Visuality and Identity in Christopher Nolan's "Memento"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

30 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Superiority of Sight

3. Playing with Visuality
3.1. Polaroid Photos
3.2. Tattoos
3.3. Mirrors

4. Memory and Identity

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Lenny, you can’t trust a man’s life to your little notes and pictures. . . . Because your notes could be unreliable” (22:36)[1]. In this quote from Memento, Teddy, an undercover officer, addresses an issue that is at the very center of the movie: Should we trust our memory or rely on our eyes to tell us the truth? How much can we really depend on visual media to inform us about the world? Another character, Natalie, also comments on the incertitude that is involved in relying on information that comes along in the form of little notes. She remarks that it “[m]ust be tough living your life according to a couple of scraps of paper. You mix up your laundry list with your grocery list and you’ll end up eating your underwear for breakfast” (17:13). In order to avoid such confusions, it is of utmost importance to have background information on these notes and pictures.

Context is very crucial and helpful in telling reality and fiction apart. One means of gaining context is through accessing our memories; it is not enough to look at a photograph and recognize the person in the photo, but we also need to know when, where and by whom the picture was taken to be able to determine the photo’s relevance and authenticity. As Rob Content remarks, “[a] memento is a keepsake, something that recalls a significant person or experience – a snapshot, a handwritten note, a treasure trinket” (41). But what happens if one cannot remember the person on the photograph or the situation in which the note was written? How can one make sense of the visual stimuli that demand our attention on a daily basis if he or she is lacking the memory and context to interpret them?

Christopher Nolan’s film from 2000 takes a critical look at the visually dominated world we live in and challenges traditional cinema by addressing the film’s artificiality and visuality. Memento draws attention to the sheer mass and variety of visual stimuli that surround us by playing with the use of camera, photographs, mirrors and other visual media. The focus on visuality illustrates our dependence on visual media in determining who we are, how we see the world and how we think.

Memento is centered on a protagonist – Leonard Shelby – who is especially reliant on the help of visual media but does not realize how much it influences his identity. Leonard is a former insurance claims investigator who suffers from anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents him from turning short-term memories into long-term ones. Leonard’s amnesia is the result of a head injury he received while he was trying to rescue his wife from a murderer. Thus, Leonard lives in episodes that last about 15 minutes and after each such episode he forgets everything that happened before. Being deprived of the ability to remember anything that has happened since his wife’s murder, Leonard has to come up with his own strategies to deal with everyday life. In the course of the film, the audience learns that Leonard has developed a system of visual cues to replace his memory. He even goes further and declares that his method of remembering via photographs, mind maps, tattoos and notes, is more reliable than memory itself. Leonard calls his visual cues ‘facts’ and ignores the lack of context that comes along with a memory that consists only of separate Polaroid photos, ink on his skin and a few slips of paper.

In this term paper I study these visual cues that Leonard Shelby uses to organize his everyday life, in particular how they change his way of understanding the world and seeing himself. First of all, an exploration of the superiority of sight over other senses helps to understand the importance of looking and seeing: On the one hand Memento depicts how sight is preferred to other senses, but on the other hand it questions this superiority of one sense over the others by exemplifying how easy it is to manipulate what we see. After analyzing how the movie addresses visuality in general, I take a closer look at Leonard’s ‘memory system’: An examination of the Polaroid Photos he takes and the tattoos that cover his body elucidates not only his dependence on these visual cues but also his transformation into a “human Post-It Note” (Parker 241). This transformation entails a change in identity that is reflected in the significant use of mirrors. Furthermore, Memento illustrates how memory and identity are closely related and how both can be manipulated with visual means. This leads to the conclusion that nothing is given or true because anything can be manipulated, be it bodies, identities, photographs or our eyes.

