When I first saw the film Memento back in 2000, I recognized several Burbank streets and even a hillside house. Christopher Nolan directed this landmark film (his second) and it pleases me to recall that he had been honing his cinematic genius in my hometown.
At the beginning of the film we see a man, Leonard, covered with tattoos. We quickly learn that his that wife had been brutally attacked and murdered. He himself had been knocked unconscious when attempting to defend her.
But his attacker had left Leonard with a permanent disability. Leonard can’t retain more than several minutes worth of new memory at a time. His mind continually returns to being a blank when it comes to anything that happened after his wife’s murder. Nevertheless, he is determined to find his wife’s killer and take his revenge.
To compensate for his continual forgetfulness, he takes pictures and writes notes. The most crucial messages to himself are tattooed. Mementos.
Leonard’s quest for revenge is told backwards, one short segment at a time, so that we see what took place during his previous minutes, events that he had soon forgotten.
We come to see that Leonard’s mementos are not necessarily reliable guides. Friends may not be friends, enemies may not be enemies.
Here we are now in April 2015, calling to mind the Armenian Genocide (mainly from 1915 to 1917) and the Holocaust (the most horrific period being from 1941 to 1945.) An Armenian of five in 1917 would be 103 years old today. A Jewish child of five in 1945 would be 75 today.
All those with any living memory of these searing events will all too soon be dead. We’ll be left only with…mementos.
As so I have come to see Memento as one of the keenest metaphors of the human condition that has ever been portrayed on the screen. When confronting our own human history, we are like Leonard. Consider that civilization has been around for at least 6,000 years. Yet for most of that span, few lived to be 60 years, and even today, few live to be 100.
Sometimes, it’s hard enough to get people to acknowledge an event even in the face of living witnesses. In the decades following the Armenian Genocide, the history books were silent. The years of denial—the lack of mementos—of the Armenian Genocide emboldened Hitler to pursue the Jewish Holocaust.
That’s why General Eisenhower ordered that photos be taken of the concentration camps liberated by the Allies. Long after the last survivors and their concentration camp tattoos would be buried, General Eisenhower wanted the memory of what had happened to them tattooed upon our collective memories.
In 1984, George Orwell famously said, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
And those who control the mementos control the present.