Meaning vs. Perception and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”

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Leonard Shelby of Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”

“My wife deserves vengeance. Doesn’t make any difference whether I know about it. Just because there are Things I don’t remember doesn’t make my actions meaningless,” says Leonard Shelby — a character in Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film Memento– with anterograde amnesia, or the inability to form short-term memories. Every 10 minutes or so, Leonard’s memory resets, remembering nothing but seeing his wife on the floor, evidently dying. 

Though the 21st century had just begun, Memento quickly has become one of its best productions, becoming one of the first movies to effectively tell a story in reverse and using a fascinating combination of black and white and colored film to create a cohesive movie told most uncohesively. 

At the heart of the movie is a question about meaningfulness in life and its definition in humanity. Many strive to achieve something meaningful in life, to leave a lasting mark on the world long after death. But in truth, as Memento reveals, humans shouldn’t strive to actually change the world to their liking. More accurately, they should strive to convince themselves that they have changed the world. 

In Memento, Leonard’s goal throughout the movie is to find and murder his wife’s killer, “John G.”, to find justice to his wife. At the same time, Leonard’s goal plays a much more important role in his life: to allow him to continue to live and be functional with his condition. Towards the end (or the start) of the movie, it is revealed that it was Leonard himself who killed his wife, that the one who gave Leonard his condition was killed long ago, and that Leonard continued the hunt for “John G” so that he could continue to have a purpose in his life. While most humans dream of achieving a goal or fulfilling their purpose, Leonard’s goal was to have a purpose. Leonard believes that his perspective is irrelevant, but in reality, his perspective is the only thing that matters. 

In this way Memento reminds the audience that perspective is also the only thing that matters is the perspective one, not the actual effect they had on the world. Vincent van Gogh died of suicide at age 37, a failed artist who had only sold one painting in his life. Oliver Cromwell died a hero, the destroyer of the British monarchy, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Yet two years later, the monarchy was fully restored, and three years later, Cromwell’s body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and was posthumously executed for his “crimes”. These posthumous actions are irrelevant to van Gogh and Cromwell in every way but memory. It is a sobering and somewhat depressing thought that perception is more important than actuality, even if a person desires actuality above all else.

One thought on “Meaning vs. Perception and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento””

  1. It is sometimes the case but not always. I guess we are shooting in the dark pursuing what we believe in. Whether we will have an impact lasting beyond our lifetime is questionable. The meaning is shaped by our drive, harmony, gladness while we are alive and doing whatever you are engaged in. Both Cromwell and Van Gogh probably did not even care about the future after death, but felt alive and driven. The goal was a side effect. The action was real, not just perceived. What was their motivation? Simply their willingness to do what they set to do in life.

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