Friday, August 9, 2013

Memento Mori

Below is an analysis essay comparing the short story "Memento Mori" to its film adaptation Memento.

Distorted Memories

Christopher Nolan’s Memento is an exceptional film that transforms an otherwise simple concept into a perplexing and riveting story. Released in 2000, this post-modern film brings Jonathan Nolan’s short story, “Memento Mori”, to the big screen. The story revolves around a fascinating concept of a troubled man suffering from anterograde amnesia after sustaining a head injury and seeking vengeance for his wife’s unresolved murder. He sets out to accomplish this by deducing from his numerous tattoos, notes, and Polaroid photos because he could not retain any new memories due to his condition. As an adaptation of literary work, the film presents a different portrayal of similar underlying themes found in “Memento Mori”. Although the short story provides a thought-provoking perspective on the passage of time and memories, the plot and main character are vague in comparison to its adaptation. Therefore, while the “Memento Mori” conveys thematic subjects more effectively, Memento proves to be superior due to the characterization of Lenny and the distinctive narrative style.
Compared to the film adaptation, Jonathan Nolan’s short story clearly encompasses a more powerful message. While Memento is primarily concerned with building suspense in the search for the killer and leaving clues in a complicated plot structure, “Memento Mori” delves further into the psychological aspect of losing short-term memory in 10-minute increments. In one of Earl’s notes to himself, he inquires, “How many times do you have to hear the news before some other part of your body, other than that busted brain of yours, starts to remember? Never-ending grief, never-ending anger… Just the same ten minutes, over and over again. So how can you forgive if you can’t remember to forget?” (1-5). “Memento Mori” translates to “Remember your mortality” in Latin, representing the idea of living for the moment. Although the passage of time no longer matters to Earl, he must still use his wisely because time is fleeting. Since there is death, luxuries fulfilled in life are meaningless. Although “Memento Mori” outshines the film adaptation in this particular component, Memento does illustrate Lenny’s turmoil in several scenes when he is forced to relive the memory of his wife’s assault. For instance, the theme is briefly conveyed in a moving scene in which Lenny merely poses the question: "I want time to pass, but it won’t. How am I supposed to heal if I can't feel time?" Asides from these slower moments of contemplation, most of the film examines the characters’ motives and deceptions as well as obscure clues as a mystery or thriller rather than presenting a meaningful theme to the audience. Overall, “Memento Mori” explores a more profound theme related to time and grief.
Despite lacking in the thematic aspect, Memento excels in the characterization of Lenny. Both versions of the story involve the main character writing countless notes or lists and having his body covered in tattoos as a reminder, referring to the word “memento”. While the short story leaves the reader with a vague sense of the main character, Earl, Memento presents the audience with an engaging character full of complexities. In “Memento Mori”, Earl is more cynical and self-loathing due to his incapability to live a normal life due to his condition. In his notes, Earl always addresses himself as another person as if they are friends working together to catch the killer, “We’re so close now. That’s the way it feels. So many pieces put together, spelled out. I guess it’s just a matter of time until you find him” (10). Most of what the reader learns of Earl is from his own notes as he talks to himself. This technique may give the reader a peek inside the character’s psyche, but does not serve as a compelling method of progressing the story. On the other hand, Christopher Nolan reveals Lenny as an unreliable narrator in a captivating way. While he converses with Teddy in a diner, Lenny remarks, "Memory's unreliable ... Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable ... Memory can change the shape of a room or the color of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts." After each episode, some of what the audience once knew as facts becomes lies, relating to the main character’s unreliability. However, an interesting turn of events that explains the entire premise of the film as well as the motivations of the characters occurs at the conclusion. As Lenny frames Teddy as the next John G. by copying down his license plate, he ponders, “Would I lie to myself to be happy? In your case, Teddy, yes I would.” Lenny manipulates himself by distorting his own memories and betraying his own principles entirely once he realizes that he has been tricked into killing the wrong men. This decision results in a more complex character, raising the question: what will happen to Lenny once the last John G. is dead?  Therefore, Memento depicts a far more fascinating set of characters in an engaging manner.
In addition to the superb characterization, the film is overall more stylistic and unique than the short story in unveiling the main storyline. Both versions present a series of segmented scenes. In “Memento Mori”, some of these sequences are in traditional third person narrative and others in second person through Earl’s notes. As Earl reflects on his situation, re-living the same ten minutes repeatedly, he states, “You can’t have a normal life anymore. You must know that. How can you have a girlfriend if you can’t remember her name? Can’t have kids... Sure as hell can’t hold down a job” (4). While this is an unorthodox narrative for a short story, the fragments become slightly repetitive until the ending, when Earl sits in the back seat of a cop car after murdering a man in revenge. From a brilliant director, Memento’s most notable features are the style and narrative structure, which are excellent in comparison to “Memento Mori”. The film integrates post modern and noir elements, embodying high concept techniques that are quite entertaining to the audience. For instance, the story follows an intricate reverse episodic plot structure, resembling chapters arranged in reverse order and intercut with black and white sequences that are in chronological order transpiring even further in the past. At the conclusion, the black and white and the color sequences merge almost imperceptibly, demonstrating the director’s prowess. While this sequence of events typically bewilders the audience, it prompts them to piece together the mystery on their own, remaining attentive to minute details throughout the film and even engrossing themselves in repeat viewings to make sense of the concept. In addition, the black and white sequences include parallel storytelling, referring to Sammy Jankis who also suffers from anterograde amnesia. As Lenny talks on the phone with a man whose identity is yet to be revealed, he mentions, “every time I see him I catch a look of recognition. Just a slight look, but he says he can’t remember me at all…His condition was psychological not physical.” The purpose of this narration is eventually revealed through Christopher Nolan’s mastery in throwing a twist in the conclusion. Considering the fact that Sammy accidentally kills his wife while giving her excessive insulin shots due to his condition, the director hints at a possible cause of death for Lenny’s wife by flashing abrupt clips of Lenny preparing an insulin shot. This parallel story serves as an example of how Christopher Nolan reveals clues in his layered storytelling. Therefore, Memento’s style exceeds “Memento Mori” by allowing the audience to create their own individual interpretation of the events that transpire in an unconventional order.
Despite the short story’s exceptional representation of its central theme, the film adaptation is preferable in terms of intriguing characters and an influential narrative style. Though the “Memento Mori” is not perfect in every aspect, its greatest quality must be its profound themes, which is not the film adaptation’s strongest point. However, Memento depicts a far more interesting character. In addition, while most of the short story revolves around the main character reading his own notes in a hospital room, the film adaptation is told in a gripping fashion that captivates the audience for the duration of the film, challenging them to piece the puzzle together. Therefore, Memento is ultimately superior to the short story, a must-see for film aficionados.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The End of the Affair (1999)

