Archive for September, 2005

Nietzsche on “Truth”

Posted by Mark Sample on Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

Here’s a replay of the Nietzsche passages on the nature of truth, all taken from "On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense" (1873): 

The arrogance associated with knowledge and sensation lays a blinding fog over man’s eyes and senses and deceives him about the value of existence by instilling in him a most flattering estimation of this faculty of knowledge….

What is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms…. 

Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions….

If someone hides an object behind a bush, then seeks and finds it there, that seeking and finding is not very laudable: but that is the way it is with the seeking and finding of "truth" within the rational sphere….

The Mind Invents Ways to Heal

Posted by karen on Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

            Our various discussions on the possibility of ultimate "truth" or "reality" definitely weigh heavily on my mind with Memento.  After a third full viewing of it over the years (and many discussions of it), I feel like I can grasp what really happens in the story.  I feel as if I can rearrange the events in the correct beginning-to-end sequence in my mind…and then I realize that I am still stuck in a world where there must be order!  I need for the events in the story to make logical sense, for there to be a motivation to each action and for cause and effect to work cooperatively.  And then I force myself to step back and consider that logical sense maybe does not need to be made.

            As I untangle and tangle what "really" happens/happened in Memento, my thinking leads to the possibility that postmodernism is about trying to find a way to deal with everything that ails people and society.  I’m not sure how to explain it except that characters seem to keep needing to heal.  About the loss of his wife, Leonard says, "How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?"  When he attempts to justify his continual search for her killer (is he really searching for himself?), he says, "She’s gone and the present is trivial," and one of the few times we actually get an emotional response from him is when he is trying to "forget" his wife by getting rid of her stuff.  Through tears he says, "I can’t remember to forget you."  He seems to be searching (perpetually) for a way to make the pain of whatever really did happen go away.  Part of him seems to want to forget about his wife, to avoid feeling the loss or guilt or whatever else he is feeling, but the other part seems to recognize the purposelessness of a his life without that motivation.  Because of his inability to create new memories, if he lets go of the past and the past memories, he will not have any sense of existing really (in that he wouldn’t be able to remember any of his existence since the "incident").  He needs purpose to make his actions and life matter; yet, his purpose survives on the pain he is trying to escape.  All of this reminds me of other recent ventures into the need to heal what ails people.  Vanilla Sky, too, delves into running away from the pain of a real life physical deformity, when the main character enters into a cryogenically frozen dream state with an alternate version of life for him to experience to avoid dealing with the pain he experiences daily.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also involves characters escaping emotional pain – the trials of real life relationships – by erasing the memories of others (who are at the root of their pain) from their minds completely.  Even George Orr has used his dreams (when drugs didn’t work) to escape a reality of pain, physical pain, from his war-ridden, radiation-filled world in Lathe.  All of the psychological aspects of all of these stories truly fascinate me – the ways the human mind invents to heal or protect itself, how it finds ways for "reality" to work, even if that means altering its perception of "reality."

Time and Place In Memento

Posted by Mike Scalise on Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

What struck me most about re-watching Memento this week (besides the fact that I found I disliked the movie much less than I initially did when I saw it a couple years ago, when I wrote it off as pretentious and gimmicky), were the structural similarities to Lot 49. Both stories find their arcs within what are basically splices of their character’s lives, and end with the effect of an ellipses. With Oedipa it’s at the auction, and we as readers are unsure of the validity of the Trystero situation, but we do know now that it’s Oedipa’s to maybe endlessly decipher. Memento’s treatment of Leonard’s re-definition of his own meaning (“you can be my John G.,” etc.) is handled more self-effacingly, in that he knows and acknowledges the fundamental flaw then chooses to wipe it away, but we’re left with the notion that his work will never be done. I’ve been thinking about it, and I may be off-base here, but if it weren’t for Nolan’s choice to merely chronicle one of the many, many detective searches by Leonard, he may not have been able to succeed in using a backwards-told storyline. What the splice effect does is remove the expectation of a finite solution, in which the actual search slowly begins to take a decided backdrop (when the black and white portion bleeds into color) to the truth behind his condition, and the characters actions in relation to it. I’m still trying to work this one out.

