Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan; Cinematographer: Wally Pfister)
"I never said that Sammy was faking, just that his problem was mental, not physical."
Did I mention that, despite the harsh things I wrote in the previous post, I think Memento is a great film? Shots like this are the reason. Now, if for some reason you’re reading this and haven’t seen Memento, I’m about to spoil the ending, er, the beginning, for you.
One of the most audacious aspects of Memento is that, while Guy Pearce’s Leonard is a great unreliable narrator, every other character in Memento is unreliable as well. Teddy lies because he wants the cash in the back of Leonard’s trunk. Natalie lies because she wants revenge. Hell, even the guy who works at the motel is lying to Leonard because he wants to rent him two rooms. But why does Leonard lie?
"Remember Sammy Jankis" Leonard has tattooed on his hand, and Leonard will tell everyone he meets about Sammy’s condition, which led to Sammy accidentally killing his wife with an insulin overdose. Sammy, Leonard stresses, should have been able to to make new memories, through repetition and instinct, in the way that Leonard, following his wife’s own death, has been able to do. Leonard knows that Polaroids have to be burned not torn, and the fact that he’s able to articulate his condition at all means he’s got a significant leg up on poor, old Sammy Jankis.
The punchline of the film comes when Teddy confronts Leonard with the “fact” that Sammy Jankis’ story is actually Leonard’s, that Leonard’s wife survived her vicious assault, and Leonard, afflicted with amnesia, administered his own wife the fatal insulin shot. Leonard denies the accusation, and he has a clear memory of pinching his wife’s thigh, definitely not injecting her with insulin. She was never diabetic, he says, and this, too, seems plausible.
This shot, which occurs just seconds after the one from the last post, complicates things even more. While reciting the Sammy Jankis story to Teddy over the phone, there is a brief flash of Leonard sitting in the sanitarium where Sammy supposedly ended up. It’s blink and you’ll miss it, and the shot occurs long before the “big reveal” so the audience has, at this point, no reason to doubt the protagonist.
Teddy insists Sammy was a conman. Leonard stresses that Sammy wasn’t faking. If Sammy is a composite, then why the tattoo? Was Leonard attempting to remember Sammy Jankis’ story so that he might remember his own, through repetition, or was he attempting to bury his guilt and live a lie as Teddy suggests? Is Leonard’s condition physical or psychological?
Is he faking it?
N.B. Leonard’s wife used to call him Lenny, just as Sammy’s wife used the strikingly similar nickname for her husband instead of calling him Sam or Samuel. Leonard’s refusal to be referred to by his nickname is another technique he uses, whether conscious or unconscious, to alienate himself from his association with Sammy, whatever that terrible association might be.