The End of the Affair is a moving film directed by Neil Jordan and adapted from the novel by Graham Greene.

Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is a writer engulfed in hate and jealousy as he recounts his scandalous affair with Sarah (Julianne Moore), the wife of Henry (Stephen Rea). Although Sarah has expressed her unconditional love numerous times, Bendrix, being an incredibly skeptical, jealous lover, simply wasn't convinced. He fears that he's only a temporary part of Sarah's life and their relationship is no more than physical. He hired a private investigator to report his own affair so he could show the evidence to Henry, ensuring a divorce. In spite of Henry's negligence towards her, Sarah puts closure on her affairs and is resolute in keeping her promise and saving her loveless marriage but fears that memories of Bendrix will haunt her forever. 

The nature of their romance and eventual separation has a sense of irony. During the war, they were at peace with each other while the denouement of war caused their relationship to fall apart. Ultimately, both Bendrix and Sarah abandon their atheist beliefs once they witness a miracle. "I have tempted fate, and fate had accepted." However, the conclusion proves to be a tragedy similar to One Day. As a result, Bendrix's character starts bitter and ends bitter in his narration throughout the film.

The soundtrack by Michael Nyman is powerful and poignant, escalating the emotional scenes. In addition, the cinematography was excellent, earning an Academy Award nomination. I love how the story is interlaced between the past and present throughout his narration such as the scene where Bendrix ascends the stairs and recalls the night he first met Sarah. Another interesting technique is how several scenes are portrayed from the point of view of both characters through their journals, creating a whole new interpretation of the story. Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore did a great job of portraying their roles as lovers tormented by love. "I awoke to a changed world. For a moment, I was free of, hate, jealousy...and it all felt like happiness."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Place in the Sun (1951)

A Place in the Sun won six well-deserved Academy Awards for direction, cinematography, editing, writing, music, and costume. The plot was captivating and well written, with every scene moving the story forward. There are several brilliant lines throughout the film, and I deeply empathized with every character. 

The scenes between George (Montgomery Clift) and Angela (Elizabeth Taylor) are sensational, enhanced by Franz Waxman’s poignant soundtrack. Just listening to the theme song brings tears to my eyes. Without a doubt, one of the most passionate love songs that evokes a plethora of emotions as I'm entirely spellbound by the beauty of the film.

