Memento – What was this movie about again?
What is really being revealed in the movie Memento is that all of us create fictions, that all us have the same disease Leonard has, just to a different degree. At Natalie's house, Leonard gives an important speech about memory, making this very point, in order to defend himself against the charge that he is a freak, that his disability makes him somehow unable to act in the world. People, he says, create false memories, cars change color.
Why is this so important to Leonard? The answer lies in the Sammy Jenkins story. In order to save himself from the fate of Sammy, Leonard desperately needs to act, and needs a reason to act, in the world. Remember Sammy Jankins - Remember - is tattooed right there on his hand so he will see it frequently and remember the lesson of Sammy Jankins: he didn't have a system. So, Leonard has a system, one that makes his memory as good as anyone. Sure it's selective, whatever he happens to write down on a picture for example, but isn't everyone's memory selective? It's just a matter of degree.
The foil to Leonard is Teddy, who seems to be the only person who knows everything. Teddy sees himself as the guy who runs the show, who pulls the strings. How long has he been using Leonard to get rid of some of society's scum and make a little money for himself? Is Jerry the first person he's had Leonard kill since the real John G.? Or the fifth? We don't know, just as we don't know how long ago Leonard had his accident. It probably hasn't been going on too long, as Teddy would eventually gotten all the money he wanted and simply left Leonard to the fates. Or maybe not. Teddy seems to enjoy Leonard's memory problem. He's certainly known him long enough to treat him like an old buddy, playing tricks on him: hiding in Leonard's car outside of Natalie's, or when he tells him, "This is your car"). He never fully realizes that as familiar as Leonard looks and feels to him, he is always new to Leonard. This is why Teddy's death is poetic justice - he has played with fire, and eventually those who play with fire get burned. And the irony is that the man who remembers "everything" and thinks he's calling the shots has just as big blind spot as the guy who can't remember that he just spat in the beer he's drinking.
Of course, Natalie uses Leonard too, but we come to understand she needs to. After all, Leonard created the "situation" with Dodd, so it is only right that he fix it. (It is, in retrospect, quite remarkable how well Natalie behaves towards Leonard after he has killed her boyfriend.) Part of the fun of the movie is the constant inversions characters undergo, from "good guy" to "bad guy" depending on what we learn about the past as the film moves backwards.
But getting back to the central issue, of Leonard's memory, there is a double irony here. Not only does Leonard's system fail him at every turn - he doesn't remember that he has known Teddy for a long time, that they tracked down the mysterious John G., and dispatched him (perhaps long ago), and so on - not only that, but Leonard refuses to look at his own long term memories, the ones he remembers, with his own advice in mind. He has created false memories, of his wife dying in the attack, of major points in Sammy's story. Leonard is the one who has switched "car colors," changing an insulin injection into a playful pinch, transposing the diabetic from his wife to Sammy.
Leonard refuses time and again to confront the conflict between the here and now, the moment, and the long term memories he trusts so strongly. When Natalie points out that his clothes and car do not fit, are not what he would wear as an insurance investigator, he avoids the issue. Later in the movie (earlier in real-time), Teddy points out the same thing. We know he remembers how he used to dress (were even shown it) because he remembers his life before the attack. And why does Leonard even take the dead man's clothes? He claims it's to avoid his own clothes which might have blood on them, but it must be something more. Is he purposely trying to confuse his own sense of identity, knowing, somewhere deep inside, that he has become a criminal like Jerry, that he is no longer Leonard the insurance investigator, and never will be again? (Maybe he is even wishing to get caught so someone can explain to him what has happened.)
In addition Leonard and the system he relies on are shown to be highly fallible, and not just to everyone else. "Facts" are not always translated accurately, as is demonstrated when Leonard, while looking for Dodd, kicks in the door at room 6 instead of room 9. Even the cumbersome police report is a prop to Leonard's confidence in his system - there is simply no way he could digest that much material and make sense of it given his condition. Any summation he has made is highly suspect, a fact he can reasonably deduce himself.
