What is the nature of truth?
by Darrel Manson
This page was created on April 9, 2001
This page was last updated on
May 17, 2005
by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
Story by Jonathan Nolan
Pearce .... Leonard Shelby
Carrie-Anne Moss .... Natalie
Joe Pantoliano .... Teddy
Mark Boone Junior .... Burt
Stephen Tobolowsky .... Sammy Jankis
Jorja Fox .... Leonard's Wife
Harriet Sansom Harris .... Mrs. Jankis Callum
Keith Rennie .... Dodd
Larry Holden .... Jimmy Grantz
Russ Fega .... Waiter
Thomas Lennon .... Doctor
Kimberly Campbell .... Blonde
Marianne Muellerleile .... Tattooist
by Elaine Dysinger (co-producer), Aaron Ryder (executive producer),
Emma Thomas (associate producer), Jennifer Todd (producer), Suzanne
Todd (producer), William Tyrer (executive producer)
Original music by David Julyan
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Film Editing by Dody Dorn
R for violence, language and some drug content.
memories are best forgotten
In MEMENTO, a man and his wife are attacked and robbed. The woman
dies, and the man is left with both a serious head injury that gives
him memory loss, and an urgent thirst for revenge. As he sets off
in pursuit of his wife's killer, he becomes increasingly confused
about what he is doing, so he tattoos notes onto his skin and takes
Polaroid pictures to remind himself of what has transposed. An intricate
mystery with a backwards chronology, MEMENTO is written and directed
by Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by his brother, Jonathan
memories are best forgotten
A doctoral student in Religious Studies
at Concordia University, Montreal. Currently designing a course
on Religion and Film.
of the best films reveal themselves fully only through multiple viewings.
Memento is one of those films that challenge the viewer to return
over and over again. Each time I watch this Christopher Nolan masterpiece,
I discover something more. One evening I paused to consider the significance
of the Gideon Bible, which makes two brief and apparently ironic appearances.
What was the relationship of this sacred text to Leonard Shelby’s
predicament? Of course -- the only other written material of any significance
was contained in Leonard’s frantic (and transitory) notes to
himself and the permanent versions of theses notes, which he tattooed
on his body.
Bible makes its first appearance in Memento early on (Scene 4),
in Leonard Shelby’s exploration of the “anonymous motel
room” in which he finds himself. He opens the drawer of the
bedside table, quipping that he expects to find nothing there, “except
the Gideon Bible, which I, of course, read religiously.” So
saying, he flips through the book and the camera offers us an extreme
close-up of two pages: The first is headed “Help in Time of
Trouble” and the second is the end of Leviticus 24, the famous
verses of restitution: “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth…”
which include the injunction that one who takes a human life shall
forfeit his own. Thus, this secular film subtly embraces a concept
that arises out of Hebrew Bible early on and gave me cause to reflect
on other themes introduced by Leonard, its central character.
attempts to overcome his battle with Korsokoff’s Syndrome,
a verifiable type of anterograde amnesia , by making himself endless
notes and memos and by committing those he believes to be the most
important to permanent record by tattooing them on his own body.
He believes that his written notes will not only help him overcome
his deficiency, but will actually be superior to relying on normal
human memory. In a conversation with Teddy he says,
not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness
testimony is unreliable. The cops don't catch a killer by sitting
around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions.
Facts, not memories: that's how you investigate. I know, it's what
I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the colour
of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be
changed or distorted and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.
both Teddy and Natalie sometimes feed him incomplete or even information,
material that is designed to mislead or manipulate him. Teddy, for
example, stops Leonard from writing down his full name and the fact
that he is a police officer. Since Leonard has no short-term memory,
he is not able to record that information after Teddy has gone.