George Stevens’ direction was excellent due to his subtle touch such as the Vickers sign flashing outside George’s window, the sound of birds chirping whenever he’s with Angela, the distant shot of Alice’s claustrophobic bedroom, and the superimposition of George’s mother reminiscing by the phone. The fabulous close up shots draw the audience’s attention to every minute detail on screen and word uttered by the characters. The way he built up the suspense at the lake through the shot composition and music was magnificent. The tension was palpable in every scene as George is faced with a dilemma of love, morality, and ambition.

The acting was superb by the entire cast ensemble. Montgomery Clift was one of the first method actors, an inspiration to Marlon Brando, James Dean, and numerous others. They not only gave outstanding performances, they lived the moment, experienced the characters’ every emotion, and instilled a sense of realism in their subtle expressions and gestures. It’s amazing the amount of emotion they could convey just with their eyes.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

The long opening tracking shot marks the intro of an enrapturing performance by Ryan Gosling as he repeatedly flips a switch knife, breathing steadily as he paces back and forth in dim lighting with tattoos covering his body. He then strides past the bustling crowds and revolving carousels of the carnival, their colorful lights flashing in the night. Slipping on a worn red leather jacket, he steps through the narrow entrance of a tent and is met with a large chorus of electrified screams. Luke Glanton mounts his motorcycle within a spherical cage followed by two others, their engines roaring. The three stunt riders race in rapid orbits, blurred figures shooting past each other, escaping collision just by a hair’s breadth. The audience takes a glimpse into the drifter-lifestyle of this quiet, intense character through his perspective - a motorcyclist performing the same life threatening stunts each night to a crowd of strangers.

I typically have no problem with the use of shaky cam as long as it is not overused. Thankfully, director Derek Cianfrance, who previously worked with Ryan Gosling on Blue Valentine in 2010, altered the style of camera work or editing at pivotal moments. For instance, when Luke rides through the thick forest, his motorcycle shoots forth over fallen branches and ledges, the thundering rumble of the engines drowning out everything else. Suddenly, when he realizes he is not alone in the woods, there’s a motion blur effect as time seems to slow and the two exchange glances with trees whipping past them. All we could see is the red streak of his leather jacket surrounded by a sea of green. Furthermore, one of the most stunning scenes involves the camera soaring through the woods, feeling as light as air, as it follows the motorcyclist bolting down the curving road with the chords of Mike Patton’s poignant soundtrack, “The Snow Angel,” reverberating in my mind long after the film has ended. The song choices were brilliant, perfectly accompanying the images and emotions on screen. At this inspirational, transient moment, the camera is smooth and swooping high above the ground, in contrast with the handheld camera work used throughout the rest of the film.

Upon laying eyes on his infant son for the first time, Luke goes through a dramatic transformation. He instantly regrets abandoning “his family” and takes drastic, impulsive actions to provide for Romina (Eva Mendes) and Jason by robbing banks. A fantastic line by Ben Mendelsohn, his partner in crime, “If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder,” perfectly foreshadows Luke’s fate. In the second act, we are introduced to Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop regarded as a hero who values justice despite the fact that a discreet act of injustice ironically brought him to fame in the first place. Meanwhile, Ray Liotta acquaints him with the corrupt ways of the police force, as Avery struggles with the morality of the situation. Nevertheless, he makes the difficult choice of living with this secret and even exposing the corruption of the Police Department through blackmail.

What makes The Place Beyond the Pines unique is the fact that Derek Cianfrance ties together three distinctive stories through thematic conflicts in an epic tale of generations. The legend and rivalry of Luke Glanton and Avery Cross are passed on to their sons, Jason and AJ. There’s an irony in the characteristics of these two friends turned enemies. Avery Cross has worked his way up the ranks to become an ambitious politician, exhibiting further hypocrisy of his principles regarding justice later in life similar to his early days. Yet, by neglecting his family, his son AJ matures into an arrogant troublemaker headed in the direction of Luke Glanton’s criminal activities. Meanwhile, Jason grows up in a loving home with a normal personality, but is drawn into trouble by befriending AJ, who happens to influence a chain of events that leads to Jason’s discovery of his father’s identity.

This epic drama is having a great run at the box office considering it's in limited release, only being shown in two theaters in New York and Los Angeles. I happened to get the last ticket (seat E13, my favorite number) for a screening in LA, and I consider The Place Beyond the Pines as the best film of 2013 so far and can't wait to see it again in wider release!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby is a faithful adaptation of one of America’s legendary literary works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, taking place in the prosperous 1920’s era. Staggering wealth, towering stock markets, and the grand lifestyle resembled the American Dream that was bound to end with the imminent stock market crash.

