The director of the indie hit attempts to explain its nonlinear premise

By Daniel Fierman
June 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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  • Movie

They should have provided a flowchart. And flash cards. Heck, posting studio officials outside the theater for impromptu lectures and explanatory puppet shows couldn’t have hurt either. We are, of course, talking about ”Memento,” writer-director Chris Nolan’s stubborn tangle of tattoos, red herrings, and revenge fantasies. The $4.5 million movie is not only drowning in critical acclaim but — with a gross of more than $17 million and 11 weeks and counting in the top 20 — has also evolved into the indie hit of the year. Stirring stuff, especially when you consider that just about every major distributor passed on the noir before financier Newmarket Films decided to release ”Memento” itself. ”We’re kicking ourselves,” laments one bushwhacked exec. ”All of us.”

As for Nolan? ”I’m amazed. Everybody said, ‘It will play better in Europe,”’ he remembers from the Vancouver set of his next thriller, a remake of the 1997 Norwegian film ”Insomnia” that will star Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and Robin Williams. ”I told them American audiences are just as sophisticated. But I had no idea that it would be proved in such certain terms.”

Sophisticated (and easily flattered), sure. But that doesn’t mean we got the flick the first time around. In fact, Nolan’s mind-bender has been a memorable success in part because it takes four-plus viewings to figure the damn thing out. If you haven’t seen the movie, IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, STOP READING NOW. THERE ARE MAJOR, MOVIE-RUINING SPOILERS AHEAD. But if you’ve been up at 3 a.m. pondering Leonard’s condition, read on — we’ll try to salve your aching synapses.

How did the makeup guys keep track of the tattoos that covered Guy Pearce’s body? Carefully. ”The tattoo outlines were put on transfer paper and then onto my body,” remembers Pearce, who played Leonard Shelby. Each outline transfer would last about a week, and at the beginning of each shooting day, makeup would paint them in. Laughs the actor, ”We kept very careful track of where they’d go.”

Is Leonard’s condition of extreme short-term amnesia accurately depicted? Though anterograde memory loss is in fact an existing — albeit rare — brain disorder, Leonard’s ailment ain’t it. ”I’ve had professors say the film gives a certain insight into what it might feel like,” says Nolan, who first learned of the malady from his younger brother Jonah, who wrote the short story on which the film is based. ”But no. In ‘Memento,’ it’s fiction, film noir, and metaphor. Not medical reality.”

There are rumors of subliminal flashes in the movie. True? Yup. There are a number of them, but the big one is about 20 minutes before the end. Watch closely as Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) sits in his chair, staring blankly ahead in what appears to be a mental institution. Someone walks in front of him, and then, for a split second, you see that Leonard has taken his place in the chair — obviously an important tidbit when considering that monologue from Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) at the end and the question of whether Leonard actually killed his wife with insulin. ”There are a few like that in the film,” confirms Nolan. ”I think 70 percent of the audience doesn’t even see it.”

What will the DVD look like? Any plans to reedit the movie so it plays front to back? ”We just finished the DVD for [Nolan’s first feature, 1998’s] ”Following” — which was also nonlinear — in which I present the film in linear chronology,” says the director. ”I don’t want to demystify the movie, but it’s a possibility. I’d like to do a commentary track, though. It’ll depend on time.”

Is Jankis — the ”memory man” whose story Leonard tells obsessively — real? Or is he a figment of our hero’s imagination? Nolan won’t say, though he coyly notes, ”Remember, what Teddy says about Sammy is that he was a con man, not that he didn’t actually exist.” But think about it: How would Leonard remember Jankis by looking at the tattoo on his hand if he hadn’t been a figure in his life at some point prior to the accident?

If Leonard has short-term memory loss, how does he remember the specifics of his condition every morning? Assuming Teddy was telling the truth about Sammy’s chicanery, then there’s no reason to believe that people with this condition can’t learn through repetition. Ergo, ”he can take on knowledge and use it,” explains Nolan, reluctantly. ”So he remembers by repeating it to himself over and over again.”

So here’s the biggie: Was Teddy telling the truth at the end? We asked the man himself (or at least the actor who played him). ”My opinion? In that last scene he tells Leonard the truth,” says Pantoliano. ”Leonard was a device to Teddy, in order to give Leonard a life, to make Teddy feel worthwhile, and it was a way for him to make money, too.” Watch the movie again and it makes sense. But, Nolan cautions, that isn’t necessarily the final explanation. (Why are we not surprised?) ”One of the things the film says is that in real life — unlike in movies — there is no objective truth,” he says. ”We always intended that there would be multiple interpretations that conflict and that the audience would have to choose what they want to believe.” Gee, thanks, Chris. Thanks a lot.

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