Films

Narrative Extremes

A new kind of movie sends storytelling through the looking glass

Brian D. Johnson April 2 2001
Films

Narrative Extremes

A new kind of movie sends storytelling through the looking glass

Brian D. Johnson April 2 2001

Narrative Extremes

Films

A new kind of movie sends storytelling through the looking glass

Brian D. Johnson

Whatever you do, don’t give away the ending. When you’re talking about a movie to people who haven’t seen it, that’s only common courtesy. But in the case of Memento, it’s hard to imagine how you would go about giving away the ending even if you wanted to. Because the ending occurs at the beginning—and not as a standard plot device to usher in the story as an extended flashback. Like Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s backwards play, Memento actually unfolds in reverse.

The opening shot shows a hand holding a Polaroid of a murder scene. Gradually, we watch the photo fade as it “undevelops.” Then it’s sucked back into the camera, which flashes a picture of the murdered man, whose shattered face reassembles itself as the bullet is fired back into the gun. That’s the only sequence of reverse photography. From then on, although the footage plays forward, the story runs backwards: each scene takes place before the one it follows.

Memento is the most adventurous example of a new narrative extremism in movies. Of course, filmmakers have always been fond of throwing kinks into time and space, but ever since Pulp Fiction sliced up sequential logic in 1994, directors have been looking for new ways to subvert linear storytelling. Sliding Doors shunts back and forth between two variations on the same plot, and Run, Lola, Run speeds through multiple versions. In Out of Sight and The Limey, director Steven Soderbergh disorients the viewer by shuffling time frames. And in nearly all Atom Egoyan’s films, chronology shifts around like a slinky. Meanwhile, movies like The Usual Suspects, The Matrix, Existenz, The Sixth Sense and American Psycho pull the rug out from under the audience by other means—with a point of view that wins our trust, then self-destructs.

There is, of course, the danger of gimmickry; extreme narrative can become just another effect. But British filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed Me-

mento, has a legitimate motive for reversing the flow of events. His protagonist, Leonard (Guy Pearce), has no shortterm memory. He can recall his past, as an insurance claims adjuster. But ever since intruders broke into his home, raping and killing his wife, a head injury has left him unable to retain new memories. The reverse narrative puts the viewer on the same shaky footing, although we have an edge—as the story rewinds, we acquire the accumulated memory of what will have happened, while Leonard remains trapped in an eternal present.

Mementos, high-wire drama offers a novel twist on the Kafkaesque scenario of a man continually waking up in mysterious circumstances. Filmed with the jagged inflections of film noir, it’s a lean thriller about crime and punishment. Leonard is on a feverish mission to avenge his wife’s murder. Inexplicably, he wears a designer suit and drives a Jaguar, but is holed up in a cheap motel. He surfs through life on the slimmest shelf of recollection, just long enough to snap a Polaroid or jot something down for future reference. Vital facts he tattoos onto his body. With him, we try to crack the puzzle, and wonder who to believe. Two characters try to help him: fast-talking Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who flashes a cop’s badge and an underworld grin, and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a bartender with a missing boyfriend. To reveal more of the plot would be unfair. You wouldn’t want to give away the beginning.

Leonard is a man on the lunatic fringe of rationality. Although his memories are erased within moments of forming, like snowflakes hitting warm earth, we trust his point of view. Because he’s our protagonist. Like the Fugitive searching for the one-armed man. Without memory, Leonard has no guilt, and no innocence. He’s a perfect hero, on the run from a past that’s forever escaping him. Always on the verge of losing himself in metaphysical quicksand, he clings to the belief that there must be a reality beyond his brain, “that when my eyes are closed, the world is still there.”

With Memento, Nolan has delivered a low-budget tour de force. After his 1998 debut, Following, this is his second feature. And the 30-year-old director won an award at the Sundance festival for its ingenious script, which he based on a short story by his brother, Christopher. Navigating the movie does requires some mental gymnastics. It’s a head trip, not unlike The Usual Suspects. But it’s also a taut thriller, and an intense excursion into paranoia—balanced on the ballbearing precision of Pearce’s empathetic performance. And although the film culminates with a hairpin twist, it’s not a trick ending à la The Usual Suspects. Just a head-scratcher that leaves you rummaging through the shards of your own memory, trying to piece together what happened. For once, you wish you were watching a video, so you could hit rewind, then start over.

If you prefer to give your brain a rest at the movies, Heartbreakers and The Tailor of Panama are two Hollywood vehicles that do the thinking for you. Both are stories of con artists, and lightly entertaining. But these are the kind of films that let the viewer feel smarter than the script.

Heartbreakers .stars Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt as Max and Page, a mother-daughter duo of serial gold diggers. Max first waylays her rube and coaxes him to the altar. Then, as soon as they’re married, she conveniently catches him being seduced by a young tart—her daughter— and divorces him for a fat settlement. After they fleece the owner of a New Jersey chop shop (Ray Liotta), Page is chafing to go solo. But Max convinces her to work one last scam. Their target is a Palm Beach cigarette tycoon (Gene Hackman). In mid-swindle, however, Page falls for Jack (Jason Lee), a sweet guy who owns a beach bar, and true love starts to interfere with the family business of fraud.

For a griffer comedy, Heartbreakers is too soft, too slow and often implausible. There’s a fine tradition of con movies, from Some Like It Hot to Dangerous Liaisons. But this one plays a cheesy shell game with Hollywood formula—switching between ball-breaker farce and cozy romantic comedy. Still, directed by David Mirkin (who made his name writing The Simpsons), it’s an enjoyable escapade with some rich gags and good performances. Cast as an aging siren who’s out to prove she can still slay men with a single glance—while competing with a vixen half her age—Weaver has an enviable role. Out-vamping Erin Brockovich in a parade of femme fatale get-ups, she plays out the revenge of the middle-aged Hollywood actress. Hewitt, meanwhile, holds her own, bopping between minx and brat. Lee is likably naïve. And as a chain-smoking tobacco fan with a phlegm-rattling cough, Hackman literally hacks his way through the movie. It’s a single-shtick role, but he’s funny.

The Tailor of Panama splits the difference between comedy and drama with an anti-heroic spy caper. Although John le Carré helped adapt it from his own 1996 novel, the movie plays more like Elmore Leonard, sacrificing le Carrés trademark realism for cloak-and-dagger irony. The biggest wink is casting Pierce Brosnan, aka James Bond, as a greedy, meanspirited spy. Brosnan plays Andy, a disgraced British agent banished to Panama City, where he hustles Harry (Geoffrey Rush), a tailor with a murky past and a well-connected wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). The scam: to get British intelligence to finance a bogus opposition movement. Shot on location in Panama—“Casablanca without heroes,” Harry calls it—the film has an air of authenticity. It’s also got a good story. And as the tailor, Rush works up another of his filagreed portraits of human frailty. But veteran director John Boorman never achieves a consistent tone. And in a role that fits him like a cheap suit, Brosnan is distracting, as if his real scam is to use the movie to rough up a typecast image and play Bond’s evil twin. Problem is, it’s hard to tell them apart. ESI