Natalie goes further in her attempt to manipulate Leonard. After
he has physically lashed out at her in anger for calling his late
wife a whore, she walks out, sits in her car just long enough for
Leonard to have forgotten the incident, and returns to claim that
Dodd had beaten her up and asking Leonard to get rid of Dodd. Through
these two episodes, and others, the audience comes to question the
validity of any of the written material that Leonard is relying
on. To make matters worse, the written “facts” of police
reports and other documents having pages missing and many blacked-out
sections. They too seem to be unreliable to us, yet Leonard trusts
them and builds upon them, adopting their truths and recording them
as his own. Once they are committed to his own handwriting, they
become a canon upon which he relies.
Leonard, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have long relied on a written
text to give them the truth. Although textual scholars and scientists
have been questioning the validity of the Judeo-Christian canon,
conservative members of the Abrahamic religious traditions continue
to hold fast to the notion that the texts upon which they rely are
the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The average
Jew or Christian may no longer see truth in every word, but the
text as a whole is still granted validity. As with Leonard the written
word is accepted as fact. As scholars, we play the role of the audience
to Memento; we see the text as the faulty product of human construction.
But the average member of text-based religious traditions plays
the role of Leonard: the text is a canon, a rule by which lives
are governed, sometimes dangerously so.
second appearance of the Bible in Memento (Scene 17) underscores
this danger. Almost midway through the film, Leonard once again
finds himself in an anonymous motel room. Once again, he opens the
bedside table expecting to find the Bible. But he, and we are shocked
to discover that a handgun is lying on top of the book. Leviticus
had dictated revenge and here lies the tool to carry out that vengeance.
Neither the motel room nor the handgun is his: they belong to Dodd.
But he now takes the gun that he will eventually use to carry out
his mission of revenge. Not only has Natalie sent Leonard after
Dodd based on false information, she has inadvertently armed him
to continue his mission (which, we later learn, may not even be
information, once recorded, becomes fact to Leonard. Over the course
of the story, we begin to suspect that Leonard’s most important
tattoo, the “scripture” that governs his life, is not
true in itself. As we relive the attack on his wife through a series
of flashbacks, we see that his wife may not have died in the attack
at all. In scene 44, we have two brief glimpses of her. In the first
flashback in this scene, prompted by Teddy, Leonard sees her eyes
blink under the shower curtain shroud. About a minute later, once
again prompted by Teddy, we see through Leonard’s eyes as
the shower curtain is drawn off her face and she turns to face him
(and us). Thus, the tattoo across his chest, which reads in mirrored
script: “JOHN G. RAPED AND MURDERED MY WIFE” may be
the original lie that leads to all the other errors committed in
the name of this “truth.” Only through watching the
entire story unfold do we come to question the veracity of Leonard’s
repeatedly motivating text.
members of Jewish, Christian and, most recently, Muslim traditions,
we have lately come to question the veracity of our particular recorded
“truths.” The ancient canonical texts seem to promise
a certain tract of land to the Jews. Relying on these texts, modern
Jews are prepared to do almost anything to acquire and hold a strip
of land that is not large enough to truly sustain them all. Many
Christians, on the other hand, see themselves as heirs to a truth
and tradition that promises salvation to those who are prepared
to assert that particular truth as fundamental and damnation to
those who would deny it. Declaring, “God is on our side,”
the United States (which claims to be a Christian nation) recently
waged war on a Muslim country that likewise believed that God was
behind them. Each of them could support their actions based on their
own canonical texts, documents that “prove” the righteousness
of each cause. Through the plot of Memento, we discover that Leonard’s
“facts” are tainted by the agendas of those who feed
him information. Both Teddy and Natalie manipulate him by supplying
him with information that support their own private schemes. Textual
scholars have likewise suggested that much of the material included
in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and in the Qur’an served
to promote the agendas of the times and the contributors. YHWH was
the local divinity of the city of Jerusalem before the city became
David’s capitol; the Epistle to the Corinthians was not written
by Paul, but supported the misogynistic agenda of its “pseudo-Pauline”
author; anti-Jewish verses of the fifth Surah of the Qur’an
were revealed to Muhammad after a group of Jewish merchants attacked
him. But the average adherent to any one of these three groups is
as yet unaware of the questions raised by scholars, or is as yet
psychologically unprepared to accept the answers. A film like Memento
affords them, as moviegoers, the chance to reflect on the veracity
of the closed canons to which they ally themselves.
