Joachim Paech Postmodern Film an

					Joachim Paech

Postmodern Film and Paradoxes of Instant Memory.
Christopher Nolen’s MEMENTO.

Even today, twenty years after the debate on postmodernism in Germany1 reached its
peak, there is still no term available that would allow us to avoid the misconception of
successiveness associated with the word ‘post-modernity’ and at the core of the
expression ‘post-histoire’. To be sure, the context of debate on the ‘modernization of
modernity’ does offer the additive variant of speaking of a ‘second modernity’ as of a
‘reflexive modernization’2. Yet, too many things that were declared to be symptoms of
postmodernity then remain inexplicable (unless, of course, the tendency toward
reflexivity comprises all of the symptoms): the critiques of the ideological ‘grand
narratives’ (Lyotard3) in a culture of late capitalism (Fredric Jameson4) that was only
perceived as pastiche or as a collage of quotations from earlier artistic and cultural
epochs. As had been the case with literature (Thomas Pynchon or Robert Coover),
painting (in the work of, for instance, Jeff Koons or of inter-media artists like Gerhard
Richter, Cindy Sherman, or Jeff Wall, situated somewhere between painting and
photography), and architecture, it was inevitable that film would also take a ‘postmodern’
In the various attempts to determine what is meant by ‘postmodern film’, we can
distinguish between cumulative and symptomatic definitions. While on one hand certain
characteristics such as the aesthetics of artificiality, the fascination with violence, or the
constant quoting of examples from the history of art, culture, or film itself, up to the
domination of remakes, are especially noticeable; on the other hand, film is seen as a
symptom of cultural change that can find expression in, e.g., the mythologizing of its own

  To list only two of the many publications (in addition to Abrecht Wellmer’s and Peter Bürger’s rigorous
explorations of philosophical and literary postmodernism): Andreas Huyssen, Klaus R. Scherpe (eds.),
Postmoderne. Zeichen eines kulturellen Wandels. Reinbek 1986; on English-language media debates, see
‘Postmodern Screen’ in Screen magazine 28/2 (1987).
  Cf. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash: Reflexive Modernisierung. Eine Kontroverse. Frankfurt
am Main (es 1705) 1996.
  Jean-Francois Lyotard: “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist postmodern?” Tumult 4, 1982: 131-142 and
Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis 1984.
  Fredric Jameson: “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146
(1984): 53-93.

media history, of the history of cinema. In this context, Hans-Thies Lehmann5 made the
distinction between the narrated ‘myth in the movie theater’ (e.g., Orson Welles’s Citizen
Kane 1941) and the ‘cinema myth’, which aimed at transforming media history into
natural history (cf. Roland Barthes: Mythologies6) by completely absorbing the
spectator’s perception with its own reality. If amassing postmodern film’s characteristics
does not simply amount to the assumption of a new genre and if the description of
symptoms (the inclination toward myth) does not simply result in a lament over the
‘agony of the real’ and in the assertion of a new media hyperreality (Baudrillard7), the
tendency toward a reflexive process can be identified as the common denominator of the
discourses on postmodern film. Both the aesthetics of artificiality and the quotations of
earlier media allude to the very media nature of film itself. As “a reflex in response to the
increasing media pervasion of life circumstances that is reflected in a variety of forms in
films”8, this quality finds expression in the films themselves. Hardly a single film of
recent years fails to refer in some way or other to the production (e.g., Altman’s The
Player 1992) or (cinematic) reception (e.g., Wes Craven’s Scream sequel from 1997 on)
of films or to use television or video as a component in its narrative. “Nonetheless, here,
artificiality is not a means of promoting disillusionment, depriving traditional narratives
of their supposedly natural appearance in order to expose them as something contrived, as
a fabrication”9 along the lines of, say, Brechtian estrangement. On the contrary,
artificiality promotes the self-constitution of cinematic film as a myth at a time when the
cinema, as the location for viewing films, has begun to dissolve. Symptomatic in this
respect are films like Peter Weir’s Truman Show (1998), which does not reflexively put
itself to question as a certain medium, but, instead, distinguishes itself as the natural and
thus genuine surroundings of the (manipulative) medium television (in this way similar to
Oliver Stone’s JFK 1991).10
What is lacking in these definitions, which are based on a number of accurate
observations, is a workable description of a cinematographic modernism that can be

