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Memento (2000)

Review of its Revolutionary Narrative Structure

While the kind of short-term memory loss suffered by our main lead Shelby is rare, but a condition we're all suffering from time to time. This happens when we walk into a room and couldn't recall why we're there. And while this condition of short-term memory loss is temporary for young people, this condition deteriorates when we get older. This is shown by the fact that a 70 year old person would have no problem recalling what happened to him/her some 60 years ago, and would repeat the same childhood story they just told you 10 minutes ago. While they have little problem with long-term memory, their short-term memories perform at a fraction of their youth. Old people have others to take care of them, but not our hero, who has to do it on his own.

I love the writers' idea of using a photograph to preserve his memories (and it's the theme for the movie poster). This is the opposite of photographic memory to describe somebody with a phenomenal short-term memory. Quite ironic.

What makes this movie groundbreaking is its narrative structure. Traditional narrative is linear and chronological. Sometimes with an occasional flashbacks that deviate from that simple structure. For viewers who have problem following the story, the following explanations may help.

In this movie there're 2 narrative threads: one is older than the other. To help the audience to tell the difference between the 2 threads, it's colour coded. To be exact, the old narrative thread is shown in black and white (as usually the case), while the newer narrative thread is in colour. The 2 narrative threads are then told in parallel. Because it's physically impossible to tell the 2 narrative threads in TRUE parallel, they're told alternately (the only way they could be told in TRUE parallel is to have a split screen and shown the 2 narrative threads in each halves of the screen. This is ridiculously hard - if not impossible - for us to follow the story).

To complicate this 2 thread narrative structure even more, the newer or coloured narrative thread is told in reverse while the old narrative is told in chronological order.

Actually, it's much easier for me to show you graphically than to explain it in words.

A book is typically made up of chapters while films are made up of scenes (it's more accurate to use the term 'sequence' instead of 'scene'. I'll use these 2 terms interchangeably in this article).

In a normal movie with traditional narrative style without any flashback, the scenes will be shown as follow with Scene 2 occurs before Scene 1 in time, and Scene 3 occurs before Scene 2 in time, etc. I think you get the drift:


Scene 1
Scene 2
Scene 3
.
.
.
Scene 12
Scene 13

Pretty straight forward, isn't it?

In Memento, the narrative structure is much more interesting. The older narrative thread that links Scene 1 to Scene 6 are shot in black and white while the newer narrative thread that links Scene 7 to Scene 13 are shot in colour. And then if you interlace these 2 threads, i.e. show the scenes from 2 threads alternately, you end up with the following rather convoluted narrative flow:

Scene 13 (Colour)
Scene 01 (B&W)
Scene 12 (Colour)
Scene 02 (B&W)
Scene 11 (Colour)
Scene 03 (B&W)
Scene 10 (Colour)
Scene 04 (B&W)
Scene 09 (Colour)
Scene 05 (B&W)
Scene 08 (Colour)
Scene 06 (B&W)
Scene 07 (Colour)

Of course, the movie might have more than 13 scenes (I'm quite sure it does). It doesn't really matter the actual number (I didn't keep count. Even if I did, my short-term memory will make me forget). Where was I?

Ah Yes. In the opening scene - Scene 13 above - where our hero flips his Polaroid photo, and the scene is being fast-rewind, signalling

you can read the rest of the article here...

Posted by FrancisQ 20:17 Archived in USA Tagged film movie review narrative

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