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Happy birthday Memento! By Anne Howell

Anne Howell developed a taste for books and films about characters with amnesia ever since she woke in 1991 — in an odd, unnameable place peopled with strangers — to eventually learn she was in hospital with a case of severe amnesia. Prior to releasing her account of what it took to reconstruct her missing past, All That I Forgot; a Memoir, Anne has begun to blog about her foray into the amnesia genre. From Hollywood blockbusters like The Bourne Identity to YA romances like We Were Liars, she writes about works that feature characters with profound forgetting, and the inevitable piecing back together of life stories through remembering that follows. Here is her latest blog is about Christopher Nolan’s famous film Memento.

Happy Birthday, Memento!

It’s 21 years since Memento came to Australian viewers 1 as a masterpiece of cinematic subjectivity directed by Christopher Nolan. Once seen, it’s hard to forget the vengeful amnesiac, Leonard Shelby, played by an emaciated, strung out, heavily tattoed, Guy Pierce. The huge volume of reviews and scholarly work since its release gives some indication of Memento’s impact, for it marked a surge in the ‘amnesia genre’ in contemporary books and films that continues to this day.

Dubbed a neo-noir mystery thriller by Jason Clark from AllMovie 2, a boilerplate noir by New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott 3, a mystery thriller by the IMD site 4, whatever genre critics ascribe to it, most pay homage to its ingenuity, as they confirm its prime place in cinematic history, mulling over its diabolical structure and open-ended finale. What does the ending mean? Is Leonard Shelby an escapee from an asylum? Is he lying to himself and others? Is his wife alive or dead? How many of his memories are false? Is any character in the film a reliable truth-teller? Indeed, so much has been said about Memento, that rather than present a review, I have written a tribute to it and also to the director’s brother, Jonathan Nolan, author of the companion story Memento Mori.

“I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?… Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” – Leonard Shelby.

In a nutshell

Memento is about a desperate man, Leonard Shelby, on a quest to find the alleged killer of his allegedly murdered wife. I repeat allegedly, as in Leonard’s world all facts are up for grabs. For he has a case of severe anterograde amnesia 5. Importantly, we see the world from Leonard’s perspective. Every ten minutes, stretching to 15 at best, he loses all his short-term memory. He was attacked by an assailant, which accounts for his amnesia. He can recall his life prior to the attack, but since the incident, he has not been able to form new memories. His wife’s death, which he believes he witnessed during the attack is the last thing that Leonard remembers. Thus it is also the first thing he remembers when he comes to consciousness at ten-minute intervals. Anterograde amnesia does exist, but the way Leonard uses prompts to help him remember may well be fictional. To alert his future self to his desire to avenge his wife’s murder, Leonard has created an intricate communication system via polaroids, notes and body tattoos.

One amnesiac views another

In the spirit of subjectivity that the film evokes, I confess I am a Memento fan for personal reasons. When I saw it on its Sydney release in 2001, it was a decade after I had woken with amnesia myself. I was still caught in my own experience of pulling my life story together after my brain injury. My former condition is called retrograde amnesia 6. Although I saw Memento nearly ten years after my initial waking, I was still piecing my life back together. I recognised very early, while watching, that it was the closest thing I’d come across to capturing the dark, peculiar and paranoid-inducing world that severe amnesia can induce. While I could make new memories, unlike the fictional Leonard Shelby, his desperation to understand and surmount his amnesia felt poignant. Christopher Nolan did a brilliant job of creating an amnesiac point-of-view film, and so did Guy Pearce playing the hapless ‘ten-minute man’, Leonard Shelby.

I hope you can share with me an abiding curiosity in all things amnesia.

Kind regards

Former amnesiac

Anne Howell

All That I Forgot: A Memoir.

I might not have woken from a coma with amnesia to discover I was a spy, or assassin, but my experience of severe amnesia had its share of rude awakenings. My memoir charts the rocky process of recreating my life story, after I lost my memory completely on waking in a Sydney hospital in 1991.

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