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  • Writer's pictureNishant D'souza

Edit School #1: Dissecting 'Memento'

Updated: Mar 4

memento cover image

Everyone knows how Christopher Nolan's film Memento stands as a masterpiece in cinematic storytelling due to its unconventional narrative structure and intricate editing techniques. By analyzing the interplay between the film's non-linear narrative, visual elements, and editing choices, I thought it'd be cool to delve a little into the "why" part, highlighting how editing, in particular, can serve as a storytelling tool to leave a lasting impression on viewers.

How Nolan Uses his Obsession with Time in Memento

Memento challenges traditional storytelling conventions by adopting a unique narrative structure that mirrors the protagonist's fractured memory. The film's narrative alternates between two parallel storylines: one presented in black-and-white sequences moving chronologically and another in color sequences presented in reverse chronological order. This temporal disruption is underpinned by some mad editing that not only captivates the audience but also immerses them in the protagonist's disoriented world, by blurring the line between memory and reality.

christopher nolan bts gif

Here's how Nolan approaches his storytelling, in his own words -

"I don't write a story outline. I draw a lot of diagrams when I work. I do a lot of thinking about etchings by Escher, for instance. That frees me, to find a mathematical model or a scientific model. I draw pictures and diagrams that illustrate the movement or the rhythm that I'm after."

Breaking Down Memento on Premiere Pro

The film's editing techniques are a crucial factor in rendering the audience's experience akin to the protagonist's memory disorder, anterograde amnesia, and creating disruption in the narration. The abrupt shifts between color and black-and-white sequences keep the audience on edge, demanding their active participation in piecing together the fragmented narrative puzzle. The sequencing of the color scenes in reverse order, intercut with the black-and-white scenes in the correct order, aligns the viewer's perspective with the protagonist's, compelling them to engage in sense-making and speculation.

Honestly, this is a little difficult to describe in just words, so here's a quick re-edit I did in Premiere Pro, showing you what that means. The pink snippets on the timeline represent the scenes in black-and-white, while the green snippets are the ones in color. The last scene transitions from black-and-white to color in a very in-your-face manner to make it clear to the viewer how the two timelines are connected (something we saw Nolan do in Oppenheimer too, by the way).

black and whiite sequences explained

As per the actual chronology of the storyline, the black-and-white scenes play first, one after the other in the right order.

gif editing

Then comes the final scene of the movie (technically the middle of the story from a chronological perspective) which transitions from black-and-white to color.

black scene from momento

And finally after that, the color sequences play out but arranged in reverse order.

color sequence in reverse order

If you want to understand every single story point of the movie with no confusion whatsoever, this edit would be the best way. No way in hell should you ruin the experience and watch Memento like this though! Sometimes it's more about character association and immersion than understanding every single plot point.

This is why editing in Memento plays a significant role in character identification. Leonard Shelby, the film's protagonist, relies on polaroid photographs and tattoos to remember fleeting moments. The editing emphasizes the gaps in his memory, making the audience not only empathize with his struggles but also question the reliability of their own perception.

To Conclude

Christopher Nolan's masterful manipulation of time through editing transforms Memento into a cinematic experience that leaves an everlasting mark on the viewer's memory, much like the elusive memories of its protagonist. The film stands as a testament to the power of editing as a storytelling tool that challenges conventions and invites viewers to grapple with the intricate interplay of memory and reality.

The film's visual aesthetics underscore the narrative's themes as well. The juxtaposition of black-and-white and color sequences evokes a stark contrast between Leonard's present state and his memories of the past. As the narrative unfolds in its unique structure, the audience pieces together the puzzle along with Leonard (Gaspar Noé's Irreversible did this well too by the way). This breakaway from traditional storytelling builds suspense, encourages active engagement, and prompts viewers to speculate on the connection between scenes. Editing, thus, is not just a technical aspect of filmmaking but a crucial means to evoke curiosity and intellectual involvement.

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