I also thought Nolan’s choice to install a sense of placelessness to the whole thing was interesting. We only get place-related history in two ways. “I’m Leonard Shelby from San Francisco,” and license plates to automobiles, which leads me to believe that it was set in California, but we can’t be sure. As opposed to other notable noir films like L.A. Confidential, Bound, and Chinatown, which were so rooted in place that the setting very quickly became a character, the setting in Memento is drab, forgettable, and unstylized. I keep thinking how the story would be different if it were set in Paul Auster’s New York, or James Ellroy’s Los Angeles. It then would have been more of an obstacle for Leonard in a way that the nameless place Nolan chose wasn’t, and in a way erasing that prospect allowed for the storyline to be essentially a one-man character study (Teddy, Natalie, and even Sammy Jankis are arguably two-dimensional characters). So far, the texts that we’ve read have had a strong sense of place that often colored their outcomes, but is this placelessness something born of postmodernity? The idea that “this story could happen anywhere” applies also to the DeLillo story we read early on in the course, and I’m wondering how it relates.

memory is unreliable

Posted by julie g. on Tuesday, September 27th, 2005

Near the end of the movie, Teddy tells Lenny to “start investigating [himself].” Teddy says, “You don’t even know who you are.” How do we know who we are except through our memories? Lenny says that he can “read people.” That he is able to tell what a person is like or what he is thinking simply by looking into his eyes. But do you really ever know a person? Do you really ever know yourself?

 

I know that I was born in Roanoke, Virginia and that when I was ten I broke my arm on a swing set. I know that the color of my living room furniture is blue and that when I touch a working oven it will feel hot. As Lenny says, “There are things you know for sure.” But those are just facts. Lenny knows what Teddy and Natalie look like, what their names and license plates numbers are. But it’s up to Lenny to interpret the facts and that changes things a bit. Because he has no memory (or chooses not to, which is another debate entirely), Lenny put these clues together based on nothingness and comes up with answers that don’t really mean anything. He is lead astray by his false assumptions much like we are many times lead astray by our own false memories. After all, “memory is unreliable” and “can be distorted…it can change the shape of a room or the color of a car.” Whether we consciously change reality or unconsciously “forget” facts, we are always using a skewed version of “reality” to judge and make assumptions about our own life and others. The fact that Lenny kills John G. on the basis of a false memory (or a “lie to make himself happy”) makes this point even more clear as it suggests that we can never be sure of what we think we know.

 

Again, that raises the question of whether we even really know ourselves. If we can’t trust our own memories then how do we know that we are who we think we are? Are we who we were in the past or are we who we are right now? Lenny’s identity is not solid; it continues to change throughout the movie. He is a man with brain damage, a supposed murderer, a mental hospital patient (thanks to John for pointing out that ½ second blip). He is constantly getting tattoos and therefore changing his physical appearance. He changes into a drug dealer’s clothes in order to take on the identity of a dead man rather than that of a murderer. But “nothing ever sticks” to Lenny, just like his memory.  He has to rely on others to tell him who he is since he can’t remember. At one point Lenny says, “We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we really are.” But is a reflection all we need…doesn’t that just show us how others view us?  Lenny says he has “to believe in a world outside [his] own mind.” Maybe this means that it is hard for us to trust our own judgments since a part of us always recognizes the imperfections in memory. Perhaps we have to believe that the “world outside” holds truths that we fail to piece together in our own minds.

Memory! (and if anyone mentions that stupid somg from “Cats” heads will roll)

Posted by Jakester on Monday, September 26th, 2005

Lenny makes a point while arguing with his wife that the point of reading a book is to find out what happens in the end; that is where the enjoyment of reading is based in Lenny’s world. In a way I think this is Nolan making a little funny about his film. If anything, we, as viewers, already know what has happened. The ending is the first thing we see. But I don’t think the plot of the film is based around the actions of our memory deficient friend. While the noir aspect of the film places much of the emphasis on the detective efforts, memory (history, if you want to link this up to Harvey’s ideas) is what this film focuses on. Why else do all the explanations Lenny gives in the black and white moments focus on how he has disciplined his memory and how others (like Sammy Jankis) are weak. While Lenny has convinced himself that he cannot form new memories, the fact that he has been able to form so many new habits proves otherwise. His memory is fine. The ritual of tattooing is one he can perform almost in passing and while talking on the phone. Taking pictures of people and things is an instinctive reflex almost. Writing his notes is an almost religious experience (while he can remember to do it in time). Most important in this idea of memory is the moment when he decides to make Teddy the focus of his revenge. From the moment of that conscious decision, if you watch the film backwards, Teddy has become the focal point of his memory. Harvey says in his article that "And if it is true that time is always memorialized not as flow, but as memories of experienced places and spaces, then history must indeed give way to poetry, time to space, as the fundamental material of social expression" (Harvey pg 218). Lenny has conditioned himself to recognizing spaces and phrases of power (poetry in his tattoos). In the internal monologues, the unfamiliar hotel room is a routine that he goes through to help him remember. the simple action of opening drawers despite a precognition of "knowing" nothing would be in them is one of Lenny’s conditioned memory triggers. he knows what’s coming even though he tells himself he doesn’t. While his notion of time has disappeared completely, where he is, and what he can see is his history. 

