Christopher Nolan’s 2000 film reminds us that “memory anxiety” is not new, just newly relevant: it dates at least to As You Desire Me (George Fitzmaurice, 1932), in which Greta Garbo played an amnesic countess. Some of the films that made memory problematic were classic noir, such as The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946) scripted by Raymond Chandler; Crime Doctor (Michael Gordon, 1943); and Beware My Lovely (Harry Horner, 1952). If we include dreaming in the complex of memory operations, then films such as Blade Runner are indeed forerunners of the current trend, and Christopher Nolan, who has explored both, seems the exemplary director of ‘memory noir.’
Of his first film, Following (1998), Nolan said that he “envisaged a film that explored his favorite aspect of film noir: men who were defined by their often brutal actions.” This film provides us a baseline for Nolan’s exploration of memory and its operations. In this film memories are represented by photos, fungible when stolen; scenes are presented slightly out of chronological order, and the character Cobb pretends to knowledge of memory’s mechanisms. Bill, the naïve photographer/protagonist who follows people around London, seems at first more old-fashioned, like the narrator of Poe’s “Man of the Crowd.” But he changes after he trails Cobb, a professional burglar who takes him on as an apprentice. Cobb has the nasty habit of reminding people of what they had when he steals it, leaving them some after image of it. Bill at first looked askance at this practice, but when they burgle a woman’s flat he is intrigued by the photos strewn everywhere (she composes her ‘self’ as a kind of memory jigsaw, prefiguring Nolan’s later character Leonard Shelby) and he tracks her down, becoming involved in her plot to upend a vicious boyfriend. Critic Andrew Reynolds notes that these characters also prefigure other Nolan’s works, such as the burglar Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio’s name in Inception) and that the “flashbacks and flash forwards operate like a mad teacher spinning your exam paper around every five minutes. Answers become mistakes, and new ones are hastily fit in to match. It’s only when you finally untangle the mess just before the end that you can admire the method.”
All this is promising but conventional, for at this point Nolan shows no understanding of the tension between public and private memory or what cognitive scientists call the “social ecology of memory.” By comparison, consider Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral of the same year, which tries to sort out upheavals of the 60s and 70s against their received memory.
But the affinity of noir to ‘memory anxiety’ is clear. Traditional noir elements will develop the public/private divide of memory in Memento (2000), Nolan’s next film and a ‘memory anxiety’ noir masterpiece. The use of voiceover for Leonard Shelby, who suffers “anterograde amnesia,” sets up the thematic doubling of his subjective view (private) and the facts discerned by the viewer (public), except that the private is perforce also shared in film. The femme fatale becomes part of the anxiety complex, as Natalie’s narrative status as a helper or a traditional opponent is concealed until the end. The half of the narrative shown in flashback, indicated by black-and-white film, should be coded as public memory. By these and other traditional techniques, Memento transfers the work of creating theme from classic Hollywood exposition to viewers’ abilities to reconstruct, making links to the (public) genre but indicating the viewer’s (private) responsibility. The viewer cannot reassemble the narrative, making Leonard’s memory anxiety more intense affectively, but also more logical.
Nolan’s liminal hook has shifted from “men who were defined by their often brutal actions” to the task of figuring out ‘what will have happened’ on the basis of ‘what has happened.’ This has proven compelling, as the number of sites on the Internet contesting the ‘correct’ interpretation of what happened to Leonard testifies – itself a manifestation of memory anxiety. Much of it, like the chart below from Wikipedia that diagrams the alternation between the flashbacks/ present action, helps to understand the crosscut between public memory (filmed in color, in the present time) and private memory (filmed in black and white, as a flashback). What has gone unremarked is that the fascination with Memento developed during the boom in cognitive psychology and cognitive science. The work on memory done in this period popularized such principles as “elaboration” and “cue-dependency,” which the film develops.