Narrative Complexity in Christopher Nolan’s "Memento". Narrative Structure, Unreliability, Fabula Construction and Cinematography as Key Elements for the Spectator’s Manipulation

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Narrative structure in Memento
2.1 Colour scenes
2.2 Black and White scenes
2.3 The opening sequence
2.4 Scene 22/A

3 Narratology in films: Focalization
3.1 The unreliable narrator in Memento

4 Fabula construction in Memento and its effect on the spectator

5 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

„Causes and their effects are basic to narrative, but they take place in time“(84). This quotation from Bordwell’s and Thompson’s work Film Art, an Introduction does not only show a fundamental principle of narration but furthermore depicts a possibility to manipulate the spectator’s understanding of a story. Christopher Nolan’s Memento is one example of what a complex narration can be. The film shows two separate stories of Leonard, an ex-insurance investigator who suffers anterograde amnesia and attempts to find the murderer of his wife, which is the last thing he can remember. On the one hand there is a forward moving storyline, the black-and-white scenes while the other one, the colour sequences, tells the story backwards. Although the story behind the film is rather simple, the narrative structure is extremely complex and clever, which demands constant attention from its spectators.

This term paper will deal with the methods used in Memento which mislead the audience’s understanding of the story. My thesis is therefore: Narrative complexity in Christopher Nolan’s Memento – Narrative structure, Narrator’s unreliability, fabula construction and cinematography as key elements for the spectator’s manipulation. Apart from the film Memento, the central literature I will work with is the essay by Stefano Ghislotti “Narrative Comprehension Made Difficult: Film, Form and Mnemonic Devices in Memento”, the documentary “Anatomy of a Scene” about the making of Memento, a text by Andy Klein named "Everything You Wanted to Know about “Memento” and different filmic narrativity by Jakob Lothe, David Herman and Edward Branigan. In addition to that, there is a self-generated sequence analysis attached to the term paper in order to have an overall view of the scenes I take a closer look at.

In my term paper, I will examine the narrative structure in Memento which switches between chronological narration and reversed temporality. With respect to this unique narrative structure, I will take a closer look at the colour- and black and white sequences, the opening sequence and the outstanding and resolvent scene 22/A, especially regarding the cinematography used. In the further course of my work, you will learn of the essential role of the unreliable narrator regarding my thesis and finally what impact the fabula construction in Memento has on his viewers.

2 Narrative structure in Memento

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

„I mean, it’s all backwards“(scene U). This is what the reception clerk Burt says to Leonard in order to describe his condition. Hereby, he is also implicitly describing the narrative structure of the colour sequences of the movie. The special feature of Memento is its unconventional narration and therefore the way the film is composed. As Stefano Ghislotti puts it:

In Memento multiple story lines, either progressive, regressive, recounted, or fragmented, are bound together by elements capable of recalling previous stages of the story, announcing or suggesting possible developments, showing effects whose causes are still unknown, retrospectively affecting several central features of the story, or even obliging the viewers to reconsider the story as a whole.(88)

The movie is filmed in two alternating strands, the colour sequence going backwards and the black and white scenes going forward. Both sequences merge in the end of the film and tie up some loose ends. In order to make the movie’s structure easier to understand, the Los Angeles film critic Andy Klein constructed a scheme, in which the black and white scenes have numbers, 1 to 22, while the colour scenes are lettered from A to V. According to him, the original plot is structured like this: Credits, 1, V, 2, U, 3, T, 4, S, 5, R, 6, Q … all the way to 20, C, 21, B and finally 22/A. Although Memento ’s plot is structured backwards, it is still linear. In an interview, Christopher Nolan states that himself saying: “People often refer to Memento as having a non-linear structure, but it isn't, it's very linear. More so than a conventional film you actually can't remove a scene from the film. Because each scene depends on its relationship with the previous scene and the one that follows.”(Nolan) The right chronological order would therefore be: 1, 2, 3 …21, 22/A, B, C … V. (Klein)

Therefore, the film has not been completely reversed since it is the structure of events that has been delinearized. The following paragraphs deal with the particularities and arrangements of these two strands in order to highlight the importance of such an arresting composition for its effect on the viewer.

