Friday, April 15, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—M is For


      Maybe it has to do with the fact that my name starts with "M," but this letter of the alphabet posed one of the grandest difficulties. So many good films, just one gets the spot. I mean who I am to say which is better among Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra), Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin), The Maltese Falcon (John Huston) or Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones). We're talking about a veritable collection of some of cinemas greatest figures. Sadly, I'll pass on these wonderful films. In a shortsighted, but deliberate turn, I'll focus on two milestone films from my generation. 
      If I could split off M into two, I'd go with Memento and The Matrix. Well unfortunately, I can't, so how about we just agree that The Matrix is disqualified from "M" because of "The" (it will be among the many contenders for "T"). I know I'm bending the parameters a bit, but what's Matrix without The? Of course, it's a groundbreaking science fiction film (one of my favorites), but I figure, if Will Smith can pass on it, so can I—just barely. Therefore, my choice is Memento. Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite directors today. As such, I would be guilty of criminal hypocrisy if I neglected to include one of his films...the horror, the horror (this is his last chance because The Prestige ain't beating out Tarantino). I cannot subject myself to such a grim fate, so I'm giving the genius who revived the Batman mythology, with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, his deserving time under my Alphabetic spotlight.
      Memento is an ingenious examination of a battered man's unflinching dedication, specifically, in his relentless pursuit of justice. The film chronicles two separate story threads (one in color, and the other in black-and-white) of our protagonist Leonard (Guy Pearce), an ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories. Leonard is trying to find the person who raped and murdered his lovely wife. This ruthless murder, quite painfully, is the last thing he remembers. One story line moves forward in time while the other tells the story backwards, unearthing new and important details each time. Complicating matters, Leonard's traumatic brain damage has drastically impacted his short-term memory, which harbors the particulars of the crime. 
      The most significant manifestation of Leonard's condition is his inability to retain any new information. Consequently, he must resort to clever and resourceful measures such as copious note-taking and Polaroid photographs. These allow him to keep track of what happens to him over the course of a day, which explains the prevalence of his body tattoos (no, he's not trying to be like Mike). Leonard maintains the awareness of his wife' savage murder, and more importantly, he's convinced that the nefarious culprit still walks the streets. Leonard is obsessive and hellbent on vengeance. This unidentifiable man has ruined his life, and Leonard implacably sets out to find him. He solicits help along the way in the form of Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who appears, at times, to be sympathetic to his cause, and Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be Leonard's friend, even though Leonard senses a deep mistrust. Who can Leonard trust? What's real? What's fantasy? These are the kinds of fascinating questions that bombard one's viewing of Memento. And believe me; they stick with you after the end credits roll. 
      One of the funniest film moments of recent memory is summed up by these lines "Okay, so what am I doing? Oh, I'm chasing this guy? [One gunshot later] No, he's chasing me." Yep, watch Memento and thank me later. Memento presents an unexpected twist and is layered by strands of intentional ambiguity. Nothing is as it seems. And Nolan, captaining the storytelling throne, wants to evoke this befuddling emotion. Thankfully, for his directorial sake, Guy Pearce is the man he puts in charge to discombobulate your senses.  
      Memento is an original and heartbreaking work of film, but without Pearce's sensational acting display, it all wouldn't work quite so well. If Pearce wasn't as convincing, in portraying a sympathetic character with a severe disability, as he is, Nolan's grand narrative would suffer. But this is never the case.
      Christopher Nolan captains Memento in true Tarantino fashion as writer/director. He adapted the idea from a short story by his brother Jonathan Nolan. And it has become the enormous spark that lit Nolan's tremendous career on fire. It is an innovative, impermeable film that still retains its experimental quality. Unlike conventional Hollywood fare, the exposition is so deftly handled that it never feels forced. In spite of its impudent structure, Memento reveals its backstory more organically and sleekly than most linear films do. 

      Themes of memory, perception, grief, and self-deception propagate Memento's narrative, but one theme, in particular, stands out: revenge. It's quite fitting that Nolan chose to revive the Batman films because Memento, predating the Dark Knight's cinematic revival, is a marvelous examination of a fractured and tragic man's pursuit of justice, resulting from the brutal murder of his wife. Undoubtedly, Nolan is a champion of this provocative, age-old motif: a shattered man's ability to reap some form of revenge against the wretched criminality of the perpetrator or the world at large. 
      Nolan also loves the layered story approach or, quite specifically as it relates to Memento, a memory within a memory concept. Consequently, Nolan's film is a complicated, but thoroughly digestible, head spinning adventure. One's visceral experience of the film is akin to piecing together a puzzle or solving a crime. It's as if Nolan wants us to solve our own criminal investigation as we ferret out the details of his complex narrative puzzle. The intricacies of Nolan's story are his greatest treasures. He makes every single element of the film a clue to the larger picture. 
      With its noirish feel and tense, atmospheric tone, Memento is a thought-provoking thriller that stimulates your inquisitive juices. Nolan wants the viewers to examine preconceived notions in a different light; notions such as plot vs. story, the perceived conditions of short term memory loss, and of physical/health deficiencies in general. These deep thoughts will continue to reverberate with you, and soon, you'll start to question what constitutes your own reality. Such a distension of thought seems farfetched, but I simply pledge to you that Christopher Nolan is just that good.
      There is a connection between The Matrix and Memento, after all. After being impressed by Carrie-Anne Moss' performance as Trinity, Nolan decided she'd be perfect for the character of Natalie. Subsequently, Moss suggested to Nolan, her co-star from The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano for the part of Teddy. Thus, The Matrix and Memento share a common bond outside of my Great Alphabet. Yes, I feel less guilty now. But other than this tangential casting distinction, why should I? Well, Memento was nominated for two Academy Awards (Original Screenplay and Film Editing), and is widely considered one of the most unique and inventive stories to emerge in Hollywood over the last 25 years. If you're still questioning my choice, I'll leave you with this bold nugget; more of a declaration of sorts. If you truly love the medium of film, in all its grand and imaginative effulgence, then you'll absolutely be blown away by Nolan's film. More specifically, the brilliance of Memento is realized from its three most vigorous qualities: the intricate underpinnings of Nolan's inspired direction, the boldness of his diametric narrative design, and the arresting dialogue. Without any doubt, you will ride the Mementum.

