. . . Memento

. . .

Bonkus of the Conkus
Guy Pearce stars in Memento
Movie Comment: Memento

Memento is easy to write about. That's what it's made for.

What it's made from is cleverness, or at least the desire to seem clever. And when it works, it works as its own summary -- all pitch, no pictures. Vacuum-insulated from mundane specificity of time, place, experience, motive (vengeance for wife's rape-and-murder is the long-established Hollywood equivalent of "They have insulted our school!"), or even vice (one character is straight-facedly described as "a drug dealer" who carries a suitcase full of "drugs"), it's more Gantt chart than movie.

Given its abstraction and its reliance on the hero's slogging voiceover, it might seem like the filmmakers could've gone shorter and cheaper using the Detour approach. But that wouldn't have played to the movie's strengths: its gags and made-ya-jump! roller coaster moments. Because it actually is clever for a while. It's never anything more than that, never achieving even the level of observation reached by Reservoir Dogs (if nothing else, Tarantino understood the dynamics of the American workplace), but at least it manages that much. If Christopher Nolan had stuck to ninety minutes and three major plot interpretations, the movie would've been coldly schematic but successful on those terms. Like Blood Simple, say, with a little more flab.

So it's a shame the ride was overextended by a final half-hour of twist, all contact with the extremely narrow rail of the story was lost, the previously one-dimensional characters collapsed into zero-dimensional plot points, and the audience was sent spinning away with a choice of the following reactions:

  1. What happened? (The pick of the intelligent good-hearted observer who wants to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. Eventually likely to mellow into: It was supposed to be ambiguous.)

  2. What a rip-off.

  3. I got it! I got it! We're both clever!

    But definitely not:

  4. That was satisfyingly well done.
The film's not a demonstration of the "human capacity for evil" so much as a demonstration that it's impossible to sustain consistent characterization over two hours when you have a twist every fifteen minutes. On the other hand, this is the first noir formula I've seen that can easily extend into a series.... (Timelessness or no timelessness, Memento II had better include a PDA.)

Summary: It might've been great if it'd starred Bill Murray.

. . .

One step forward, two steps back

Earl Jackson, Jr. writes:

Memento, Fight Club and Usual Suspects seem to resonate in ways that I fear might be terribly obvious after the work I might do to discover that.... I think the producers of Memento should re-release it next year but retitle it Memento II.
Those were the two movies that Juliet Clark immediately associated with Memento, as well. My guess is all three (and many other recent "challenging" successes from Hollywood) share some mutually-supportive traits: But that's probably what Earl meant by terribly obvious.

His Memento II proposal makes sense -- reckon I'll have to wait for Memento III? or Is It IV? before I finally get to see those PalmPilot scenes....

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: Holes

Despite my adherence to movie-is-a-movie book-is-a-book orthodoxy, what a pleasure, after suffering through a long run of incoherent film-schooled star-indulgent crap, to encounter a script so devoted to its source novel.

Oh, the staging of the script had its discords, starting with the obtrusive music. The cast was charming, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for the overgrown hulk somewhere who'd been denied his big break when apish Stanley Yelnats was assigned to a more conventional willowy teenager. And although the desert made convincing desert, standard-issue F/X exaggerated the gruelling trial-by-mountain into Schwarzenegger fantasyland.

But Louis Sachar's transplanted machinery carried on, doing its job: the low contrivance of melodrama built up and extended, gear by chute by trip-board by flywheel, until it became the high artifice of comedy. It's a practical, if currently neglected, aspect of information theory that, while a little complexity creates suspense, increased complexity either collapses into noise or crystallizes into laughter.

Our anxiety and our relief, being pure products of storytelling technique, float free, ready to attach to whatever sentiment we find close at hand. In a screwball comedy, we associate them with romance, which is why screwball comedies are traditional first-date films and the Three Stooges aren't. Holes, on the other hand, induced in me a strong, and more than slightly disconcerting, upflux of patriotism, and I left the theater in as flag-waving a mood as I've felt in some time.