What really makes this postmodern is another example from Harvey. Table 4.1 has lots of contradictions between modern and postmodern. The one I found most relevant was the utopian vs. heterotopia. Lenny’s utopia was ever changing. Whatever happiness he found in the original act of revenge was replicated in who knows how many other acts that teddy arranged. the idea of redemptive art was destroyed in the spectacle of Lenny’s tattoos. They held no help for him, since they often betrayed the plots others had laid. Instead of any concentrated work, the work Lenny did was dispersed among every other character he met, all seemed to have other motives to how they would use him. Instead of being a specialist, Lenny became a psychologist, a detective, judge, jury and executioner. As for the symbolic capital, well, the Jag says it all. 
The interview on the specials menu adds an extra insight into the memory aspect of the film. Nolan said that much of the idea for his direction came from his own memory and how it made him view things. He says he often remembers movies as the ending, and not so much as a whole. How anyone may wish to  interpret that into the execution of the film is something I would like to hear in class. 

Short term

Posted by Josh Lind on Monday, September 26th, 2005

One could suggest a parallel between Leonard’s ‘condition’ and ‘the postmodern condition’ as formulated by Lyotard, such that reality goes the ill-fated way of the metanarrative, allowing for the elevation and ossification of a subjective narrative (such as a reassuring conspiracy theory of murder and its warranted revenge) that structures action and belief, and consequently a wish becomes real, a simulation of investigation leads to a certainty of innocence – all because (one could suggest) subjects are encouraged to live in a hyperreal landscape in which they are trained to refresh their expectations with each pleasing new commercial, obliterate their knowledge in a deferred and ultimately unsatisfying orgasm, and forget the historical immaterialism of consumption in late capitalism, the very disappointment of consumption (the prototype being Sammy Jankis, who is wiped clean before each grab at the electrified silver pyramid, shocking in his repeated attempts at jouissance within parameters defined and conditioned by a mild-mannered sadist with a clipboard full of market research), but when the viewer realizes that Sammy is a fabrication – or at least a conflation of identities – called into being by Leonard’s guilty complicity in fashioning a comfortable lie, the viewer pushes this guilt onto Leonard-as-the-convincing-representation-of-ourselves-who-is-not-ourselves and at whose lie we are shocked and thrilled enough to call this a pretty true and repulsive film – but it has nothing to do with us, we who are wiped clean when the screen goes black, the delivery of truth-as-our-real-relations-presented-to-us-in-imaginary-form (a la Althusser) a mere filmic residue, or perhaps it is even something we overlay with the identity of John G., whom (one could suggest) we hunt down and kill because it is something that threatens to unveil truth by its very obfuscation, or finally, it could be killed by the appellation of coolness, as in “that movie is soooo cooool.”  Totally.

Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Environmental Degradation

Posted by zpeterse on Monday, September 26th, 2005

Although not its most salient point, the two main settings of Memento, a run down exurban commercial strip and an abandoned industrial park, continue the familiar strain so far this semester of postmodern writers inquiring about the degradation of america’s natural environment. Pynchon, Le Guin, and Whitehead all have something to say about failing urban areas, commercial sprawl, military pollution, and overpopulated cities, etc. Sometimes I find it helpful to think of what’s not present in film or book settings. In Memento, there are no woods, lakes, parks, grass, animals, etc. There are a lot of drugs, bloody body parts, cars with broken windsheilds, bullets. Nolan chose his setting with a purpose. Its Californiaesque, and shares characteristics with Lot 49’s landscape and plot.

 It occured to me last week, as i was driving through man made fog spewing from a semi truck engine fire on 395, that this whole postmodern condition of ours can be both an economic one, as Jameson argues, or an environmental one, as many people probably have already argued, but only just recently dawned on me. i’ve never read Delillo, but from what I hear, this question will keep arising again and again.

John, very good point about the British and Canadian make-up of the film. I disagree with the Bush Administration that we shouldn’t claim everything for ourselves. I would point to Nolan’s use of setting  to consider it decidedly american in feel. Im interested in what people had to say about the form, structure of the film, with some saying how creative it was to put the audience in Leonard’s shoes in trying to put together the pieces of his wife’s murder, and another saying that it was, oh what’s the word, cliche? emoticon i agree with jarrod’s comments that there was truth for the viewer to grasp. I almost thought that we would find out who killed his wife! Look forward to tomorrow’s discussion.

Symbolism and What Next?

