Senior HTF Member
- Feb 12, 1998
- Real Name
- Michael Reuben
Memento, 10th Anniversary Ed. (Blu-ray)
The new Blu-ray of Christopher Nolan’s best film to date provides good news and bad news. The good news is that Memento has never looked better. The bad news is that fans need to hold onto their 2002 special edition DVD set, because plenty of features have been omitted – and I’m not just talking about the ability to re-edit the film in chronological order. Trailers, the director’s script and various image galleries are also among the missing, unless they’ve been cleverly hidden in ways I couldn’t discover. (That possibility can’t be discounted, since the 2002 DVD was a milestone for concealment.) I’ll do my best to catalogue the missing features below, but first I want to talk about why Memento is unique.
Film Length: 113 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Mar. 16, 2001
Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 22, 2011
It’s not easy to describe Memento, because what makes it distinctive is purely cinematic and hard to put into words. In strict plot terms, the film tells the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a former insurance investigator whose sole purpose in life is to avenge the rape and murder of his wife (Jorja Fox). His quest is hindered by the fact that Leonard suffered a head injury in the attack that claimed his wife’s life, leaving him with a rare form of memory impairment. He knows who he is and remembers everything leading up to the injury, but he can’t make new memories. Nothing after his wife’s death sticks in Leonard’s head. Every fifteen minutes or so, he has to start over again.
To compensate for his handicap, Leonard has developed an elaborate system of lists, notes, Polaroid pictures and, most importantly, body tattoos of crucial facts. He’s conditioned himself to consult these sources over and over again so that he can always be “current” on his project, and he’s forever reaching for a pen to write down new developments. Leonard was able to create this system, because, as luck would have it, he once investigated the insurance claim of a man named Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who purportedly suffered from the same condition. Leonard denied the claim, but he became familiar with the medical science. Since this happened before Leonard’s injury, he remembers everything about it. “Remember Sammy Jankis” is his most frequently consulted tattoo.
Now, here’s the hard part: Nolan wants the viewer to see the world from Leonard’s perspective. He does so by removing all context, telling the story in reverse so that we know nothing about the actions we’re seeing other than the information being freshly presented. (And believe me, everything I’ve related in the preceding two paragraphs won’t help.) The film opens with Leonard shooting a man, who will shortly be identified as “Teddy” (Joe Pantoliano), but we don’t know why. The scene is in color. In the next color scene, we see Leonard leave his motel room, talk with the clerk at the front desk (Mark Boone Junior), then meet up with Teddy and drive to a deserted building where, after consulting one of his Polaroids, Leonard pulls his gun. And then we rewind again.
Between the color sequences, there are scenes in black and white. In most of them, Leonard sits in his motel room talking, sometimes in voiceover, sometimes on the phone to a caller whose identity Leonard can’t recall. These are scenes in which Leonard talks compulsively – about his investigation, about his “system” for recording and organizing information, about Sammy Jankis. It’s the closest thing to traditional exposition that Memento offers.
Over the course of the film, the color and B&W sequences eventually intersect. By the time they do, we’ve gotten a lot of information about Leonard, Teddy and various other characters, including a barmaid named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and a tough guy known as Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie). But we don’t trust any of what we’ve learned, because every source has been compromised in one way or another, including Leonard’s “system”, his long-term memories and the people giving him information. People lie to Leonard, for reasons big and small, knowing that he’ll shortly forget what the truth is. Memories, even when they stick, turn out to be unreliable; as Leonard tells Teddy, memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It can also be deliberately manipulated, either by another person or by oneself (the film contains examples of both). Even Leonard’s vaunted system sometimes produces false results, because, like every human system, it’s flawed. On occasion, Leonard himself chooses to ignore relevant evidence (e.g., a burned Polaroid), because he doesn’t know what to make of it.
Daily life depends on minutia recalled without a second thought. We see someone we know, and our recognition is confirmed by the clothes, the room, the car, the voice, the speech patterns and dozens of other details. These habits carry over into watching films; a character appears on screen, and we naturally assume that the character’s clothes, speech, possessions, apartment, etc. belong to him or her until something tells us otherwise. Thrillers use these habits to deceive us about the bad guy. “Con” films use them to fool us about a swindle. But Memento uses them to make us share Leonard’s sensation of the world constantly slipping away. As Leonard must keep reconstructing his investigation, we as viewers have to keep reconstructing the narrative of the film. Every time we think we’re getting close to what’s happening, it turns out to be something else.
