Updated: Dec 7, 2019
As with all movies on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete synopsis of the movie, but rather to document how the movie relates to the meaning of life. With that said, be forewarned, there are still spoilers ahead.
Memento is a psychological thriller that was released in 2000, directed by Christopher Nolan and is based on the short story Memento Mori written by Jonathan Nolan, which was later pushed in Esquire magazine in 2001. The movie was also touched upon by Michael Baur in the book Movies and the Meaning of Life. The story is about a guy named Leonard, who stumbles upon his wife wrapped in a shower curtain layer on the floor bathroom floor. Since the event, he developed anterograde amnesia—the inability to form new memories, as a result of being hit on the head by the murders.
What makes this movie unique in comparison to others that examine the meaning of life, is that it does so in respect to memories. If one has no memories, no past, no future, can a life truly have any meaning? Or are we just living in the moment, like an animal, reacting only to external stimuli and internal needs—hunger, sleep, relieving one's self? Perhaps that is a question best posed to Clive Wearing, which we discussed in a few previous blog posts on this site. Fortunately for Leonard, he still has some memories of his past—although it is questionable whether or not they are really his memories.
The movie starts off with Leonard killing a guy named Teddy, then kind of goes in reverse order, forcing the viewer to piece together the puzzle in a non-traditional manner. Simultaneously to the first story, there is a second story which unfolds naturally in chronological order, but in black and white. Baur in his article highlights the Lockean notion that two unconnected or rather discontinuous segments of consciousness ... results in separate individuals. For example, go to sleep, wake up in the morning a new person. Memories provide a lose continuity, but because of the disconnect, technically, philosophically, you are not the same individual. Each new person hands over the "baton" to a "chain gang of idiots." The present self may want to down a gallon of liquor, eat a whole pizza or two, cheat on his or her spouse, get high; maybe all of the above—all things that the future self will have to deal with, will have to inherit.
As Baur points out, and which becomes apparent as the tale unfolds, because Leonard cannot form new memories, he derives his purpose from the last self he remembers; and even if that purpose—which happens to be avenging his wife's murder is eventually fulfilled, he won't recall because he cannot form new memories. That is, each time he awakes anew, he won't immediately know that his purpose has been fulfilled, unless he leaves himself notes or evidence of fulfillment; and even then, if presented with proof would the present self accept it? According to the film, no. Baur goes on to discuss how much a problem this presents, not only for Leonard, but for all of us. How often is it that our present self chooses the meaning in life versus whatever the previous self handed over to us?
Eventually, Teddy and Leonard would debate this very topic. Teddy believes that only goals that are chosen by the present self matter, while Leonard begs to differ—trusting that meaning is somehow derived from one's past, or as Leonard would say, Just because there are things I don’t remember, it doesn’t make my actions meaningless. The world just doesn’t disappear when you close your eyes, does it?; and also, The past that you seemingly have no choice but to inherit is the past that you yourself have set up for yourself, but through the actions of your now-deceased previous self.
Baur notes, neither Teddy nor Leonard was correct. Both got it partially wrong; both represented two extreme ideologies. Baur's resolution to this? The key to finding meaning in life is to ensure that my present self— in its fleeting moments of clarity—takes steps to bequeath to its future selves a better past than it has inherited.
Baur also goes on to say, While our quest for meaning in life always depends initially on the memories and testimony that we have received from past selves and from other external sources, we should not pretend that this dependence can eliminate our responsibility for making difficult decisions and seeking our own meaning in life.
Can Leonard ever find new meaning in life? Even if he recalls via notes, photographs, or tattoos that his purpose has been fulfilled; given his anterograde amnesia, what possibility is there that he can find a new purpose in life? The answer to this is grim. Oliver Sacks examined a few of these cases in various books he wrote over the years. Although he desperately grasped to find meaning, to find purpose in the lives of those who had anterograde amnesia ... he ultimately comes up short, save one individual that still enjoyed going to church; a purpose which was handed over from the previous self.
Movie rating: Overall - 9 Meaning of Life Relevance - 7 Uniqueness – 10 If you saw the movie, what did you think? Do you believe that each time we wake up, each time there is a gap between consciousnesses, we awake a new person? If you like the site, check out the movie on Yidio or Amazon.