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Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

A warning: By necessity, there are many spoilers in the following review. Scroll down to "Supplements" for the DVD info.

It's about 9:35 am on Tuesday morning, October first, 2002, and you're standing in Tower Records waiting for someone to unpack the box of new DVDs lying on the floor. Because of the studio logo on the box, you know that the disc you have been awaiting for years is inside. It's Christopher Nolan's Memento: The Special Edition, from Columbia Tristar (or is it Criterion?), and the consumer gets a three disc set for only $99.95, the new price for DVDs thanks to the resolution of a conflict between Blockbuster and other chain video stores, and the studios.

This (mythical) three-disc Memento is loaded with extras. It offers the film in a new transfer supervised by cinematographer Wally Pfister, with 5.1 DTS audio. There's a commentary track with Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, the author of the original source short story, plus an audio commentary track with actors Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Joe Pantoliano, plus another one with producers Suzanne and Jennifer Todd and editor Dody Dorn. There is also a new-to-the-DVD 90-minute "making-of" documentary, plus The Mystery of Memento, a documentary in which prominent film reviewers and scholars expound on the "meaning" and method of the movie, along with Christopher Nolan's appearance on the Charlie Rose show. Rounding out the extras is Following, Nolan's first movie, a 70-minute feature which bears some resemblance to his second film, with a commentary track by Nolan, an isolated music track of David Julyan's score, the complete screenplay, a gallery of reviews and articles on Memento from Sight and Sound and other publications, a gallery of Polaroids, and an array of trailers, radio spots, and segments from television news shows.

One of the more interesting extras on this (as of yet non-existent) set is Memento Redux, the "alternative" movie with all the scenes re-edited and offered in reverse, i.e., in the narrative's actual chronological order, a replication of an item that was all the rage in the fall of 2001 when the first disc appeared, and DVD fans who could (illegally) make tapes from discs refashioned the movie, not unlike the way someone re-edited The Phantom Menace to remove Jar-Jar.

As you wait, your brow moist with anticipatory drops of pre-orgasmic sweat, you reflect back on the first Memento. You can actually see it, over there, in the discount bin, where it has languished for months since the new Special Edition was announced. The collection of new material on the fall 2002 three-disc set is a film buff's dream, a package on the order of Fight Club or Brazil, a product that fully celebrates what was arguably the best film of 2001. Now a clerk is opening the box, sliding an Exacto blade down the taped ridge between the two flaps of the lid, and Mementors are lining up to grab the discs out of the parcel, which bursts open as scores of straining hands reach in. A floor manager stands by helplessly, screaming "They're not inventoried! They're not inventoried yet, nerds!"

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Retreating back in time from this imaginary future to the actual present, one can imagine those future nerds' disappointment within a very real context: Columbia Tristar's DVD release on September 4th, 2001, of Memento. The disc comes with a fine transfer of the indie film and a handful of extras (elucidated below), but in DVD fanboy terms the disc is probably something of a disappointment.

Of course, it depends on which side of the "supplements debate" raging among diverse students of DVDs the particular consumer stands. Those who feel that just having the movie available for viewing on the superior technology of DVD is enough will probably be satisfied with this Memento disc. The supplement-mad faction will bemoan a great opportunity lost, and perhaps suspect that a "special edition" is lurking in the wings, poised to debut if and when DVD prices go up.

Frankly, there are few recent movies that could truly benefit from supplements such as a commentary track. Memento is one of them. Rarely has a film of such complexity and nuance seized the popular imagination. This is a film that not only emulates noir and its '70s-born variation film soleil, but which also adds the clever gimmick of a protagonist with a short-term memory disability. And the film doesn't stop there. It also tells its story backwards, basically in seven- to 10-minute chunks. The immediate effect of this approach is to plunge the viewer immediately into the world as the protagonist experiences it.

Memento inspired a wealth of enthusiastic critical comment and a near-universal delighted collective shaking of heads by audience members leaving the theater. The quality of recent films had left them unprepared for the film's narrative twists and complexities. Commonly viewed as simply the best film of the year at a time when "the year" was only a few months old, Memento evoked the same kind of loyalty as L.A. Confidential or The Godfather or The Way of the Gun. Critics cited Nolan's film as one of the few good movies of the year, along withSexy Beast and Ghost World, exceptional films in a dire cycle of over-hyped, disappointing Hollywood releases that included films that were nevertheless hits, such as Pearl Harbor, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Planet of the Apes, Hannibal, Moulin Rouge and Evolution, among numerous other entities in what may stand up as the worst year of movies in history.

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Memento is about Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). He is a former San Francisco-based insurance adjuster now living in Nevada (some reviewers say he is living in southern California, but the cars have Nevada plates). He has a benighted past. He and his beloved wife were attacked by a stranger, and she was raped and killed. Shelby's injuries from the incident have resulted in a condition like something out of an Oliver Sacks book, in which he cannot retain any information from his short-term memory. A policeman named John Theodore Gammell takes pity on Shelby and investigates the case with care, and even gives Shelby the police file on the case. When Shelby was still an adjuster, his first case involved one Sammy Jankis, a man who proved to be a grim precursor to his own fate. Jankis was involved in a car accident that left him with short-term memory loss. Shelby determined that Jankis's condition was not physical, but mental, thus denying Jankis's claim. Jankis's wife, a diabetic, became distraught and decided to try and shock Jankis back into health, and told her husband that she needed her insulin shot. She told him this over and over again until she overdosed on insulin, because he could not remember having performed the function.

