Memento: Alternative Narrative Structures
A look at the film Memento and how its unusual narrative structure plays out.
The film Memento, in basic principle, is shown backwards. The narrative structure is unusual in that we are not shown the story from beginning to end, but rather from end to beginning. In the first scene, this is literal because the startling opening shot/conclusion of Leonard shooting Teddy in the head is reversed, so that the bullet jumps back up into Leonard’s gun. However as the film progresses, the footage is shown normally, but segmented and in reversed order.
Each segment, a minute or two long, begins with an unfamiliar scenario, and as the narrative plays out the segment ends with where the previous one began. These segments are interjected with pieces of a scene shot in Leonard's hotel room, where he is providing expository dialogue in the form of a phone call. This footage is in black and white to differentiate it from the rest of the film, and shown, unlike the backwards-unfolding main plot, from start to finish. These scenes serve to give the audience background information on the plot, plant clues, and provide relief from the often confusing narrative.
The DVD release contained an alternative version, where the segments were shown sequentially in the ‘right’ order for the story. Although this would be easier to understand at face value, the film, despite having a strong story and good performances, would lose a lot in that its unconventional structure sheds light on Leonard’s condition – the inability to retain short-term memories. Without this alternative narrative structure, the audience would be distanced from Leonard and find it difficult to identify with his character. The film would also lose notoriety: the main drawing point and why it has gained a cult following is simply that it’s shown backwards. Memento, if it was a conventional start-to-end movie, would also lose rewatchability – people would watch it the first time, and be suitably intrigued to watch it again to see if they ‘got it right’ or because they missed a detail. All these factors go towards Memento’s success.
Personally I would not change the narrative of Memento for the above mentioned reasons. The coldness of Leonard’s character and the fairly routine story mean that its unconventional narrative is the film’s main leg to stand on – without it, I doubt Memento would have gained the cult following that it has. I thought the plot devices – Leonard’s tattoos, his Polaroid pictures – were very effective and provided an element of continuity, the effectiveness of which would have been lost if the story was shown start to finish.
As for different narrative structures for different audiences, it’s hard to tell. Pre-school consumers up to the early teenage market appreciate straightforward stories that are simple to understand – although older children may understand a ‘Groundhog Day’ or ‘alternate timeline’ or ‘dream’ episode that mixes real life with some alternative that didn’t actually happen. The teenage market upwards can comprehend more complex narrative structures, with multiple plots and sub-plots, although Memento does stretch this to the limit. Altogether an alternative narrative structure can provide essential interest and challenge audiences – but it is very, very hard to get right, and Memento has set the benchmark.