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A Moment of Recognition: Spectator Identification in Memento.

In 1955, film scholars Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton contended that the aim of film noir was for the spectator to experience the same 'anguish and insecurity' as the protagonist does. The criminal activity and lack of clear-cut morality inherent to film noir, they argued, 'conspire' to put the viewer in a state of tension. They suggested that the very intention of noir filmmakers was for the spectator to be able to identify with the protagonist and their 'specific alienation'. (1) Often, first-person narration, also called the voiceover, is utilised in film noir to create this effect. This technique is certainly the most well-known, and arguably the most commonly utilised, for creating identification between protagonist and spectator in this genre. However, Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) demonstrates that there are multiple techniques in film noir beyond first-person narration that can be used to create the emotional effect referred to by Borde and Chaumeton.


The idea that 'anguish and insecurity' are feelings central to noir is also upheld by other thinkers. However, there is debate as to whether this anxiety stems from the post-World War II destabilisation of patriarchal authority, or an existential anxiety that is part of the human condition. (2) Such feelings are also central to hardboiled fiction, a genre of literature whose themes and archetypes were adapted by film noir. (3) Hardboiled fiction employs first-person narration out of concern that readers would not otherwise be able to sympathise with the genre's 'morally ambiguous' protagonists, and so the narration intends to create an intimacy between them. (4) Researcher Ed S Tan contends that identification occurs when the spectator truly understands the character's plans and motivations. (5) While this identification is easily achieved through first-person narration in hardboiled fiction, filmmakers at first struggled to translate the same effect to the screen. (6) Having the protagonist narrate events while the spectator observed them--the voiceover--was the most popular solution. (7) In the words of English professor C Scott Combs, voiceover functions as the perspective of an observer 'from outside the diegesis', (8) which effectively mirrors the written form of first-person narration.


Much has been written about the voiceover as an integral part of film noir. (9) However, there are other film techniques that can create the same emotional effect and identification in the spectator. Film professor Edward Branigan writes of 'character projection', wherein 'an aspect of character becomes the organizing principle of present, diegetic time and space'. Projection uses 'metaphorical framing', whereby, 'through connotation, details of the environment are used to characterize [a character's] mental state'. Branigan discusses how both visual and aural aspects of the diegesis can create this effect. (10)

Through the use of close-ups, for instance, camerawork can create a sense of identification. According to Media Studies academic Margrethe Bruun Vaage, watching an emotional face causes the spectator to empathise with the character, through subconscious mimicking of the character's facial expression. (11) Tan similarly contends that close-ups help the spectator understand the significance of particular events for the protagonist. (12) To aid spectator identification, close-ups may often be paired with shots that show what the protagonist is reacting to; together, they help the spectator imagine what the character's experience must be like. (13)

Similarly, structuring the film around the protagonist's point of view creates identification. This can be achieved not just through voiceover, but also through devices such as flashbacks, dreams and hallucination sequences. (14) Another example common to film noir is the screen fading to black to signify the protagonist having been knocked unconscious. (15) Through these devices, the spectator experiences the world as the protagonist does. The most excessive example of point-of-view framing occurs in film noir Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery, 1947), in which the protagonist stays behind the camera and is only seen when he passes a mirror. Audiences at the time reacted negatively to this experiment, which featured shots such as the protagonist's arm emerging from behind the camera to open doors. (16) While Lady in the Lake pushed this idea into absurdity, other point-of-view devices allow spectators to identify with the protagonist by almost seeing the world through their eyes. Effective examples include Nina's (Natalie Portman) hallucinations in Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010), and the screen going black after Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is knocked out in Miller's Crossing (The Brothers Coen, 1990).