And what of Leonard's self-confident ability to tell when people are lying...another delusion. Everyone lies to him, successfully: Teddy, several different ways; Natalie; even the hotel clerk who, when Leonard pays him for the room, we assume has asked for the same $40 earlier that day, and maybe will ask for it again later. Just avoiding the telephone doesn't stop the lies. Again, Leonard is selective about what he admits are the limits of his abilities. If he admits anyone can lie to him in any situation, all is hopeless. So he admits only that he can't tell when people are lying on the phone, but that he can in person - it's a partial concession from his confidence to reality. The harsh truth is that Leonard's system, his "trusted" and "highly successful" system, is built on what other people tell him about themselves and each other. And that information is not to be trusted.
I think Leonard realizes this after Teddy's speech at the end of the film. Teddy exposes all the truth, and this exposes all of the lies and half-truths Leonard has believed, exposes the flaws in his system.
So what is Leonard to do? Why doesn't tattoo Fact No. 5 read, "John G. is dead. Teddy knows the truth. Ask Teddy"? Why does Leonard purposely create his own truth, create his own destiny which he knows will lead to him killing Teddy instead of facing reality? Why does he create a new reality in which Teddy is John G.?
Remember Sammy Jankins. - this tattoo provides a miniature for the movie as a whole. First, because our understanding of what it means keeps changing. Leonard thinks it is there to remind him to have a system, unlike poor Sammy. But later, after zoning out (for how long?) in front of the television at Natalie's house, we see him look down, see the tattoo and rouse himself quickly from the continually surprising images on the screen and into action. Is this the real lesson of Sammy? In Leonard's tale, Sammy is watching TV, a life hardly worth living, a completely useless existence when you don't remember anything you watch, when only the commercials make any sense. So Leonard uses the tattoo as a reminder to act, a reminder not to waste away in front of the TV, forgetting every plot line before it's resolved, but enjoying the meaningless commercials - a meaningless existence.
Finally, at the end of the movie, we discover yet another meaning hidden in this simple tattoo. We find out from Teddy that Leonard put this tattoo on to condition himself, to alter his own memories and create new ones. By this time, we've learned to question even that version of reality, which is exactly the point. Looked at from another angle, the tattoo is another reminder to us that Leonard lies to himself: not only the fiction of the cautionary tale of Sammy Jankins, but also of Leonard's inability to tell when people are lying. Leonard tells us that he thought Sammy was faking because he saw that spark of recognition each time he went to see him; now he knows that it's easy to fake that. Again, Leonard has the knowledge to question his basic assumption about how he knows what is is, but he refuses to do so, because to admit that would destroy him. Ultimately the tattoo is one more example of the truth that there is no way we cannot be sure our vision of reality matches what is "real."
Ultimately this is the question we all face when any part of our version of reality is thrown into doubt. If Leonard accepts the truth, then he accepts the fact the he is a killer (Jerry and who knows who else), so he denies the truth. If he accepts the truth, then his memories, the ones he trusts, the ones written on his very flesh, are lies. And if he accepts the truth, then his system doesn't work, and he cannot function in the world and he becomes Sammy Jankins, institutionalized for his own good. He decides he cannot accept this. "Is the world still there when I close my eyes?" he asks as he drives away in the Jaguar of a dead man, whom he killed, in the clothes of that dead man, with $200,000 and a gun in the trunk, which he has already forgotten is there. Yes, is his answer. And it is. But the painful truth is that it is not the world he thinks it is. It is not the world reflected in his captioned pictures. He has remade the world so he can live in it, and he has decided, in a short moment, quickly forgotten, that he would rather live and engage in the world even if his vision of it does not match some objective reality, than remove himself from that world and slowly die in an institution. Ok, so he's got some of the details wrong, but at least he trying, at least he has a purpose, at least he does something, even if it's the wrong thing. In his book, that's better than doing nothing.
And in fact, we all do that. All of our memories are flawed, all of our truths are half-truths, partial truths, chock full of lies. All of our visions of the world are just our dreams of reality, our views of what is, all different, and even though the world is still there when we close our eyes, it is not the same world for any of us.