My reaction isn't easy to explain. It's true that Sachar's elaborate multi-generational farce pivots on important aspects of American history, but lynchings, anti-immigrant prejudice, land barons, and chain gangs make weak propaganda. Maybe there's a bit of Stockholm Syndrome here: America caused the story's anxiety, and so I associated America with the story's relief. After all, I'd be at least as hard-pressed to find positive aspects of sexual love in His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby.

Maybe by interlocking our national horrors with the comic survival of individuals, the movie hit at the heart of the particular sort of patriotism I call my own: a love of what Americans have managed to achieve despite all the crap they've gone through; a hope that sheer mobility is enough to release children from the chains and curses of their parents; a fractured fairy tale of chance recombination leading to something better than hostility unto the final generation.

At the very least, it might be worth trying out as a replacement for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the Fourth of July.

. . .

Small Talk

Thomas Carlyle, age 37, to John Stuart Mill, age 26, 22nd Feby, 1833:

I really wish you would write to me oftener. Besides the comfortable, available intelligence your Letters bring, there is a most wholesome feeling of Communion comes over me, in your neighbourhood; the agreeable memento: Thou art not alone, then! Alas, it is a most solitary world; from Dan to Beersheba you walk, and find nothing but masks, a real Man is now almost as rare as a God has always been. One is ready to faint by the way, in that inane hubbub (under which too lies Darkness and Death!); one longs for speech; and there is but the (subternatural) cackling and sniggering “of imps in hellish wassail,” of harpies at their foul feed (the grand passion being HUNGER), intent only to reave and eat. Of all such my soul is exceeding sick; at times, even to loathing. In truth, it is oftenest a very Temptation of St Anthony with me; the inanimate Furniture of this Earth gets a ghastly ludicro-terrific vitality, the clothed Bipeds are mostly spectral,— and the Devil is at the bottom of it all. How pleasant the voice of a brother Eremite, a flesh-and-blood Reality (in better heart and health than yourself), at sound of whom the Devil and his works duck down into the Inane! Write to me, I pray you, with more and more heartiness; shew me your feelings as well as thoughts; and let us in all ways, while so much is permitted us, help one another as we can. “What is cheerfuller than Light?” says some one: “Speech,” is the answer. Speech, however; not Cackle. [...]

On one point, I am getting clearness: that it is not good for me to stay much longer in the Nithsdale Peat-desert. I will leave Craigenputtoch, before very long: but where I shall settle; here, in London, or where, is as dark as may be. Poverty and a certain deep feeling of self-dependence (often named Pride, but I hope misnamed) complicate the matter much. We shall see.— My son, before all thy gettings, get understanding —: now as ever, this is verily the one thing needful. For the present, I think of waiting without much motion till my Brother the Doctor return from Italy; perhaps his place and mode of settlement may help to determine mine. John loves me with a brother’s love; is a man of strong faculty, of the truest heart: it is really one of my best joys of late to discern clearly that he too is fixing himself on the everlasting adamant, and may front this Devil’s-chaos beside me, also like a man. In thes[e] scandalous days, such a brother is a Treasure: alas, unless Nature have accidentally given it you, where shall you seek for Friendship? I often wonder over the love of Brothers, over the boundless capacity man has for Loving: why has this long-continued Baseness, Halfness and Hollowness so encircled him with cowardly distrusts that he dare not love!— You shall see John, were he once home; I imagine, some relation may spring up between you: at lowest, you will learn to respect each other.

