Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Memories

I created a close-analysis assignment for my film students and decided to do the assignment myself so that they would have a sample. I think it turned out pretty well, so I'm posting it. The assignment asks students to take a one- or two-minute scene; describe the background information needed to understand the scene; use a snipping tool to capture every shot in the scene; describe each shot, angle, transition, and duration of the shot; and write a 1-2 page analysis of the scene, discussing how the cinematography, mise-en-scene and editing impact the meaning. I chose Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), based on a short story by his brother Jonathan. You'll notice that I don't have images for the shots. For some reason I couldn't copy and paste the images from the film from my Word doc.

Set up/Background Information:

Memento tells the story of a man named Leonard who suffers from short-term memory loss. Leonard believes his wife has been raped and murdered, and he, as a self-appointed vigilante, spends his days and nights tracking down the murderer. Because of his condition—his inability to remember incidents after the murder for more than a few moments—he writes basic information like “my car” on Polaroids, tattoos “facts” all over his body, and leaves post-it notes for himself everywhere. This is the first scene in the film, and it is shot in reverse. What follows the short opening scene is the first of many black-and-white scenes scattered throughout the film that occur in chronological order. These scenes are juxtaposed with the color scenes edited in reverse chronological order. The color and black and white eventually merge towards the end. Thus, the film ends at the chronological beginning of the story.

Summary of Scene:

 In this scene Leonard shoots and kills a man at point blank. He then takes  a Polaroid of the dead man. But because the scene goes in reverse, we first see the completed Polaroid picture, which then disappears.  The picture re-enters the camera, the gun flies from the ground and into Leonard’s hand, the man screams, the shell bounces upward into the gun, the bullet enters the gun.

 Analysis of Scene:
Intentionally jarring and confusing on its first viewing, this scene presents a microcosm of the ideas in the film as a whole. The Polaroid picture’s disappearance and the bullet’s re-entering the gun both serve as metaphors for Leonard’s condition. For him, memories are as ephemeral as the gratification of vengeance he receives in killing whom he believes to be his wife’s rapists and murderer. That is, memories and gratification disappear just like the picture. Because the scene is shot in reverse, for Leonard it is as if this murder never occurs—the bullet was never shot and the picture never taken.  Even though he takes a picture of the dead man, we know from other events later in the film that he will likely destroy this picture so that he can continue to hunt down and kill whomever he believes to be the true murderer. The picture will disappear when Leonard burns it. In doing so, Leonard sadistically exploits his condition to enjoy the pleasure of the pursuit and the fleeting moment of doing what he has convinced himself is right. He has supposedly avenged his wife.

One of the interesting features of the scene is Nolan’s use of close-ups and extreme close-ups. Only three of the 16 shots are not close-ups, but even these three are medium close-ups. With the lack of establishing shots or a traditional master shot, we don’t know where we are; we don’t see long shots of both of the men in the same frame; we don’t know why Leonard is murdering this man; we don’t even know who Leonard is at this point. Close-ups are traditionally used sparingly for emotional impact or to enhance a particular performance. But Nolan emphasizes and uses the close-ups to place the viewer in Leonard’s incredibly limited point of view.  We see what Leonard sees, and Nolan wants the audience as confused as his character. The scene epitomizes subjectivity.

What the close-ups show, however, might be even more significant that the use of the close-up. We see blood running on the floor, bloodied eye glasses, a shell casing, and the back of a man’s head.We only see the murdered man’s face for just a moment, a fraction of a second as he turns away to avoid the bullet. Thus, Teddy is not really a man. He is a collection of disembodied body parts and objects. He is an object himself, an object whose sole purpose is to fulfill some kind of fantasy in Leonard. A fantasy that Leonard knows is not the truth. The objectification of Teddy makes it easier for Leonard to kill him, and, shockingly, easier for the audience to approve of the murder. We are made participants in the heinous act.

Not only does Nolan employ primarily close-ups but he also edits them in rapid progression to further emphasize the ephemeral nature of the scene itself. After the initial six- then eleven-second shots, the rest of the shots last only one or two seconds. And the final shot last less than one second. The fact that the photograph shots last longer than the actual murder proves significant. By shortening the murder scene to mere moments of time and a few scattered shots, Nolan ironically downplays the seriousness of the murder. The viewer watches Leonard’s hand for a longer amount of time than we see the dead body, just as Leonard would. Also, if we were to blink we would miss the murder scene. It comes and goes just like Leonard’s memories. Murder is forgotten. It is not a big deal.

One important feature of the mise-en-scène is the color palette, color which is echoed throughout and serves as a metaphor for Leonard’s condition and the subjectivity of human nature.  Leonard’s tan suit compliments the brownish grey of the floor and walls. These earth tones might evoke the metaphorical grey area that Leonard has entered, an ambiguous place where in the moment he feels what he is doing is right only because he has lied to himself to get there. Possibly the grey might represent grey matter in Leonard’s diseased brain. The browns and greys contrast with the prevalent blues: from the bright blue title letters to the dark blue of the dead man’s denim jacket to the blue of Leonard’s shirt to the blue of Leonard’s eyes. Blue is the color of the sky and the ocean; it represents vastness and power. Leonard holds the gun, pulls the trigger, and has the power to take away life, whether that life deserves to be taken away or not. He is a god among men.

The use of fade-from- and to-black at the beginning and end of the scene parallels the image of the blank, undeveloped picture at the end of the first shot. With these transitions Nolan reinforces the idea that Leonard’s memories are wiped away—they also fade to black—just as the picture is wiped away. But beyond Leonard’s specific condition, Nolan implies here and throughout that that memories and, indeed, reality are subjective for all human beings, not just those with short-term memory loss. We, too, can never really know the truth, and we justify our routines and habits because they are truth to us.

With the use of close-ups, rapid editing, reverse filming, and an emphasis on the colors blue and grey, Christopher Nolan has set up the major themes and philosophy of the film as a whole. While these film elements specifically comment on the unreliability of memories, Nolan is after something much deeper and profound. The film becomes a kind of thought experiment that not only questions the reliability of truth but questions reality as a whole. It asks the ultimate question: In a world where memories and reality are as ephemeral as a few seconds of film, how can we truly know anything? We may be able to convince ourselves that we think we are right about our religion, our life philosophy, and our morality. But how do we really know?