2. The Superiority of Sight

In his essay “The Nobility of Sight” from 1954, Hans Jonas asserts that “[s]ince the days of Greek philosophy sight has been recognized as the most excellent of the senses” (507). It is true that we might doubt our ears or our memory but we are quick to believe what we see. Thus, it is not surprising that visual media in all its forms – from illustration to film and photography – play such an important role in today’s society. Wherever we go, we are confronted with posters, billboards and pictures that compete for our attention; our eyes absorb a multitude of different stimuli and have the difficulty of deciding what is real and what is false. This is not an easy task, considering the various possibilities to use Photoshop and other tools to retouch and forge pictures. However, what makes our eyes more susceptible to manipulation than other senses is at the same time the reason why our vision is so necessary and important to us: Seeing can be simultaneous, neutral and distant at the same time (cf. ibid.). Sight is therefore the freest but also the least realistic of the senses (cf. ibid. 516).

Looking is considered to be ‘free’ and ‘neutral’ because it does not require any physical contact with the object or person that is being looked at. This is very different from touch, which relies on the sensation of pressure and contact to gain knowledge about the respective object or person. With sight, the world is just there every time we open our eyes and “all the elements are simultaneously available” (ibid. 512). In addition, looking can happen independently of the environment while hearing depends on sounds that are outside of the percipient’s control. We cannot control what we hear but we can control what we see because our eyes can wander wherever they want to (cf. ibid. 509). Thus, as Jonas points out, “we enjoy vision for its own sake, apart from its utility” (507). Sight is non-committal and the “ideal distance-sense” but it lacks “the experience of causality” (ibid. 517) since everything we see is already there when we open our eyes. Simultaneity is a unique characteristic of sight and one of the reasons why we enjoy looking, but it also brings about a lack of context. This absence of additional information is what makes sight less realistic than other senses, such as for example touch: When we touch something we can test its authenticity “by grasping the doubtful object and trying its reality in terms of the resistance it offers” (ibid. 516). However, when we look at something we have to believe that it is there and true, for there is no way to tell if it is real unless we can touch it.

Determining what is true and what is false becomes increasingly difficult if we are dealing with representations and not actual objects. How can we tell if visual representations, such as photographs, videos and illustrations are real if we cannot grasp them and if we are missing the context of their development? Memento addresses this problem of lacking background information through Leonard Shelby’s condition of anterograde amnesia. In a calm, relaxed situation Leonard is able to concentrate and focus on the task at hand for 15 minutes but as soon as he is distracted he forgets everything he has just been doing. Consequently, he needs to find a way to cope with everyday life and remember what has happened in the past and what he has planned for the future.

Leonard is able to condition himself through repetition and learns to use his Polaroid camera to document important people, places and things in his life. He prefers sight to memory because he has no choice. Understandably, Leonard is skeptical when other people try to tell him about things he has said and done in the past since he cannot possibly know whether they are telling the truth or not. Hence, he only believes what he can see and experience with his own eyes: his Polaroid photos, his tattoos and himself in the mirror.

Leonard’s mistrust of his fellow men and his fear that others might take advantage of his condition make him regard telephones with suspicion. He has a tattoo that reminds him to “Never answer the phone” (1:06:19) and he remarks more than once that he is “not too good on the phone” and needs “to look people in the eye” (07:44; 1:14:03) when talking to them. Since Leonard has no memory or background knowledge of the person on the other end of the line, he is an easy target for manipulation and lies. As George Bragues asserts, Leonard is apprehensive about talking on the telephone because it “places him in a condition where he cannot visually gauge the trustworthiness of his interlocutor, a condition in which he is at the complete mercy of the spoken word” (70). Moreover, having worked as an insurance claims investigator, Leonard has learned to read people’s facial expressions – or as Leonard puts it: “I had to see through people’s bullshit. It was useful experience cos now it’s my life. . . . I have to look in their eyes and try and figure them out” (21:19). Accordingly, Leonard believes that face-to-face exchange provides more direct communication, facilitated through the opportunity of reading the other’s eyes and body language. Nevertheless, even in unmediated face-to-face communication it can be difficult to find out whether someone is telling the truth or not. Leonard explains that you have to

[w]atch the eyes and the body language. If someone scratches their nose while they’re talking, experts will tell you it means they’re lying. It really means they’re nervous. People get nervous for all sorts of reasons. It’s all about context. (21:33)

Once more it is emphasized that context is necessary to fully understand what is seen, but although he is aware of how easily his eyes can be deceived, Leonard still prefers sight over his other senses.

