Leonard Shelby is a happy man with a loving wife until a brutal home invasion robs him of his ability to form new memories. Now Leonard must unravel the mystery of his wife’s death using the only clues he has; notes, tattoos, and photographs. Despite living moment to moment, he is driven by revenge to find the man who attacked and raped his wife, while remaining vigilant that his condition leaves him vulnerable to exploitation. Leonard’s journey, and his anterograde amnesia, exposes the subjective nature of truth, memory, and meaning.
Life Moment to Moment: Memento as a Case Study in Anterograde Amnesia
Leonard Shelby wakes up in a hotel room. How, why, and when he arrived is a mystery to both Leonard and the viewer...
The film’s story structure and cinematic style creates a disorienting effect on the viewer that provides a visceral experience similar to the daily lives of people with anterograde amnesia. Anterograde amnesia is a condition where the brain is impaired in encoding new memories. Patients with anterograde amnesia may still remember the past but have problems recalling events (from a few to all events) that have happened since their amnesia began. Leonard suffers from the worst kind of anterograde amnesia. He recalls no new events.
Memento’s structure also plays an important role in creating this experience. The narrative operates backwards, working its way from end to beginning. Robbed of the sequential progression of events to which most people are accustomed, one’s understanding of reality become unsettled; an experience akin to that of people with anterograde amnesia who are constantly disoriented if they find themselves in an unfamiliar setting.
The viewer, just like Leonard Shelby, comes into the story with only the knowledge and understanding they had before the film began. In this sense the viewer is much like Leonard Shelby after his accident. The viewer is no more certain of the facts being presented. Just like Leonard Shelby waking up to a new moment every time his thought changes, the viewer is placed on the same footing, exposed to a new piece of the puzzle with each passing vignette of his memory
Besides the attempts to make the viewer understand the nature and emotional experience of people with anterograde amnesia, it accurately depicts the challenges people with anterograde amnesia experience interacting with the world. Sammy Jenkins, a man with the same condition as Leonard, serves as an anecdotal foil for Leonard to explain his own condition to others. Sammy remembers complex skills, such as how to properly dose and administer insulin to his diabetic wife. Yet he is unable to learn even the simplest new tasks, or people he met after the accident. Leonard, when discussing Sammy, recalls meeting him on multiple occasions and was never recognized. The viewer observes this phenomenon when Leonard interacts with any of the other characters; he reintroduces himself, explains his condition, and tells the story of Sammy Jenkins to further explain the nature of his amnesia.
In reality people with anterograde amnesia interact with people in much the same fashion. The famous case of anterograde amnesia, is that of Henry Molaison, know as H.M., reportedly always introduced himself to his psychologist, Brenda Milner, despite having worked closely with her for decades (Squire, 2009). Yet this point is where the film diverges from reality. People with anterograde amnesia are not necessarily aware of their condition. Leonard Shelby writes notes to himself so that he can keep track of events and understand the facts. Patients with anterograde amnesia, however, such as British conductor, Clive Wearing, do not trust notes they write because they cannot recall having written them (Sacks, 2007). In fact Clive Wearing has a journal. Despite writing constantly, he never acknowledges having written any of the other entries despite them being in his handwriting (Sacks, 2007). For the pretense of the story it is necessary to believe that Leonard could successfully use his patchwork system of notes and tattoos to navigate the world but in reality people with anterograde amnesia are highly dependent on others for their care and safety.
An unfortunate aspect of Memento is how individuals can easily manipulate people with anterograde amnesia. Leonard suspects he is being manipulated but he is never quite certain. His vulnerability is evident in a screen where Natalie, a bartender and girlfriend of a local drug dealer, allows Leonard to take a sip from a mug of beer that contains the spit from all the bar’s patrons, Leonard included. Yet only moments before Leonard had witnessed the mug being passed around to collect each bar patron’s contribution of mucus. Given that patients with anterograde amnesia cannot encode explicit memories, a disgusting test such as this would prove successful.
While the film definitively shows the inability of people with severe anterograde amnesia to form new memories, it also touches on types of learning for which they are still capable. Leonard says that the insurance company was able to dismiss Sammy’s insurance claim because test measuring his ability to make unconscious associations indicated that his condition was psychological. The test in the film involved having Sammy touch electrified shapes in an attempt to prove he could learn through association. While, in reality, this would be an unethical means of testing a patient with an impaired memory, it is true that patients with severe anterograde amnesia can experience non-verbal learning on simple tasks (Burgess, 2001). Although they can improve on nonverbal tasks, the performance of patients with anterograde amnesia is still abnormal. Memento is highly recommended for it’s educational value.
As a film, in and of itself, Memento quite enjoyable and earns high marks for its entertainment value. The disorienting effects of the story’s structure and Leonard’s condition, add a heightened sense of mystery and suspense to this crime noir. The 113 minutes fly past as we are pulled deeper into Leonard’s moment to moment world and the steady momentum with which the film moves.
Given its genre, Memento is filled with all the typical aspects of a crime story: murder, violence, sexuality, and intrigue. The combination of these elements make it a great film but should be considered when determining whether this movie would be appropriate for viewing by children younger than thirteen-years-old. Some viewers might take offense to the way Leonard is manipulated by people into committing violence for their own ends. Yet without the mixture of these elements coupled with the confusion caused by Leonard’s condition, Memento would not be the classic that it has become.