Recently I saw the Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, starring Juliette Binoche and Liev Schreiber, and it gave new impetus to a question that has been on my mind since I saw the play’s 1983 celluloid version: Why don’t more movies (and plays) tell their stories backward? The only other reverse narrative I can think of is Christopher Nolan’s current noir thriller Memento, which, perhaps not coincidentally, strikes me as the smartest, most invigorating debut in what so far has been a pretty drab film year.
Let’s leave Memento‘s virtues pending for a moment and return to the general question: Why don’t more stories move in reverse? The obvious answer–life moves forward, and art tries to mimic life–is a bit too easy. Everyone knows that even the most realistic fictions are shot through with artifice, and indeed, audiences like the fact that most movies, in effect, rip moments of time from their “natural” contexts and reassemble them in a speeded-up and sometimes very jumbled order. Who would want to sit through a World War II saga that took five years to watch?
Additionally, if you set aside the question of surface naturalness, there are various satisfactions to a story that’s told in reverse. Readers and viewers go into any tale curious not just about what happens but, perhaps more so, about why–a question that backward stories are better equipped to answer than the forward variety. Indeed, such a strong case could be made for the intellectual superiority of the retro-motion tale that it’s not too hard to imagine a future society in which they dominate. For now, one must wonder if their prime disadvantage is that they seem too cerebral.
Memento, in any case, does not ask questions about time and its flow. Rather, its reverse-gear approach frames an inquiry into issues of memory and personal identity. Set in a drably anonymous western nowheresville of motels and diners, its story opens with a murky evocation of a crime. A man is shot and killed at close range. A hand holds a Polaroid photo of the slaying, an image that transmutes from a blank into a bloody record–a memento–as we watch. The rest of the film explains, or invites us to explain, how this horrible moment came to be.
The tale’s protagonist, Leonard, hauntingly played by the gaunt Australian actor Guy Pearce, has what must be one of the most extreme and unusual identity crises in the history of movies. Afflicted with a rare form of short-term memory loss, he forgets who he is or what he’s up to if he doesn’t quickly record his experiences and thoughts. To deal with this condition he has devised an elaborate system of notes and other memory prods, most strikingly a pattern of tattoos that festoon his body. With these fleshy hieroglyphs he reminds himself of his mission–to find the man who raped and killed his wife, back when Leonard was an insurance claims adjuster rather than a wraith-like angel of vengeance.
The film’s chronological direction thus apes the movement of Leonard’s mind: It’s constantly spiraling backwards, trying to make sense of the present in terms of the just-expired past. Is this confusing for the viewer? Yes, but only in the enthralling sense that we are caught up in the protagonist’s convulsive quest for meaning. As in a mosaic or a giant jigsaw puzzle, events collide with others in ways that sometimes suggest a coherent pattern and at other times just leave us baffled, waiting for further clues.
When I saw Memento, I happened to sit next to a young critic who’d caught it first at a film festival months before and was so entranced that he’d seen it three times since. That reaction isn’t hard to fathom. For people who get hooked on its premise and mood, Memento almost demands repeat viewings; its mysteries are not only that challenging to fully grasp, they’re also the insinuating kind that can make a film into a cult favorite. Other viewers, meanwhile, may be put off by the film’s purposeful opacity as well as its aura of dread, confusion and, ultimately, incipient schizophrenia.
Memento is defined far more by those qualities than by its ingenious time structure: It’s a contemporary film noir, with a full portion of that genre’s existential anguish and mental disarray. When it comes to updating classic noir concerns, Nolan–who scripted the film from a story by his brother Jonathan–is extraordinarily supple, and his direction is likewise impressively taut and atmospheric.
