«8 Patch and reboot in Memento The artist or the philosopher is quite incapable of creating a people, each can only summon it with all her strength. A ...»
8 Patch and reboot in Memento
The artist or the philosopher is quite incapable of creating a people, each can
only summon it with all her strength. A people can only be created in
abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art or
philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum
of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They
have resistance in common – their resistance to death, to servitude, to the
intolerable, to shame, and to the present.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari
8.1 Chapter overview This chapter sheds light on one of the knife-edges between breakdown and breakthrough in life. The edge explored here is the one that is trodden by anyone who has been fed a ‘just so’ story – a quasi-cause – explaining a situation or a scene that enfolds them, and who tries to escape the fold. The quandary is familiar to the part of the movement of movements that was the focus of chapter six, the part comprising the ‘Beas. The Beas go along with the ’ Lockean social contract, while looking upon it as a charade or an imposture. Unlike their freewheeling companions the disubbedienti, they feign obedience; they make active use of the imposture of the state that claims to rule with the consent of the ruled.
I explore the quandary through the prism of a movie from the cycle of paranoia thrillers discussed in chapter seven. Memento perches its protagonist between two lives. On the one hand, he is in a ‘just so’ story, and he has a suspicion that the story is being used on him, and thereby on others, in a repressive manner. On the other, he senses that there may be a chance of putting an end to the repression while sticking (for the time being) to the ‘just so’ story.
The film gives some sense of the surge of affect, in that cleft between a robotic existence and a revivification. The film is an entry point into the surge of affect, the better to traverse it.
Transcendent knowing has no place in the watching of Memento, just as it has no place in Memento’s storyworld. This chapter brings out the film’s immanent critique of transcendent knowing. An item of false transcendent knowledge, placed as a clue in the film, is the ‘fact’ of a past attack on the protagonist’s wife, which drives the protagonist to avenge the wrong.
The impetus for the protagonist’s actions, as shown in the film, has two gestalts. In one gestalt, he is a man driven by the urge to avenge the past wrong that he remembers being done to him (namely the attack on his wife, in which he too was injured). In the other gestalt, he is a man troubled by his repressed disgust for his own string of avenging attacks on others, and he acts to overcome the force that has goaded him into that mission of vengeance. The choice he makes between the two gestalts is based on the quality of power, and how much of it, he can muster. The choice as shown entails his making active use of the powers of the false, which he does by playing ‘non-cynic. The choice is not, nor can it be, based on ’ transcendent knowing of the truth of the matter.
The chapter connects Memento’s storyworld to the history of the Lockean social contract.
To find a parallel between the two, as I explain below, one has to look at things from the standpoint of the film’s protagonist, or look from standpoints akin to that. One such is the standpoint of a citizen who wants to treat Locke’s doctrine of the social contract as a writerly text. (A writerly text, in this instance, is a ‘just so’ story in which the narratee has an active voice in the saying of ‘just so. ) The citizen could belong to a first nation, which is setting out ’ in the postcolonial era to be recognised as elder polity to the settler state that is bent on containing and subjugating it.1 The citizen could also belong to the part of the movement of movements that regards the social contract as an imposture, but plays ‘non-cynic’ (the Beas).
And Locke, were he alive today and no zombie, could equally be the citizen in question – he could be revivified with a touch of the Beas. That would be a good thing. We would have a transformed, poststructuralist Locke.