Posted by Carolyn on Monday, September 26th, 2005

I wanted to comment on the idea of eyes and glasses as a way to discern the truth in the movie.  Leonard’s job as an insurance investigator required him to know if people were lying to him about their claims.  He said that he had to look people in the eyes to know if they were telling the truth, and he continues to use this method after the accident and he cannot trust anyone.  However, this method is unreliable, as is the “truth” that he ascertains from it, because whoever is talking to him only has to deceive him for a few minutes, until he cannot remember them anymore.  Glasses also symbolize hiding the truth, as they block the eyes and prevent Leonard from looking the person in the eye.  Natalie wears sunglasses when they meet in the restaurant and he has to ask her to take them off so he can know if she is being truthful or not.  Teddy always wears glasses, and this aligns with Leonard’s note on the back of Teddy’s picture, not to believe his lies.  However, the viewer sees the story unfolding from Leonard’s point of view and has the advantage of being able to remember what he is shown, but cannot know for sure if any information received from Teddy or Natalie is to be trusted.  Natalie sums this up when she tells Leonard, “You can question everything—you can never know anything for sure.”  This applies to the audience as well.  We know the events that have happened, that Leonard killed both Teddy and Jimmy Grantz, and probably others as well, but we do not know for sure the true circumstances that led him to that point.  “The world doesn’t just disappear when you close your eyes, does it,” Leonard asks at one point.  But for him, it does, and not just when he closes his eyes, but after a certain amount of time, since he has to re-orient himself continually because of his condition.

The movie is definitely circular in its plot and series of events.  It is also self-aware, as Teddy warned Leonard that a bad cop was setting him up and that bad cop turned out to be Teddy himself.  He was warning Leonard about himself, but without revealing his identity until the climax of the film.  Returning to the circular chain of action in the film, however, if Teddy was the one keeping Leonard going, with new John Gs to find so he has a reason to exist and thus not end up like Sammy Jenkins, what happens now that Teddy is dead?  Leonard’s tattoo shows that the man he is after has the license plate that Teddy has, so without that leading to a new person, will he just go in circles, finding someone who no longer exists?  Will he write himself a new note to tell himself his revenge mission is complete?  If so, then is his destiny to become Sammy Jenkins, the fate he was trying so hard to avoid that he altered his own version of his memories?

Parallels between Leonard and Teddy

Posted by jmonte on Monday, September 26th, 2005

In Memento, there was a fluidity that I sensed between the black and white scenes and those filmed in color.  I considered these variations in color and these switching backs of scenes in a backward but linear order a metaphor for the imperfect human memory, which is intensified in the character Leonard.  Because Leonard believes he is unable to recall anything that has happened since the night of his wife’s murder/rape and at the same time insists that he will not give up the structure of living each moment in a linear, progressing order, he suffers from his desire to control his mind and get revenge on his wife’s supposed offender.  The possibility, however, that Leonard is responsible for his wife’s death makes him a tragic character—someone unable of letting go and incapable of letting go (his last memory being his wife’s death).

          

Then there is Teddy.  On some level, Teddy reminded me of Orr’s doctor in the Lathe of Dreams.  Of course, Teddy is and isn’t who he says he is, but what are we to believe since we’re viewing this reality from the perspective of someone with a memory disability?  Anyway, Teddy behaves parallel to Leonard.  He too wants to be in control, reduced to taking advantage of Leonard’s disability by setting him up as a hit man.  Again, I circled back, the way Memento wants us to, and considered how Leonard unknowingly overdosed his wife with insulin and that he’s already avenged her rape at some time prior to the action in the film.  This is what Teddy tells us, so his death at the beginning of the movie seemed unjustified.  But Memento made me think about whether it matters why Teddy got shot; the outcome for Teddy is having his disabled hit man turn around and destroy him (in a Frankenstein fashion).  Does Teddy deserve death?  Maybe not, though it could be that things work as they must in the long run.  Teddy was behind a lot of other deaths, Leonard was his paranoid weapon.  I wondered what would happen to Leonard after his “master” is no longer setting up his days—but then there’s that little flicker where Leonard’s the man sitting in Sammy’s seat at the asylum.  So, could that be what our writer and director suggest awaits the unchanged modernist?  Living our days around a bunch of other crazy people.  Well, that doesn’t sound so different.