Shelby, now unemployed, and with money from his insurance settlement, is on the hunt for the man who killed his wife. He has a partial name to go on, J.G., but that's it. With the help of a former cop named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) who feeds him information, and with the aid of a bartender named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) with ties to local drug smuggling, Shelby thinks that he is getting closer to the identity of the man who killed his wife. But all along Teddy has been actually using the disabled Shelby to clean up the streets of drug dealers; one of them was Natalie's boyfriend, Jimmy Grantz. To exact revenge, Natalie manipulates Shelby into thinking that Teddy is actually J.G. In a final confrontation in an abandoned warehouse that serves as their killing ground, Teddy reveals that he and Shelby located the real J.G. a long time ago and eliminated him, but that Shelby is such a good terminator, Teddy has been using him ever since. Angered at hearing the truth, Shelby adjusts the information on his Polaroids and notes to now indicate that Teddy killed his wife. He returns to his motel room and receives a telephone call.

At this point, the movie begins.

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To put it simply, Memento starts where it ends. But the film doesn't feel circular. There are scenes presented as "now" in black-and-white, and which consist of Shelby in his motel room talking on the phone to someone. Eventually we learn who that caller is, and the film moves toward its final passage, hinted at in the film's opening frames, which are presented in reverse motion. Alternating with the black-and-white motel room scenes is the main story of Memento, recounted above, and occasionally narrated by Shelby, in which Shelby is hunting for J.G. and manipulated by both Teddy and Natalie, who are at cross purposes. As is well known, this portion of the movie is presented backwards. This form of presentation is not simply a clever gimmick. It also puts us into the mind of Shelby, rendering the viewer sympathetic to his plight, but also just as easily manipulated by the other characters. And the trick also leads to some funny jokes that defy explanation, such as the moment Shelby wakes up in the middle of a foot-chase. Is he the pursuer or the pursued?

Not only is Memento better than practically any other movie that came out in 2001, but it also goes against some of the unspoken assumptions found in contemporary movies. One of these assumptions is that a crime is OK if it is committed by essentially "good" people. Examples include 3000 Miles to Graceland, in which a crook is exempt from justice for the simple reason that he didn't kill anyone during a heist, unlike his partners, and 15 Minutes, in which it appears to be OK for cops to break the law, as long as they are doing it for "good" reasons. Memento, on the other hand, is a deeply moral movie. It suggests that one cannot hide from the consequences of one's sins. At the heart of the film is the fact that Shelby cannot face his own guilt, and like Jankis (who is played in flashbacks by Steven Tobolowsky of the similarly repeating Groundhog Day), his condition is mental, not physical. His short-term memory loss prevents him from facing his own complicity in his wife's death. As much as he makes notes and takes photos to remind himself of facts, he also hides things from himself in order to keep the mystery of J.G.'s whereabouts continuing on, so as not to have to face himself. In a sense, he is the real J.G.

Despite its narrative complexities and challenges, Memento has a hold on its audiences, and it is probably not because the film provides a moral lesson in conduct. What's one reason for the enthusiasm for this film? Probably the obsession that baby boomers have about their memory. How many times have you heard a friend complain, or perhaps complained yourself, that your memory is not what it used to be? How many of us feel that the walls of our lives are closing in as more and more of our past experiences fade? The fascination with Memento is spurred by the same concerns that has made Daniel L. Schacter's science book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers such an unexpected hit.

Not only is Memento in the tradition of recent crime thrillers with a twist (Angel Heart, The Usual Suspects), it's in the loose tradition of amnesia noirs such as The Blue Dahlia, Suture, and Shattered. But even more noir-ishly, it also features one of the great noir femme fatales of all time. Truly amoral, but as dedicated to revenge as Shelby, Natalie is an expert manipulator of men, perfectly happy to sleep with a man she is conspiring to have kill the murderer of her real lover. It's a subtle character, though, and superbly acted by Moss, who is only one of a fine ensemble.

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The supplements provided on Columbia TriStar's Memento DVD are not plentiful, but they aren't negligible either. The single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL) offers a fine anamorphic transfer of the 2.35:1 image. The disc also offers Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio in English, with English and Spanish subtitles, and closed-captioning. Supplements start off with a 30-minute interview with Christopher Nolan from the IFC Channel, conducted by New York Times reviewer Elvis Mitchell. As with most television interviews, not much is really said in proportion to the time consumed. And though it's possible that an audio track by Nolan would have proved disappointing (perhaps alternating between spoiling the secrets of the film and withholding information about his strategies, or just relying on the usual tack of commenting on how much fun it was to work with such dedicated actors), it would have been much more interesting than this unchallenging interview. Also on hand is the content of the official website, www.otnemem.com, which provides fake news stories pertaining to Shelby's case and the text of Jonathan Nolan's original short story, which was also published in the March, 2001 Esquire, and which also has only a tangential connection with the movie. There's a tattoo gallery that compares the original sketches and final photographs of the tattoos on Shelby's body, seen throughout the film. And there's the theatrical trailer and some TV spots, plus the trailer for Nolan's Following.

But the best thing that about Columbia TriStar's disc is that it offers the opportunity to watch Memento with great care, plume its mysteries, and solve its riddles. Or not. Perhaps further debate is the only response to getting deeper into Memento. Whatever the case, it's possible to remember the way most people felt on March 16th, 2001, when Memento finally opened in the United States.

— D. K. Holm

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