Friday, May 8, 2009

Memento: Creating the Male Victim

If you take a look at Spicer’s description of the “male victim”, you’ll see that he differentiates between two types of the character. The first victim is a middle-class drifter or professional; he is morally weak, attempting to escape the frustrations of his daily life and he uses his story to explain or excuse his actions. The second type is in the wrong place at the wrong time; he has to battle his way out of adversity displaying some heroic qualities; he often doubts his sanity; he is resilient and courageous, but he almost always needs outside help. We get the sense from Spicer that these are two distinct versions of the “male victim”, but Leonard Shelby in Memento is a composite of both. Due to his unique psychological condition, Leonard is a character that can encompass all the qualities the noir figure, creating an ultimate “male victim”.

Leonard is both a professional and a drifter. The part of his life that he remembers is as an insurance salesman, but the life he’s been living since his wife’s murder is as a drifter. Director Christopher Nolan says of the character, “Shelby knows who he is, but not who he has become”. This fact allows for the juxtaposition of the victim types. He is attempting to escape his frustrating life through memory tricks, but he often finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Due to his memory loss, he can’t completely trust the reality he finds himself in. Leonard wants to be the good guy and he appears to be one throughout most of the film, but that’s only because he’s living in the past. He can’t live in the present and engage with the man he has become. At the film’s conclusion (stories beginning), we see that Leonard’s present character is morally weak. He sets himself up to be a killer just so his life will have purpose. He’s a Jekyll/Hyde character; his cognizant self plays off his confused self to create targets for execution.

We can’t blame Leonard entirely though. Robert Porfirio says that “noir’s ‘non-heroic’ hero is such because he operates in a world devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce a traditional hero”. The noir universe that is the setting of Memento is so corrupt and twisted that Leonard cannot gain his moral bearings and thus becomes an anti-hero. Teddy, a cop, and one of his only friends, is an incredibly amoral character. Instead of stopping Leonard or helping him, all those around him encourage murder. In this type of environment, he doesn’t stand a chance.

The complex narrative structure of Memento gives us a better experience of the anti-hero’s condition. All the uncertainty and ambiguity that arises out of the backward narrative confuses the audience, putting them in a better position to understand Leonard. This style, attached to noir’s existentialist questions creates a film that deeply ponders the nature of perception and humanity.

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