The Sundance Channels series, ANATOMY OF A SCENE, usually examines a film in current release, gathering together the team from both sides of the camera to discuss several aspects of one particular scene. The results, presented with a refreshing lack of technical jargon or stultifyingly obtuse film theory, shed a light on the creative process that can be found few other places. This month, though, the spotlight is on MEMENTO, a dynamically enigmatic film released last year to critical acclaim and whose cinematic achievement the Academy Awards, with their usual boneheaded attention to box office not quality, have chosen NOT to nominate for best picture, though Christopher Nolans screenplay and Dody Dorns editing have been recognized.
Any film, to succeed, must be guided by talent, intelligence and an artistic eye for detail. In a way, the filmmaker must speak to both the consciousness and the unconscious of the filmgoer, appealing to the audiences sense of reality in order to successfully tweak its suspension of disbelief. No film of recent note has had a more difficult task in that respect than MEMENTO.
The reality in this film is that of Guy Pearces character, Leonard, a man who suffered a head trauma and has lost the ability to form new memories. As a result, while being able to remember everything up to and including that trauma, nothing afterwards stays with him for more than 10 minutes or so. The task is to make it possible for us to see the world from Leonards point of view and yet, while remaining true to that perception of reality, not confusing us while telling a narrative story. The device is to tell the story backwards, so that like Leonard, the audience has no memory of what came before. Its not a new conceit, Harold Pinters BETRAYAL comes to mind, as well as an episode of SEINFELD, though neither involved an unreliable narrator and a subplot told in a different time stream that dovetails with the one flowing in reverse.
The solution Nolan and his team devised is laid out with some aspects of it that will make you wonder at the simple genius of it all. Cinematographer Wally Pfister explains the use of different color and black-and-white films exposures and of camera angles to give visual cues about the time frame. Thats obvious enough. So is using the same shot to end and to begin each episode of the story as it works backward in time. But then theres the opening sequence that plays out under the opening credits, the first of three short sequences that set up the films action and look and that are examined here. It takes a few seconds to realize that the action, a mans hand shaking a Polaroid snapshot, is happening in reverse, setting the tone for the film. But theres more going on here than meets the eye. While the action is reversed, the sound, as explained by Nolan, is played forward. The effect is subtle, the discontinuity imperceptible until its been pointed out, a perfect metaphor for Leonards reality so out of kilter with everyone elses, yet imperceptible to him. And so forth with revelations large and small, from casting, to hair color, to filming reverse action in real time, that point up the seemingly endless details one which hang a films success.
As with all good studies of things most excellent, ANATOMY OF A SCENES segment on MEMENTO makes you appreciate the enormity of its accomplishment all the more. Tune in to find out what a tricky business making a great film is, and how hard it is to make it look so easy.