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.”