Finally, non-diegetic sound, or score, can create identification. A group of University of Chicago researchers found through a study that different types of score can shape spectators' understanding of a character's 'actions, emotions and intentions'. (17) Their findings suggest that 'powerful' non-diegetic sound can influence how spectators relate to characters, and help the spectator attribute a particular state of mind to the character. This was found in their study even when there was no dialogue and the characters had 'neutral' expressions. These findings suggest that score may in fact produce a greater emotional effect than visuals, with respect to enabling protagonist-spectator identification.


Memento centres on Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), a young man desperate to find the person who raped and murdered his wife. While attempting to save her, he was thrown against a mirror and suffered brain damage; consequently, he suffers from anterograde amnesia, meaning that, although he can remember everything up until the attack, any new memories are forgotten after approximately fifteen minutes. The film's structure is non-chronological, alternating between colour sequences that run in backwards order (beginning by showing the end of the plot in the opening scene) and black-and-white sequences that run forwards.

In Memento, multiple examples of character projection, as well as other techniques aimed at creating identification, are used within a single sequence. Such techniques include camerawork, editing, mise en scene, sound and point of view, in addition to voiceover. Compared to the simpler methods used in earlier noir films, Memento has a plethora of identification-creating techniques. This may be attributed to the film being a neo-noir.

Neo-noir is defined by critic Kyle Turner as a subgenre that takes the established themes of noir and then expands upon them. He contends that the clearest difference between the two is that neo-noir is 'completely self-aware and self-reflexive'. (18) Academic Brian J Snee also suggests that neo-noirs can 'go beyond the narrative boundaries that restricted filmmakers during most of the studio era, including the noir era'. (19) Taking these ideas into account, it can be contended that while all noir films exemplify the 'emotional effect' that Borde and Chaumeton discussed, Memento's more intense use of identification-creating techniques is due to its time of production.

Example 1: The chase sequence

The chase scene between Leonard and Dodd (Callum Keith Rennie) begins suddenly, in the middle of the action, with the sounds of blaring Car alarms, feet pounding the ground and a non-diegetic, rapid pulsing noise. For the spectator, this is a jarring contrast from the previous scene, which ends quietly. However, the overwhelming loudness of this scene is also jarring for Leonard, as his memory has just reset; the spectator shares his shock. When Leonard asks in voiceover, 'What am I doing?' the spectator is positioned to ask exactly the same thing. Leonard's confusion--'I'm chasing this guy... no, he's chasing me'--is (to use the language of Borde and Chaumeton) 'co-experienced' by the spectator, for whom Dodd is also an unknown character.

The camerawork reinforces the spectator's identification with Leonard through shots of caravans passing in a blur, mirroring what Leonard would see as he runs. The camera moves at the same speed as Leonard, enabling the spectator to always remain in close proximity to him and therefore stay connected to his point of view. When Dodd stops running and points a gun at Leonard, he points it at the spectator, placing them in the firing line. The subsequent quick cut to Leonard's panicked expression at the sight of the gun reflects Vaage's contention that close shots of the protagonist and the event they are reacting to can foster an understanding of the character's experience.

Sound also plays a key role in creating identification between spectator and protagonist in the latter part of this sequence. The rapid pulsing noise becomes the only sound as Leonard drives to Dodd's motel, and it slows slightly and becomes steadier as he walks along the row of motel doors. The noise is reminiscent of a heartbeat, strongly suggesting that this is a projection of Leonard's pulse. Apart from the pulsing, an occasional long, menacing-sounding note is heard. The noise abruptly stops when Leonard realises he has broken into the wrong room, but begins again when he resumes running down the row of doors. Once he is inside Dodd's room, it quietens, symbolising his decreased sense of urgency. The aural similarity between the pulsing noise and a heartbeat, and the way it is used to reflect Leonard's increase and decrease in feelings of urgency, deliberately blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic sound: Leonard's heartbeat is projected through the score into something the spectator can hear. Through this technique, the spectator is positioned to co-experience Leonard's states of tension.