  Hans-Thies Lehmann: Die Raumfabrik – Mythos im Kino und Kinomythos. Karl Heinz Bohrer (ed.):
Mythos und Moderne. Begriff und Bild einer Rekonstruktion. Frankfurt am Main 1983: 572-609.
  Roland Barthes: Mythologies. New York 1972.
  Jean Baudrillard: Agonie des Realen. Berlin 1978.
  Ernst Schreckenberg: Was ist postmodernes Kino? – Versuch einer kurzen Antwort auf eine schwierige
Frage. D. Bordwell, Th. Elsaesser, M. Sandbothe, E. Schreckenberg, G. Seeßlen: Die Filmgespenster der
Postmoderne. Frankfurt am Main 1998: 120.
   Other publications on postmodernism in films: Jens Eder (ed.): Oberflächrausch. Postmoderne und
Postklassik im Kino der 90er Jahre (=Beiträge zur Medienästhetik und Mediengeschichte, Bd. 12).
Hamburg (LIT) 2002; Jürgen Felix (ed.): Die Postmoderne im Kino. Ein internationaler Reader. (=Kino-
Debatten, hg. von Norbert Grob und Jürgen Felix, Bd. 1) Marburg (Schüren Pressevlg/PRO) 2002.

distinguished from a postmodern cinema. For this reason, the opposing term to
postmodern film is consistently ‘classical’, not ‘modern’ film. Correspondingly, one
speaks of ‘post-classical’ instead of ‘postmodern’ film.11 Cinematographic modernism
does indeed seem to be a peculiarly paradoxical phenomenon. On one hand, since its
introduction by Edison and the Lumière brothers at the end of the 19th century, the
cinématographe developed into the primary medium of the modernization of living
conditions because for the first time it seemed possible to reproduce life itself in the
cinématographe’s ‘moving pictures’ by expressing the industrial nature of modernity
along with all of the other dispositifs of mechanical acceleration, such as railroads,
automobiles, or airplanes, with this cinematic apparatus. As one of the mass media, the
cinématographe became a definitive element of popular culture in urban centers where
shop windows illuminating twilit streets alternated with the screens in the darkness of the
cinemas – as this can aptly be seen in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City
(1927).12 Yet, it is certainly no coincidence to speak of the modern nature of the
cinématographe as a cinematic apparatus, as opposed to the programmatic and aesthetics
of the film and to the cinema, the locale for presentation and reception. To be sure, after a
short phase of fascination with the apparatus technology of the cinématographe and with
the ‘cinema of attraction’13, the traditional narrative technique and themes of the middle-
class novel of the 19th century also regained general acceptance in film within the context
of a reception situation in the cinema that, even to the point of the cultural habits of the
audience, did not essentially differ from that of the traditional theater. Since that time,
cinematic film has become the ideal medium for the adaptation to the culture of
modernity under traditional conditions and forms. And this has contributed immensely to
the popularity and to the ideological functions of film (e.g., this is part of the reason for
the box-office success of Heimat films in 1950s Germany). This ‘classical cinematic
film’, generally identified with the ‘standard version’ (Bordwell14) of Hollywood film,
consistently repressed its media status as a cinematic apparatus in favor of its
transparency for displaying the illusory reality of its narrative. If we neglect avant-garde
film (and that would, indeed, be another story), then it was only with the European

   Cf. e.g. Robert Blanchet: Blockbuster. Ästhetik, Ökonomie und Geschichte des postklassischen
Hollywoodkinos. Marburg (Schüren) 2003.
   Cf. Leo Charney, Vanessa R. Schwartz (eds.): Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Berkeley,
London 1995; Anne Friedberg: Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern. Berkeley 1993.
   Cf. Tom Gunning: The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde. Thomas
Elsaesser (ed.): Early Cinema. Space, Frame, Narrative. London 1990: 56-62.
   David Bordwell: On the History of Film Style. Cambridge, Mass., London 1997.

‘cinéma de la modernité’15 (for example, with the Nouvelle Vague) that this dominance of
classical film narrative, further intensified by sound film, was disrupted by reflecting on
the ‘modern’ quality of cinema, that is, on its specific media characteristics which were
now reflexively emphasized, at least in films. Thus, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris
(Contempt, 1963), for example, begins with a movie camera being wheeled over some
distance within the film itself and, on the whole, the film shows the story of a film
production on the set with film director Fritz Lang.