Postmodernism and Guy Pearce’s hotness

Posted by John Webster on Monday, September 26th, 2005

Mr. Pearce may be hot, but he’s a bad actor.  I’ve seen the movie about six or seven times, and his acting gradually gets worse with each viewing.  Nonetheless, I love the movie and I think Chris Nolan is an amazing director.  He splices a few split-second shots that are extremely hard to notice – especially during the first viewing – but which are very important in foreshadowing the plot.  For example, there’s a scene where Sammy Jankis is sitting in a chair at the mental institution.  At 1:29:55, the film cuts to a split-second black-and-white shot of Leonard sitting in the same chair at the mental institution and he’s in Sammy’s clothes.  This minor but meticulous detail is one of the things that makes Nolan such an awesome director…and this leads me to a book Dr. Sample talked briefly about in class.  In Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You (or, rather, the article excerpt I read in the NYT Magazine), he argues that movies have become more and more complex as a result of VHS and now DVDs.  Movies now have to stand up over multiple viewings, and this has induced movie-makers to create more complicated films.  I think Memento is a wonderful example, because as anyone who watches the movie more than once realizes, there are so many things one misses during the first viewing.  So, I guess this is one of the ways in which evolving media have substantially changed film as an art form.

Anyway, one of the little details in the film that I think is postmodern takes place when Leonard’s wife is reading her favorite book and he says, “I always thought the pleasure of the book was in wanting to know what happens next.”  This is a self-referential joke, obviously:  the pleasure in this particular film is in wanting to know what happened before.  This is not only a self-referential joke about the chronology used in Memento, but also to the way in which Nolan’s film challenges traditional story-telling (where "the novel" is perhaps analogous to the traditional structure of a film).  This reminds me of a scene in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in which Billy Pilgrim listens to a radio program where they discuss the purpose of the novel (or whether or not it’s dead; I can’t remember exactly).  Both texts – Vonnegut’s and Nolan’s – depart radically from the story-telling structure used by those texts that have preceded them, and they both joke about that departure within the text itself.

Also, not to get nitpicky, but Chris Nolan wrote and directed this movie, and he’s British.  (Guy Pearce is British/Australian, and Carrie-Anne Moss in Canadian.)  Is the text still American?  I guess it took place and was shot in America, but I’m not so sure that makes it American.

I would be willing to forgo truth for a little originality

Posted by Jarrod on Monday, September 26th, 2005

It had been some time since I viewed this film; however, upon seeing it last week, I was struck by the same thought that occurred to me the first time I watched it:  “Can a Hollywood film ever escape the 3 act structure?”  How is it that a story told backwards adheres to a traditional narrative structure and character with no memory still manages a significant arc?  It seems to me that with the incredibly experimental nature of contemporary novels, there should be some room for similar creativity in feature films.  What we need is “Aqua Teen Hunger Force: The Movie.” 

 
Kiraprater (sorry I had to use your handle, your identity is a mystery to me), I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss truth.  In the universe of Memento, there are things that actually happen.  For instance, the audience is well informed about the nature of Leonard and Natalie’s relationship.  There is a “truth” that we witness, and then a false memory that is juxtaposed against it.  I have trouble with the idea that Leonard’s “memories” are just as valid as the other characters.  For one thing, it seems to undercut the premise of the entire film.  You are absolutely right in the case of the scene you mention in your blog, Leonard is just as unreliable as Teddy; yet, I think this speaks to the unreliability of human perception (or memory if you would rather), not the absence of truth.
 

I am reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’s short fiction “The Library of Babel,” which describes a library (one that holds more book than there are atoms in the universe) that contains every conceivable variation of a book that is 410 pages in length.  Therefore, this library holds every sentence that has ever or will ever be written.  Therefore, it must contain, within its walls, the meaning of life and the answer to every question ever asked.  However, for every book that holds an answer, there are millions of counterfeit books that are similar, but contain minor variations.  Borges describes “librarians” who waste their lives searching through the volumes in the hope of finding meaning within the seemingly infinite number of book variations.

 
The reason I recounted this story was not to reach my 300-word minimum, but rather to argue that there is a truth, we just have no hope of ever knowing it.  In the universe of the text, Leonard did, or did not kill his wife.  There is an answer… a truth.  Yet, the truth is lost in the fallibility of the human mind and unreliability of the signifying chain.  Either way, I am sure it will lead to a good discussion in class.