John Stuart Mill to Thomas Carlyle, 9th March 1833:

I ought to write oftener; though not exactly for the reason you jocularly give. I ought; and I would, if my letters were, or could be, better worth having: yet, even such as they are, not being altogether valueless to you, they shall become more frequent. Truly I do not wonder that you should desiderate more “heartiness” in my letters, and should complain of being told my thoughts only, not my feelings; especially when, as is evident from your last letter, you stand more than usually in need of the consolation and encouragement of sympathy. But alas! when I give my thoughts, I give the best I have. You wonder at “the boundless capacity Man has of loving” boundless indeed it is in some natures, immeasurable and inexhaustible: but I also wonder, judging from myself, at the limitedness and even narrowness of that capacity in others. That seems to me the only really insuperable calamity in life; the only one which is not conquerable by the power of a strong will. It seems the eternal barrier between man and man; the natural and impassable limit both to the happiness and to the spiritual perfection of (I fear) a large majority of our race. But few, whose power of either giving or receiving good in any form through that channel, is so scanty as mine, are so painfully conscious of that scantiness as a want and an imperfection: and being thus conscious I am in a higher, though a less happy, state, than the self-satisfied many who have my wants without my power of appreciation. You speak of obstacles which exist for others, but not for me. There are many of Earth’s noblest beings, with boundless capacity of love, whom the falseness and halfness which you speak of, have so hemmed round and so filled with distrust and fear that “they dare not love”. But mine is a trustful nature, and I have an unshakeable faith in others though not in myself. So my case must be left to Nature, I fear: there is no mind-physician who can prescribe for me, not even you, who could help whosoever is helpable: I can do nothing for myself, and others can do nothing for me; all the advice which can be given, (and that is not easily taken) is, not to beat against the bars of my iron cage; it is hard to have no aspiration and no reverence but for an Ideal towards which striving is of no use: is there not something very pitiful in idle Hoping? but to be without Hope were worse?

You see it is cold comfort which I can give to any who need the greatest of comforts, sympathy in moments of dejection; I, who am so far from being in better mental health than yourself, that I need sympathy quite as much, with the added misfortune that if I had it, it could do me no good. When you knew me in London I was in circumstances favourable to your mistaking my character, and judging of it far too advantageously: it was a period of fallacious calm; grounded in an extravagant over-estimate of what I had succeeded in accomplishing for myself, and an unconscious self-flattery and self-worship. All that is at an end; which is a “progress” surely. I would not now take the greatest human felicity on such terms.

Thomas Carlyle to John Stuart Mill, 21st March, 1833:

My Dear Mill,

Will you accept this feeblest Apology for a Letter, and write to me again, till I have time to answer you more deliberately.

You do your nature great injustice, as I can well discern, who see some ten years farther into it than you. However, this also was among your endowments, that you should be unconscious of them, and even prove their existence by sorrowing for the want of them. For the rest, go on boldly, whithersoever you have Light to go. To all men, whom God has made, there is one thing possible: to speak and to act God’s Truth, and bid the Devil’s Falsehood, and whatsoever it can promise or threaten, an irrevocable farewell. For no man is there properly speaking any more possible. I rejoice very deeply to convince myself by clearer and clearer symptoms that you have chosen this “better part”; and so I prophecy nothing but good of you. But we will talk all those matters, far more at large, in August; which will be here by and by.

One other thing gives me pleasure, that your interest in Politics abates rather than increases. Your view of that matter corresponds perfectly with my own: a huge chaotic Deluge of floating lumber mud and noisome rubbish, in which is fixation or firm footing nowhere. “Cast thou thy seed-corn on the Nile waters; thou shalt find it after many days.” What thou doest is is of most uncertain moment; that thou do it truly is of quite infinite moment. So believe; so have all good men, from the beginning of the world, believed.

I am grown a little better, both in body and mind. These wretched east winds are still to be tolerated: but the business of assiduous scribbling comforts me; heartfelt writing would make me forget everything, only this is not always possible. I have written a long half-mad kind of story about the Archquack Cagliostro, which you will see some time in some Magazine or other. I feel half-tempted to burn it; nevertheless let it stand: it is all moderately true, tho’ written about a grand Falsehood. One is rather sadly off with these Magazine-vehicles (Dog’s-meat Carts, as I often call them): however, it is once for all our element in these days; let us work in it, while it is called to-day. The sheets of Diderot were all fairly corrected two weeks ago; you will see it in the next Number of Cochrane. [...]

Thanks to John Plotz for drawing attention to this exchange, and to the Duke University Press and The Liberty Fund for making it publicly accessible.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.