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Memento as a Documentary


            As one option for the topic of this journal, our assignment sheet lists a comparison of Memento, the film, and how Robert Coles views documentaries.  This leads to the obvious question: Would Coles see Memento as a documentary?  As I currently understand it, Memento has its basis in the imagination, not in facts; on these grounds alone, Coles would likely dismiss it as distinctly and solely fiction.  But if it were based on fact, would Coles qualify Memento as a documentary?  I believe that despite, or even because of, its highly unusual style, Memento clearly falls into Coles’ category of “documentary”.


            Memento has a unique style.  I haven’t yet seen the whole movie so I can’t vouch for the purpose of the style, but it seems to exist in order to give the viewer a greater deal of sympathy, of empathy, for the main character.  The segments in the movie mirror his own perception of reality; the ending of a segment signifies the period of time after which he forgets everything he has learned recently.  Some would argue that it is against a documentary’s purpose to try to garner sympathy for that which it describes; indeed, many people believe that a documentary should be devoid of any emotional bias, conveying just “the facts”.  This is clearly not Coles’ belief.


Aside from the fact that he flat-out states this belief on occasion in this narrative, Coles’ choice of pictures reflects this as well.  In particular, his choice to show us the “iconic “migrant mother”” (Coles 185) picture illustrates his acceptance of a style not wholly unlike that shown in Memento.  This photo, taken by Dorothea Lange, is like Memento in that it picks out certain elements, the mother’s stoicism, the childrens’ apparent tiredness, and removes them from their general background so that we can come to respect them, just as Memento takes scenes out of the background of memory, in this case lost memory, and plays them back in such a way that the individual segments gain lives of their own.  In these pictures, as well as in the scenes in Memento, scenes are being presented so that we can identify more with the specific images in each situation than with the overall fact basis, the tent in the field, the search for a murderer; the goal is to communicate not facts but emotion.


Coles does believe in the transferring of information through documentaries; he just gives a broad definition to “information”.  He doesn’t dispute that documentaries have a “responsibility to fact” (Coles 177).  But he also believes that any documentary must try to convey also the “human actuality” of a situation, the impression that it leaves on he who experiences it firsthand.  I believe that this “human actuality” is this emotion that is conveyed through the shared styles of Memento and “migrant mother”.  Both do convey at least a few facts, a torn shirt representing poverty, a scarred cheek representing an old injury and grievance, but both also clearly represent at least what their respective creators felt with regards to the scenes from which they were drawn; others might not have the same reactions, but as Coles notes throughout his essay, all such works are filtered through, and modified by, their creators.  To conclude my initial question of sorts, I believe that Coles would accept Memento as documentary-type work simply because it highlights what he believes should be contained in an ideal documentary.