Figure 1: Godard’s Le Mépris

This reflexive level culminates in a self-quote as the film reflects itself in its own mirror
and thematizes itself at a second, narrative, level by means of an internal differentiation.
This does not lead to a fundamental schism. The mirror remains intact since the medium
of the film’s production, in this case the camera that records the film, can never be the
same as the one seen in the picture.16 Instead, the illusory nature of the still ‘classical’
narrative is reinforced by integrating the medium of narration into the illusory space (or
into the fiction) of what is narrated. Thus, this level of self-reflexivity participates in that
mythologizing of the medium that Hans-Thies Lehmann has labeled the main
characteristic of postmodern film. Yet, there is a risk that the media conditions of
cinematic narrative themselves might contract the ‘virus of media reflexivity’ and
disintegrate. In that case, a tear in a film is no longer something that happens on the
screen while the film with the tear remains intact so that the tear can be shown. Rather, it
is an event that countermands the entire media dispositif of representation by having it

 Cf. D. Chateau, A Gardies, F. Jost (eds.): Cinémas de la modernité. Films, theories. Paris 1981.
 Cf. Christian Metz: Das Dispositiv zeigen. Die unpersönliche Enunziation oder der Ort des Films.
Münster 1997:69-76.

implode. We can call this the entropy17 of a structure whose dissolution cannot even self-
reflexively allow itself to become an event.
Thus, this presentation of the contemporary state of film aesthetics is based on the
following observations:
     -   Only rarely do current films involve linear and media-transparent narrative (the
         classical ‘standard version’). Instead, they reflexively employ themselves and
         new, competing media as components of their fictions, which leads to an
         affirmative mythologizing of the films themselves. I prefer to call this situation
         ‘postmodern’ since here film does indeed thematize the modernity of its own
         apparatus technology, yet, in doing so, it also makes it a component of its media
     -   Since the 1960s at the latest, films have been engaged in forfeiting their twofold
         basis by which they, as movie-theater films, became the primary medium of the
         20th century entertainment industry. Both basic elements are pre-film dispositifs
         dating from the 19th century: the optical and chemical technology of photography
         and the theatrical form of presentation at the cinema. But since the 60s, films have
         been largely distributed on television or on video cassettes, DVDs, VCDs, etc. for
         home use, and since the end of the last century, they have also been partially or
         completely produced by such means. Cinemas are still movie theaters in the
         traditional sense (and as such they are also reflexive settings for action in
         ‘postmodern’ films18). In the immediate future, digitally recorded and distributed
         films will be able to be shown wherever access to the cable network is provided –
         especially in department stores, shopping malls, train stations, airports, etc. That
         is, films will only be viewed ‘en passant’, and this will certainly affect their
         aesthetics (one example is Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, 1994). This means that
         cinema films are aesthetically up-to-date if they reflect the dissolution of their
         own media characteristics – either by withdrawing to their own myth
         (postmodern) or by reflecting this dissolution directly. Films such as Giuseppe
         Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) or, more recently, Frank Darabont’s The
         Majestic (2001) are examples of postmodern cinematic myths. Christopher

   Cf. Joachim Paech: Figurationen ikonischer n…Tropie. Vom Erscheinen des Verschwindens im Film.
Der Bewegung einer Linie folgen… Schriften zum Film. Berlin 2002:112-132 (first published in Siegrid
Schade, Georg Christoph Tholen (eds.): Konfigurationen. Zwischen Kunst und Medien. München
   Cf. Anne Paech, Joachim Paech: Menschen im Kino. Film und Literatur erzählen. Stuttgart, Weimar