2.1 Colour scenes

As already mentioned, the story of Memento is told backwards and starts at the end of its right chronological order (scene V), where Leonard kills Teddy. Therefore, the story ends at sequence A, where Lenny kills Jimmy the drug dealer. The colour scenes alternate with the black and white scenes and depict the main events of the story since the viewer experiences everything through Leonard’s point of view.

As you can see in the sequence protocol in the appendix, the colour sequence represent the larger part of the story with 96 minutes from 113 minutes of the total length of the movie. The average length of each colour scene is from one to six minutes long. Each scene is very short and somehow represents the complete length of Shelby’s memory capacities (Holm).

An important method to confirm the temporal and causal relationships in these scenes are the matching shots at the beginning and at the end of each colour sequence. “In these shots, the repetition of already seen details helps to create a connection between the related color sequences that flow backwards and are interrupted by black and white scenes”(Ghislotti 96). These matching shots encourage the viewer to put the events into the right chronological order and refresh his memory in order to make him able to get the film’s structure.

Since the story is told backwards, scene by scene the audience gets more information about the reasons for the murder Lenny commits in the very first sequence of the film. It is kind of a puzzle solving. The viewers find new pieces of the puzzle in every new scene. Just like a detective who step by step gets more circumstantial evidence while investigating, the viewers have to be extraordinarily attentive and wait for the sequence explaining a particular hint hidden in one of the preceding scenes. This can be quite nerve-racking such as in scene V, one of the first colour scenes of the movie, where a broken car window remains unexplained until scene M, which means that the viewers have to wait almost fifty minutes to get the background information.

Another quite confusing quality of the colour scenes is the fact that some continuous actions, such as “Dodd’s chase”, “City Grill” or “Ferdy’s bar” are cut into two or three parts. According to Ghislotti , “This partition creates confusion because in order to reorder the color line of actions we have to recollect similar segments which can muddel, overlap, or be exchanged, and which appear as bewildering elements”(96).

At the beginning of the movie, the colour scenes are intensely subjective and make the viewer empathize with Leonard. Just as Leonard, the viewer never knows what happens next and this contributes to his identification with Leonard. Throughout the action, the colour scenes become less intensely subjective, which is very important for the viewer to form his own opinion and question things he or she has seen so far.

An important difference to the black and white scenes is that Lenny is presented “adrift, disrupted [and] sometimes awash in emotion” (Clarke, Pfannhauser and Doel 224). This representation of Leonard is supported by the music which is also different to that one in the black and white scenes since it is “ambient, suggestive, incoherent [and] wavy” (Clarke, Pfannhauser and Doel 224). This is what Christopher Nolan intended to achieve, since he said in Anatomy of a Scene that for the colour sequences he “wanted the music to suggest sadness and melancholy without explaining it” (Nolan).

Apart from that, the choice of colour in the colour scenes is as important as its music choice: Patti Podesta, Memento’s production designer “purposefully produced a color palette of pastel blues, greys and browns to give the film’s color segments an ‘anywhere and nowhere’ feel to them”(Clarke, Pfannhauser and Doel 224). This particular colour scheme can be associated with coolness, sadness and truth. Almost every frame with Leonard in it has a tinge of blue.

As far as cinematography is concerned, in the colour sequences there are more different camera distances than in the black and white scenes. Close-ups, extreme close ups, especially from the main character, and over the shoulder shots are preferably used in the colour scenes. It seems that the camera is always over Leonard’s shoulder or right behind him. The point of view shot is also used quite often since details and characters are seen from Leonard’s point of view for the most part of the film. The camera perspective is strongly connected to Leonard’s subjective perception considering his environment. The use of long shots or medium long shots in order to create orientation in the film is very rare. These shots are only used in scenes where the setting changes, for instance when Leonard and Teddy leave the motel for the first time (scene V). When the action takes place at the same setting, then there are predominantly close ups, extreme close ups, point of view shots or over the shoulder shots.