8.2 Introducing Memento A humbler Sisyphus Memento is a mystery thriller, with a flawed vigilante cum amateur sleuth as its main character. It is a bleak film, and yet, as I am about to argue, it also borders on being an evangelical film. It shows active force going to work in dire circumstances, and working a miracle. In that regard, it shares the agenda of the sci-fi thriller Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997), an agenda that Alan B Wood eloquently teased out in an essay in Theory & Event.2 Memento is all the more powerful a film, for its dispensing with the legendary ‘winner’ spirit that drives the story in Gattaca. There is nothing exceptional about Memento’s hero, Leonard Shelby. He is a protagonist with no special fortitude or drive. (That point comes through in the casting: the actor who plays Leonard is Guy Pearce, best known at the time of the film’s release for his role in the television sitcom Neighbours.) Leonard (‘L’) has been thrown by misfortune into a way of living within parameters set by a brain injury. Months or years have passed since his head’s shivering impact with a mirror, as he was tackling an intruder in his home. It was then that L lost the capacity to make new memories. He can hold his act together as what passes for a self, for just about ten A different film cycle of the nineties, in Australian cinema, takes up the issues of land, sovereignty and memory, viewed explicitly from the standpoint of a first nation and its settler state. Australian Cinema after Mabo (Collins and Davis, 2004) marks the beginning of an appreciation of that film cycle.
minutes at a time. When ten minutes are up, L’s grey matter has lost the thread of who he is, where he is, how he got there, and who are the people around him. What remains of L must pick up the pieces all over again, an imbecile Sisyphus.3 The main story of the film is a series of violent assaults and killings, prompting somebody to reduce Memento to a glib new Hollywood algorithm: ‘Think Groundhog Day with a gun.’4 Is it alive?
L faces the question of whether he has a life that can be called his own. That question is underscored in the film in several ways. One of the ways is by showing another character, a man called Sammy Jankis, whose path, as it happens, crossed L’s some time before L’s brush with the intruder. Sammy was an accident victim, afflicted with the same memory disorder that was later to claim L as a victim. Sammy is L’s double: the two are separated by a fissure of ‘supple segmentation, as outlined by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand ’ Plateaus.
Sammy went through extensive tests and therapy, carried out by experts with the help of Sammy’s devoted wife. It was unclear whether his condition was physical or ‘all in the mind.’ There were tests for the presence of a material cause and, on the basis that there was such a cause, Sammy’s wife attempted to help him with coping devices. Cutting across that, there were measures to help Sammy recover, on the premise that the condition was psychosomatic. All the efforts failed to unwrap the enigma of Sammy’s condition, and only brought deeper anguish.
Sammy ended up in a home for incurables, vegetating. L has escaped such a fate.
Someone took L out of institutional care, or he absconded, and the film finds him living on the run, with the help of a minder named Teddy (‘T’). Playing T – in another nice stroke of casting – is Joe Pantoliano, whose film roles earlier in the nineties include the traitorous comrade called Cypher, in the cult hit movie The Matrix. Carrie-Ann Moss, the female lead in The Matrix, plays a friend to L in Memento.
Memento recalls the bleakness of the existentialist Sisyphus, the subject of a famous essay by Albert Camus. The essay concerns the mid-twentieth-century condition of mankind, facing the absurd and with each of the living still mustering what it takes to be alive (Camus, 1991 /1955 1942Fr).
Anthony Kaufman in (Nolan, 2000). Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) is a tedious fantasy romantic comedy, which was a huge box office hit. It recounts a tale of how a man learnt, by trial and error, to grasp the chance to do what fits in with some benign master plan for the world.
Becoming aware that one has a double, or that one could well have a double, bestows freedom to play with roles as well as playing in them. Deleuze and Guattari explore that effect, and explore the relation between having a double and supple segmentation, in MP: Plateau 8 ‘1874: Three Novellas, or “What Happened?”’ – see especially p 200. Elsewhere in MP (Plateau 9 ‘1933: Micropolitics and Segmentarity’), there is an extended discussion of rigid segmentarity and supple segmentarity in societies.
The film gives us no bedrock information about L’s actions, nor about the actions of the persons around him. We are given bits and pieces of information by L, and we see him being told things by T and by Moss’s character, Natalie. The film’s narration is for the most part in the form of a novella – the central character and narrator, and the audience, wonder what happened, what could have produced the relations and deeds and conversation and voice-over that are unfolding. Clues emerge from the voice-over (spoken by L) and from L’s speaking on the telephone to a caller. The caller’s identity and reason for calling are unclear. There are several contradictions within the given information. All the clues come with the heavy qualification that L is an unreliable narrator.
