dir. Chris Nolan
Opens Fri March 30 at the Egyptian.

"A philosopher--is a human being who constantly sees, hears, suspects, hopes, and dreams extraordinary things, who is struck by his own thoughts as from outside, as from above and below, as by his type of experiences and lightning bolts; who is perhaps himself a storm pregnant with new lightnings; a fatal human being around whom there are constant rumblings and growlings, crevices and uncanny doings. A philosopher--alas, a being that often runs away from itself, often is afraid of itself--but too inquisitive not to "come to" again--always back to himself." --Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

In addition to being a superlative film, Memento is a brilliant work of classical philosophy (from Descartes to Nietzsche). Ostensibly a thriller centered on Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a vengeful private investigator suffering from short-term memory loss following the murder of his wife, the film effectively mines the rich soil of the film noir mystery, with universally corrupt characters and a watertight, intricate plot. But instead of heading toward a solution, the moment of satisfaction, Memento plays backward from its opening murder (the solution) to arrive at an ending that is actually at the start of the story.

As we retrace Leonard's steps, we are immersed in an ongoing, eternal moment: With no memory to build from, Leonard is constantly starting over, reassembling his world almost from scratch, aided only by notes, Polaroids, and the most recent five minutes' discoveries. So while Memento has all of the accouterments of a classic "whodunit," at its heart and through Leonard's eyes, the film is more of a "what-am-I-doing?"


"I am here." --Descartes

The movie starts here: the body. Not only chronologically (the movie starts with a murder), but philosophically the body is the starting point. This is the hard body that has just emerged from pure nothingness into a world where it must now do something. But before the body (Leonard Shelby) determines what it is going to do in the world, for a brief moment it is just existing. At this point, the body can only say, "I am here." "I am here," wildly running away from someone (or am I running to them?); or "I am here," lying in bed with a strange woman; or "I am here" on a toilet seat with a bottle of whisky in hand. These are preconscious moments, the body before deliberate action, before knowledge, before understanding.

The French philosopher Descartes described this type of body as the "unconscious machine." This, he claimed, is the condition of all animals--they just have a body, a "complicated machine" made of sensual flesh, hard bones, and billions of blood cells. Descartes called the human a "conscious machine," a machine that knows. But how does the thing know?


"The occasion of an erection is a motive, because it is an idea." --Schopenhauer

There are three stems of human knowledge in Memento that differ in degree. Deep knowledge takes the form of the personal memories Leonard had before his brain was damaged. Then there is long-term knowledge that is tattooed on Leonard's body ("John G. raped and murdered your wife," says one tattoo) and seems almost like parable or myth. Lastly, there's immediate knowledge: facts that are contained in Polaroid photos. These photos--of his car, of people he meets, of the motel he is staying in--yank Leonard out of nothingness and place him in the narrative flow of the now. "Who is this person I'm talking to?" he asks. The photo offers him an image, under which is the person's name, and a few words explaining the person's role--friend or foe.

Philosophically, these photos represent an empirical form of knowledge, knowledge extracted directly from experience and then stored and formed into an idea outside the body. "Thoughts without content are empty," wrote the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, "intuitions without concepts are blind." Indeed, without the photo/idea, the body cannot think, and without thoughts it cannot act deliberately. Therefore knowledge, according to Memento, is a postori (drawn from experience) instead of a priori (before experience).


"Some know how to muddle and abuse their own memory in order to have their revenge at least against this only witness: Shame is inventive." --Nietzsche

As a statement of philosophy, Memento ultimately seeks to codify a system of ethics. What is given is this: Leonard, devoid of the constricting function of memory, is reduced to a pure physiological affect. Both his being and his knowledge fuel nothing more than a drive toward revenge: The entirety of his code of ethics derives directly from this singular will to power.

The ultimate recipient of Leonard's will is his suspicious companion Teddy. "You don't know who you are," Teddy says, referring, of course, to his role as arbiter of society, as symbol of human reality to Leonard. Teddy thus acts as a mirror, reflecting Leonard's morality back at him, saying, "I gave you a reason to live."

Of course, in Leonard's specific ethical architecture, this statement may be greeted by only one logical action: murder. It is only by killing the "other," by zeroing the moral equation, that Leonard's moral system achieves fullness. His ethical mandate, fueled by a complete but highly nihilistic set of moral precepts, can only be satisfied by the rote extermination of a randomly selected class of persons--in this case, the class of Caucasian males whose names are "John G."

Moreover, though it manages to fly against every accepted moral construct of mainstream society, Leonard's code of ethics remains internally consistent with his greater philosophy. In short, Leonard occupies a moral space that is beyond good and evil.


"Women are the death of Philosophy." --Plato

Precisely because it is a classical philosophy, Memento must by definition fail to address the fairer sex, unless negatively. Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), the principal female character, is thus cast as a manipulative cipher who variously seduces and deceives Leonard, ultimately sabotaging his philosophical system.

Of course, even in so brilliant a film, such myopia is to be expected: One of the unifying features of classical philosophy is its inability to account for the female of the species. Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer, Hume--the Western canon is full to bursting with thinkers who, while they could comfortably tackle the very subtlest of shades of meaning in language, manners, morals, and intents, could not understand women at all. Perhaps Nietzsche best exemplified this classical disconnect:

"Woman does not understand what food means--and wants to be cook. If woman were a thinking creature, she, as cook for millennia, would surely have had to discover the greatest physiological facts, and she would have had to gain possession of the art of healing. Bad cooks--and the utter lack of reason in the kitchen--have delayed human development longest and impaired it most."