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On perception

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This was a final essay I wrote for freshman English, wondering what you all think of it.

-- NAS

On Perception: Problems in current Academia, as related to modern cinema

A Close-up of a hand, white by the look of it, holding a Polaroid, a picture of a corner of what looks like a warehouse, with what looks like blood spattered around, and a shape, maybe it’s a body. The hand shakes, but something is wrong, the picture instead of becoming clearer is getting less distinct. The picture is fading to white. Something strange is going on here. The camera zooms out. A man, standing, with the picture in one hand, and a Polaroid camera in the other. The picture gets fed into the camera, then a flash, it seems like everything is going in reverse, but why? Focus on a bullet casing, a set of broken and bloody glasses, lying on the floor. A man, face down, lying in a pool of blood, not moving. Back to the man with the camera, the camera is away now; a gun leaps of the ground, into the man's hand. He crouches down, the glasses leap back onto the dead mans face, the bullet casing leaps back into the gun. The gun is aimed at the other man now, a bang, and then a shout.

The opening sequence to the movie Memento is one of my most memorable movie-going experiences. I remember my confusion, for all of thirty seconds, of what was happening and why. Leonard, the killer (we won’t call him a murderer quite yet), has a problem. He cannot ever make new memories. He forgets conversations, events, and things that he has done… about fifteen minutes after they occur. He relates to the viewer, during a sequence of black and white filmed shots over the course of the movie, the story of Sammy Jenkins by talking on the phone in his hotel room to an unknown third party.

Leonard was, before his accident, a claims investigator for an insurance agency. His first major case was the Sammy Jenkins case. Sammy had been in a car accident and was suffering from a condition known as anterograde amnesia; he could not make any new memories. Leonard was there to investigate whether Sammy’s problem was physical in nature, a brain injury, or psychological:, he did not want to make new memories. Under the insurance policy that the Jenkins had, injury was covered, but psychological disorders were not.

The idea that perception is subjective, that we create our past, and enhance it in our memory, is prevalent throughout society, and academia in particular. In the English 101 reader K.C. Cole’s essay Seeing Things, Susan Engel’s Then and Now: Creating a Self Though the Past and Eviatar Zerubavel’s Social Memories are all examples of attempts to demonstrate prove subjectivism in perception, and memory.

K.C. Cole advances the theory of the fallibility of perception. She touches briefly on the difference between what we perceive (through our senses) and what actually occurs in reality. She discusses optical illusions and apparent contradictions between what we perceive and what actually happens. She seems to imply that much of what we think we know is not, in fact, in accordance with reality.

Susan Engel discusses the fallibility of memory. She advances the theory that memory is primarily shaped by the belief and interpretation of events and not by any direct perceptual data, that memory is mainly a tool for identifying the self, and as the views of one’s self changes, the memories change too.

Zerubavel considers the idea that that most of the ‘memories’ that we have aren’t really ours, that we have social memories shared by families, ethnic, racial, social and national identities that aren’t individually ours. The founding of America, the Civil War, the Apollo moon landing, and for me, stories of my Grandfather in World War II. All are social memories shared by the collective group: these memories make up the bulk of our experience, and identity.

All three articles challenge an objective reality and objective perception in different ways. K.C. Cole states that perception is invalid, and that it is subjective. Engel offers the idea that reality itself is invalid, that our memory of it is always subjective, so there is no way to know what the past ‘really’ is. Zerubavel proposes the idea that memory is primarily social; there is not really a distinct firsthand memory.

The cinematography of Memento is unique. The movie is a series of alternating black and white, and color, sequences. The first black and white sequence, with Leonard waking up in a motel room, is the first, chronologically in the movie. The last scene, chronologically, is the first color scene, of Leonard shooting Teddy, filmed in reverse. The black and white sequences advance forward in time, while the color sequences regress backward with the ending of each color sequence directly preceding the beginning of the previous sequence.

Memento is a very engaging movie to watch. It requires attention, and extreme attention to understand what, and why things are happening. The plot is woven in such a way that although you know what has happened and what is going to happen, it remains suspenseful until the end, which is chronologically, the middle.

The process one goes through when watching Memento is that same process one goes through when attempting to understand any storyline. It is easier to identify and understand the process in Memento however, because of the movie’s unique storyline. The process is that of integration and comprehension of the story as a whole.