This superiority of sight is addressed at the very beginning of Memento: In the opening sequence we watch a close-up of a Polaroid picture as it literally un-develops and fades into nothing. This scene reveals the structure and theme of the film and represents Leonard’s condition. Leonard himself describes his memory loss to Burt, the man behind the desk at the Discount Inn where Leonard stays, as “everything fades” (08:05). This fading of memory is captured in the plot structure of Memento: Because the story partly unfolds in reverse chronological order, the audience does not know what happened before, only what is to come afterwards. In this, the audience shares Leonard’s point of view, his inability to remember and, initially, even his memories.

However, as the film continues, viewers are able to keep in mind the different scenes and connect them to a unified whole that provides them with the context necessary to understand Leonard’s actions. In order to help the audience follow the plot, Memento is composed of both color and black-and-white sequences. While the color scenes run backwards and focus on Leonard’s actions, the black-and-white sequences run forwards and are supposed to provide the audience with background knowledge about Leonard and his life before the accident. These black-and-white scenes are presented as documentaries – with Leonard talking on the phone in a monotonous voice, narrating his experiences as insurance claims investigator, his wife’s rape and murder, and everything he has been doing so far to track down John G., the man who killed his wife. Most notably, these scenes are filmed from a high angle, thus giving the impression that the sequences are recorded with a security camera. As the coloring in these scenes indicates, things are either black or white and what we get to see are facts – objective and true. Yet as the film develops, the black-and-white scenes and the color scenes move towards each other and eventually merge into one (cf. 1:35:13): In the end, things are no longer black and white but colored and by that point viewers realize they have been misled by a protagonist who has been lying to himself all along.

This manipulation of the audience is part of the viewing process: Viewers sit in the dark auditorium and have nothing else to do but look at the narrative that evolves in front of their eyes. From this perspective, they are helpless and rely solely on their sense of sight to comprehend what is going on – much like Leonard has only his eyes to rely on. Finding one’s way through Memento is made especially difficult through the use of a contemporary and real, but very uncharacteristic and unspecific setting (cf. Brusberg-Kiermeier 125). Leonard inhabits a “sterile, anonymous modern environment“ (Little 77) that keeps both him and the audience from a successful chronological and spatial orientation. With regard to the setting, William G. Little observes that

[t]he trouble he [Leonard] has finding his way around town might not just be due to some kind of neurological damage. It might also be due to the fact that there is absolutely nothing memorable about the place. Like much of the contemporary American landscape, it appears to be stripped of any cultural specificity and historical marking. A good example of this barren setting is the place where Leonard is staying – the Discount Inn – a building with a numbingly generic design. (ibid.)

This lack of orientation points or significant landmarks makes Leonard and the audience even more dependent on visual cues in order to find their way through this anonymous environment. One of these mnemonic tools is the abandoned derelict building that can be seen in the very beginning and in the end of Memento. At the beginning of the film, viewers do not know what to expect from this desolate area that has nothing noticeable except for three oil reservoirs. However, when Leonard returns to the derelict building towards the end of the film, the audience already expects a second murder to happen: Viewers remember that Leonard will soon kill Teddy in this building and know they will now get to witness the murder of another John G.

While visual cues such as the derelict building can trigger certain memories, they make only parts of locations recognizable. The sense of direction is still impeded, especially by a lack of establishing shots and wide or long shots, which usually provide an overview of the setting and facilitate the process of familiarization with the location. As a consequence, Leonard must devise his own way of remembering his surroundings and his actions, and he comes up with a system of Polaroid photos, notes and tattoos that changes the way he sees his environment and himself.


[1] Here and hereafter, single time specifications in parentheses refer to: Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano. Newmarket, 2000. DVD.

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Visuality and Identity in Christopher Nolan's "Memento"
University of Mannheim
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
429 KB
Christopher Nolan, Memento, Memento mori, Mirrors, Photography, Identity, Tattoos, Memory, Visuality
Quote paper
Anett Koch (Author), 2013, Visuality and Identity in Christopher Nolan's "Memento", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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