Memento wouldn’t work without Guy Pearce’s performance as Leonard, which is surely one of the least-appreciated screen performances of 2001. Nolan has said that Pearce suffers from a fear of losing his memory, though in fact his memory is excellent. Perhaps that’s what allowed him to bring him such conviction to Leonard’s fierce determination to hold on to his system of mnemonics. At the same time, Pearce gives Leonard an openness and a vulnerability that are essential to retaining the audience’s sympathy even when Leonard is making a mess of things (which is frequently).
As several people point out to Leonard, even if he succeeds in killing his wife’s murderer, he won’t remember that he did so. In much the same way, Memento ultimately provides a complete explanation of everything, but many viewers refuse to accept it. The film so effectively casts doubt on every source of information that fans have become wildly creative in propounding alternative theories. (Nolan, with the assistance of his brother, Jonathan, on whose short story the film is based, has encouraged such efforts with, among other things, an elaborate website and DVD features fleshing out Leonard’s backstory.) Personally I’ve never felt any compulsion to nail down the absolute truth about Leonard. It’s enough just to keep up with him.
Before Lionsgate acquired the rights to the Newmarket library, Sony issued Memento on Blu-ray in 2006, using the MPEG-2 codec on a BD-25. This new version, which uses the AVC codec on a BD-50, features a Criterion-style label reproducing Nolan’s signature and stating “Director Approved!” – and the image is superior throughout. Detail is improved (with a caveat noted below), and the picture has a hard edge that is appropriate to Memento’s film noir lineage. In direct comparison, the Sony disc looks soft and almost gentle. The essential blue-and-beige pallette of Wally Pfister’s cinematography and Patti Podesta’s production design is forcefully presented, and contrasting colors, when they appear, register with a shock.
Concerns have been reported about loss of image detail in the black-and-white portions of the film. These concerns are understandable but misplaced, in my opinion. As can be observed in the screen captures of color frames at DVD Beaver, this version of Memento has a brighter image with greater contrast. In the B&W scenes, the effect is to give everything a harder edge and a harsher appearance. As anyone who has ever calibrated a monitor can attest, such adjustments sometimes “blow out” fine detail, but I am confident that the choice here reflects the filmmakers’ intent, because the new version has much more of a film noir “look” than the previous Blu-ray. Certainly this is not a case where essential visual information is being lost or image composition changed. If anything, the compositions in the B&W scenes have become stronger, as if illuminated by a brighter light. And to repeat: in the color scenes, the increased detail is readily apparent.
The prior Blu-ray had a 5.1 PCM track, while the new Blu-ray uses DTS lossless. It was not obvious to me that the change in format offered any upgrade. Memento’s sound mix was carefully done and its effects deliberately chosen, but it has never been a showcase for surround sound or environmental immersion (though there are discrete rear channel effects from time to time). The brooding, atmospheric score by David Julyan benefits from a full soundstage in front with good bass extension, and when there’s a sudden loud effect (a gunshot, glass breaking), it’s helpful to have a format that can handle the dynamic range. This track does the job effectively, as did its predecessor. Both are equally good at reproducing the dialogue, which is where the viewer’s concentration needs to be.
Commentary with Director Christopher Nolan. Nolan speaks continuously in a soothing, modulated, seemingly unemotional tone that could easily lull a listener to sleep, but then you’d miss interesting bits of information about the locations, performances and stylistic decisions that he drops throughout the commentary, as well as numerous in-depth observations on the characters’ motivations.