three traditions share, to some extent, a belief in the Hebrew Bible
and in portions of Leviticus. The notions of vengeance, of a life
for a life, often colour their outlooks on the world. The great
debate over capital punishment often comes back to this question
of Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation first reflected in the Code
of Hammurabi. Moreover, history has recorded many incidences of
Levitican vengeance carried out in the name of the supreme truth
of one religion or another. Leonard, too, although he will never
get his wife or his life back, is motivated to kill in the name
of vengeance. However, like Leonard, the average religious practitioner
can be manipulated by governments or leaders with hidden agendas.
The past few decades have been marred by battles and wars in which
each of the three Abrahamic Traditions have claimed truth and righteousness
to be on their side. An entire political nation has been built upon
that “truth” based merely upon a written text whose
adherents claim to be divine.
Leonard’s “truth” surmounts the passage of time.
Since he cannot make new long-term memories, his most recent long-term
memory is the apparent death of his wife, which ostensibly occurred
just before he sustained the head-injury that brought on his retrograde
amnesia. Everything that has happened since that time has meaning
only inasmuch as it helps him to avenge that tragedy. The same can
be said of the Jews, of the Christians and of the Muslims. Jerusalem’s
“Wailing Wall” stands as a testament to the importance
of the past, as does their claim to a part of the Middle East’s
“Fertile Crescent.” Muslim claims to the city of Jerusalem
are founded on an even more tenuous entitlement, based on their
Qur’anic text. For Christians awaiting the return of the Messiah
for almost two thousand years, the passage of time is similarly
unimportant – their Lord will return “any day now.”
Moreover, many still give great credence to misogynistic interpretations
of the Gospels and Epistles of the Christian Bible, analyses that
were formed even as that Bible was being collected to form the canon.
importantly, the Code of Hammurabi upon which the Lex Talionis of
Judeo-Christian and Qur’anic canons are founded, and which
justifies Leonard’s quest, has lost its original meaning over
the passage of time. Its creation was intended to limit retaliation
to an equal injury, not to validate it. As Martin Luther King wrote
in The Meaning of Nonviolence: “The old eye for an eye philosophy
ends up leaving everybody blind ” for the purpose of that
first canon had been subverted.
tattooed canon is what he relies on to give meaning to his life,
rather than the actions he can no longer remember. But it is his
actions that have meaning to those who live outside his canon. When
he refuses to kill Dodd for pay, Natalie is furious. He would be
willing to kill for his dead wife, but she has no meaning to Natalie:
“I wasn’t … married to her,” she screams.
His canon, the rule by which he lives – to avenge his wife’s
death – is of no import to her or to Teddy, but his ability
to kill, when manipulated to do so, is all that matters. Jews, Christians
and Muslims can all be equally manipulated by those who give lip
service to their creeds but in reality have their own agendas.
gives us cause to reflect on human reliance on texts recorded long
ago, texts whose “facts” are no longer verifiable. Like
Leonard, we are need to search for the real truth, but, like Leonard,
some are unable or unwilling to look too deeply into what has made
us what we are. Leonard claims to know what he is: “Leonard
Shelby….from San Francisco,” but, as Teddy twice points
out: that is who he was, not what he has become. Teddy’s reassurance
that “So you lie to yourself to be happy. Nothing wrong with
that – we all do. Who cares if there's a few little things
you'd rather not remember?” (Scene 44) is in reality not at
all reassuring. Yet we, like Leonard, continue to recite: “I
have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t
what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths -- are
mine the same as yours?" --Pilate in "Jesus Christ Superstar"
is the nature of truth? Is truth made up of facts? Is truth subjective?
