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MementoReview - Memento
(Philosophers on Film)
by Andrew Kania (Editor)
Routledge, 2009
Review by Ian DeWeese-Boyd
Aug 17th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 33)

Andrew Kania's contribution to Routledge's Philosophers on Film series takes up Christopher Nolan's fascinating film Memento.  Leonard Shelby, the film's protagonist, who suffers from anterograde amnesia that makes it impossible for him to form new long-term memories, uses tattoos, photographs and notes--mementos--to aid him in his pursuit of his wife's killer.  Many of the essays in this volume discuss the philosophical implications of Leonard's condition and compensatory measures for personal identity, agency, epistemology, memory, and the meaning of life.  Aesthetic issues such as the phenomenology of narrative comprehension, the genre of neo-noir and the ontology and interpretation of film are also considered.  Kania offers no defense for the philosophical value of film, arguing that regardless of whether films themselves do philosophy, texts about film, like the ones in this collection, do.  The essays themselves bear out this claim, consistently offering clear, accessible, and engaging introductions to basic philosophical questions and concepts in a way that enriches our understanding of Memento and philosophy both.

The introductory material includes a short biography of Christopher Nolan, the film's director, as well as an overview of the film.  Memento's main narrative is told in color scenes doled out in reverse chronological order, interleaved with black and white scenes that come in chronological order, but which take place before any of the color scenes.  Confused?  The detailed scene table and figures illustrating scene sequence and chronology are welcome additions that not only shed light on this twisted narrative terrain but also prove a useful reference as one navigates the essays in this collection

In his essay, Michael McKenna's focus is Leonard's capacity to be a moral agent, but his discussion of skepticism, self-knowledge, knowledge of other minds, extended mind, personal identity, and practical agency along the way make for an excellent introduction to this volume.  McKenna asks whether Leonard Shelby is simply a moral monster, dangerous but not an apt target for moral blame, or a responsible person.  He argues that Leonard's capacity to know and care for his future self, to form and carry out long-term plans, to avoid the self-deceptive influence of desire, and to construct a rich and meaningful narrative are so eroded by his condition that his moral responsibility for his acts of murder is vanishingly small.  McKenna confesses that this conclusion goes against the view he had previously proposed, namely, that someone like Leonard is just as responsible for his acts of murder as his unimpaired counterpart. McKenna thus substantiates his claim that "a fine film [can] test philosophical intuitions" and prompt fresh insight (41).

Joseph Levine's essay explores the role memory plays in enabling us to grasp and interact successfully with the world.  Specifically, Levine considers why Leonard's system doesn't work, why his notes, pictures and tattoos--his mementos-- just don't cut it, epistemically speaking.  Using a computational model of the mind (according to which the mind is comprised of a central processing system that is fed information by a number of independently functioning input modules), Levine construes Leonard's problem as information access problem. Leonard's externally stored memories, unlike normal memories, require transformation by means of perception and interpretation (operations of modular input systems) to be useful in answering question like What should I believe? (an operation of the central system). Combined with his inability to retain information more than a few minutes, Leonard's system rarely affords him all the information he needs to make sound decisions about who to trust or what to believe .  The quantity of information available is affected by the quality of access to that information.  Levine takes this diagnosis of Leonard's deficit to yield a principled way of distinguishing what's inside the mind from what is outside it, thus calling into question certain aspects of Clark and Chalmer's view that mental states may be grounded in physical traces like Leonard's mementos that reside outside the head (the extended mind thesis).  In Levine's view, something is inside the mind just in case it is directly accessible to the central-system.  Thus, scraps of paper, photographs and tattoos that require processing (perception and interpretation) to be used are not inside the mind even if they are close at hand.  Leonard's system doesn't work, then, because his mementos are not in mind.  This essay, like McKenna's exemplifies the way a film can prompt genuine philosophical insight.

In John Sutton's view, film and philosophy can be "mutually illuminating" (67). Memento, he contends brings into sharp relief roles that memory plays in our personal and social lives normally rendered invisible by their pervasiveness.  Sutton connects Leonard's case to similar cases documented in the psychological literature to show the way Leonard's interaction with his distributed memory system--his mementos--illustrates the uneasy and confusing relation between the various forms of memory.  He also shows how understanding the distinctions between personal, factual, and habitual (embodied or procedural) memory enable us to see how the film both captures and problematizes them. The result, Sutton claims, is that Memento reveals how deeply these forms of memory intertwine in our self-understanding or lack thereof.  He concludes with the observation that Memento dismantles any notion of mind/body dualism by showing the deep and complex ways personal and embodied memories interpenetrate.

Raymond Martin's essay takes up the role memory plays in giving meaning to our lives.  In contrast to McKenna, who seems to think Leonard's inability to produce a life with narrative unity greatly diminishes the possibility of leading meaningful life, Martin argues that one may well live a life of value to oneself and others even if one's capacity to form new memories is severely limited.  Afterall, Leonard can still find joy in the moment and possess  a purpose for living even if he can't appreciate his life's narrative unity.  Arguing that technological advances might well mitigate many of the practical problems Leonard faces, Martin claims that a meaningful life is not beyond his reach. Nevertheless, Levine's skepticism about the possibility of technological memory and McKenna's about Leonard's capacity for agency prompt readers to wonder whether Martin's faith in technological fixes is too great.  It is one of the great values of this book that the essays themselves conduct a sort of dialogue reflective readers can't help but enter.

