Critical Essay on Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir film Memento
Read Chapters 6 and 7 in your text A Short Guide to Writing about Film by Timothy Corrigan, Andrew Spicer’s essay “Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero” on pp. 47-63 and Basil Smith’s essay “John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento” on pp. 35-46 in your text The Philosophy of Neo-Noir edited by Mark T. Conrad; then watch Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir film Memento, about a man who knows who he was, but not who he has become – a familiar existential trope – and write a 3 page Critical Essay (double-spaced) in which you discuss Nolan’s use of thematic and stylistic devices to portray the antihero protagonist’s existential dilemma regarding his identity, as described by Spicer and Smith in their above-mentioned essays.
Prof. Bradshaw-Beyers’s Note
Film noir is both a genre and a style of films made first, between 1941 and 1958 (the classic film noir period), then, between 1960 and 1980 (the modernist neo-noir period, and finally, between 1981 and the present (the postmodernist neo-noir period), and characterized by all or some of the following thematic attributes:
1) an anti-hero protagonist who, although essentially a good guy, makes questionable moral decisions;
2) a general mood of dislocation and bleakness;
3) themes such as the inversion of traditional values and the corresponding moral ambivalence;
4) the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and cynicism;
5) the presence of crime and violence as social criticism;
6) the disorientation of the viewer, which is in large part accomplished by the use of the following cinematic techniques which are the basic characteristics of film noir style:
1) the use of unconventional or nonclassical narrative patterns which point to the problems of truth and objectivity and our ability to know and understand reality — the very basis of post-Nietzschean, Existentialist, Modernist (and Postmodernist) thought (see below);
2) the constant opposition of light and shadow;
3) oblique camera angles, and their disruptive compositional balance of frames and scenes;
4) the way characters are placed in awkward and unconventional positions within shots;
5) the non-chronological ordering of events, often achieved through flashbacks;
6) incoherent plot lines;
7) characters whose actions are not motivated or understandable in any rational way.
The classic film noir period is generally accepted to begin with director John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), and continue through the 1940’s and ’50’s with films such as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Howard Hawkes’ The Big Sleep (1946), Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1948), John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), and Orson Welles’ Man in the Shadows (1952), to name just a few, and end with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).
The modernist neo-noir period is generally thought to begin with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Rene Clement’s Purple Rain (1960), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), MartinScorcese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), and the postmodern neo-noir period to continue through the 1980’s and ’90’s with films such as Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), Ridley Scott’sBlade Runner, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996), Quentin Tarrantino’sPulp Fiction (1994), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1996), and Christopher Nolan’s The Following (1998), Memento (2002), and The Dark Knight(2008), and the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), to name just a few.
Noir is a way of looking at the world, an outlook on life and human existence, which, according to film scholar and philosopher Mark Conrad, essentially derives from the work of Frederich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher who famously said, “God is dead.” What Nietzsche meant by his controversial statement is that empirical science has replaced metaphysical (religious and philosophical) explanations for the creation of the universe, and, therefore, the traditional Judeo-Christian biblical (and other) creation stories are no longer seen as a viable explanation for the origins, meaning, and purpose of human life.
For the most part. Nietzsche’s philosophy also implied that the “grand narratives” of Western thought were equally invalid and made irrelevant as notions of absolute or universal “Truth,” thus rendering human beings without a reliable and unchanging moral structure and code to live by, a world view which is clearly seen in the “existential angst” experienced by the protagonists of writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett . A predominantly pessimistic — and even cynical — view about the nature and purpose of human life had earlier emerged in the literature of the mid- to late 19th and early 20th centuries, in response to Emersonian Transcendentalism, and was the predominant view of life expressed in the “realist” and “naturalist” literature of writers such as Herman Melville (Moby Dick) and Edgar Allan Poe ( “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Telltale Heart,””The Raven”), and later, in what came to be called the “existentialist” literature of the early to mid-20th century. In these works, loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, and a general feeling of anxiety and insecurity are prevalent, and death and/or destruction are seen as more characteristic of human existence than any joy or happiness could ever be. In the play No Exit by the French Existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, there is no escape from the world of meaninglessness, purposelessness, sadness, and moral ambiguity. And in Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger and Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the anti-hero protagonists live in a disenchanted world, one that is not so benign, and one that they can neither fully escape nor fully embrace.
The “black vision” of film noir, then, is one of despair, loneliness, and dread, which is nothing less than an “existential” attitude towards life deriving from fromNietzschean philosophy, the “realist,” then “naturalist,” traditions expressed in 19th century American literature in response to Emersonian Transcendentalism, and later the writers of pulp fiction, the so-called “hardboiled” school of writers, such as Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler, and David Goodis, all of whom emphasize the seeming indifference — and even hostility at times — of the world of nature to its human inhabitants.
For further reading on this subject, I recommend the first five following essays, which can be found in The Philosophy of Film Noir, edited by Mark T. Conrad, and published by The University Press of Kentucky in 2006, and the next seven, which can be found in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir Film, also edited by Mark T. Conrad and published by The University Press of Kentucky in 2009:
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