Memento: Our Need to Remember

Posted: February 7, 2012 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Drama, Mystery, Thriller
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Christopher Nolan is quickly becoming one of the most fascinating film directors of our time.  Four of his movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Inception) rank in the IMDB Top 250 movies, even though Nolan is just 41 years old.  He is presently finishing his fabulous Dark Knight trilogy, as well as the production of a new Superman movie.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to view one of his earliest films, the low-budget 2000 film Memento.  Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

If you have seen Inception, your head will hurt in much the same way when you watch Memento.  The story is told mainly in reverse with some forward action mixed in.  The protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffers from short-term memory loss after receiving a blow to the head when he witnessed his wife’s murder.  He uses Polaroid photographs, notes, and tattoos as memory aids to hunt for the murderer.  Leonard needs those “facts” to get him started each day (and sometimes during the day) since he can’t commit anything to memory since the murder.

This short-term memory loss causes a variety of problems for Leonard, as you can imagine.  Friends become offended that he can’t remember anything about them–even their names.  Several people take advantage of his memory loss, from the humorous (renting him multiple motel rooms since he can’t remember his room number) to the dangerous (manipulating him to commit crimes).  And finally, Leonard has the tedious daily task of continuing to put the puzzle pieces of the murder mystery together, always starting from square one.

The key theme of Memento is our utter dependence on our memories.  Without his short-term memory, Leonard has to create an imitation memory by way of notes, photos, and tattoos.  He attaches captions to the photos so that he knows where he lives, who to trust, and who might be his wife’s murderer.  The tattoos are believed to be irrefutable facts, thus he makes them “permanent” all over his body.  Leonard convinces himself that his information system is actually better than mere human memory because he is relying on “facts” rather than a weak memory.  The problem is that his perceived facts need interpretation, can also be manipulated, and require proper context to truly understand them.

You’ll have to watch the movie (if you don’t mind an overuse of the “f” word) to find out what Leonard’s short-term memory loss does to him in the end.  What you’ll ultimately discover–if you don’t know it already–is how much we NEED our memories!  Scripture consistently exhorts us to make regular use of our memories.  Israel was often instructed to remember their deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  They were to remember God’s love for them and all His commands.  Why?  Because, in a way, we are all suffering from Leonard’s disability.  We are commanded to remember God and His ways every day because we so often forget.  As Leonard basically “started over” in his remembering each day, so must we.

The good news for believers is that, even with our short-term memory loss, God always remembers us!  His memory is perfect, and His daily remembering moves Him to merciful action.  Instead of Polaroids, notes, and tattoos, the LORD God has covenant signs that prompt Him to remember His promises.  The rainbow serves as a sign to remind him to never destroy the earth with a flood again.  Baptism is a covenant sign that points to the believer’s union with Christ and our cleansing from sin.  And, best of all, God’s remembering of His people is accompanied by an absolute commitment to “remember our sins no more” because of the blood of Christ!  If God would ever forget us, we would all be lost in our sins forever.

Like all of us, Leonard absolutely needed his memory.  Without it, he inadvertently manipulated the facts of his life into a totally different story.  His memory aids ended up failing him.  Thankfully, instead of Polaroids, notes, and tattoos, we have God’s Word as the perfect memory aid.  It gives our memories perfect context and direction.  In the end, it is God’s Word that must be tattooed all over our minds–as we read in Deuteronomy 11:18, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”


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