Forward to the Past

Forward to the Past

Forward to the Past

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March 16 2001 3:00 AM

Forward to the Past

Memento begins with a killer ending; Enemy at the Gates can't even shoot straight.

A scene from Memento

Most thrillers aim at a place so much lower than the brain that when a bonafide synapse-tickler like Memento comes along, you might feel like popping a bottle of champagne—partly to celebrate, partly to calm those anxious gray cells. It's scary to have to puzzle out a plot line scene by scene—scary and exhilarating, at least for an hour. The movie, directed by 30-year-old Englishman Christopher Nolan (adapted from a short story by his brother, Jonathan), is film noir by way of Oliver Sacks. It's obviously not the first mystery to use amnesia as a hook, but it might be the cleverest at concocting a cinematic syntax to mimic its protagonist's peculiar neurological malady. In most mysteries, you're dying to know what happens next. In this one, you can hardly wait for the beginning.

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Let me explain. No—let me enhance your obfuscation. The protagonist, Leonard (Guy Pearce), has little in the way of short-term memory. At odd intervals—every few hours, or sometimes every 15 minutes—he finds himself in a new present, the previous slate having been wiped clean. He knows (he thinks) his name and previous occupation, that his beloved wife (seen in flashbacks) was raped and murdered, and that in the course of that crime he received an injury to the brain such that no more memories can accumulate. He knows his purpose in life is to hunt down and kill his wife's murderer. If the director were to follow Leonard from one episode (one fleeting unit of memory) to the next, then we in the audience would know everything he has forgotten. We'd be many steps ahead of him—and boringly oriented.

But the gimmick of Memento is that the damned thing goes backward. Well, backward and then forward, like a recurrent temporal hiccup. The syntax doesn't mirror Leonard's mind exactly, but it does result in our not knowing, along with Leonard, why he's sitting in a given place at a given time. The foundation of memory is missing. The movie isn't a whodunnit but a why'dhedoit, the suspense of each new scene pegged to Leonard quickly reading the situation and reorienting himself—quite a challenge in, say, mid-car-chase.

Leonard does have some help. He has taken Polaroids and scribbled captions on them—messages to himself from the past. Some have the names of important people, like the dark and spiky Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) or the inexplicably chummy Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). More enduring nuggets of wisdom are tattooed all over his torso. And if the narrative line isn't zigzaggy enough, there's a sort of intermittent parallel plot, in which Leonard recounts (over the phone to an unseen listener) the tale of Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man with a similar neurological condition. In his previous life as an insurance investigator, Leonard was apparently less than empathetic—which either suggests that his current affliction is poetic justice or that the story itself is a fabrication, the product of an addled psyche's search for meaning.

What's to be gained by plotting a mystery in reverse? It turns us into historians, combing the present for clues to the past and then finding—when we actually visit that past—that our interpretations were wrong. We didn't get it—we didn't see. Memento opens with a Polaroid of the dead Teddy, which then un-develops and is sucked back into the camera. The blood un-splatters, Teddy falls up, the bullet returns to Leonard's gun. Throughout the movie our thoughts come back to that act of violence: Who, we need to know, is Teddy really, and why does Leonard have to kill him? Did he rape and murder Leonard's wife, or has Leonard been set up—maybe by that fatale-looking femme, Natalie? The question has an urgency bordering on the existential. "I have to believe in a world outside my mind," says Leonard, in voice-over, his words underscored by David Julian's tingling strings. "I have to believe that my actions have meaning, even if I don't remember them." When a full explanation comes, it's momentarily irritating—our vigilante preconceptions go out the window—and then, on reflection, a great, morbid joke.

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Not all of Memento is as tantalizing as its premise. There's a monotony to the pattern of jump back, plod forward, jump back, plod forward: During the second half I thought the beginning would never come. And Pearce isn't an especially likable protagonist—his handsomeness is bland and faintly smug. Pearce makes it easy to identify with Natalie's annoyance at Leonard, and the terrifically intense Carrie-Anne Moss gets to play a scene of startling nastiness. She taunts Leonard with an abandon that comes from knowing he won't remember a word. Her rant has an eerie resonance, since in my experience women are often driven crazy by men's self-servingly selective memories. How often I've wished I could stammer, "Honey, it's not my fault. It's this darn frontal lobe …"

A scene from Enemy at the Gates

The story of the movie Enemy at the Gates occupies only a few stirring pages of William Craig's classic 1973 account (with the same title) of the battle of Stalingrad. The 1942 siege itself was one of the most horrific of the 20th century, with casualties exceeding a million and grotesque inhumanity on all sides. (The Nazis and the Soviets both committed their share of atrocities.) In the middle of the mass carnage, though, was a B-movie-worthy duel between two super-snipers. Vassili Zaitsev, a handsome shepherd from the Urals, had become a Soviet folk hero for his ability to drop his targets with a single shot—to the point where the Third Reich dispatched a Bavarian aristocrat named Konings whose objective was to trap and kill this one man.

The film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, doesn't stint on mud, corpses, or rubble, but the focus is all screwed-up. Someone must have thought the story of Zaitsev (played by Jude Law), his sniper-lover Tania (Rachel Weisz), and a political agitator called Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) would make a terrific Titanic-style love triangle; that the spattery battle scenes would win over the Saving Private Ryan audience; and that the cat-and-mouse struggle between the earnest blond hero and the icy Nazi (here called Konig and played by Ed Harris) would be the neatest thing this side of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul. Annaud does well with the sniper scenes—long, tense watches ended by the crack of a rifle and the explosion of someone's head or chest. But he doesn't have a clue how to dramatize the romance. Fiennes, whose eyes are extremely close together, stares with a mixture of rage and longing at Weisz, whose eyes are extremely far apart, and the film turns into The Dating Game designed by Picasso. The Russians talk in English and the Germans talk in German, except when Ed Harris shows up and then everyone talks in English. Skinny, neurotically clipped British actors give each other hearty Russian bear hugs.

If Enemy at the Gates were going to work, Annaud would have had to set up some kind of ironic relationship between the hundreds of thousands of people dying randomly and the almost absurdly focused, mano-a-mano fight-to-the-finish between the rival sharpshooters. But the director, who has no ear for dialogue and tends to think in cloddishly huge cinematic statements, seems oblivious to the abrupt shifts in scale. When one sniper finally takes out the other, he doesn't even bother to show how the rest of the battle turned out. The lovers clutch each other and seem on the verge of sighing, "We'll always have Stalingrad."

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.