If there’s a downside to this engaging package, which gives us both thrills and philosophic acuity, it’s simply that extreme cleverness in the form of a neo-noir isn’t as fresh a calling card for a young director as it once was. In the final analysis, Memento doesn’t leap beyond the genre’s boundaries in the ways that it sometimes seems it might; it’s content to stay between the lines, which gives it a bit of the air of a brilliant formalist exercise, or a graduate dissertation on noirish anomie. Pinter’s Betrayal, on the other hand, zeroes in on certain confusions of the human heart, which both guide and justify its retreat into the past. It ends up being a very moving and wise tale where Memento is strange and cerebral. Still, fans of the backward-moving narrative should be alerted: Since it seems that we only get one of these every decade or two, Memento‘s temporal provocations should not be missed.
The DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, which unspools this Thursday through Sunday in Durham, is one of those cinematic cornucopias that defies succinct description. Besides the appearance of acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and the premiere of his new documentary ABC Africa, this year’s DoubleTake will offer an array of documentaries from all over the world. I would suggest picking up a schedule and diving right in; it’s a safe bet that pretty much anything you see will be an eye-opener. I’ve seen a couple of the films in this year’s competition, and I highly recommend both.
George Butler’s The Endurance chronicles what has to be the past century’s most astonishing adventure story. In 1914, British explorer Ernest Shackleton set off with a crew of men bound for the South Pole. But their ship, the Endurance, got stuck in the ice, and spent months there. When it was subsequently devoured by the ice, Shackleton and his men set off on an all-but-impossible journey across the Antarctic ice shelf and, later, an enormous stretch of storm-tossed seas.
As if these events weren’t incredible enough, the Endurance had on board a photographer, Frank Hurley, who recorded the ordeal in both still and motion picture photography. The Endurance, an edge-of-your-seat stunner of a documentary, makes ample use of Hurley’s work, as well as supplying gorgeous images of the story’s frozen setting today. Butler, incidentally, attended UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1960s.
Fans of Southern alternative rock should check out Benjamin Smoke, a collaboration between two filmmakers with ties to the region’s music: Jem Cohen has made numerous music videos and films for R.E.M., while Peter Sillen directed Speed Racer, a portrait of singer Vic Chesnutt. Here, the two mount a moving and absorbing profile of an Atlanta singer-musician who carved out a unique legend before succumbing to AIDS in the late ’90s.
The character we see as Benjamin was born Robert Dickerson. By his own account, he started cross-dressing as a kid. He grew up dirt poor. In the late ’70s, electrified by Patti Smith’s music, he briefly moved to New York and worked sweeping up at CBGB. After returning to Atlanta, Dickerson started singing (often in drag) in bands that included Freedom Puff and the fabulous Opal Foxx Quartet. During this time, the 1980s, Atlanta’s hyperactive drag scene sent luminaries like RuPaul and the Lady Bunny to New York, and into transregional celebrity.
This mix of drag, punk, cornpone, methedrine and literary consciousness is a peculiarly Southern (and indeed specifically Georgian) cocktail. One might suggest that if Flannery O’Connor had been reborn a gay speed freak–and wouldn’t that be just like her?–Benjamin would have been the result. Cohen began filming him in the late ’80s and continued until shortly before his death. Parts of the film visit the rail-thin raconteur at his ramshackle home in Cabbage Town, a hick cul-de-sac that during the ’90s went from derelict mill town to newly renovated yuppie suburb.
Cohen and Sillen’s approach, which takes in Benjamin’s environs and lets him speak for himself, gives us a rebel soul who never ceases making art of his life. One of the points that the film puts across so strikingly–a needed reminder at a time when celebrity culture seems dangerously close to devouring all other varieties–is that there are great bands and artists in the hinterlands who never come close to a major-label deal or a magazine cover.
In fact, as colorful and affecting as Benjamin is, with his wry, self-mocking wit and croaking, Tom Waits-ish voice, what remains with you is the haunting beauty of his songs. He’s seen playing with his final band, Smoke, and he comments on how strange it is that five very dissimilar guys who don’t know each other very well can come together and create something that transcends them all. Indeed, my only criticism of Benjamin Smoke, a vividly poetic documentary about a singular spirit, is the wish that it allowed Smoke’s songs to play all the way through; I could listen to this strange, mournful, uncategorizable music all day long.