A similar shadow hangs over the indirect narration by the other characters shown talking with L. The film raises distinct suspicions that the people around L – or some of them, and it is not clear which ones – may be taking advantage of him. In his condition, always losing the thread of what has been going on, L is a hyper-suggestible subject. To mitigate that problem, he ought to trust no one outside an inner circle comprising one person, himself. The catch is that he barely has a self to call his own and to trust. His brain injury splintered that pillar of support.
The film ports the audience into L’s messed-up persona by marking out the course of the narrative chiefly in visual signs. The standard fashion of telling a story is to have the flow of diegetic time aligned for the most part with the flow of extradiegetic time, with that relation being severed only in the instant of passing to and from a flashback (or flash-forward). In Memento, the convention of subordinating the direction of flow of diegetic time to that of extradiegetic time is set aside, and in its stead there is a visualised temporal schema. The film trains the audience to read the visual markers of that schema. The visual markers signal that the film comes in passages, which are strung together so that each passage’s end dovetails with the beginning of the passage that was seen immediately prior to the start of the current passage. Impelled by your instinct or desire to find a coherent plot in the film, you soon realise what you must attempt to do. You must keep deftly re-chaining the passages in your head, in the reverse order to the way they are unreeling on the screen before your eyes.
8.3 An art of self-resuscitation
The sowing of confusion in the audience is part of a strategy, and the first step in appreciating the strategy is to note that Memento does not mediate between its author and the audience. Instead, the gymnastic routine of reading the film yields an unmediated appreciation of L’s plight. So, if one were to take film, by definition, to be a medium, then this ‘film’ would escape that box.
In a sense (which is approaching trite, as new Hollywood churns out movies designed as accessories to theme park visits), Memento puts you through boot camp. To watch it is to go through a stint of training, with the film taking hold of your habits of attention to the storyline and brushing those habits the wrong way. Memento thereby trains you in a fresh way of handling the comforting buffer of false consciousness. It trains you in living with a radically untrustworthy sense of recall, and in having your past life (save the last ten minutes) revealed to you by witnesses, each of whom may or may not be trustworthy. When you are with someone, it is unclear if the person is abusing your trust or is trying to help.
What is more remarkable is that, in the stint of training, there is a palpable sense of realism. Strange as it may seem, the film is training you to come alive to the life that you may be in the midst of actually living.
I need to expand a little on what I have just said. Watching Memento, one is apprenticed, as it were, to L, the man whose memory disorder makes him a near-zombie. Thinking in tenminute grabs, L has equipped himself with basic tools: pens, paper, polaroid camera. He has thought about the fact of his grey matter being unable to register any new memories. He has scoured his ten-minute wits for a way around that hardware limitation. (I say ‘hardware’ because, in computer terms, the snag is just an awkward characteristic or quirk of the machine’s memory unit.) Being on the run, L has scant resources with which to work. His main resources are his body parts. He realises that the hardware in his constant possession is not limited to the grey matter. The hardware includes every part of his body, along with all the reflexes and persistent habits that are hard-wired in his body. Can some of that hardware be put to better use, given the stricken condition of the grey matter? The question is one of developing appropriate software, a patch.
L’s hard-wired mundane habits include checking his wristwatch for the time, and looking in the mirror on rising after a sleep. Added to that, L harbours an urge to kill the intruder who made a getaway from the incident in which L’s head crashed through the mirror. (L believes that the intruder caused the death of L’s wife.) Over a long period of thinking (in ten-minute bites) about the collection of parts that make up his body, a body that is imprinted with the mundane habits and harbours the urge for retribution, L writes some software. The code takes the form of tattoos going up his arm from the wrist, and onto his chest, forming a list of generic task instructions.