[This was written for one of my classes]
The senses give us information about things only as they exist in the present moment; and this information, if it were not preserved by memory, would vanish instantly, and leave us as ignorant as if it had never been.
— Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man
The role of editing and structure in Memento is an integral one. The film’s structure operates in a manner that provides compelling suspense and also simulates what it is like for one’s faculty of memory to be highly deficient. It does this through a specific structure, Christopher Nolan, himself has identified:
So, the bottom line consists of a series of scenes that can act as a single forward sequence. The scenes first speak of Sammy Jankins, a man who went through memory loss issues similar to the main character, Lenny, and then the bend starts and we head to what is “the end” of the film. These scenes are in black and white and they are edited in such a way that they work with the color scenes which comprise the backward sequence that the top line is. They eventually meet at the end of the film which is marked by the line. The structure is how it is in order to, as I said before, provide compelling suspense and also simulate what it is like for one’s faculty of memory to be highly deficient.
The way in which the scenes that comprise the top line are edited simulates what it is like for one’s faculty of memory to be highly deficient. We start at what is technically the end, not of the film, but of the story (I hope you understand the distinction), and then work backward toward the end of the film, which, in a certain sense, is really the beginning of the story. This simulates a deficient memory because we have no knowledge of what has occurred before this scene in the story. According to the views of philosopher Thomas Reid, “It is by memory that we have an immediate knowledge of things past” (1785, Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, p. 222). Thus, within the film, our lack of knowledge of things past due to its structure simulates the failure of memory. It is this first editing choice that projects one of the main themes of the film, the deficiency of memory, onto the audience itself, in that, we, in a certain sense, have no knowledge of things past — though, of course, we remember Sammy Jankins…
The way in which the scenes that comprise the top line and bottom line are edited in conjunction with one another is what provides the suspense required to make the film compelling and interesting. Let me explain what I mean by this. The audience, in its mnemonically-induced ignorance, is immediately disoriented. They do not know what is going on. This creates suspense for the audience and consequently the audience’s emotional investment in the film, its characters, etc. This is done by having the “bottom line scenes” “interrupt” the “top line scenes,” so to speak. As our state of ignorance is being continually alleviated as we learn more and more about the past through viewing the top line scenes, we are continually met with interruptions of this top line. These interruptions consist of one of the black-and-white scenes that are, to use a technical editing term, flashbacks. This not only creates discomfort in the viewer, as our general ignorance is being momentarily preserved, but it also serves to give the viewer time to reflect on and emotionally invest in the story the top line scenes are unpacking. This second editing choice not only forwards a theme of the film, the discomfort that arises with a deficient memory but also is the way in which the plot itself unfolds. The importance of this editing choice, while subtle, is great.
The final editing choice I want to identify is the cut to a black frame that takes place when alternating between the top and bottom lines. The screen cuts from one top line scene to a black screen, then it cuts from there to one bottom line scene, and then it cuts to a black screen and then to another top line scene, and so on… The interesting importance of these cuts is that it serves to express Lenny’s mnemonic states and their various dynamics. We are essentially experiencing the quick erasure of all his newly formed mnemonic states, beliefs as well as various other doxastic attitudes, etc. and we are experiencing it through this harsh, stark, and oppressive black frame. I take it that the cuts to the black frame are ways of involving the audience in the film’s theme of mnemonic failure.