Memento and film noir

Posted by ada on Monday, September 26th, 2005

In my second viewing of the film Memento, I was struck as to how many of the details in my first viewing I had glossed over, in order to make sense of the plot.  I blame this entirely on Guy Pearce’s hotness and my inability to focus, because he is so hot.  But I digress.  I would like to explore the elements of film noir echoed in Memento.  In the spirit of postmodern intertexuality and self-referentiality, Memento draws from the noir genre and reworks the elements to create a unique story.  The noir trope of the flawed protagonist is reflected in Leonard’s character.  Though, in this case, the flaw seems overwhelming, as Leonard’s auterograde amnesia, his inability to retain short-term memory, makes him a highly unreliable narrator.  This in turn complicates all of the relationships in the film.  I am reminded of Double Indemnity (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, both in terms of character types and mode of storytelling, and also in cinematographic details.  The narrative form of Double Indemnity is the real time confessions of Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray, played out with the flashback narrative, which tells the story.  The scenes when Walter Neff is talking into a dictaphone, confessing his crime, telling his side, seems to reappear again, reworked in the scenes when Leonard is on the phone in the hotel room, telling his own story.  These flashbacks are set off in Memento by black and white filming, setting this narration apart from the rest of the story.  These scenes also hearken back to noir, in cinematographic details, particularly having to do with light.  Leonard is in a hotel room, the scene is shot in black and white, and the play of light both off his face and in the room is reflective of concerns with light patterns in noir film, particularly ones cause by Venetian blinds.  This partial obscurity, caused by streams of light, emphasize the theme of noir film, that nothing is what it seems, that there are facts obscured and unseen by the characters and also the audience.  In Memento, the way that the light streams into the room, when Leonard is on the phone, casting shadows and illuminations, suggests that even this moment of confession, or telling, is somehow partially obscured.  Another element of film noir is the femme fatale- in Double Indemnity she is Phyllis Dietrichson, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who plots with Walter Neff to kill off her husband and collect insurance money on the double indemnity clause.  This character type is reflected in Natalie, who like Phyllis, is not entirely who she makes herself out to be, and in some way manipulates the protagonist.  Though, again, Memento, in its modern day reworking of the genre, complicates the already complicated by the unsteadiness and shaky ground established by Leonard’s inability to create short-term memories, and his sheer vulnerability to manipulation by strangers, from Burt issuing two hotel rooms, to Teddy’s murder-for-hire plots.  The intertextual details and unique plot sequencing make for an intriguing film.  The concern with seeking out the truth, the truth that is so sublimated and obscured, so seemingly unattainable, is offset by Memento’s depictions of the process of finding truth (even if it doesn’t exist), an equally important venture. 

No truth, just circles

Posted by kiraprater on Sunday, September 25th, 2005

I remember saying in an earlier blog post that I was a person who believed that there was a definite truth out there. Now I find my thoughts headed in a truly postmodern direction. The movie Memento seems to align itself with the postmodernist tenet of "no ultimate truth", and I might be ready to believe that myself. I see this because Leonard, the main character, makes so many choices about what will be the ultimate truth for him.

Leonard is able to create his own truth – he doctors the police file on his case and allows himself to not record facts. However, I moved away from the ultimate truth viewpoint because of a conversation that Leonard and Teddy have about memory and facts. Leonard says that memory is unreliable, but Teddy says that facts are unreliable (this is definitely underscored by Leonard’s selective recording of his so-called facts). Teddy tells Leonard what "really happened" – that he killed his wife’s rapists. However, it is merely Teddy’s word against Leonard’s – the audience cannot say for sure what "really happened". Where is the ultimate truth? It seems there is none – only what happened for one person, and what happened for another person.

I’m inclined to move even farther away from thinking about ultimate truth because of the circular journey I saw in the movie. Leonard re-writes his own history to keep the carrot dangling in front of him, to keep himself going in circles. He says at one point in the movie: "How can I heal if I can’t feel time?" This is true – it counteracts the old adage "time heals all wounds". Leonard is stuck in the present, and his condition will always keep him there. His choices keep him there, as well. Leonard talks about his "condition" and his "conditioning" of himself. The "condition" implies a state of being. However, the "conditioning" implies progress – which we know is impossible for Leonard – not only because of his condition, but because he chooses not to move forward. He kills his wife’s rapists but he circles back to the beginning of his journey. He chooses not to heal. Leonard wants to blame his condition. At one point, he says that the rapists "took away my ability to live". But as Teddy points out, he is still living. Certainly, Leonard’s condition is in no way enviable, but he does choose the easy way to keep living. He chooses to create his own reality – he literally takes advantage of himself to keep himself in the self-created circle. Teddy says that Leonard doesn’t know who he is – but Leonard chooses who he is – again and again. He chooses to be the mentally handicapped bereaved widower searching for his wife’s rapists rather than a Sammy Jenkis in a home. If experiences are what change a person, and Leonard not only has no memory of those, but also chooses not to record them, he will never move forward or backward. He will stay in his circle for forever.

Leonard has no future, because he cannot make a past for himself – either through his memory or through his choices. This makes me think of another postmodernist viewpoint, the question of history. Leonard chooses not to make any history of his own.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to like Leonard’s character because I believe what he chooses is a complete cop-out. After watching the movie again, I’m wondering if there really is an ultimate truth, or perhaps just a bunch of circles. Even if the latter is correct, I’m more inclined to appreciate someone’s search (like Oedipa’s in The Crying of Lot 49) in his or her own circle, rather than Leonard’s hopping on the merry-go-round for one more ride.