Can you believe something into truth? Can you create your own truth?
Memento these questions form the real issue of the movie. In the
movie, Leonard Shelby is a man who cannot create short-term memories.
can remember things from before his injury, but nothing after that
sticks. As he tells one person, if he talks to someone very long,
he may forget why they're talking. And yet, he's on a quest to find
his wife's killer and get revenge. He does so with the aid of Polaroid
photos and many notes, some of which are tattooed on his body.
are all those notes true? Are they true because he's written them
down? What if he makes a mistake, and it is now written down? If
it's in his handwriting, he acknowledges it as true and acts as
if it is true from there on.
is a wonderful film in the tradition of "Lone Star" and "The Usual
Suspects." It's not exactly non-linear, but it is certainly told
in an unusual fashion. (I?d
say more, but that is part of the fun of discovery as the film unfolds.)
What is it that makes up truth? Are the gospel accounts of Jesus
truth? Is that the same thing as being factual?
about those working in the Jesus Project? Are they finding truth
or are they creating their own? Is that different than the development
of the canonical gospels -- were they the evangelists? creation
of the truth as they wanted it to be? And what of us? How do we
know what is true in our own lives, especially in our lives of faith?
Whom do we trust to give us truth? Is our own experience enough
to determine truth? Is the Bible enough to establish something as
may have asked the key question.
PONDERING THOUGHTS FROM THE BIBLE
Truth as a Way of Life, rather than the Facts of Life
the Bible, TRUTH occasionally has the meaning of emphatic genuineness
and facts. Generally however, it has a metaphysical use with a practical
is reality in relation to the vital interests of the soul. It is
primarily something to be realized and done (a way of life), rather
than something to be learned or known (facts). Truth exists more
in how we live, than in what we think of as facts.
the largest aspect TRUTH is God?s nature finding expression in His
creation, in revelation, in Jesus Christ in whom ?grace and truth
came? (Jn 1:17), and finally in our apprehending, accepting and
practically realizing the essential values of life, which are the
will of God (Jn 1:14; 8:32; 17:19; 18:37 f; 1 Jn 2:21; 3:19).
is personalized in Jesus Christ, who truly expresses God and presents
the true ideal for living. He brings harmony to a disordered world.
Hence, He is the Truth (Jn 14:6), the true expression (Jn 1:1) of
Truth as a way of life, rather than mere facts.
is not discerned intellectually,
it is discerned spiritually.
--OSWALD CHAMBERS (1874?1917)
can?t always be defending the truth;
there must be a time to feed on it.
--C. S. LEWIS (1898?1963)
the death of the old the new proceeds,
And the life of truth from the death of creeds.
JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER (1807?1892)
to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting
myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell
than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered
--SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1642?1727)
are the axiomatic truths upon which all human life may rest with
They are not many:
Only God is great.
Only God is wise.
Apart from God, nothing matters.
Only what we do in God will remain to us at last.
Human sin is real.
With God there is forgiveness.
Only what God protects is safe.
--A. W. TOZER (1897?1963)
truths are simple, especially those of Scripture. But as we pursue
them and participate in them more fully, they begin to reveal to
us a life deeper and more integrated than we ever could have known
ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2001
the movie brings out for me is the vast power of our own memories
and how ruined we are without this great resource. It's fascinating
to see Carrie Anne Moss's character in particular adopt a different
personality each time we see her (catching on to our hero's condition).
Each moment is its own little encapsulated world - or so it seems
to Leonard who is unable, because of his condition, to see the big
picture and so is incredibly vulnerable. This world we are treated
to is strangely one-dimensional but absolutely real to the protaganist,
who fervently believes he has mastered his condition, not treated
to the details behind the simple one-liners he adds to his photos.