But in the meantime, the ambitious James Gatz made a name out of himself, building a reputation and owning a luxurious mansion just on the edge of West Egg, Long Island. To the public, he became known as Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio). However, his stature is shrouded in mystery, as speculation arose as to how he acquired such an abundance of wealth. Rumors spread like rapid fire: he once killed a man...he was a spy...a war hero... But no one truly knew or understood the man, until Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moved in next door in a forgotten gardener's shack to pursue a career in Wall Street selling bonds, unaccustomed to the bustling vigor of New York. 

As a self-made millionaire, Gatsby represents "new money" with his over-the-top "circus" parties and eclectic palace design, while the Buchanan's from East Egg represent "old money," residing in colonial type homes and displaying an immense boredom with their lavish lives. Gatsby's tragic flaw is his resolute belief that it is indeed possible to "repeat the past," resulting in his inevitable demise. In addition, Gatsby's tragic flaw is falling in love with Daisy (Carrey Mulligan), who at the same time built him and destroyed him. After claiming that they would run away together and start over, Daisy is callous enough to retreat back to her wealth and accept no responsibility for the damage she has inflicted. Daisy's puzzling remark, "I hope she'll be a fool - that's the best thing a girl could be in this world, a beautiful little fool," conveys the affluent, shallow life she herself lives with Tom (Joel Edgerton) and wishes for her daughter.

Throughout the first thirty minutes, Gatsby is only revealed through partial action, his hands pushing the curtains aside or offering a drink with his iconic ring always visible. I love the moment when Nick finally sees the party's host with his own eyes for the first time and how he describes Gatsby's rare smile "with a quality of eternal reassurance" that "understood you just as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself." After extensive shots of the wild parties and crazed celebrations, Gatsby is singled out in this spectacular shot and the audio is muted as Nick is fully absorbed in his observation of this revered figure who gives him a smile that "you may come across four or five times in life."

Baz Luhrmann detailed direction brings the same energetic and hectic atmosphere that he created in Moulin Rouge to the extravagant parties of The Great Gatsby. The vast parties are well choreographed, immersing the audience in the scene, and the grand cinematography illustrates the magnificence of the period. In addition, he did an excellent job of portraying the eyes of TJ Eckelburg watching over the Valley of Ashes and the tragedy that transpires the night Daisy takes the wheel of the Duesenberg and implicates Gatsby in a hit-and-run.

The green light across the bay represents the ideal future that eludes Gatsby as if receding before him, as he "beats on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." He tries to fight the "current," pursuing a future with Daisy, but is held back by his desire to recreate the past.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas, based on a book by David Mitchell, brilliantly interweaves six storylines with each character portraying multiple reincarnations in an intricate plot structure, set in the past, present, and future. Films of this type often struggle to include adequate character development or fail to give equal significance to each storyline in the overarching message. However, I believe that Cloud Atlas succeeds in this aspect, as each character has depth and strong motives that dictates their actions, each storyline builds in conflict followed by a satisfying conclusion, and everything is subtly connected, as stated by the film’s tagline. The film definitely leaves me pondering long afterwards, trying to trace each plot and individual as well as their correlation to each other. Although Cloud Atlas lasts three hours, I find it necessary, as the multi-layered story would have seemed rushed or incomplete if the film were shortened.

Initially, the ideas may seem scattered, but have patience. As the film progressed, I soon became deeply invested in each character’s heartfelt journey, as the film ties together themes of love, identity, and rebirth, strengthening my anticipation for what’s to come later in the film. The first sign of cohesion came around thirty minutes into the film, and was deeply touching, as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, or Jim Broadbent express a feeling of familiarity with absolute strangers or certain places through narration: “A powerful déjà vu ran through my bones, as if I have been here before in another life.”

I love how the actions scenes are overlapped at certain moments, switching between two storylines in which Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae are engaged in a high-speed chase on futuristic motorcycles or Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are fighting off barbaric tribes deep in the forest. In addition, some of my favorite scenes involve montages of their daily lives as one person narrates over the scene in a way that relates to what each individual is experiencing. During these montages, the nostalgic theme song, Cloud Atlas Sextet, drowns out the background noises, evoking a sense of déjà vu as if an echo subconsciously runs through each of them and connects them metaphysically. Ben Winshaw remarks, “It’s a whole movement I wrote, imagining us meeting again and again in different times, in different ages.” This concept is also conveyed visually through shared surreal dreams as well as when everyone reveals mysterious, identical birthmarks or scars, resembling a shooting star.

Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski excellently synthesized these various plot elements into one big picture. One thing’s for certain: Cloud Atlas deserves an Academy Award nomination for the effort put into make up, depicting different, and sometimes unrecognizable, incarnations of each character. Cloud Atlas invokes a sense of hope for the future, and provokes a reflection on the interconnectedness of life. “I believe there is another world waiting for us.” After watching this poignant film, I will make sure to read the book in the near future!