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September 2001, Week 3


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Linda Aronson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 19 Sep 2001 12:07:18 +1000
text/plain (91 lines)
On Memento and what is 'non-linear;

Yes, like all flashback narrative, Memento is very linear!    The thing to
understand about flashback narrative ( as opposed to what I call 'flashback
as illustration' - where we just see brief flashes of  what a character is
remembering)  is that in all the cases I can think of, the flashbacks once
started proceed in chronological fashion .   Major stories in past and
present simply track forwards together in concentric circles.

Memento is a version of what I call "Flashback as Case History'   This is a
form that, like Citizen Kane, All About Eve and The Usual Suspects, starts
at the Climax -often a death - and explores an essentially unknowable and
sinister character from the outside and its point is to prove that humans
are unknowable and more than the sum total of their past (cf Shine -where
the individual is created by its past).  Case History flashback always ends
in a twist involving classic dramatic irony - the audience knows something
the characters don't  (eg Rosebud, the identity of Kaiser Soze , that Eve is
being undermined by the newcomer, that Leonard has killed before and lies to
himself)  Memento just goes chronologically backwards with its main story -
but with a difference.  It hops to the middle of the previous incident
before replaying it from its start.  This is a very clever use of dramatic
irony (dramatic irony is always very big in parallel narrative because it is
all about points of view)  Dramatic irony is very cleverly achieved in
Memento because when each "backwards" sequence starts, we arrive in its
middle not knowing how we got there - which replicates Leonard's
perceptions.   We are inside Leonard's head.   When we have the 'replay' we
are outside Leonard, watching his confusion.
Interestingly, the film's central story - Leonard in the hotel telling the
Sammy story - goes forward, as does Sammy's story itself.  I suspect that
complex flashback structures need a forward-moving story in the present as a
spine to which one can attach other flashback or flashforward stories.  This
happens in The Sweet Hereafter.

Of course, all multiple story forms are about points of view, something that
novelists have been doing forever (and indeed, Homer was doing in the
Odyssey).  Dramatic irony is always a big feature in non-linear forms
(parallel narrative) .

Fascinating stuff!

Linda Aronson
Screenwriter and Novelist  Associate Australian Film TV and Radio School.
----- Original Message -----
From: <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Wednesday, September 19, 2001 12:45 AM
Subject: Re: non-linear narratives

> The DVD for "Memento" has an IFC interview where Christopher Nolan says
that the film is not non-linear but that it is in fact "rigorously" linear.
He's right since except for the flashbacks (& possible fantasy shots) the
story itself proceeds in a very straight and undeviating manner, it's just
presented in an unusual method.
> Which got me wondering about the conception of "non-linear."  How do most
of you use it?  Is there a purpose to distinguishing in however tentative a
way between linear and non-linear?  There's a common (but not consistent or
commonly accepted) distinction between narrative (as presentation) and plot
(as the underlying story) in which case "Memento" would be a non-linear
narrative but a linear plot.  What exactly would be linear anyway?  The only
purely linear narratives would be real-time films like "Rope" or "Nick of
Time" but clearly the idea is generally extended to those where events occur
without obvious (ie unconventional) breaks or ellipses.  (Some critics have
pointed out how mystery novels/films are about creating linear stories from
non-linear elements.  I'm also reminded of Dryden rewriting some Shakespeare
plays so that they fit what he considered the proper dramatic unities.)
> Non-linear examples might be "Pulp Fiction" (and its love child "Go"),
"Tristram Shandy" (& piles of later metafiction, my favorites being
"Mulligan Stew," "If On a Winter's Night a Traveller," "At Swim-Two-Birds"
and most of Borges), fiction based on non-fiction genres like "Pale Fire" or
"Dictionary of the Khazars" (most fiction films done in documentary style
tend to be quite linear), "Rashomon," dense ghost tales with multiple story
layers like "Turn of the Screw" or "Celine & Julie Go Boating."  Some
theorists are fascinated by hypertext works but the ones I've encountered
have been little more than experiments.  Perhaps more interesting are some
computer games (and paper RPGs) that allow a wide degree of narrative
flexibility for the player/protagonist though perhaps these aren't actually
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