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Summer Film Club: Jonathan Nolan

5 Aug

In this weekly series, intern Alyssa, your fearless reader, reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa has no formal training in film, unless subscribing to Netflix and following Roger Ebert on Twitter count as formal training. She would also like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

MEMENTO and "Memento Mori"

(Left) MEMENTO, dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie Ann-Moss, Joe Pantoliano. 2001. (Right) The March 2001 issue of ESQUIRE containing Jonathan Nolan's "Memento Mori."

Yes, that Nolan. I managed to make it an entire decade without seeing the critically acclaimed cult hit that catapulted Christopher Nolan to the dizzying heights of critically acclaimed superhero franchises. I also made it through that decade without realizing that Christopher Nolan based that cult hit on a short story by his brother, Jonathan Nolan (read “Memento Mori” here).

Much like the main characters in “Memento Mori” and Memento, I dove into this assignment not knowing what to expect. You, on the other hand, probably do know what to expect—a man seeks vengeance for his wife’s rape and murder. A story as old as time itself, if “time itself” extends only to the previous ten minutes the anterograde amnesia-afflicted protagonists of “Memento Mori” and Memento can recall.

Short-term memory loss is the plot device that turns Memento from a straightforward revenge story to a—well, a straightbackward revenge story, I suppose. To mimic his protagonist’s experience, Christopher Nolan edited the story in reverse chronological order—the hook (or gimmick, depending on whose review you’re reading) that garnered so much critical attention. That time-turning tactic works well in the realm of film, but how does Jonathan Nolan depict “CRS disease” in fiction?

“I always thought the pleasure of a book was in wanting to know what happens next,” says Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), protagonist of Memento. And although I don’t agree entirely with this sentiment, I see its relevance in the context of this story.

Comparing Memento and “Memento Mori,” I felt that, in general, fiction has an intrinsic momentum that film lacks, due to the more active performance of reading. A viewer can enjoy many films (probably not Memento, though) passively, letting the action unwind before her eyes, but a reader propels herself forward through a text. I think it’s wise, then, that writer Jonathan Nolan chose to tell this story chronologically, allowing readers to discover clues along with the main character Earl, and thus maintaining the momentum “Memento Mori” requires.

Two other choices work particularly well in this story: Jonathan Nolan’s unadorned prose and the interchange of first- (or second-?) and third-person narration. Moreover, the interplay between these elements—prose and person—enhances the story as well. In the third-person sections, stark, declarative sentences disorient the reader with a lack of nuance or depth—that is, like Earl, we have only the information right in front of us, on the surface. In the first-/second-person sections, Jonathan Nolan uses the same sparse prose followed by unsettling leading questions: “They don’t think it’s right for a man in your condition to hear about those things. But you remember enough, don’t you?” We get the feeling that something sinister is lurking, and somebody knows more about it than we do.

Another aspect of the story that worked for me was the explication of the theme. Jonathan Nolan practically hands it to us on a silver platter in the last paragraph of the story (as well as in other paragraphs throughout the story), which usually irks me, but I like it here! If Earl spends so much time writing himself these notes, he probably reflects on his situation quite a bit, so these philosophical speculations aren’t out of character.

So how does Christopher Nolan get away with more or less stating the theme throughout Memento?

I’m going to attribute that to clever screenwriting. The densely packed script gives heavy-handed lines a little more leeway. (For example: “Just because there are things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world doesn’t disappear when you close your eyes.”)

The script is, of course, the main reason that Memento works so well. “You really do need a system if you’re going to make it work,” Leonard’s voice-over narration informs us in the film. And I feel the same is true of making a movie featuring two separate timelines (or three, depending on how you look at it), one of which is reversed, that meet at the climax. You’re going to need a system. (And if that system involves a lot of Polaroids and tattoos, to make it more cinematic and visually appealing, then you’ve killed two birds with one stone.)

Guy Pearce in MEMENTO

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) displays one of his handy Polaroids in MEMENTO.

It’s worth mentioning that Jonathan and Christopher Nolan worked on their projects separately but concurrently (I will be so happy when I no longer have to think about time this much), after Jonathan pitched the idea to Christopher on a road trip. I wonder if this spirit of collaboration is what makes Memento such an effective adaptation. Whereas I thought of Jesus’ Son and Secretary almost as separate entities from their source material, I felt like Memento and “Memento Mori” worked well as companion pieces to each other. Alone, they are each compelling and complete portrayals of the same story; together, they illuminate aspects of each other I might otherwise have missed. After watching the film, I began to wonder about the unreliability not just of memory, but also of narration and storytelling. So I reread “Memento Mori,” which, the second time, seemed to have more weight and complexity. I appreciated it more, and aspects that bothered me the first time—the lack of development of Earl, for example—no longer seemed quite so important. Similarly, the existential angst of “Memento Mori” lends more gravity to the whodunit noir of Memento. And both raise interesting questions about the efficacy of revenge. So go read “Memento Mori,” and then watch Memento. Then read “Memento Mori” again, and, hey, it’s probably still in the DVD player, so. . .

Stray Observations

So is it obvious that I really enjoyed this one? If I were giving grades to these adaptations, “Memento Mori”/Memento would get an A.

On the Internet there exists a deep, vast Memento rabbit hole. You can start falling into it here. Come to think of it, though, you probably did that ten years ago along with everyone else who saw Memento when it was still timely (ugh, time).

You can continue on the official Memento Web site, created by Jonathan Nolan.

I might have been able to write this entire post with quotes from the Memento script. “I always thought the pleasure of a book was in wanting to know what happens next. It’s all backwards. Memory’s unreliable.”

I didn’t discuss Memento‘s acting (which was good) or cinematography (which was great) here because the writing stood out the most.

Jonathan Nolan jokingly refers to anterograde amnesia as “CRS disease” in “Memento Mori.” Deeply confused, I spent about five minutes Googling “CRS disease,” only to discover (via a Facebook page and Urban Dictionary) that Nolan didn’t mean chronic rhinosinusitis or congenital rubella syndrome, but “can’t remember stuff.”

I feel like I could have made a dozen easy Inception jokes, but I haven’t seen Inception. Don’t worry, I’ll walk myself to movie jail.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Summer Film Club: Andre Dubus | American Short Fiction blog - 12. Aug, 2011

    […] Best Adapted Screenplay nominees used short stories as their source material: Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, based on the 1979 short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus. […]

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