portrayal of time, reflecting society's need to understand how an increasingly complex and fast-moving world affects our ability to absorb and understand the intricacies of our lives.
Until recently, movie explorations of time have been associated with directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Stanley Kubrick, whose philosophical outlook often guides their aesthetic ideas in deliberative, contemplative directions. But recent movies like "Memento" and "Run Lola Run" suggest that cinematic attitudes toward time are taking on increasingly urgent, intricate, even frenetic overtones.
Will this trend continue, or will the pendulum swing back to the leisurely end of the spectrum? Look for the latest clue in that backward bullet from Pearce's pistol.
Rated R; contains violence and vulgarity.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor