June 8, 2013

What Watching 'Memento' in Chronological Order Can Teach About Story Structure

Christopher Nolan's Memento was a sleeper smash-hit in 2000: the smart indie used an ingenious backwards narrative structure and well-drawn but mysterious characters to draw us into the world of Leonard Shelby, the 'ten minute man' who suffers from anterograde amnesia, unable to make new memories. Now the film has been re-edited to run chronologically, and is available to watch online. Click below to see what an indie filmmaker can learn from the narrative structure of this indie classic!

If any movie demands multiple viewings, it's Memento. The film, based on the short story "Memento Mori" by Nolan's brother, Jonathan, shows us, starting with a mysterious backwards murder, the story of Leonard Shelby, a man on a quest to avenge his wife's rape and murder by a mysterious man known only as "John G." Because he can't make new memories and is incapable of remembering his life for more than ten minutes at a time (due to the assault that killed his wife), Leonard is helpless, dependent on his tattoos and notes to remind him of who his friends and enemies are (and he seems to have more enemies than friends). The film's complicated structure, illustrated here, disorients the audience, and in the ambiguous ending, we learn that Leonard's quest might be little more than a fool's errand he has set himself on, a way to give meaning to his fractured life:

Now there is a recut of the film online, fashioned by a YouTube user into chronological order (a similar cut, done by Nolan, is also available on a special, limited-edition DVD):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Bragrpm50k

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuldnbkAyfs

Watching this edit is a revelatory experience, revealing the inner workings of the opaque plot (though I wouldn't recommend watching it before seeing the original; it would be like watching The Usual Suspects knowing who Keyser Söze was the whole time.) Over at Film Forensics, they have a great breakdown of the viewing experience. In this passage, the author gives his interpretation of the key scene where Leonard burns the evidence of his first killing, which he has forgotten (though it is never made clear whether Teddy is telling the truth):

I think [Leonard's] doing this because he knows that he will forget he killed Jimmy G., and lose the satisfaction of the revenge, so he’s now deliberately setting up to “discover” later on that Gammell is John G. and have another revenge, so he can feel that satisfaction again. This all fits. The only thing I don’t understand is why he is setting up what appears to be his friend Gammell in this way. This feels like a mean, ruthless streak in Lenny. The only thing he wants out of life is the satisfaction of revenge, and he doesn’t care who he kills to get it.

This is one of the most important points: what is slyly underplayed in the original is Leonard's agency in his own fate. This cut gives the film a whole new meaning, and, from a filmmaker's perspective, is very instructive in showing just how Nolan accomplished his sleight of hand.

What do you think of this version? What lessons can an indie filmmaker or screenwriter learn from Memento, a film that relied on good old-fashioned narrative structure to construct a house of mirrors that more than a decade after its release is still confounding viewers?

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Your Comment

21 Comments

o you just ruined the Usual Suspects for me :)

June 8, 2013 at 4:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Archie

Why is there a spoiler for the usual suspects in the chronological cut of memento?

June 8, 2013 at 6:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Connor

I feel the same haven't watched it yet.

June 13, 2013 at 6:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gary Simmons

If you -actually- watch The Usual Suspects you will know that this is NOT a spoiler.

June 17, 2013 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Grant

Yes IT IS a spoiler. If you -actually- watch The Usual Suspects with the idea you have to guess who Keyser Söze you are spoiled. You know that Keyser Söze is not what you think he is. That is the spoiler.

November 7, 2014 at 12:59AM

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B413
74

You should delete your spoiler and delete my comment after.

November 7, 2014 at 1:00AM

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B413
74

They are making a new version of Memento for the present day. he has an iphone instead of a Polaroid, nothing bad happens anymore.

June 8, 2013 at 6:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tulio

Ahaha...

June 10, 2013 at 7:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

Watching it again like this is fantastic. I own the special edition dvd but have never gotten around to watching it. It's almost as good as the original but it's amazing how the change in editing can change everything from the way you see people to how it makes you feel. Thanks for this.

June 8, 2013 at 6:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I remember watching the chronological version of Memento on its DVD in 2002.