The film, though told backwards, actually builds up to a great 'shock'
climactic ending, which speaks volumes about our constant battle
to have integrity in our own thoughts and actions and asks whether
we can truly trust ourselves.
Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2001
in the world of movies that offer quick and easy films, comes a
picture that makes you take the time to think. I saw this film with
two others who were scratching their heads in unison throughout
the show, instead of letting it roll and enjoying the outcomes.
Nice "Hitchcockian" twists and turns!
Date: Sat, 23 Jun 2001
Man haunted by a grievance, so haunted that it becomes his entire
conceptualization of himself. A Man haunted by guilt. So guilty
that that guilt spun into a recreation of the same "sin" for himself.
(What you deny others you will deny yourself. Had he not denied
another woman compassion when her husband lost his memory?) A man
involved in insurance. What is insurance really about? A man trapped
in an eternal No Exit (we do glimpse him in an asylum) where he
had made his "sin" real by murdering the "killer" of his "beloved".
Amazing. Simply, utterly amazing.
FILM I'VE SEEN BY FAR
Subject: Memento comment
Date: Tue, 8 May 2001
From: "Can Nakkas"
of all I have to point out that I saw "Memento" last year in Switzerland
(it was released earlier here in Europe) and it is the best movie
I've ever seen by far. Only few other films made me feel this way,
e.g. "A Simple Plan". It's not only the narrative structure that
makes this film stand out, putting you in the same position as Leonard
Shelby who's sufffering from anterograd amnesia, thus making him
unable to create new memories. And it's not just the fact that the
end is the beginning and the beginning the end , which may come
closer to the true nature of reality than we'd like to believe ("I
AM the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end"!).
makes this film so special is that at it's core it's an existentialist
study on the conditio humana, on human nature itself . Just like
Leonard we create our own truth on a day by day basis. But by what
rule of faith? As "Memento" portrays it, it is the quest for the
meaning of life which makes us embrace one truth and discard the
other. Leonard is lost in a world that makes no sense and has no
meaning anymore. Everything that ever mattered to him (his wife,
i.e. Love) is gone. But he isn't able to mourn and then continue
with his life, because he doesn't have a life anymore. And he'll
never will have one. He's stuck with the memories of his wife, the
only memories he'll ever possess from now on. Letting go of them
would mean he'd have to let go of his entire past, his entire life.
Since he can't do that (or can he? "Whoever tries to keep his life
will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it") there's
only one solution: what was important in is past must stay important
forever, that's the only way he can maintain the illusion he's leading
a meaningful existence. For Leonard this means searching for the
fugitive killer and eventually meting out vengeance.
he can't ever really trust anyone, not even himself, this quest
for vengeance takes on a tragic element: can he be sure that he's
looking for the right man? Somehow he realizes that for him this
question doesn't matter: the need to punish someone and make someone
pay for what he and his wife had to endure is greater than the quest
for truth. But how could we judge him? "Truth" simply doesn't exist
anymore in his life, due to his condition. He makes it up while
he's going. A metaphor for postmodern man? In essence this masterpiece
shows us what happens when the journey becomes more important than
there are no easy answers to the questions "Memento" raises. Many
of the readers will say Jesus is the Truth. Of course He is. But
what does that mean in everyday life? Does it mean a trivial WWJD?
Yes, we should live our lives by The Book, but should we lead our
lives "by the book"? Look the answers up in a book? Are the moral
issues in life so easy? And where does the Holy Spirit fit in then?
If anything this film makes people think about what they accept
as truth, and moreover why they accept it as truth. Because they
know/believe it's true, or because they want it to be true?
As a note to the editor (not a part of my comment). I see you've
listed the Jesus miniseries and reviewed it, so I wondered if you
could add "Paul of Tarsus" to your list, too (as it is made by the
same multinational production)? I for my part didn't think Johannes
Brandrup did a good job as St Paul; not enough zeal and fervour
if you ask me.
Memento ? 2001 Newmarket Capital Group. All