Let's do the twist - again, again and again

Memento (15) | Christopher Nolan, 113 mins
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The Independent Culture

As the premise of a movie, amnesia tends to be a lot less infallible than one imagines it's going to be. It's almost too strong, too outlandish, a narrative device. (Have you ever known anyone with amnesia?) Like a red-nosed, baggy-trousered clown who expects the public to fall about laughing even before he's done anything to earn its laughter, amnesia is so intriguing in itself that a lazy film-maker might be tempted to believe that, with an amnesiac for a protagonist, who needs a plot?

As the premise of a movie, amnesia tends to be a lot less infallible than one imagines it's going to be. It's almost too strong, too outlandish, a narrative device. (Have you ever known anyone with amnesia?) Like a red-nosed, baggy-trousered clown who expects the public to fall about laughing even before he's done anything to earn its laughter, amnesia is so intriguing in itself that a lazy film-maker might be tempted to believe that, with an amnesiac for a protagonist, who needs a plot?

The first surprise of Christopher Nolan's Memento is that its hero (the excellent Guy Pearce, a Brad Pitt who also knows how to act) is afflicted not with amnesia as we generally understand the condition but with short-term memory loss. Leonard is a claims investigator for an insurance company whose existence has been split into two by a single traumatic event, the brutal rape and murder of his wife. Everything prior to that event he can remember; everything subsequent to it he forgets almost immediately. So he has devised a bizarre mnemonic method as an aid to survival, scribbling down obsessive notes to himself (names, addresses, etc), taking endless Polaroid snapshots (of, for example, the dingy Los Angeles motel in which he's staying) and even having himself tattooed with messages advising him either to trust, or not, those he encounters in his quest for revenge.

The second surprise is that the story is told backwards, beginning, precisely, with Leonard's revenge and ending with - ah, but that would be giving away the beginning.

There's no question that Memento is a tour de force and, as I intend to recommend it anyway, I may as well imitate its reverse structure and recommend it now. If the prospect of having to do some of the work yourself doesn't alarm you, then Nolan's first American film (in Britain he made the admired Following) is well worth catching, a thriller which is for once authentically Borgesian, to use an overworked qualifier. The word "cult" has already been bandied about, which is usually a sign of intrinsic phoniness, but not in this case.

There is, however, a however. (There's always a however.) Literally speaking, attempting to narrate a storyline in reverse order is impossible; it would make for as stupefyingly meaningless an experience as listening to a backward-running tape of a Brahms symphony. What, as expected, Nolan actually does is have his film's narrative unfold in a series of very thinly sliced tranches, which means that it's not the individual scenes themselves that have been reversed but exclusively the order in which they are presented to us. Think of a watch whose minute hand revolves clockwise and whose hour hand revolves counterclockwise. Or else of someone telling a long, convoluted joke and repeatedly interrupting his own train of thought with "By the way, did I say that..." or "Sorry, I forgot to mention..." Since one rapidly (indeed, all too rapidly) gets the hang of this increasingly mechanical effect-preceding-cause principle, there comes a point when one finds oneself comfortably settling back to wait for the revelation, at the end of each scene, of just what that scene was up to. And sure enough, there it is, on cue, again and again and again. It never fails.

The radical anti-linearity of Memento, in short, eventually turns into a system like any other. And though I'd normally be the last to complain of a director refusing to be trammelled by the conventions of mainstream Hollywood illusionism, I have to confess that, as I observed how even Nolan's most brilliant twists (there are a couple of real zingers) made a notably less powerful impact on me than they would have done had they been grounded in a more traditional schema, I was forcefully reminded of just why, since the dawn of time, simple, straightforward linearity has always been the preferred mode of storytellers. On top of which, as I write this review only two days after seeing the film, I realise I've already started to forget, like poor Leonard himself, much of what happened in it. Recommended, nevertheless.

Salò, Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film about a clique of Italian Fascists who in the last chaotic months of the Second World War hole up in an isolated castle with a score of young minions, both male and female, whom they then subject to a hellish regime of torture, sodomy, excrement-eating and so forth (and so forth!), has never before been screened in this country in a complete print, except for an aborted club release. (It was almost at once hacked by the censors, who left, as you might say, the faeces on the cutting-room floor.) It's a masterpiece, still the most convincing representation of human cruelty in the history of the cinema. I say "representation" - only newsreels are more disturbing than Salò.

Based on The 120 Days of Sodom, it was in its day anathematised by the Left as much as by the Right: the Right for the obvious reasons, the Left because it found unacceptably reactionary the film's equation of Sade's anarchic spirit with the revolting activities of a bunch of ... well, sadists. This is irrefutable but misses the point. Like The 120 Days of Sodom itself, Salò is a horrible yet also amazing exercise in unflinching self-exposure, a portrait of the artist as an insatiable sexual fantasist.

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