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MEMORIES OF MOVIE'S ORIGINS ARE A BIT FUZZY.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Writer

Christopher Nolan loves the irony that, in trying to recollect the origins of ``Memento,'' he and his brother can't completely agree on exactly what happened. The film about the vagaries of memory was inspired by a short-story idea by his younger brother, Jonathan.

``That's fabulous, isn't it?'' the 30-year-old Nolan asks, a smile spreading across his face. ``It's what the movie is all about, that gap between recording events and interpreting them.''

``Memento,'' Nolan's mind-bending time-bender of a movie, has been knocking out film festival audiences for the past year. After stops in Venice, Deauville and Toronto, the film screened at Sundance in January, where an appreciative jury gave Nolan a screenwriting award.

But don't hold that against him or the film. Unlike past Sundance sensations, ``Memento'' actually delivers the goods. It's the first great American movie of the year.

The film is a perfect modern noir that begins with its protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, the straight-arrow cop in ``L.A. Confidential''), murdering someone and then proceeds backward in time, bit by bit, sometimes with scenes slightly overlapping, to the beginning of the story.

Leonard is a former insurance investigator intent on avenging his wife's brutal murder. Unfortunately, he has short-term memory loss, which prevents him from making any new memories. Needless to say, this impedes his quest for justice since he forgets anything outside of a 15-minute span. What he does remember is the thing that continues to drive him - the loneliness he has felt since his wife's death.

The reverse-order structure of the piece turns ``Memento'' into a ``whydunit'' rather than a whodunit and perfectly complements the film's musings on identity, self-awareness, time and the workings of the human mind.

``Ultimately, it's about our perceptions of memory and that we do take memory for granted,'' Pearce says. ``We'll often lose our memory and yet pretend that we haven't. And in order to maintain some sort of identity, we'll say, 'Oh, our memory is this - A, B and C,' when in actual fact, if someone really questioned you on it or showed you a photo of the thing that you're talking about, you might realize that you've actually manipulated or changed the memory.''

Adds Nolan: ``Leonard is not a medical freak, but an everyman. He's an exaggeration of the process of memory that we're all continually immersed in. His plight simply magnifies the inadequacies of memory to an alarming extreme.''

The idea for the film was hatched during a cross-country trip that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan took during the summer of 1997. Somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, the brothers ran out of things to say to each other and Jonathan told Christopher about a short story he was writing about revenge.

Jonathan had recently been the victim of a mugging and, for a time, became obsessed with catching the culprits. But time dulled his anger, and he became interested in writing a story about how memory and mental distance could play havoc with a murder investigation.

By the time the Nolans had reached Los Angeles, Christopher (who has one other film to his credit, the well-received, low-budget thriller ``Following'') remembers anxiously wanting to take a crack at writing a screenplay based on his brother's idea.

Jonathan was amenable to sharing (``We're competitive in a healthy kind of way,'' Christopher says), and the two made a pact to each find an original, extraordinary method of telling the story.

At least, that's how Christopher remembers it.

``We wrote separate essays about this cross-country trip for a book version of the screenplay,'' Christopher says. ``The details are more or less the same, but from him, there's the sense of letting the cat out of the bag and giving his idea up, while from me, I'm just wanting to get my hands on it.'' (Jonathan's short story appears in the March issue of Esquire magazine.)

That difference of interpretation is at the heart of ``Memento,'' where appearances are almost always deceiving. As Leonard fumbles for clues to find his wife's murderer, he takes Polaroids of people he meets, writing bits of information underneath the image. (``Don't believe his lies,'' reads the caption underneath a Polaroid of Teddy, Leonard's shifty guide through dementia.) With vital information, Leonard takes no chances, tattooing it on his body.

But Leonard's condition inevitably leaves him open to being used by others. Teddy, Leonard's fast-talking sidekick, and Natalie, a seemingly sympathetic bartender played by Carrie-Anne Moss, could be friends or they could be foes. Or they could be both. Even after watching the film, many people can't decide with any degree of certainty.

``Every time I've seen it, I've felt differently about it,'' says Moss, who can draw on five different screenings for reference. ``The first time, I was in awe because it was the first time I had seen it put together. So then I had to see it again, just to see if the movie held together. And, the beautiful thing is, it does.''

Such scrutiny isn't new to Nolan, who has patiently listened to people who claim that ``Memento'' changed their lives or affected them deeply because a close relative suffers from a memory-related disease like Alzheimer's. Nolan's own grandmother had Alzheimer's, but he never made the connection while writing the screenplay. He was too immersed in trying to make the movie's back-to-front form work.

``With the unconventional structure, we invited scrutiny,'' Nolan says. ``That's the point of the structure - to get the audience to pay attention.''

Hollywood has paid attention to the festival buzz surrounding ``Memento.'' Warner Bros. signed Nolan to direct a high-profile remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller ``Insomnia.'' Al Pacino has agreed to star in the film; Steven Soderbergh will executive produce.

Nolan says he's ``hugely excited,'' even as he frets about remaking a film that he loved.

``I don't want it to stick in my mind too much,'' Nolan says. ``It's one case where a little memory loss wouldn't be a bad thing.''

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo: (1 -- cover -- color) Guy Pearce in ``Memento''

(2 -- 4) Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce, above and below right) is determined to avenge his wife's brutal murder, but a head injury leaves him with short-term memory loss and the inability to discern whether a friendly bartender (Carrie-Anne Moss, below left) is friend or foe in ``Memento.''

(5) ``Ultimately, it's about our perceptions of memory and that we do take memory for granted. We'll often lose our memory and yet pretend that we haven't,'' says Guy Pearce of ``Memento,'' the new film in which he stars.
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 16, 2001
Words:1097
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