According to Richard Hanley, films 'get you thinking', but philosophy 'keeps you thinking'.  In his view, Leonard's case gets you thinking about whether Leonard's identity itself is damaged by his condition.  In what sense does Leonard survive his accident?  Are his connections to the near and distant past robust enough to support the view that he is the same person?  Hanely contends that whether we take identity to be bodily or psychological continuity, Leonard is a single person.  The various accounts of personal identity Hanley canvasses, however, do help us to assess the nature and quality of Leonard's connection to his past self. Hanley argues that Leonard's persistent desire to exact revenge, his short-term memories, along with his mementos likely allow for enough continuity with his past selves to constitute him their survivor.  The essay doesn't endorse a particular view of identity, but leaves the reader to decide which theory works best.  Hanley ends with a discussion of time travel scenarios suggested by the backwards narrative of Memento.  Like a person traveling back in time, viewers of Memento must draw on their memories of the future to reconstruct the narrative.  Leonard's situation, however, bears only a passing likeness to that of the reverse time traveler, leaving the impression that this section is somewhat tangential to the essay. Nevertheless, the discussion of time travel, memory and identity raises some interesting if unresolved puzzles, delivering on the promise that philosophy will 'keep you thinking'.

Beginning with Noël Carroll's essay, the volume turns from epistemology and metaphysics to aesthetics.  Carol begins with an extended defense of the possibility of 'movie made philosophy', arguing that films do philosophy that requires neither translation nor paraphrase to be authentic. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of aesthetics, philosophy of film and film history, Carroll shows how Nolan's Memento taps into the legacy of Art Cinema and avante garde experimentations with narrative structure to induce a 'reflextive critique' of narrative comprehension.  By problematizing our experience of its narrative, Memento forces us to notice how we are making sense of the story.  This heightened self-awareness, Carroll argues, leads reflective viewers to grasp three aspects of narrative comprehension basic to the philosophy of the motion picture: first, the distinction between the order of events shown in the film (discourse) and the chronological order of events in the pertinent world whether fictional or actual (story), second, our role as co-constructors of the narrative (constructing the story from the discourse), and finally, the nature of the way the discourse captivates our attention and motivates our interest in the story by raising and answering questions along the way (in Carroll's parlance, film narratives are 'erotetic'). These insights, Carroll claims are granted the thoughtful viewer by means of the film's phenomenological address and as such the film is functionally similar to any work of philosophy.   His essay, then, is a contribution both to the philosophy of the motion picture and the philosophy of movie made philosophy.

Deborah Knight and George McKnight's essay on Memento and neo-noir is a model of Aristotelian poetics in practice.  Laying out the generic features of the elusive notions of noir and neo-noir, Knight and McKnight's analysis shows how viewing Memento as belonging to this lineage highlights certain aesthetic features of the film. They consider the way Nolan develops the noir themes of mystery and detection while at the same time reconfiguring normal conventions in terms of plot structure and the relationship between the femme fatale and detective figures.  Because he cannot form new memories and seems to have a tenuous grasp of pivotal events, Leonard as the detective figure is incapable determining who is responsible for what has happened or even who is a trustworthy guide in this endeavor.  Combined with the reverse presentation of the story, this feature forces the viewer to adopt the position of the detective, determining what to believe and who to blame.  And yet, these same aesthetic features subvert the viewer's attempts to make such judgments.  According to Knight and McKnight, then, Memento's aesthetic features generate the film's basic philosophical questions and simultaneously frustrate attempts to answer them.  They conclude that once we have grasped the story Memento can be understood along Aristotelian lines, but as irony not tragedy, since Leonard is incapable of the self-recognition so essential to Aristotle's account of tragedy.  Left to sort things out for ourselves, feeling acutely the irony of Leonard's situation, we are squarely in the dark terrain of neo-noir.

The last essay by Andrew Kania turns directly to the meaning and nature of artworks. To what extent should an artist's actual or possible intentions figure in determining a work's meaning or nature?  After tracing the implications the major theories would have for interpreting Memento, Kania, asks what exactly Memento is.  Is it a film, full stop? or Is it a hybrid work that includes the extra web-material released with the film?  Does it matter whether the director has an opinion on this question?  Ultimately, Kania argues that Memento is only a film, because the relevant audience, following mainstream film conventions, both expected and took it to be a film.  In addition to showing where ontology and interpretation meet, Kania's essay itself stands as an example of what careful interpretation looks like.

As a whole, this volume is notable for avoiding facile connections that diminish both the film and philosophy considered. The range of topics, the dialogue the essays themselves foster, and the genuine philosophical light shed by them will, as Hanley says, not only 'get you thinking' but 'keep you thinking.'  This collection is a good choice for undergraduate courses in philosophy and is accessible enough to be of interest to philosophically minded fans of Memento or film more generally.      


© 2010 Ian DeWeese-Boyd


Ian DeWeese-Boyd, Ph.D., Philosophy Dept, Gordon College, MA.


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