June 8, 2013 at 10:16PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Marcus

I don't agree with the revenge interpretation. I always felt Leonard killed Teddy because these people were continually using him as a hitman.

June 8, 2013 at 10:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Jared Caldwell

But he doesn't know he's being continually used as a hitman . . .

June 9, 2013 at 1:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Craig Wilson

Actually, I agree with Jared Caldwell.

Since Jimmy G. told Leonard there was money on the car, the first think I saw was a combination of seek of purpose with ending of being a tool in Teddy's hands. Well, Leonard saw the picture when he actually kills John G., so that was not even the second time he killed someone and Teddy was always involved cause he owns the picture. Than Leonard tooked the car making Teddy being always around trying to not loose control of the situation.

At least that was my explanation for my sister when we went to the theaters.

June 10, 2013 at 4:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Rodrigo Molinsky

No, it's not at all getting the same revenge again. Leonard has just learned that Teddy has been lying to him and making him kill people repeatedly. Leonard can only kill if he think's he's killing the murderer of his wife; so he tricks himself into thinking Teddy is the killer in order to get revenge on Teddy for making him kill people who did not assault his wife. He is killing Teddy for both lying and killing (through the lie); for making Leonard a killer of innocents (at least innocent with respect to what happened to himself and his wife).

December 28, 2013 at 7:13AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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David

Yeah... Unless the article has been changed from what it originally said or something, simply saying, "knowing who Keyser Söze was the whole time," is in no way a spoiler. That's... Kind of one of the central mysteries of the film; attempting to unravel just what happened and who the terrifying Keyser Söze is.

August 13, 2014 at 6:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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David West

My brother did the same years ago when the film came out.

August 13, 2014 at 7:45AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Michael Finlan

I watched the chronological-order cut of this film a few years ago on the Special Edition DVD. What I thought was most interesting from a storytelling perspective was the way that the film is robbed of nearly all suspense when watched this way.

Even after you watch the theatrical movie a dozen times, the backwards storytelling forces you to do mental work each time you watch it. Especially if you're coming back to it after a few years, you may remember how most of the general pieces fit, but you're still struggling to remember which order all of the revelations will come. This is where all of the entertainment value comes from. I always forget a few fun details, like the way Leonard looks at his hand stinging in pain in one scene, and later realizes it's because he's just slapped the Carrie Anne-Moss character and doesn't remember it.

But the forwards cut requires no such work from the viewer. All of the revelations -- about Leonard's motivations, about how all of the characters fit into the plot, about who Sammy Jenkis was -- are delivered up front, in explicit terms, in the first few minutes. Then it's just a well-shot, well-performed series of scenes that spell out exactly how Leonard comes to kill his latest John G., with absolutely no twists or deviations from the original plan.

It's fascinating to see how a simple edit, one that just presents the events as they occur in order, can take a sophisticated psychological thriller and make it dull and obvious.

August 13, 2014 at 12:29PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Good article, one correction: it was a sleeper hit in 2001, not 2000. (It premiered at Toronto in 2000, but hit theaters in March 2001.)

August 13, 2014 at 6:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Eric

i think you're better off rewatching it as it plays. you'll get to the same conclusions but also ever more get to see the brilliant simplicity of solving the problem of how to convey leonards plight through reverse editing and an opening shot that serves as legend to mapping it out.

August 14, 2014 at 6:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Juan

Makes sense!

August 15, 2014 at 2:21AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Archie

Another excellent analysis of the Memento's genius: http://www.salon.com/2001/06/28/memento_analysis/

Also: Any movie that can be "spoiled" by uttering a few words is not a very good movie. I'm looking at you, Dead Bruce Willis.

August 29, 2015 at 3:55PM, Edited August 29, 3:55PM

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You can't just watch it in chronological order, because the last "backward" colour scene and the last "forward" black and white scene merge together, it's physically impossible. Even Jonathan Nolan said it himself

October 11, 2015 at 5:38AM, Edited October 11, 5:38AM

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Daniel Wiles
Writer
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