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Playing with Memory: the Narrative Puzzle in Memento

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan in 2000, Memento is a movie that plays with its audience by using a scenic puzzle structure, which lays out its rules for completion from the very beginning. The film offers a unique viewing experience that helped it garner a lot of critical acclaim, and it is all because of its intrinsically motivated composition.

Memento’s structure ultimately creates and supports the narrative puzzle; it is a play with temporality that has to be resolved. Thus, the two parallel timelines— colored and black & white— alternate from beginning to end, their respective scenes designed to act like puzzle pieces. The reversed opening establishes the rules for assembling the scenes’ consequential order (what is colored moves back in time and what is black & white moves forward in time), while the finale reveals the timelines’ hierarchy when they merge to create a coherent narrative (what is devoid of color precedes everything else). At the end of the movie, this puzzle is complete, but Memento’s mastery truly emerges from its story motivating the plot’s unique display.

The story follows Leonard, a short-term amnesiac looking for his wife’s killer. He believes in his ‘facts’, in the characterizations he noted of the people around him, but, as the story progresses, it is made painfully clear that everything is unreliable: Teddy and Natalie do not help him but use him for their respective purposes and, most of all, Leonard uses himself. When Teddy reveals that Leonard killed his wife’s assailant more than a year ago and he forgot about it, he loses his sense of purpose and chooses to lie to himself, which perpetuates his mental loop. Therefore, the story is focused on the experience of someone struggling with amnesia and their need for a purpose when everything appears uncertain. It is within this focused narrative that the puzzle shines because the movie’s structure mimics Leonard’s condition.

While the narrative puzzle plays with memory diegetically, it also simultaneously plays with the audience’s memory. Leonard might forget important information if he does not write it down and so does the audience when challenged to put the scenes in their rightful order as they try to remember everything they have previously seen. The matching shots between each colored scene clarify that they follow each other inversely, but they also intertwine with the black & white scenes that 1) follow each other naturally and 2) show mainly one event (Leonard talking on the phone). Consequently, what this novel viewing experience entails is an acute and active watching of the movie, which then creates a striking parallel between the struggling viewers and Leonard himself.

Memento’s unique structure as a narrative puzzle imitates the experience of anterograde amnesia, consciously creating a tight relationship between story and viewers as both experiences are essentially the same. It is a play with memory on both sides, the puzzle not once gimmicky since it is motivated by the story’s events and direction; it is within these playful parameters of story and plot that the audience relates to the movie.

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