        Nolen’s film Memento (2000) will prove to be a borderline case that, situated
        between myth and media deconstruction, is also at the boundary line to the new
        media – although still on the side of the ‘old’ cinema film.
Before we focus our attention exclusively on Christopher Nolen’s Memento, a few
remarks on certain aspects of media and media reflexivity are in order. Up until the
1970s, media usually meant the technological apparatuses of mass communication media,
thus distinguishing them from the traditional arts. A functional understanding designates
both institutions and concrete apparatus dispositifs as media. For example, television is a
broadcasting station such as ZDF, MTV, or CNN, but also the television set, a household
appliance, or the connection between the two, and what we do when we turn on the set
and take part in the broadcasts of ZDF, MTV, or CNN. But since the 70s, technological
media apparatuses have permeated practically all areas of culture with the result that the
concept of media is applied to everything that has any sort of communicative function
and can even extend (as in Niklas Luhmann) to society as a whole. Nowadays, everything
is a ‘medium’ – which can cause substantial problems, for example, for media studies to
precisely determine its object of study. The functional definition of ‘medium’ as a ‘means
toward achieving communication’ cannot communicate about the ‘medium’ because it is
always a prerequisite of such communication itself (just as I cannot use the same nail to
hammer a nail into the wall). Thus, with respect to the medium itself I must make a
differentiation that allows for that which must be considered a prerequisite to be observed
in the way it appears. The medium, as a prerequisite of a form, can only be observed in
the form that it has made possible. For example, air is invisible, yet perceptible in the
form of wind, visible in the form of a fog, and able to be symbolized in writing by a
formula. Film as a medium is invisible in the cinema and only visible in the form of a
moving picture presenting its narrative. And the cinema itself also becomes simply the
medium of presentation and reception of a film if the narrative suspense and aesthetic
fascination reach such a level that only the form presented can become the object of
perception (in this sense, it is appropriate to speak of ‘going to the movies’).
If under these circumstances the ‘medium itself’ is to be presented, then only as a
thematized form, for example, as a cinema into which the characters of the film go while
the spectators in the cinema watch them. The cinema presented in the film can never be
the same as the cinema in which it is projected onto the screen. It is this replication of the
medium as a form in another medium that can be called an inter-media procedure or
media reflexivity. Media reflexivity reaches its limits in the tautology of replicating the

same medium without any spatio-temporal difference. For in that case, the form implodes
into its own media characteristics: The screen of the cinema is then a mirror that displays
on location the same audience that is currently sitting in front of the mirror.19
In electronic media, this media-reflexive mirror effect is known as feedback. The reverse
of such replication of the same medium as a form is a tear in the film, which also lets the
medium become perceptible, but at the cost of destroying the film, that is, of destroying
the medium.
At this point, one might ask what, in this context, the ‘body’ actually embodies. I think
that the body represented in film and which has always been of particular significance in
film ‘embodies’ in its own right at the interface of the body, that is, it takes on a visible
form at that moment when the medium begins to deal with itself reflexively. What
happens to the bodies in film is always ‘film’ from the very beginning, just as the
‘violence’ of the editing in an animated film was always manifest in the grotesque,
violent destruction and reassembly of the animated bodies. What beforehand was only
possible in (animated) films has now become a characteristic of film as such. In this
respect, the body, the figure represented in the film, has become an interface to its
embodiment as a media form of film in film and, thus, a reflexive figure. Repeatedly
within the course of film history, there were creative ideas concerned with how the body
in film could resist its filmic embodiment, could free itself of the bonds of film and
become independent. Such phantom bodies are themselves ‘media’ in the sense that as a
spiritualistic experience they mediate to a media beyond – in photography. I will return to
examples of this sort of ‘media embodiment’ while discussing Christopher Nolen’s
Memento, in which Polaroid (instant) photography plays a considerable role, and at the
conclusion of my presentation.
Let us now turn to Christopher Nolen’s Memento. A short summary of the plot readily
indicates that there is an essential difference between the plot of the narrative and ‘the
film’. Leonard Shelby, an employee of an insurance company, was concerned with the
investigation of claims until, one night, his wife was raped and murdered in their
apartment. Shelby himself was knocked unconscious after he had killed one of the
murderers. The other murderer was able to escape without being identified. The police
then assumed that there had only been one murderer who, in turn, had also been killed.
Having been hit on the head, Leonard suffers from partial amnesia, from the loss of short-

  At the end of Juan Carlos Tabio’s The Elephant and the Bicycle (1994), the audience sits in front of a
screen on which it views itself watching. Disappointed at this ‘program’, the viewers watching themselves
leave the cinema.

