Memory, Metaphor, and Time: Volume 4
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My investigation had become stranger than a three-headed cow on a unicycle; with pterodactyls, multi-media dwarves, and more temporal skipping than the series run of Doctor Who. I was starting to feel like a character in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits. Any case that starts off with a Samurai sword-swinging femme fatale and the redemptive re-invention of the neo-noir sub genre is bound to get weird, and as Hunter S. Thompson once said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro"—which has no relevance here.

Tarantino's work had given an authentic spin on non-linear storytelling techniques—Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the two-part ode to trash culture Kill Bill (see my review of Volume 1) all used non-sequential stylization to deliver unique stories and innovative themes with exceptional flair. This methodology also inspired a different variation in cinematic time warping—one first coined by Orson Welles with his masterwork Citizen Kane--the use of deconstructed construct in making narrative itself a metaphor. Two neo-noir post-Pulp projects have carried on this tradition—Chris Nolan's Memento (2000) (see Kristin’s review) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams (2003) (read my review).

  
 
Memento, based on "Memento Mori," a short story by the director's brother, Jonathan Nolan—another creative re-invention of neo-noir, artfully used the non-sequential order to express its protagonist's neurological disorder. Leonard (Guy Pearce) suffers from anterograde amnesia. He’s struck in the head when he intervenes on two intruders in the process of raping his wife and recalls nothing after the trauma.

The injury leaves him unable to form any new memories, but determined to avenge his wife, he creates an elaborate system of tattoos and Polaroid pictures to chronicle his search for the surviving rapist, detailing pertinent clues to a most unconventional mystery in a most unconventional way. As the film progresses, however, numerous layers of manipulation are revealed—the shady cast of noir characters turn out to be using Leonard's plight to their own ends, as does (in a twist of Usual Suspects proportion) Leonard in turn end up manipulating himself. This puzzle work of mental meandering is not simply Oliver Sacks scribbling Raymond Chandler—that is, not just a memory-impaired noir mystery—but a discourse on memory itself. The film explores memory's failure to accurately express truth or rather its capability to express multiple truths, its role in the formation of identity, and its contributions to ethical reasoning.

Noir, in both traditional and neo variety, has always represented a convoluted vision of morality—its pessimistic undercurrents often reinforcing that justice doesn't prevail. The sub-genre's flawed protagonist, usually portrayed as broken as the world he is a part of, embodies his own code of ethics tailored to suit his corrupt world. In Memento the internalized virtues of the tarnished hero are given brain damage and, by association, so is moral relativity. The film is filled with such philosophical complexities—its puzzle work format orchestrated to deliver not only a traditional revenge-based mystery, confounded by mental issues, but also a context that represents the content itself. Unlike Citizen Kane, which plied the narrative as memory metaphor almost by default (the story and structure, of course, were intended) however, its metaphorical use seems more implicit. Memento is constructed with every frame, representing Leonard's mental chaos—a mental chaos he illustrates for the whole of society.

With an even broader conception, 21 Grams incorporates more sophisticated aspects into the framework while maintaining its revenge-based morality motif, visually expressed memory, and noir texture. While the metaphor becomes slightly over-stretched at times, it does incorporate poetic expressions of mathematical fractal images as a metaphor within a metaphor—visually demonstrating that the chaotic nature of universe reflects the chaotic nature of crisis in its disjointed narrative.

The movie revolves around three strangers: Christina Peck (Naomi Watts), a recovering drug addict turned suburban mother and wife, Paul Rivers (Sean Penn), a mathematics professor whose heart and marriage are both failing, and Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro), an ex-con who has become a born-again Christian. On the surface, the plot centers around a tragic accident that brings their lives together—but beneath that, the film is a psychological meditation on life's chaotic traumas and the way people struggle to cope: through addiction, through religion, or through science.

As stated, the film's multi-thematic delivery falls short at times, but it still marks an evolution in temporally manipulated cinema—both Memento and 21 Grams deliver as poignant a meditation on these themes as Citizen Kane did for its time. Developments in theoretical physics, cognitive psychology, post modern literature, and cinematic technique each bear an undeniable mark in these advances, but it is Q.T. who gets props for revitalizing a creative form of storytelling.

Being generally cynical, sardonic, and of a disillusioned disposition myself—and having something of a moral flexibility—I simply tip my hat to the man who nabbed the temporally twisted tale-telling device and move on down the mean streets of film criticism.


Be sure to check out parts one, two, and three of this series.

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