Memento’s Hidden Agenda

Why is the movie Memento such a cult hit? Partly, of course, because it’s a nicely crafted thriller that keeps audiences guessing right through to the end, if not afterward. But Chatterbox feels that the boomer-centric explanation for the film’s runaway success has received insufficient consideration. Memento is the first movie to explore the topic of encroaching senility in a way that baby boomers, who think of themselves as eternally youthful, will tolerate. That is: allegorically.

Memento tells the story of Leonard Shelby, who suffers from short-term memory loss. In real life, Leonard would likely be a wrinkled, liver-spotted fellow with a few remaining tufts of white hair. In the movie, Leonard is a young man with big pectoral muscles and a washboard stomach (he’s played by Guy Pearce, the straight-arrow cop in L.A. Confidential) who lost his short-term memory when he got smacked in the head by a man who raped and killed his wife. Leonard is determined to find his wife’s killer, but he can’t keep the evidence he’s collecting in his mind for more than a few minutes, so he must devise elaborate stratagems such as tattooing concise summaries of what he knows so far all over his body. The film is remarkably effective at conveying how difficult it is to function when you can’t remember things from one moment to the next. It presents this mental condition as something exotic, like an illness one would read about in a book by whatsisname, the guy who wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Oliver Sacks. In fact, as Chatterbox demonstrates here, not remembering things from one moment to the next is only a slightly exaggerated version of the short-term brain deterioration that most people start experiencing in a casual way during middle age, and which in old age can become as bad as or worse than anything Leonard Shelby experiences in Memento (without the compensating benefit of getting to sleep with Carrie-Anne Moss). Memento is therefore not only a work of art; it is also an artfully camouflaged work of gerontology.

“But Chatterbox,” you protest. “Memento isn’t a boomer phenomenon. It’s a youth phenomenon. The audience that put it on the map consists mainly of the sons and daughters of boomers. And the writer-director, Christopher Nolan, is too young to be a baby boomer!” To Chatterbox, none of this matters because these days all of America is swimming in a popular culture that is controlled by, even when it isn’t directly created by or for, baby boomers. We have the presidency. We have the movie studios. We own the software that creates and allows you to read these very words. We’re everywhere! And everything is about us. Even when we can’t remember what it is. We can always look it up in our PalmPilots.