term memory. Despite this, he searches for his wife’s escaped murderer, finally finds him
and shoots him.
The story begins with a violent act that leads to Leonard’s blackout, to his loss of
consciousness, which is constantly repeated later as a loss of short-term memory, whereas
his memory up to that moment of violence has remained intact. Thus, Leonard’s problem
is how to compensate for this constant blackout or loss of memory that prohibits a
continuity in his experience, how to bridge the gap and coordinate perception and
remembrance without the mental faculty of memory. To do this, he employs two cultural
media that traditionally serve to chronicle the short-term memory of oral communication
so that history and culture can develop in the first place: writing and pictures. Writing, in
the form of tattoos on his own body, and pictures with captions (Polaroid photographs)
are the notation systems that make the replication of events possible, functioning as their
external memory.
Although the aspect of writing is no less interesting, we will not be concerned with it
here.20 Concentrating on the pictures aims at photography as that medium that is also a
component of the film telling the story and that, at the level of representation, is supposed
to bridge the gaps where they occur and compensate for the mental blackout. Thus, the
film heals the wound it tells us about with the same media it employs as a medium of
representation. We will return to this level of media reflexivity presently.21
Superficially, the film is about a quest for vengeance and at this level (of the plot), it
follows the ‘classical’ pattern of the ‘standard version’ Hollywood film. Yet, in a much
more fundamental way, the film is about memory, which is also implied by the title
Memento. Narratives represent series of past events (‘Once upon a time…’) that are
recalled to awareness through the act of narrating. In film, events recounted and their
filmic narrative are both present (told in the present tense of presence). As spectators, we
seem to be able to experience one by means of the other directly because the fictional
film (in contrast to the documentary) narrates events not as past ones, but as present ones.
Still, in any case we do rely on our capacities for recall to be able to interpret the
sequence of events meaningfully, to arrange them by means of recognition, and to

   Cf. Joachim Paech: Der Schatten der Scrift auf dem Bild. Vom filmischen zum elektronischen ‘Schreiben
mit Licht’ oder ‘L’image menace par l’écriture et sauvé par l’image même’. Michael Wetzel, Herta Wolf
(eds.): Der Entzug der Bilder. Visuelle Realitäten. München 1994: 213-233; Joachim Paech: Die Spur der
Schrift und der Gestus des Schreibens im Film. V. Roloff, S. Winter (eds.): Godard intermedial. Tübingen
1997: 41-56.
   Here, it is only possible to briefly refer to the psychoanalytic discussion of ‘fixed images’ in (postmodern)
films: Maureen Turim: The Fantasy Image. Fixed and Moving. Jon Lewis (ed.): The End of Cinema as We
Know It. American Film in the Nineties. New York 2001: 158-167.

coordinate them to our everyday knowledge. If this arrangement is upset, we still have no
difficulty, for example, in rearranging cause and effect into a causal or chronological
sequence of events. A flashback in a film, for instance, can be used to visualize narrated
personal memories. But with the help of certain transitional codes we have no problem in
distinguishing between two present states in the film, even though these, of course,
signify two different points in time.
Nolen’s Memento does something totally ‘crazy’ by not (totally or partially) inscribing
memories – as flashbacks, for instance – into a still linear narrative structure. On the
contrary, from the very beginning (of the film), this film constructs its story from the end
of the narrative, which is reconstructed in a series of sequences. In this way, a narrated
story does not develop, but, instead, the recollection of the story. Whatever happens has
already happened; as viewers, we must remember the effects of actions while we observe
their causes. Leonard experiences much the same situation in the reversed chronological
order of events. He, too, must be able to remember what has happened as a future event in
order to assign it its place in the sequence of events. The Polaroid photographs that
Leonard routinely takes are helpful both to him and to the audience. Leonard takes a
picture of the hotel he is living in so that he can find his way back in the future.
Conversely, we viewers recognize the picture of a place where in the future something
has already happened and, thus, we are reminded of the event. So the photographs do not
only connect discontinuous events to a recognizable, continuous sequence of actions as a
sequence of events for Leonard, but they are also highlighting pictures for us viewers that
help to connect discontinuous events, especially since these are temporally and logically
in reversed order. We also have to rely on our short-term memory of what we have just
seen in the film so that we can remember the effect that followed the cause that we are
just seeing now. Between the two, the photo functions as a bracket that holds both ends
together – for Leonard and for us. In his remarks on ‘twisted tales’, Nelson Goodman22
noted that if we do actually know the conclusion, but (not yet) the sequence of events
leading to this conclusion (because the film tells its story backwards), we usually follow
the sequence of the narrative without a direct connection between these two sequences
being necessary. This makes the story interesting and intensifies the suspense even

   Nelson Goodman: Twisted Tales – or, Story, Study, and Symphony (1980). On Narrative. ed. W. J. T.
Mitchell. Chicago 1981: 99-115. In his novel on the Holocaust, Time’s Arrow or the Nature of the Offence
(London 1991), Martin Amis also recounts his story backwards: from the present at the end of the narrator’s
life through impending death as the probable result of Nazi medical experiments back to childhood and birth
in the 1930s. Since the narrative does not progress chronologically away from the Holocaust, but, instead,
follows the logic of memory and proceeds toward the events, what we know to be the past is nevertheless
always just ahead of us as the inevitable future that is still to come to pass.