Example 2: Leonard's struggle to record information

After Leonard and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) fight and he hits her, she leaves the house and Leonard starts searching frantically for a pen to write down the truth about her. Natalie sits, smirking, in her car outside, while Leonard is in a state of panic, knowing that his memory will reset soon. As he rummages through the desk, the camera movements become jerky and rapid, as though filmed with a handheld camera. Throughout the fight scene leading up to this, the camera remains relatively steady, so this contrast is used to convey the sense of urgency Leonard now feels.

The score also projects the complexity of Leonard's emotions. A single ominous note repeated rapidly is audible, conveying Leonard's fear. However, on top of this anxious music is a more melancholic score, its slower tempo at odds with the jerky camera movements and Leonard's panicked, repetitive voiceover, 'Concentrate, concentrate, keep it in mind.' The sense of despair conjured by the score suggests that Leonard knows he is going to forget. Despite his urgency, he realises that his memory resetting is inevitable, as it always is.

For the spectator, this emotion is more pronounced as, due to the nonlinear structure of the him, they have already seen the aftermath. The spectator knows that Leonard will not find a pen, and will naively help the wounded Natalie. This ties in with Tan's suggestion that a spectator's empathetic fear is intensified when the spectator is aware of impending danger but the character is not. (20) In Memento, the spectator's knowledge that Leonard will not succeed creates a stronger sense of sadness. This is reinforced by the abrupt cutting of the score when Natalie slams the car door outside and Leonard is distracted, resetting his memory. The score ceases because Leonard has no notion of being anxious or sad anymore.

Example 3: The flashback

In a later scene for the spectator--even though it takes place earlier for Leonard--Leonard tells Natalie how his wife was killed. The spectator sees a flashback of Leonard running into the bathroom, witnessing his wife being assaulted, and then being thrown against the bathroom mirror. By seeing the way Leonard remembers events via the flashback device, the spectator is aligned with his point of view; as Snee argues, this is a common technique for creating identification in film noir. (21) Mise en scene and editing also contribute to creating identification between Leonard and the spectator in this sequence. Leonard's flashback ends with him lying on the bathroom floor next to his wife, as the camera pans away to another patch of blue bathroom tiles. Instead of cutting back to Leonard in the present, the shot gradually fades into it, with the bathroom tiles imprinted on him until they eventually disappear. This can be seen to represent how the memory of the event is imprinted on him, staying with him always.

Furthermore, the hue of the tiles is reflected in the film's colour palette, which is overwhelmingly blue. This is depicted through the tint of numerous scenes but also through prominent objects already seen by the spectator such as Leonard's shirt, the decor in his and Dodd's motel rooms, and the rooms' exterior doors. As evidenced through the repeated engagement with Leonard's flashbacks and dreams, the spectator views everything in Memento from Leonard's point of view; thus, the colour motif of blue can be interpreted as Leonard's melancholia, representative of the tiles on the floor where his wife died. Significantly, it is also the last thing he remembers. By projecting Leonard's melancholia through its mise en scene, the him thus forces the spectator to co-experience his sense of loss throughout the film's duration.


The overall structure of Memento itself also functions as a method of protagonist-spectator identification. Belinda Morrissey is one of many critics who have linked the film's non-chronological structure to Leonard's experience of anterograde amnesia, discussing how, like Leonard, the spectator is 'constantly surprised [...] as we enter scenes that have no meaning for us'. (22) For example, the first time the spectator encounters Natalie, the camera follows behind Leonard as he walks past rows of tables in a diner. When Natalie becomes visible, the camera does not pan towards her, but stays centred on Leonard as she reaches out and grabs him. As Leonard does not remember Natalie, the spectator is positioned through camerawork to view her as though she is a stranger--Leonard's surprise is mirrored by the spectator's. Film scholar Fran Pheasant-Kelly also contends that the narrative's 'fragmented flashes', combined with its sense of unreality, provide an insight into experiencing dissociation as a symptom of trauma. (23) When the spectator sees flashes of Leonard's wife being assaulted, or the shot of the insulin needle, their suddenness and brevity cause the spectator to question what they've just seen, similar to Leonard's constant distress over not knowing what is real or true. The Aim's structure reflects his traumatised condition, and places the viewer into a similarly uncomfortable and tension-filled state.