*The badass Memento Trailer.

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  1. Great choice for 'M' and I enjoyed your insights into the movie. This film was one that stayed in my mind for a long time after I saw it (no pun intended).

  2. Great picks so far, looking forward to the rest. Q and X are tricky..

    I think my list might have actually ended up with 0 Nolan .. Bad Anna.

  3. as you know,it's one of the films I never really understood :)

  4. I cannot say enough about this film, every time I watch it, I pick up on something else. Guy Pearce is electrifying, his performance unflinching and utterly absorbing. Nolan's screenplay is blow-your-mind genius and I don't say that very often.

    The Matrix was ground-breaking and I can see why the choice was difficult. Wasn't much impressed with the sequels, though.

  5. @ Loralie

    Thank you! I've watched it three times (in entirety) and it maintains that all-too important re-watch-ability quality. You'd think the nature of the story wouldn't work on multiple viewings, but I learns some new tiny detail each time!

    @ Anna

    Welcome! That's my sister's name! I haven't mapped out my choices for Q or X, but you're on to something.

    0 Nolan is Bad Anna, lol. He deserves one of the 26 spots because he is such a talented and substantial directing force in today's filmmaking world.

    @ Dezmond

    I do know you all too well. I don't take offense, lol.

    @ Melissa

    That's totally awesome. I'm glad you agree with me here. "Electrifying" is the perfect word for Pearce's performance. He personally fought for this role, as it was originally supposed to go to Brad Pitt, who dropped out because of scheduling conflicts. Originally, they wanted a "big name" before Nolan expressed the idea of going with a lesser known, but talented actor. It's the role that defined Pearce.

    It was a tough choice. And oh yes, those Matrix sequels were terrible. But I love Keanu as Neo, regardless of the inanity and overindulgence in 2 and 3.

  6. Memento really was a great film. Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be one of the more innovative directors of the day, with Memento, the Batman movies, and Inception all being excellent films that really do stick with you.

    I really enjoy your writing style, and how you capture not just what the movie is about, but your analysis is very detailed and insightful. I've been enjoying your posts for the challenge. Great stuff!

  7. A challenging film - but so rewarding - Nolan is an amazing director - to keep us JUST CONFUSED enough to match his lead character - but not so much that we get bored or lose the plot. All of the actors are exceptional - but Pearce takes the prize - turning in sterling work after sitting for hours getting those tattoos - at least I assume it was hours - every time I worked on a show with makeup tattoos they took forever! Once again you have honed in on a deserving classic! I am making a vote for another M - for Matthew!

  8. Hi Matty, I like Guy Pearce but havent seen this movie yet. You are a great writer and doing an amazing job of this challenge.

  9. For me 'M' has to be 'Murder on the Orient Express.'

  10. @ Liz

    Thank you so much! I love the support.

    Glad you dug my post. I wasn't sure if I wasn't going to agitate every fan of The Matrix by not choosing it. Memento's inventive, smart script was just terrific. And Nolan is one of the best today. I couldn't not include him.

    @ Craig

    Thanks man! That's the key. He wants us to question the story and the plot. He wants us to be active participants in the process. Not just ineffectual witnesses to some mindless piece of entertainment.

    @ Niki

    Thank you! Glad to have your support.

    Guy Pearce is awesome. I even liked him as the friend turned bad guy in The Count of Monte Cristo.

    @ Bob

    Great movie. Can't argue with you too much. Sidney Lumet is brilliant (I mention him in my latest post). Inevitably, picking which movie deserves selection is going to generate debate. It's a subjective medium. That's why I love it.

  11. This is one of my all-time favorite movies. EVER. Such an original concept - it was brilliant. It's been a year or so since I watched it, but I'm thinking it's time to take another gander. And that was good, but DAMMIT!

    Great choice, Matt.

  12. Awesome! Anyone who appreciates this film as much as I do is a person I respect. It's intelligent. It's complex. It's original. It's engaging. There's so many great ways to describe it, and I've already articulated some of that.

    And yes, the ending was brilliant. I'm going to have to re-watch again myself!