Longing to Forget

Posted by julie/jules on Friday, September 23rd, 2005

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meanings of the word Memento include "one’s thoughts in relation to memory," "a reminder, warning, hint as to future events," "a reminder of a past event or condition, of an absent person, or something that once existed," and a number of other connotations that are not strikingly relevant to the film.

The protagonist’s entire body is a memento, a blurred, ‘freakish’ hypertext of tatoos that function as reminders of ‘truths’ or clues he’s constructed under the limitation of short term memory loss. Who he is, as Lenny "reminds’ him, is something he can’t understand. Even his long term memories are possibly forged constructs, lies the protagonist allegedly tells himself "to be happy." The mementos of his previous identity, his life as defined by the memory of his relationship to his wife and her brutal murder, may not be ‘real.’ Whether we are to believe the testimony of a corrupt cop, who uses the noir protagonist in order to further his profit, seems to be as murky as the credibility of the long and short term memory of the protagonist. However corrupt, the cop seems to be more genuine in his soothsaying by the end, or rather the beginning of the film’s sequence of events, than the suggested protagonist. Is there any element or circumstance in the film that can be trusted? I believe that there isn’t.

The memory he has of his wife’s rape and murder, a graphic recollection of her blood and suffocation in the bathroom, is the one defining element about the protagonist’s current character. If this memory is a ‘fake reminder,’ meaning it does not document an actual or ‘real’ event, person, place, or thing, than his current identity is predicated upon the meaninglessness the protagonist is most afraid of. Even when he believes that he can remember something, it could be all wrong, subjective, and  incomplete. Memory is a conscious and cognitive design of how one wants to remember something as opposed to what actually happened, and its easy to ‘remember what one wants’ since we can’t recall every last detail of an event, person, place, and time. Furthermore, our vagrant hero wants to believe that ‘the world is still here’ and his ‘actions still have meaning,’ even if that meaning is constructed on false pretenses rather than none at all.

He continuously claims that "he knows who he is" since he believes he can remember who he was before his "condition," and yet he contradicts himself in the film following Lenny’s exposition of the multiple truths or nontruths about the protagonist. Although he should probably trust the cop more than himself, he writes "do not believe his lies" on the back of his picture simply because he doesn’t like what "Lenny" tells him about himself. The protagonist purposefully lies to himself at certain moments throughout the film, just as he confesses in the end, or rather at the beginning of the journey to avenge his wife: "maybe I do lie to myself to be happy." 

According to Lenny, one history of the protagonist suggests that he killed the man who he believes murdered his wife several times, including the man he kills at the conclusion of the movie. In yet another alternative reality, "the memory guy" potentially killed his diabetic wife. In Freudian terms, he thoroughly dissociated with his fatal mistake and replaced the memory of the actual occurence with a "fake" memory:Sammy Jenkis.

Sammy plays the role, in the protagonist’s mind, of the innocent amnesiac who shoots his wife up with too much insulin. The protagonist (I can’t remember his name- speaking of short-term synapse failure) exhibits such clear and unequivocal insight when he’s talking about Sammy over the phone because he is psychologically distanced from the experience of killing his wife since he remembers Sammy as the one that unknowingly committed murder. If what Lenny says is even partially true of the protagonists history since his wife’s death, the protagonist is a killer equivalent Jenkis. Both kill or continue to kill because they cannot remember what they’ve just done. Since the events do not imprint in the memory of the short-term impaired, the actions and events in the amnesiac’s life cannot shape his/her identity. Instead, the protagonists actions bear no meaning on who he is. Meaninglessness abounds. Since he cannot remember the immmediate experiences of killing his wife and the perpetrater’s he’s framed as responsible in his long term memory, they are no longer a part of his identity according to his reality and self-awareness.

Time is also of the essence in the film. Beyond the reverse sequential order of events, ‘the backwardness’ in which the film is structured, which is actually the most progressive in terms of the plot’s revelation, the protagonist wonders, "how am I supposed to heal if I can’t remember tim?" The memory he can’t forget is the one he wants to forget, his wife’s murder. Whether it acutually happened or he made it up, it overwhelmes everything else about the protagonist. He is his wife’s avenger and lives for no other reason. That is who he believes he is. While he forgets himself and all of the things he’s done since among the misinformation of tatoos, potentially of his own device, he can’t forget the memory of his dieing wife. Was the memory forged? Did she die in the way that the protagonist remembers or the way in which Lenny describes? Does it even matter?

