“I never needed a reason for keeping secrets from myself” –Josh Ramsay
I disagree with most people about Christopher Nolan. I don’t respect him as a film director.
He doesn’t set scenes with the stunning simplicity of, say, James Cameron. He stuns with complexity, breaking the basic rule of both humor and drama. Understatement and subtlety don’t find their way into his frame. He may also be singlehandedly responsible for the popularity of “shaky cam” in modern film.
So when my friend Aaron insisted that I watch Memento, I prepared to be totally lost in a plot with unnecessary confusion and oddly angled cameras. I was not disappointed – I told Aaron a few times that I felt drunk while watching it.
The film taught me an important lesson, one that stuck with me in the weeks that followed: don’t steal clues from yourself.
The concept is powerful, thanks to Christopher’s lesser-known little brother, Jonathan. A man can’t rely on his memory to help him find his wife’s killer. He has short-term memory loss. So he leaves himself clues, and it seems to work.
“If we talk for too long, I’ll forget how we started. Next time I see you, I’m not gonna remember this conversation. I don’t even know if I’ve met you before. [Beat.] I’ve told you this before, haven’t I?”
Everybody leaves themselves clues, to some less-extreme degree. We journal to remind ourselves of our pasts. We make goals to remind ourselves what we’re striving for. We take notes. We need to tell ourselves why we’re motivated to get up every morning. Even those who don’t use spreadsheets and notebooks, or can’t put their motives into words, leave themselves clues with routine and familiarity and loyalty. I find such clues primitive, but they are clues.
What if the clues we leave for ourselves are lies?
Some lies are good. “I’ll make it through this” is a lie until it’s proven true by the result, but it happens to motivate. “I’ll never make it” is equally a lie until it’s proven true by the result, but it’s great for immobilization.
“So you lie to yourself to be happy. There’s nothing wrong with that. We all do it.”
A fallacy: because everyone does it, it’s acceptable. If I leave myself mementoes, notes, and clues, I’m just piecing together a puzzle. I don’t revisit decisions I’ve already made. I wanted the job when I applied for it; I must still want the job three years later. I needed this college degree when I got out of high school; I might as well finish it.
“You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth! Like your police file. It was complete when I gave it to you. Who took out the 12 pages?”
“No, it wasn’t me. See, it was you!”
“Why would I do that?”
“To create a puzzle you could never solve!”
Writing theory says the hero can never, at any point in the story, solve all his problems, until the end. Letting a story end means finding a new goal, new motivations, and a whole new set of obstacles to face, and that scares people.
Life isn’t like writing theory. Conflict creates stories, but most people go through life avoiding conflict. Murder mystery? Great for a movie, but in real life it goes unsolved. Saving the world? It’s the hero’s problem in a movie, but in real life it’s someone else’s problem. Family loyalties? Movies take advantage of them all the time, but in real life we only see our second cousins, or siblings, at funerals.
At least, that’s the norm.
Stories end before they begin in real life because people avoid conflict and fear endings.
After watching Memento, I started asking myself, “What puzzle pieces do I need to stop hiding from myself?”
Two insecurities presented themselves.
First, I don’t know what is real. Descartes only managed to prove cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. When I meet someone I relate to, I wonder if that person is real, or it’s just my mind playing with itself. My dreams are too realistic to distinguish from the waking world. Whenever reality is too much to handle, I remind myself that it might not be real. I steal the clue from myself to cope, often in the moments that might prove vibrant reality to me. Pain might be just a dream. Intimacy might be just a dream. Happiness might be just a dream.
Second, I discredit myself. Every time I meet someone who’s way ahead of me, I think we can’t be friends. I need to catch up first. I might be embarrassed in a conversation about the thing she’s an expert about. I need to go educate myself, and maybe then she’ll be interested in talking to me.
Both are paradoxically ridiculous. If I could just admit to reality, it’d be more real to me because I have to stop avoiding the full weight of experience. The people who are ahead of me in some areas are the best people to teach me.
“I always thought the joy of reading a book is not knowing what happens next.”
Life is long enough for endings and sequels.