memento editing analysis

Sean Remington April 20, 2013 Editing Analysis Professor John Cole When I was thinking about what film I should write about on editing only one film came to mind, and that film is Memento. Memento was directed by the great Christopher Nolan and starred Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby. Memento is known for its very unconventional editing and nontraditional storytelling. Memento is broken up into two different types of scenes. The first type of scene is the main plot of the story where each scene takes places further back on the storyline then the previous scene starting with the final scene in the plot, these scenes are in color.

The second type is the subplot of the film which starts at the very beginning of the story and works its way forward until it eventually meets up with the scenes moving backwards, these scenes are in black and white. Memento’s unconventional, nonlinear narrative structure is what makes this film so fantastic. In Memento Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby who is seeking the man who raped and killed his wife so he can have his revenge. The only problem is that Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss which was a result of him trying to stop his wife’s murderer.

In order to find the person he’s looking for and remember his mission he takes pictures with a Polaroid camera, writes down notes, and gets tattoos of the facts about his wife’s killer. Leonard lives in roughly fifteen minute increments. Memento opens with a reversed time flow of Leonard killing Teddy and then taking a picture of his body. After times rewinds enough we see Leonard shoot Teddy in the head and then it cuts to the first black and white scene. Now every scene in color from there on out is in a reverse order sequence, meaning that each scene in color takes place within the plot before the previous scene in color.

I believe that the opening rewind of Leonard killing Teddy helps establish the fact that the rest of the scenes in color are going to go back in time chronologically. This unique nonlinear narrative structure helps the viewer understand how it is to be in Leonard’s position. We see the story exactly how Leonard lives his life, fragmented and out of order. The way the movie is edited shows us just how difficult it is for Leonard to live in these short increments of times all while trying to find his wife’s killer. After the first scene in color the movie cuts to the first black and white scene.

These scenes are moving forward in time and start at the very beginning of the story, unlike the scenes in color which start at the end and are moving backwards. In the black and white scenes Leonard is talking to a mysterious police office on the phone, telling him about a man named Sammy Jankis. Sammy Jankis was a case that Leonard investigated while he was an insurance investigator, Jankis had short term memory loss as well. Leonard uses Jankis as a way of explaining his own condition to others. Now during these black and white scenes it is established that they take place before the scenes in color.

For example, we see that Leonard is giving himself a tattoo on his leg in one of the black and white scene which Nolan reveals that he already has the tattoo in one of the colored scenes. The film keeps jumping back and forth between these color and black and white scenes until they eventually meet up, they way Nolan does this is very interesting. In the last black and white scene Leonard kills the man who he believes to be his wife’s murderer. After he kills this man he takes a picture of his body so he can remember it just like he has done so many times before.

Once Leonard takes the picture with his Polaroid camera he takes the picture and begins to shake it. While Leonard is shaking the picture the film fades from black and white to color. Since Nolan edited the film like this we know that some very important plot points are about to happen because obviously since he faded to color there will be no more jumping back to black and white. I also enjoy this moment in the film a lot because the movie fades from black and white to color just like the Polaroid picture in the shot is doing at that exact moment. I know there’s a metaphor there somewhere but I just can’t put my finger on it.

In order so the audience doesn’t get lost with all the jumping between black and white and color scenes Nolan uses a technique called relational editing. This is when Nolan connects a colored scene with the previous color scene by showing the first few seconds of the previous scene as the last few seconds of the current scene. For example, in one scene Leonard is in a bathroom holding a bottle of whiskey. Forgetting what he was doing he starts to take a shower. Soon, a man comes in and him and Leonard begin to fight. Leonard wins the fight and ties the man up and puts him in a closet and the scene goes on for a few minutes more.

About ten minutes later another color scene happens where Natalie convinces Leonard to kill a man named Dodd. That scene ends with Leonard sneaking into Dodd’s motel room, picking up a bottle of whiskey for a weapon, and waits in the bathroom for Dodd to get back. This style of editing helps the viewer connect the colored scene with the previous colored scene, and makes sure they don’t get lost within the plot. One last thing I would like to mention is an editing trick that Nolan uses to play with the viewers mind in this film. I’m not sure what the name of the trick is but I can tell you what happens.

It is during a black and white scene where Leonard is coming to the conclusion to the story of Sammy Jankis. Sammy’s wife wanted to test him to see if he was actually faking his short term memory loss. She has Sammy give her an insulin shot repeatedly to see if he remembered giving the previous one. Well, Sammy doesn’t and eventually she dies from too much insulin. Sammy ends up getting put into a mental hospital. At one point Sammy is sitting in a chair and a man walks in front of him. For a split second after the man walks by Sammy it isn’t Sammy sitting in the chair but it is Leonard.

This is one of the many ways that Christopher Nolan likes to play with the viewer’s mind. This split second shot of Leonard is a hint at the movies shocking reveal at the end. Memento is one of those films that you feel the need to watch all over again immediately after seeing it for the first time. You feel a bit lost throughout your first viewing because of the editing but once it ends it all makes perfect sense. Memento’s nontraditional editing and thrilling story takes you along for a fantastic ride of noir film. I just hope I didn’t choose a film that you have most likely seen multiple times.

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