(Insert funny and clever title)

Posted by Jarrod on Friday, September 23rd, 2005

"We have too long had imposed upon us, both from inside and outside, a narrow constricting notion of blackness." (hooks, par 10)

At the risk of sounding cantankerous, I feel as though I should re-clarify my argument.  I stated in both the blog and in class, that The Intuitionist is not entirely an essentialist novel.  I also agree fully that it is possible to have a novel populated with black characters that is entirely nominalistic, as described in the hooks quote cited in Dr. Sample’s previous blog entry.  However, it is still my contention that Whitehead has done little to progress the "black novel" towards the nominalistic ideal presented in hook’s essay. 

Dr. Sample wrote, "To use a word that came up in class, it doesn’t necessarily equal a cliche to present a black man whose aspirations have been foreclosed because of the color of his skin. What looks like a cliche, others would call the truth, steeped in lived history."  I agree that cliche may have been an unfortunate choice of words (not because it is inaccurate, but rather due to its critical connotation); perhaps "trope" would be more appropriate.  However, Lila Mae’s father is a trope not because he is a "a black man whose aspirations have been foreclosed because of the color of his skin," but rather due to the fact that this is all we know of him.  If we look at the second definition of cliche (the one that does not concentrate on the triteness of a subject), we get, "A person or character whose behavior is predictable or superficial." ((dictionary.com) I know that the OED would have been more impressive, but I’m just lazy). It seems to me that each of the black characters in the novel, with the exception of Lila Mae, are structured in the same manner as a host of characters that came before them.  For evidence of this, I need go no further than our class discussion.  A number of students spoke of Lila Mae’s father as a complex, developed character, even though Whitehead dedicated only a few paragraphs to his description.  The connection was made, not through the text, but rather through the history of this trope, one that has been reinforced through countless descriptions from slave narratives through contemporary rap lyrics.

I do not feel as though this is a trite novel, in fact I think it was excellent.  Nevertheless, I would argue that it falls short of the hooks quote mentioned in Dr. Sample’s blog entry.  For the sake of summation, I ask the following question:  What has The Intuitionist done for the black novel?  Will future "nominalistic-black" writers cite it as a genre changing text?  I realize that I may be asking too much of Whitehead, but at this point, I am responding to the claims made in class as well as online.

Anyhoo, I’m glad for this opportunity to restart the debate via blog, as I’m still working to wrap my head around this text.

bell hooks, Colson Whitehead, and Essentialism

Posted by Mark Sample on Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

Without a doubt, we didn’t come even close tonight to saying everything that could be said about the bell hooks article and its relationship to The Intuitionist. Keeping in mind that I didn’t pair these two texts to be read as a call and response, I still think they speak volumes to each other, even if only implicitly.

One of hooks’ most salient observations is that "there is a radical difference between a repudiation of the idea that there is a black ‘essence’ and recognition of the way black identity has been specifically constituted in the experience of exile and struggle" (par 11).

In other words, recognizing the common lived experience and shared history of a group of people (in this case, a shared history of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, discrimination, profiling) does not necessarily equal "essentializing" these people or their experiences. To use a word that came up in class, it doesn’t necessarily equal a cliche to present a black man whose aspirations have been foreclosed because of the color of his skin. What looks like a cliche, others would call the truth, steeped in lived history.

The more I think about it, the more I think that The Intuitionist does honor the widely varied experiences of blacks without resorting to essentialism. (This is not to say that I don’t think the novel doesn’t fail in other regards.) Part of my thinking here has been influenced by another book I’m reading, An Education in Georgia, by Calvin Trillin. This book is a firsthand account, published in 1963, of the integration of the University of Georgia in 1961. In Trillin’s book the first two black women to attend the University of Georgia recall instances of isolation, rejection, and invisibility that sound eerily like Lila Mae’s experiences at the Institute.

Of course, we have to recognize that even if Lila Mae undergoes struggles that mirror the real world, she is ultimately only a character in a heavily allegorical novel and not a real person. She is a literary representation. This recognition calls for nuance and perhaps a slight tweaking of our vocabulary. To this end I want to draw your attention to the two different meanings of the word "representation." The postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak points out in "Can the Subaltern Speak" that representation can mean both speaking for someone (as in politics) and re-presenting something (as in art or literature). Spivak uses two German terms (because the meanings have separate words in German) to distinguish between the two: vertreten (speaking for someone) and darstellen (re-presenting something). It’s the difference between proxy versus portrait, between presuming to speak for someone and presuming to depict something artistically.

As we consider The Intuitionist (and any text in which voice, identity, and authenticity are at stake), we should keep in mind this critical difference between the two types of representation, examining how literarily rendered (or cinematically rendered) "voices" both do and do not "speak" for the experiences behind the voices.