though we already know the conclusion and although (in Memento) Leonard has already
found his wife’s murderer and shot him. The confusion or disorder is further heightened
by another course of events presented with normal chronological sequence in black and
white parallel to the revenge story presented in color: Leonard’s recollection of a case of
partial amnesia whose credibility he had to investigate for the insurance company before
he lost his own short-term memory. In the midst of his quest for vengeance, Leonard
unwittingly recounts this tragic story of Sammy Jankis and his wife on a hotel-room
telephone to the same man whom he will later recognize as his own wife’s murderer and
shoot – that is, to the man whom, from our viewer’s perspective, he has already identified
and shot. This story Leonard tells on the telephone and its presentation in flashback
scenes function much like the thread of Ariadne as a continuous narrative which the film
in its labyrinth of discontinuous sequences proceeding in reversed order can continually
refer back to. The narratives in color and in black and white converge at a certain point to
be discussed presently – a point at which the photographs in the film attain a major, one
might even say overly determined, significance.
For this reason, let us consider the photographs themselves for a moment. Leonard takes
Polaroid pictures of events that he thinks he definitely needs to remember. What is
peculiar about Polaroid photos is that they connect the act of taking a picture and the
moment recorded almost simultaneously, within the same situation in any case. The
development23 of the print still participates in the chronological development of the event.
In this (ontological) way, it is the immediate photographic trace as a result of the event
and is itself part of the sequence of events. It is just as much a part of the scene presented
as it is an element of the medium presenting the scene, of which the photograph and
picture-taking are also parts. … At the beginning of the film (while the credits can still be
read), which is also the end of the narrative, Leonard has just shot the corrupt policeman
Teddy, whom he has identified as his wife’s murderer (or so he thinks: nothing is certain)
and has made a picture of this event, around which he has centered his entire, now
shattered life.

  For the concept of development see Michael Wetzel: Die Zeit der Entwicklung. Photographie als
Spurensicherung und Metapher. G. Chr. Tholen, Michael Scholl (eds.): Zeit-Zeichen. Aufschübe und
Interferenzen zwischen Endzeit und Echtzeit. Weinheim 1990: 265-280.

Figure 2: Memento

For the moment, the photograph seems to fade and dissolve like a memory that fades
away. Yet, the opposite is the case: the picture returns to its very beginning in the camera;
something that is ‘no longer’ has become something that is ‘not yet’. Besides the credits,
the beginning of the film shows only this photograph – until the snapshot and the
chronologically earlier, deadly shot from the pistol produce a connection that with the
duration of the development of the print as the short time-span between the event and the
picture of the event also signals the time-span of memory that the finished print must
enter. At the end of the narrative and the beginning of the film, it is the film itself (as a
photographic medium) that fills this time-span of the memory of the development of
events with its images and with those presented in the film. Whenever Leonard takes
Polaroid pictures in order to keep his memories accessible, he could just as well cut out
those corresponding sequences of the film that at the level of the photographic medium of
representation show (as a film) what he then reproduces at the level of what is
cinematically represented by taking the pictures. In this way, the film replicates its
medium (photography) in the form (of what is photographically represented) of the
medium film by reformulating the form of its medium (the photograph as an image) in
the photographic medium of the film.
Shortly before the end of the film, where the story being told backwards approaches its
beginning, a fluid link between both strands of narrative emerges: between the sequence
of takes in black and white, in which Leonard is on the telephone in the hotel room and
recounts what he remembers about the Sammy Jankis story, and the sequence of events
surrounding Leonard’s quest for vengeance, shown in color. Up to this point, these two
easily distinguishable strands of the narrative, shown alternately, have developed in
opposite directions. The black-and-white narrative is the actual beginning of the action
recounted in the film. Leonard is in a hotel room and on the phone with a stranger, to
whom he tells his own story and the analogous story of Sammy Jankis. The stranger, the

corrupt policeman Teddy, exploits Leonard’s search for his wife’s murderer and his
amnesia and gets him on the trail of Jimmy, a drug dealer, whom Leonard is supposed to
think is the murderer. Leonard murders Jimmy and steals his clothes and his car. In the
car are 200,000 dollars that Teddy was actually intent on getting. Leonard suspects that
he has killed the wrong man and becomes distrustful of Teddy, who also appears on the
scene where Leonard killed Jimmy. The subsequent events focus on things that happen
between Leonard and Teddy until Leonard is certain that Teddy is actually his wife’s
murderer and the man that he kills at the end, that is, at the beginning of the film. One can
represent the course of events (every story is nothing but a sequence of events that are
arranged by means of their narrative structure) as a ‘U’ in the following way:

Figure 3: Story-lines

Two story-lines proceed in ways parallel to each other and are narrated alternately. With
the one in color (on the right), the film begins at the end of the sequence of events with
Teddy’s murder. With the other one in black and white, the narrative begins at the

beginning of the sequence of events, Leonard’s investigation and his account of the story
on the phone. At the end of the film, without any disruption the black-and-white story
turns into the sequence of events related in color that has arrived at its beginning at the
end of the film and yet is nothing other than the continuation of the black-and-white
narrative, whose end then (shown in color) is the beginning of the film.
This closing sequence of the film culminates at the moment in which, with the reversal of
the black-and-white narrative in its continuation as a sequence of events shown in color,
the exchange of the false suspect for the right one takes place. This entails Leonard’s
concentration on pursuing Teddy and, thus, the focus on solving the mystery (who was
his wife’s murderer?) and the end of the narrative. Again (as with the end at the beginning
of the film), this moment is signaled by means of a Polaroid photograph.

Figure 4: Memento

Leonard murders Jimmy because Teddy has led him to believe that Jimmy is his wife’s
murderer. This murder is accompanied by color pictures, memories of Leonard’s wife.
This is a past that is still ‘alive’ in Leonard and whose images (like flashes in film, not
photographs!) inform the revenge that is the determining force in Leonard’s life. In the
short time-span in which the Polaroid picture is developed, the film switches from black
and white to color, that is, precisely at this point, the black-and-white story turns into the
one told in color. The place where this transformation occurs is the photograph; the
duration of the transition is the time of the development that becomes the time of the
development of a plot within which Leonard’s realization that Teddy is the murderer he
seeks ‘develops’ ever more clearly and induces the progress of further action. The death
of the wrong man has led to a picture that diffuses with the death of the real murderer at
the end of the search. This fading image is at the beginning of the film, which
retrospectively presents to the spectators images that have led to this photograph.

The other photograph, situated at the beginning of the film and corresponding to the one
at the end, functions at both the level of media representation and at that of what is
represented by the medium. From the level of what is represented, that is, from the act of
picture-taking, it refers back to the media prerequisites of filmic representation, for only
there is the transformation from black and white to color possible. The film emphasizes
this moment of transformation through the peripety in its action, which, at this point,
shifts from seeking to finding. Yet, it conceals this media reference once again by simply
laconically letting it ‘pass by’, that is, by making it subordinate to the action. But since
the sequence of events proceeds in reverse and the end of the film is simply the ‘turning
point’ of the story, this moment of the media ‘turn’ from black and white to color gains a
special prominence.
A final word on the inter-media configuration of the relationship between photography
and film in Memento. For the media reference of photography to film to function, one
necessary condition is that Memento itself consists of 25 individual stills per second that
are the subject of media ‘quotations’ by the photos in the film or are even duplicated in a
palimpsest sort of way (that is, the photo in the film could also be one of the photos of the
film). Then, the photograph is the replication of the medium as a form in the form of the
medium film; the media doubly refer to each other as forms. Whereas at the cinema, the
film is (still) shown by means of projecting a celluloid strip of series of photographs
(analogous to photography), one could also view it as a video, as an electro-magnetic
(analog) recording or as a ‘Digital Versatile Disc’ (DVD). There is no longer any
(chemical) trace of the photographic process (optical traces are still extant) in electronic
recordings, whether analog or digital. With respect to media reflexivity, the photograph
presented is now only a hint or a reminder of an earlier medium that is no longer present
as a media prerequisite of the filmic presentation (except in the digitally simulated
photographic nature of the image). The Polaroid photograph allows for the time factor
involved in the photographic development to be reduced to such an extent that the entire
production of the print remains part of the scene in which the picture is involved
(especially at the ‘turning point’ of the story, where the development itself becomes a
media-reflexive act). By referring to the photographic nature of the filmic medium, the
Polaroid photograph contributes to the mythologizing of the film, whose mode of
production is not at all as ‘instantaneous’ as a Polaroid picture is. On the other hand, the
Polaroid picture, on the side of the earlier medium, can, for its part, mark the transition to
the new, electronic or digital medium, which, for this film, would have achieved the same

purpose for the story-line in the form of a video or a digital camera. However, here there
is a boundary that can only be crossed with some difficulty or only very deliberately:
Memento is a cinematic film that asserts its medium in an analog world of bodies and of
embodied phonetic writing. The digital medium would have been perceived as a stylistic
inconsistency that would have assigned the film to a position beyond that of what it
actually still is: postmodern cinema.
Thus, the Polaroid instant image is on the borderline between the analog medium of the
photographically recorded traces of what must have been in front of the camera (cf.
Roland Barthes) and the digital medium that has removed all traces of the memory of
what it represents since there is no longer any causal relationship between (digital)
representation and what is (in a figural sense) represented. As the trace of what is
represented, the Polaroid image embodies the real world preceding the photograph
instantaneously, just as only electronic (digital) media can achieve this, that is, by means
of simultaneity. In its own way, film, with its photographic motion pictures, provides the
photograph with the presence of the living, with which it imparts the appearance of living
bodies to the traces of the real world. At precisely this point of its media construction
between photography and film and prior to the digital media, the Polaroid photo becomes
the medium for the embodiment of the phantasmal trace of reality in Stephen King’s story
‘The Sun Dog’24, until even this trace is finally lost in the computer. Here, at the
conclusion of my presentation, I would like to briefly discuss this story. It tells us about
Kevin, who is given a Polaroid camera on his 15th birthday. But whenever Kevin takes a
picture with this camera, (seemingly) the same image always appears, an image that is
only gradually discernible as that of some animal similar to a dog. The pictures that, at
first, seem to be identical finally indicate that with each print an approach takes place.
Thus, each print is the image of a different movement, and as the animal becomes larger,
its approach toward the camera becomes perceptible. In the meantime, the camera has
come into the possession of the owner of a local photography shop, who gradually
becomes aware of the danger emanating from the camera. The animal in the pictures is a
horrible monster in the midst of a leap toward the camera and the photographer; with
every exposure, it gets closer. This ‘extrasensory Polaroid’25 camera proves to be a
medium that mediates between two worlds, between that of the horrible monster and

   Stephen King: The Sun Dog. Four Past Midnight. New York 1990. Cf. Susanne Dudda: Vier Sekunden:
Polaroid. Georg Christoph Tholen, Michael Scholl, Martin Heller (eds.): Zeitreise. Bilder. Maschinen.
Strategien. Rätsel. Basel, Frankfurt am Main 1993: 207-213.
   Susanne Dudda, ibid.: 210.

Kevin’s everyday life. At the same time, it is a medium that generates a filmic sequence
between photography and film, a sequence that, like in film, provides the
photographically represented with life: The monster is preparing to leap through the
camera into reality; any additional photo would be the last one, which would give this
media body its embodiment in reality. Thus, sheer evil would manage to leap into our
reality. When the inevitable last picture is then taken, there can only be one way out: At
the moment when the monster leaps out of the camera, it is photographed by another
Polaroid camera and, in this way, is frozen on the picture. After this dreadful adventure,
Kevin is no longer interested in (Polaroid) photography and, on his next birthday, he is
quite happy to receive something else as a gift from his parents: a Computer WordStar
70, a digital medium that no longer has a bodily connection to other worlds, but, instead,
is only familiar with its own universe.
It is no large step from the Polaroid image as the location of memory of the future and the
‘turning point’ of Memento’s narration to the medium of embodiment (of presence) of a
creature from some other (under)world at the interface between photography, film, and
the computer. It is simply a shift in the coordinates of the connection between
photography and film. Whereas Memento integrates the photo into the gaps of a
horizontally developing narrative, where it makes the film of the story and the film of
memory possible, the photos in Stephen King’s story signify a vertical filmic acceleration
of photography that is directed toward a single moment of embodiment. For Leonard (in
Memento), who always keeps the pictures close to his body, they maintain his personal
(bodily) identity (which is even more apparent in the inscriptions on his own body). Yet,
they also testify to the deadly trail of a monster that resolutely follows a plan for revenge.
The monster of Stephen King’s story only appears in photographs in the first place, so
that it can become embodied in the filmic material and thus attain its identity, its body,
only to immediately become captured on film once more. In both instances, the body is
the medium of its photographic realization, so that it can only attain identity here – as

(Translation: Thomas La Presti)

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