Borde and Chaumeton contended back in 1955 that noir filmmakers 'conspire' to make the viewer feel the same 'anguish and insecurity' and 'alienation' as the protagonist. In Memento, Christopher Nolan utilises point of view, camerawork, mise-en-scene, editing and sound to create a sense of identification between the spectator and Leonard, in addition to voiceover. It seems apparent that Nolan, like the earlier noir filmmakers Borde and Chaumeton based their study on, wishes for spectators to experience Leonard's feelings of alienation, and numerous aspects of the film--including character-projection techniques and the film's overall structure--work to create this emotional effect. Leonard's grief, frustration and alienation are shared by us, and just like him, we are granted no happy ending.

Zoe Goodall studies Honours (International Studies) at RMIT University and writes about feminism, film and policy. She's watched Memento twenty times. She'd like to thank her VCE Media teacher, Jess Walsh, for making her study the film and igniting her love of Nolan. Her Twitter account is @zcgoodall.


(1) Raymond Borde & Etienne Chaumeton, 'Towards a Definition of Film Noir', in Alain Silver & James Ursini (eds), Film Noir Reader, Limelight, New York, 1996 [1955], p. 25, emphasis removed.

(2) Kelly Oliver & Benigno Trigo, 'Introduction: Dropping the Bombshell', Noir Anxiety, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 2003, pp. xiii-xiv.

(3) Brian J Snee, 'Soft-boiled Cinema: Joel and Ethan Coens' Neoclassical Neo-noirs', Literature/Film Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2009, p. 212.

(4) ibid., p. 214.

(5) Ed S Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, 1996, p. 173.

(6) Snee, cp. cit., p. 212.

(7) ibid., p. 216.

(8) C Scott Combs, 'Seconds: The Flashback Loop and the Posthumous Voice', Deathwatch: American Film, Technology, and the End of Life, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014, p. 144.

(9) See, for example, Kyle Turner, 'The Men Who Weren't There: The Unreliable Narrator and His Effect on Audience's Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-noir', Film Matters, vol. 5, no. 3, 2014, pp. 33-40; and Andrew Dickos, 'Noir Production', Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2002, pp. 172-221.

(10) Edward Branigan, 'Character Reflection and Projection', Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film, Mouton Publishers, Berlin, 1984, pp. 132-7.

(11) Margrethe Bruun Vaage, 'Fiction Film and the Varieties of Empathetic Engagement', Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 34, no. 1, 2010, p. 160.

(12) Tan, op. cit., p. 183.

(13) Vaage, op. cit., p. 160.

(14) Snee, op. cit., p. 216.

(15) Combs, op. cit., pp. 150-1.

(16) Snee, op. cit., p. 216.

(17) Berthold Hoeckner et al., 'Film Music Influences How Viewers Relate to Movie Characters', Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, vol. 5, no. 2, 2011, pp. 146-50.

(18) Turner, op. cit., p. 34.

(19) Snee, op. cit., p. 217.

(20) Tan, op. cit., p. 185.

(21) Snee, op. cit., p. 216.

(22) Belinda Morrissey, 'Impossible Memory: Traumatic Narratives in Memento and Mulholland Drive', in Amresh Sinha & Terence McSweeney (eds), Millennial Cinema: Memory in Global Film, Wallflower Press, London & New York, 2011, p. 102.

(23) Fran Pheasant-Kelly, 'Representing Trauma: Grief, Amnesia and Traumatic Memory in Nolan's New Millennial Films', in Jacqueline Furby & Stuart Joy (eds), The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, Wallflower Press, London & New York, 2015, p. 106.
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Author:Goodall, Zoe
Publication:Screen Education
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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