October 13, 2006

Memento: The Flaws of Thought

All philosophers start their investigations with the nightmare of radical scepticism- for Descartes particularly the nightmare of not knowing haunted his philosophical speculations and establishment of knowledge, the science of epistemology became the crucial part of philosophy. But others have taken the same road as Descartes- Plato reacting to Socrates sought not merely to question like his great master but also to provide a perfection, a world of ideas that need not be questioned. Hobbes worried like a dog at a bone at the structures of civil morality and tried to find the springs of such formulations deep in the nature of humanity.

Memento, the film, has been attacked again and again for its incoherence- the plot makes no sense unless accepted on its own terms, it has an internal logic but no external logic. The characters exist within a social void- again something that it has been criticised for. Their morality of honour, revenge and pride seems pagan and again has been assaulted. But to see all these things is to mistake the central meaning of the film.

The reality is that this film is not about morality and focuses merely on a couple of characters who exist in a social void, the motivations of the primary character are well explained but every other character is a collage of moments in his life and has no external existence. What this film though centres upon is the problem of the philosophers- the problem of how we know what we know, what we can rely upon. Centred upon one character we are walking in this film through his footsteps into his epistemological imagination. Truthfully in this film the overriding impression that we have is of generally dispelling ignorance and our question becomes what should we trust memory or reason.

Generally within society at the moment, we tend to trust reason more than our empirical experiences. Empirically atomic physics collapses, the quantum dissolves, the microbe is nothing and the bacteria vanishes- we see none of these but assume they exist because we have devised a reasoning chain which explains what we see by what we don't. We accept historical connections that link a fragile piece of tapestry to an ancient battle, a tattered piece of paper to a living breathing human being- all that's in front of us are the pieces of evidence but then we begin to infer and our inferences spiral out of all compass.

This film centres on a character that does that- and the question is whether his reasonings and our reasonings match the truth. He sees the instances of the present and projects a past which would make them logically coherent. Gradually as the film evolves we begin to see the past with our own eyes- and the perceptions and the character's connections move further and further apart. In part this is because the evidence he relies upon is filtered through a past which changes that evidence- evidence we begin to see is not a neutral thing but an act itself within the past, which changes the way the past is perceived in the present.

Reason itself in this very intelligent film becomes reliant upon the data that it infers things from. Like the philosophers we are reduced back to considering the trustworthiness of our own observations, as soon as they fall apart (and here the historical ones appear particularly fragile), we and others can manipulate the tracks along which reason functions.


Anonymous said...

Interesting - I had't really thought of it like that.

For me, Memento is about identity, and how it is constructed entirely from our (unreliable) memories. Leonard's entire senses of self and purpose are founded on what he remembers of his past - the murder of his wife and desire for revenge.

As the film progresses, it is suggested that Leonard is misleading himself. What distinguishes the film from, say, the Matrix, is that Leonard decides he doesn't - or can't - care. Nor does the film leave it there, because Leonard's vengeful spree spreads his decision goes beyond himself.

This kind of choice faces us, as individuals - and culturally-defined societies - all the time. The film's power lies in taking it to an extreme scenario and still making us question what the right answer is.

Gracchi said...

Thanks very much yes I hadn't thought about it through the matrix of identity- I suppose as a historian I was fixated on the issue of the past and memory in it. That's the wonder of a good film which is that it can be interpreted in many interesting and different ways.

edmund said...

I wouldn't say all philosophers start there... aquinas doens't for example

Gracchi said...

Yes you may be right- but quite a few philosophers do

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