Nolan’s Memento commentary may be the most impish ever recorded. You get a hint when it opens with a sentence played backward, like the scene it accompanies, that the commentary will be about as trustworthy as the film’s narrative (in other words, not much). But the real mischief begins after chapter 13, at a point where, appropriately enough, Nolan is talking about how the film is full of echoes and reflections designed to confuse the viewer’s memory. On the original DVD version of the commentary, it randomly branched at that point to one of three alternate versions that were sufficiently similar that you wouldn’t immediately notice the change. But each version contained different details and reflected a subtly different stance toward the film’s resolution, such that an unsuspecting listener might be pardoned for thinking, “I could have sworn it was different last time!” In two versions, for example, Nolan’s notes that Teddy’s license plate is the postal code for his old school, but the third version omits this detail. One version notes that Joe Pantoliano performed the last scene in which he appears in the film with an injured back, but the other versions do not.
More importantly, in one version, Nolan appears to give one definitive interpretation of what actually happened, while in another he undercuts that very same interpretation. In this regard, he seems to have taken seriously the advice given by his brother, Jonathan, at an early festival screening, which was to let the viewer decide. (This turned out to be excellent advice, for both artistic and PR purposes.)
On the DVD, it was easy to identify these alternate commentary endings, because they were mastered as separate “titles”. Switching to them was not so easy, though, because any attempt to do so during playback directed you to a fourth ending, where Nolan’s voice was completely garbled.
Blu-ray mastering hadn’t advanced very far when Sony issued Memento in 2006, and Sony simply included three separate commentary tracks on its disc. This new edition restores the “random selection” feature of the 2002 DVD, minus the garbled “trap” alternative. At least I think it does. I’m pretty sure I heard all three versions on the new Blu-ray, but I might be suffering from memory loss.
Remembering Memento. (HD) (7:44). This retrospective interview with Nolan is too short to add anything significant to the vast materials previously assembled for Memento. A true retrospective would have required interviews with many more participants.
Anatomy of a Scene (SD; 4:3) (25:15). It’s unfortunate that Sundance Channel has discontinued this series, because it provided great insights into filmmaking, as this episode demonstrates. It’s a close look at how the film’s opening scenes establish the film’s “grammar” for the audience, with comments by Nolan, DP Wally Pfister, editor Dody Dorn, producer Jennifer Todd, composer David Julyan, production designer Patti Podesta and the always entertaining Joe Pantoliano.
IFC Interview with Writer/Director Christopher Nolan (SD; 4:3) (23:51). This is a new feature. Recorded and broadcast in 2001, the interview was conducted by film critic Elvis Mitchell in front of a small audience. Nolan discusses both Memento and his first film, Following. His explanation for why he doesn’t like to use a video monitor on set is particularly interesting.
Memento Mori Short Story. As Nolan says in the IFC interview, it took his brother almost as long to finish the story as it took Nolan to finish the film. The film was based on Jonathan Nolan’s description of his work-in-progress. The finished works are complementary but very different.
Tattoo Sketches. These are new to this disc. There is one full-body sketch and five close-ups.
Leonard’s Journal. These six pages from Leonard’s journal were included on the 2002 DVD and were probably created for it.
Trailers. Unfortunately, no trailers for Memento are included. At startup the disc plays trailers for Buried, Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray, Monster’s Ball and Winter’s Bone. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also available from the special features menu.
The Missing. The following is a list of items on the 2002 two-disc special edition DVD set that are not included on the 2011 Blu-ray, at least as far as I can tell. Some of these items are undocumented features, but I have confirmed that they are present on the DVDs (whose convoluted navigation is a subject unto itself):
Trailers (international and U.S.)
Still/production sketches gallery
Director’s script (plays on-screen set to the film in its entirety)
Chronological edit of the film
International ad campaign
Bootleg cover art
When Memento first appeared, I remember people who objected that the time-shifting and other storytelling devices were mere gimmicks and not worthy of serious attention. Such objections are understandable on first impression, but it’s been ten years and I think it’s clear now they were mistaken. If you take the film seriously (which is essential to learning anything), it gives you a genuine experience of fundamental questions over which philosophers have slaved for centuries. The formal name of the discipline is epistemology, but Nolan’s film doesn’t need a fancy label to ask important questions. How do I know what I know? Is the world something more than the sum of what I perceive at any given moment? Is truth what I experience, what I remember or what I record? No one would want to live like Leonard, but every so often it’s useful to contemplate what you could rely on if, like Leonard, you had to ask yourself every fifteen minutes or so, “Now, where was I?”
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub