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Date Published: 11/27/2001
www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=321
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Memento, Memory, and Montage

Nate Burgos

Memory is the innate power to make sense of our environment and ultimately ourselves. Mental images are the most vivid in their visual intensity. This is what makes memory a necessary and vital source of stimulation, developing and flowing like a filmic montage. This event-scene is about the connection between memory and montage with the film Memento being the narrative current.

Mapping the mind yields an empire of our own making. The mind's hemispheres are our territories whose landscape is of our own authoring. Composed of different images from different scenes, the mind is our domain. It is an empire expansive as experience itself. Learning and remembering build experience. The former is staking a claim in the past. The latter is staking a claim in the present. What develops are images striking in their impact.

...a memory is, in the phrase of the psychologist Daniel L. Schacter, a 'temporary constellation' of activity - a necessary excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole. These images and data are seldom the exclusive property of one particular memory.
Jonathan Franzen, "My Father's Brain",
The New Yorker, Sept. 10, 2001

Memory is the sponge of empirical matter, the "sensory images and semantic data" of life. We can be described as mental emperors for the mind is held together and ruled by images of our experience.

* Memory records and reads like film.

* Memento is the film used as a model to describe memory's dynamism.

* Montage is the filmic technique used as a model to describe memory's visualization.

Memory in the Multiplicity of Media

Media multiply. This is a constant. Television did not replace radio. The internet did not replace print. New media live adjacent to the old. Within this media ecosystem, memory is the most dominant, the breeder of them all. Memory is media. More than any readable-and-writeable medium, memory provides the most dimensional experience to its users. It is the ultimate cinema-machine. Memory is the camera, the film, the sound, the projector and the screen. A self-serving art form. A live theater of streaming visualization. What lives between the ears is a storyboard capturing experiences-the light of which enters through the mind's eye and becomes the amazing picture show. Brain cells are film cells, projecting continuously onto a highly reflective surface of the visual cortex:

* Sensory memory is a vignette.

* Short-term memory is a documentary.

* Long-term memory is archival footage.

Memory in the Cinematography of Life

Life's moments-details of the actionscape-are the script. This embodies a visible language all its own, for the faces and places recorded on film are different from their original source. This difference is the element of recall. Still life can become an impenetrable fortress of solitude. An infant's palm can become the cartography of a circuit board. A single tree can become a concrete jungle. Mingling with reality, metamorphosis and metaphor abound in memory. People and objects are constructed and deconstructed frame-by-frame, shot-by-shot, second-by-second. Every slice of the film playing in our midst is a rough-cut in making and multiplying memory.

In the film Memento, the protagonist Leonard has ultra short-term memory. He cannot create new memories. Leonard's case is extreme. He cannot even feel redundancy. His living script ended prematurely. Each new scene of his existence is a result of improvisation, making himself answer the unanswerable:

"Do I lie to myself to be happy?"

The terrain of Leonard's memory consists of mental meandering. His only base is his past to which he is passionately anchored in order to concoct and survive the next moment.

"I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there."

His nemesis is John G., who took away his power to remember the now. In McLuhanesque fashion, Leonard "moves forward through the rear-view mirror". He advances in space-bar mode: One letter space at a time. One moment at a time.

"We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are."

Mirrors are popular amulets in the role-playing game of memory. They provoke self-examination. They read the writing done backwards. The narrative of Memento plays backwards to reveal the hidden messages and passageways. Details that were overlooked are accented with the motion in reverse, only to be advanced again. The cerebral script toggles between rewind and forward in sporadic fits.

Memento's storytelling marked by abrupt transitions has the quality of a montage, a rapid succession of scenes and images weaved together. The arrangement is spontaneous. Each scene fades in and fades out. Each image intensifies in resolution and superimposes upon the next. The effect is a potpourri of cerebral pixels containing information of the scenes and images that render themselves on stage. The mind is a powerful platform and memory is the architecture. The world is the ultimate setting whose cast and props are infinitely diverse and infinitely available. Some shots are zooms. Other shots are taken at extreme angles. Like Memento's Leonard, everyone is an auteur, establishing the shots that pan the region on-screen and off. Memory's filming of reality may appear disparate but this fragmentation lends itself to a meaningful framework that memory can uphold. The world is memory's GUI (Graphical User Interface). Pieces of the plot connect through introspect, retrospect, and circumspect. The movie in our mind plays out according to our circumstances, the "creatures" of humankind. Memory montage is our main survival technique in navigating the information landscape that is experience:

Montage helps in the resolution of this task. The strength of montage resides in this, that it includes in the creative process the emotions and mind of the spectator. The spectator is compelled to proceed along the selfsame road that the author traveled in creating the image. The spectator not only sees the represented elements of the finished work, but also experiences the dynamic process of the emergence and assembly of the image as it was experienced by the author.
Sergei Eisentstein, The Film Sense

The creatures of circumstance take on different masks and costumes that elude or seduce our senses. Memory consumes the circumstances that condition us. MBs are memory bytes. Some scenes and images are stored at a higher resolution than others. Leonard's memories are stored as Polaroids with brief notes since his disability prevents him from copying onto his "wetware" (mind). The Polaroid process of image-making can be applied to that of memory. The image is documented with a flash. There is an instant chemical reaction of internal developer and fixative merging in a milky potion. A moment emerges from the black photographic void.

Polaroids cannot be ripped. To delete a Polaroid, it must be burned. When the body is set ablaze does the mind ignite?

Memory Infinitum

The Memento film has no end. The story loops to a previous act. Memory's terrain is an infinite mass. What was strange territory can become familiar again and vice versa. Memory's path is cyclical.

The drive to produce an engaging sequence of events, a montage, is film-making's goal. Making memories--whether they be sensory, short-term, or long-term--with provocative shots, dialogue, characters, and settings is the challenge in an ever-changing and volatile information landscape. Leonard's cause in making meaning is our cause. Leonard's search for the beauty of truth is our quest. And like Leonard, we are plagued by circumstantial foes, the John Gs of the world, that harm and undermine our empire of the mind. The experiential images that compose life are diverse and many. Making experiential images that resonate with meaning and beauty contributes to the quality of life that all can rejoice in liberation and peace.


Nathaniel Burgos is a designer based in Chicago where he teaches visual communications at the University of Illinois. His current projects include an article on InfoRomanticism and DesignFeast.com, a resource for the disciplines of design.
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