Since Leonard has no overview of his environment, it is the audience who is forced to see the world from his point of view due to the limited camera shots. This is a very important tool to immerse the viewer into Leonard’s world and his condition. One example of this is scene N where Leonard goes to find Dodd in his motel room and waits there for him. After a few minutes he forgets where he is and goes into the shower, assuming that it is his bathroom. Shortly afterwards, Dodd enters the bathroom. For this scene, the camera sticks to Leonard all the time and stays inside the shower and all we see is Leonard’s face and his view through the wavy glass until it’s opened, revealing Dodd to the audience. Leonard is shocked since he cannot remember Dodd due to his short term memory and knocks him out. Considering these cinematic strategies, Leonard’s constant confusion is also conveyed through visual details of setting and the different shots (Pramaggiore & Wallis 65).

2.2 Black and White scenes

Besides the colour sequences which run in reverse order and tell the main story, there is also a story line in black and white in Memento which consists of 22 scenes. As already mentioned, these scenes alternate with the colour sequences and run in forward order. Watching the movie in its real chronological order, the action in black and white is continuous, beginning with Leonard’s awakening in the motel room and ending with the last phone call. Taken as a whole, this sequence lasts for 17 minutes. ”It shows Leonard Shelby who wakes up, shaves his left thigh, talks on the phone four times, watches himself in the mirror, discovers tattoos over his hand, chest, legs, arms, and makes a new tattoo on the shaved thigh”(Ghislotti 91)

A climatic moment for the audience is in scene 16 when Leonard uncovers a new tattoo on his right arm which says: “Never answer the phone”. In fact, Leonard reads it while he is actually talking on the phone to an anonymous person. This moment shows that the black and white line of action, primarily taking place in an anonymous hotel room, is mainly used to convey Leonard's condition. With respect to this, there are two worth noting elements of these scenes: First of all, there is Leonard’s voice over at the very beginning of each scene which expresses his stream of thought. Further, there are the long phone monologues, which narrate the parallel story of Sammy Jankis, illustrated for the viewer in six visual flashbacks. This story is very important for Leonard’s identity since he is unable to make new memories since the murder of his wife. All the time Leonard wants to explain his condition to others, as well to the phone caller, he tells the Sammy Jankis story comparing himself to him since he suffered the same anterograde amnesia. As Leonard mentions in scene 15, he sees the Sammy Jankis story as a warning for him. He tries to convince himself that he is doing his best to manage his situation by saying “I’ve got a more graceful solution to the memory problem. I’m disciplined and organized. I use habit and routine to make my life possible”(scene 8).

With the help of these voice overs at the beginning of each scene and the phone call, the black and white scenes convey the situation of an interview in which the interviewer is not involved. This reminds the spectator of a documentary film and underlines the objectivity of the black and white scenes in contrast to the subjectivity of the colour scenes.

The story told in the black and white scenes can be considered a frame plot since it helps the viewers to understand the things described in the colour scenes. At the end of the movie, the spectators find out that all the events described and shown in the black and white scenes happened before the story told in the colour scenes.

As far as cinematography is concerned, the black and white sequences offer a very objective view of Leonard’s character. The audience watches the protagonist in his hotel room from a third person or security camera point of view. Each shot is very accurate in every detail. (Klein)

2.3 The opening sequence

Apart from the complex narrative structure in Christopher Nolan’s Memento with its alternating black and white scenes and the colour scenes, there is the opening scene (0:00:43 – 0:02:34), that falls out the usual, even if narratively complex, order. This is the only scene in the entire film that literally runs backward and is shown in slow-motion. In it, we see a Polaroid photo un-develop, a bullet fly back up the barrel of a gun and Teddy come back to life briefly after the sound of a shot and himself screaming “no”. (Klein)


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Narrative Complexity in Christopher Nolan’s "Memento". Narrative Structure, Unreliability, Fabula Construction and Cinematography as Key Elements for the Spectator’s Manipulation
University of Münster
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ISBN (Book)
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Christopher Nolan's memento, Literature, Film Studies, Narrative Complexity
Quote paper
Claudia Rumms (Author), 2015, Narrative Complexity in Christopher Nolan’s "Memento". Narrative Structure, Unreliability, Fabula Construction and Cinematography as Key Elements for the Spectator’s Manipulation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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