This is a multistage endeavor. The first step is to comprehend, and retain, the individual scenes and the pieces of plotline. This mainly occurs in the color sequences (moving backwards). The second step is integrating each sequence into the entire story. In a normal movie, the scenes are less distinct, more blended together, however in Memento each sequence (or scene) is broken apart from each other. Since the plotline is running in reverse, you put the pieces together in reverse, which makes the process you are going through easer to analyze. The third step is to integrate the entire story into one conceptual whole; this again, is where the unique structure stands out. Even though you have seen the beginning and then end within the first five minutes of the movie, you cannot understand the entire story arc and comprehend what Leonard really is, until you watch the final scene of the film.

To retain parts of a plotline, one needs a memory that is unencumbered by preconceived notions. If you accept the premise that a plot moves in chronological order, Memento is going to make no sense. To comprehend the scenes you must have a view of the movie as itself, it is own separate entity. In other words, in order to achieve the first step, you must be objective in perception, and individual in your memory.

To integrate the scenes together, you must have first, the two scenes in mind. You must then analyze them; find the common ideas, the plot that runs through them. This again, requires an objective memory, both of the scenes, and of the common ideas that you find.

The integration of the entire movie requires the most effort, and clarity of thought. You must hold all the objective memories of the scenes, as well as your analysis and all the connections you made between scenes throughout the movie, and synthesize them into one cohesive understanding of the story.

It is interesting that although the process I stated above seems complex, in the vast majority of stories we do it automatically. When the plot is chronological, although the steps still apply there is a lot less work to do. When the movie is not chronological as Memento is, and with the several layers of understanding required to grasp all the points of the movie the process becomes harder, slower, and therefore more explicit.

Memento since the story itself deals with the nature of memory, has an interesting tension. Leonard, has a belief that memory is fallible. When discussing his condition, he says, about memory, “They're just an interpretation, not the record, and they're irrelevant when you have the facts.” This is interesting because it sets up a tension between the implicit principles of memory required to understand and enjoy the movie, and what the main character’s view on memory is.

Leonard holds many of the same views implicitly that the essays state explicitly in the 101 reader. He presents himself as acting rationally, productively and logically, however, when it comes down to it, he uses his own condition to deceive himself. This sets him up as one of the best, unknowing anti-heroes I have run across.

The movie Memento gives us the opportunity to analyze memory and perception from two different levels. The story itself, and Leonard’s search, and the way we, as viewers comprehend and understand the movie. Of perhaps more concern however, are the views that it stands in contra to. The idea of subjective, whim worshiping, college professors that get chosen to write in a required reader. The fact that outside of the sciences logic and reason are dead, and the idea that even within the sciences, there are nonabsolutes. The foundation of western society rests on the principles of Aristotle. Returning to social memory, that the mind creates the world, and that we can never understand it, is a step back towards the days when that was the leading view, as expounded by the Catholic Church, St. Aguistine, and others. It doesn’t bode well for students when they have to read this, with no other real choice, presented as the only option, it is no wonder that the spiral towards oblivion continues. As Leonard said about memory: “They're just an interpretation, not the record, and they're irrelevant when you have the facts.” So can be said about school, and when all the facts are declared invalid or irrelevant, there’s nothing left.

Works Cited

Cole, K.C. "Seeing Things" Western Washington English 101 Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 65-80.

Engel, S. "Then and Now: Creating a Self Through the Past" Western Washington English 101 Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 88-101.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano and Thomas Lennon. 2000.

Zerubavel, E. "Social Memories" Western Washington English 101 Reader. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 102-120.

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I'm specifically interested in feedback as to:

1. How I addressed the theme (current intellectuals views on perception)

2. How well I integrated the specific example, the subject (Memento) and my views on it with the theme in this 'mid range' article.

It's not obvious:

My descriptions of the essays from my reader were required, I HAD to use sources from that book, and after reading through all the articles, I saw the common theme in those three, then related that to the movie, (which I had just watched) before coming up with my subject and theme.

Also for reference, my finalized subject and theme are:

Theme: Current intellectuals completely disregard the objectivity of perception

Subject: The the process and subject of the movie Memento show that perception IS absolute.

Looking forward to your thoughts.

-- NAS

Also, I apologize if I spoiled the movie for anyone that hadn't seen it. Could a moderator possibly add a spoiler warning to the top of my first post?

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