Monday, March 07, 2011

AstroGnostic: Memento-Mirror-Matrix

There’s a metatextual sequel to The Matrix that isn't recognized as such. The film in question features two of that blockbuster’s lead characters in prominent and analogous roles, and it tells much the same type of story that The Matrix does. Only in reverse.

Mirror, mirror

Memento was the breakthrough film by Christopher Nolan, who needs no introduction around these parts. As befits a parable of a inverse-messiah, the film‘s chronology is reversed, and the converging story-lines are separated into color and black and white. The twisting and turning storyline is far too complex to recount here, and if you haven’t yet seen the movie, you really should.

Simply put, Memento is the story of Leonard Shelby, a man whose ability to form short-term memories was destroyed when he was attacked during a home invasion. Or at least that’s what he believes. And he believes his wife was killed during the same event. Or was she? As Leonard struggles to find his wife’s killer, he is accompanied by a crooked cop named Teddy Gammell (played by The Matrix’s Joe Pantoliano) who takes advantage of Leonard’s handicap by using him as his personal enforcer and Natalie (played by Carrie Ann Moss aka Trinity), a drug dealer’s moll who is using Leo in a similar fashion.

Leonard's memory is lost when striking a mirror

Memento deals with the same loss of memory issues that form the crux of Dark City, but in a far more insidious way. In Memento, memory is not merely elusive, it’s an enemy. Shelby is not only unable to form memories, he’s unwilling to. He is the Gnostic messiah from The Hymn of the Pearl in reverse- he becomes evil intentionally and uses his handicap to as a crutch to relieve his conscience.

Natalie as Agent Smith/Samael

The theme of borrowed clothes in the Hymn also plays an important, literal part in the plot of Memento as well. Joe Pantoliano and Carrie Ann Moss play their Matrix roles in reverse. Leonard comes to sees Teddy as his enemy, but in fact he is giving Leonard the emotional outlet he needs to relive his hopelessness and guilt. Leonard sees Natalie (“Christmas Day”) as his friend, but she has every reason to hate him and is using him to do her own dirty work.

And he doesn't want to.

Leo-nard is the anti-Neo. He is condemned to endless repetition, to a hell of of forgetfulness and self ignorance. In this regard, he is the ultimate Gnostic antichrist, willfully ignorant, purposefully forgetful. Like a caricature of a Fundamentalist, he surrenders himself to the written word, going so far as to tattoo his personal mythology on his skin. He trusts only the words, but the words are empty, intentionally robbed of meaning, or are in fact outright lies. He is the ultimate biblioidolater.

But that’s what Leonard Shelby wants to be. All he wants to do is go back to sleep, to return to the Matrix. In his previous incarnation, he was a heartless bureaucrat robbing people of their hope by denying their insurance claims. He was the parasitical Agent destroying the lives of the innocent victims of circumstance. If Christopher Nolan didn’t intend Memento to complete that trilogy, then Destiny surely did it for him.

I have no idea if Memento was planned as some sort of anti-Matrix or reverse Dark City, but it couldn’t possibly fill that role any better than it does. Even the seemingly mundane, non-sci fi, non-mythological aspect of the story fits the arc of our little triptych perfectly. Memento seems to say, don’t you see? Don’t you see where denying the mysteries leads you? It robs your life of all magic, of all transcendence- you become nothing but a blind tool of a corrupt system.

Or did it? It's very hard to square any kind of Gnostic message with Nolan's more recent work, which boasts an increasingly authoritarian, inhumane and collectivist mindset. Not content with the neocon agit-prop of The Dark Knight (Working) (a film everyone saw but no one remembers, as if it were all some bizarre mass hynopsis experiment), Nolan set to work creating a mind-controlling hero in the 2010 hit Inception, an anti-Gnostic Matrix if ever there was one. Or more accurately a film that champions the Matrix, since it's useful as a tool of corporate terrorism. Inception seems to gleefully inform us that not even our dreams are safe from clever, greedy thugs. So shut up and let them rape your mind already.

Before those were the cruelty and brutality of The Prestige and Batman Begins, which like The Dark Knight, starring Patrick Bateman in a glaringly blatant example of revelatory casting. One can't blame Nolan- after all, he's giving an increasingly desensitized public what it wants. But in the context of these later films, I've come to realize that maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Nolan is holding up Leonard Shelby as an example for us all to follow.
Time will tell.