The movie “Memento” plays like a mystery thriller, but it’s actually sci-fi. This is what it’s like to have damage to your hippocampus (little bits of brain just behind and above your ears). In the movie, because the victim is a young, handsome, buff man, the damage is imposed by a blow. In real life, these are Alzheimer symptoms. The “hippo” seems to pass new events from front to back where they are consolidated into memories and sent along for storage. If the structure is damaged, the new stuff never gets sent along.
When I was typing at the U of Chicago Law School, I occasionally did a little work for an Australian professor named Norval Morris whose specialty was law about people who can’t be held legally competent. Like people who killed their mothers because what they saw was an attacking grizzly bear or something equally drastic -- which is why it’s not a good idea to keep a gun under your pillow, entirely too handy to the dreaming state. The cases he discussed were amazing. Law/art/ethics/psychoanalysis -- all entwine in issues that boil down to “why do I do what I would not do?” The trivial questions -- why on earth did I put my clothes iron in the refrigerator? -- mix with more serious ones like why a local woman drove around the state all summer with the corpse of her child in the trunk of her car?
In Memento, the simple version is that a man knows his wife is dead and knows his short term memory is gone. He’s an insurance investigator, so he already keeps a lot of notes and Polaroids. (You’ve seen these guys recording the scene of a car crash.) So he amps up those techniques and sets out to find his wife’s killer. This other annoying guy, who kinda gives off wise guy vibes but might be a smart alec or rogue cop, keeps turning up. A beautiful woman claims to be sympathetic.
Wikipedia has a function they call “disambiguation.” Human brains hate ambiguity. They’re wired to decide whether what’s coming through the striped jungle light is a lady or a tiger and to do it fast. They can’t always be Richard Burton in an easy chair, trying to figure it all out, but if they DO have time, the response of the brain to ambiguity is often to lock onto the situation until it’s resolved. You look over and someone is musing over a crossword puzzle: it has their entire attention. I stay away from that other math puzzle (Sudoku?) because my disambiguation powers in terms of math are zero and I hate frustration. This is the key to good mystery plots: they prevent disambiguation until close to the end but never frustrate you enough to give up.
Life IS ambiguous. And some people get so frustrated that they just grab the hypothesis they like and insist on it, even if they have to use force. Right now, given politics and economics and medicine and Iraq and Pakistan and... we’re a little nuts. You can figure out why it’s so hard to live with all this, but you can’t figure out what’s really going on. Great for news ratings. The stuff is “sticky” -- it “hooks” you, in therapy jargon. What the journalist or lawyer is supposed to do is to find the explanation. What the therapist does is help you figure out your questions in a way you can live with. Are you to blame for your divorce? Should you have taken the cat to the vet? Was the car crash your fault? And why in hell do you get drunk so much in the first place?
Memento, as you will find others agreeing if you access imdb.com, is gorgeously done. The hero’s body, where he tattoos his most crucial notes, is a quite splendid writing surface. There is not a lot of jargon and medical talk from some expert, just the man trying to explain what he can’t. The clues are mostly sequence clues: shot-out windows, split lips, scratched cheeks. Sometimes they’re apparent and other times they’re missing, so it must be earlier. “Last Year at Marienbad” was one of the first movies to take on the idea of deconstruction in terms of film, giving us a beautiful scene full of tape loops time-wise, but in a way this is more like Rashomon, except that it converges on a solution that we might have to face even if we don’t like it. And the barb is that as we age and slip into this condition, we won’t always even be conscious of it.
My brother had damage to the front of his brain, where judgment and reality testing are located. He could remember everything with no problem, but he fabulized: he told coherent, detailed, very convincing stories that never happened at all. Mostly they were stories of considerable drama and some of them came right off the television screen. At one point he was called for jury duty (!) -- I know this is true because I worked for the City of Portland at the time and ran into him on the sidewalk taking a smoke break with the other members of the jury pool. Eventually he was dismissed rather than put on the jury and this hurt his feelings. He told a story about the whole trial practically exploding and how the clerk of the court slapped the lawyer’s face. Never happened.
Memento allows the man with no memory to recall little bits of image, flashes. In the absence of real memory, he tries to force these into some kind of story and when he can find bits of seeming evidence, he becomes more confident. In the meantime, the viewer begins to realize that others are taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes.
The hero as unreliable witness is an old story device but, done well, especially in a time when history itself seems unreliable and when science appears to be finally understanding how this stuff works in a brain, it’s an unfailing narrative trope. I’d better make a note of that. I’m getting old. I might develop Alzheimers.