Amnesia in Contemporary Film: The Neo-Noir Identity Crisis
The neo-noir film genre has long explored the idea of self-concept, more often than not forcing protagonists to question themselves through a form of identity crisis. Within traditional neo-noir films, this crisis is often seen as a minor personality trait unfortunately developed by the protagonist throughout the film. Today, contemporary films are using the concept as the pinnacle aspect of the storyline, affecting a highly evolved, psychologically intriguing protagonist often in the form of amnesia.
Roman’s Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown is considered to have pioneered the Neo-Noir identity crisis in its modern take on traditional Film Noir conventions. Unlike the french-inspired movement, however, this neo-noir classic creates a deeper intellectual connection with the audience’s through its inclusion of political turmoil, moral ambiguity, and deeper psychological insight into characters.
Jake Gittes serves as the protagonist within Chinatown, a private detective whose exploration into an adultery case exposes him to the dark world of the California water wars. Throughout the film, Jake is subject to an array of psychological torments, each contributing to his gradual loss of identity.
Polanski represents Gittes’ identity crisis by slowly shrouding more and more of the protagonist’s face from the audience. As the story progresses, Jake’s definable attributes are soon lost, highlighting the characters psychological crisis and, in turn, forging a convention used today in modern neo-noir films.
This subtle, underlying loss of an identity played a key role in the characterisation of the traditional neo-noir protagonist. Today, however, the role of self-concept is becoming increasingly vital to the neo-noir storyline as films are beginning to expire the idea of identity loss as a result of amnesia. Shutter Island, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento are three significant neo-noir films known for their exploration into memory loss and, as a result, the loss of a characters true self.
3. Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010)
Scorsese’s masterpiece Shutter Island is a controversial neo-noir thriller released in 2010. Set in in the mid 1950s, the story follows U.S Marshal Teddy Daniels and his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of a woman from the Shutter Island hospital for the criminally insane. Stranded on the island with only his partner as support, Daniels begins to unravel the dark secrets lurking behind the walls of the frightening facility… or does he? The discoveries and incidents occurring on the island may be all in Daniels head as the film reveals his true role as a patient within the hospital.
Revealed later in the story, Daniels developed psychogenic amnesia (memory loss caused by psychological stress) after witnessing his wife down his three children. Sentenced to Shutter Island for subsequently killing his suicidal wife, Daniels suffers relapses into his former years as a U.S Marshal. This rejection of his true self has Daniels facing an intense identity crisis, seen through his adoption of a previous version of himself.
Shutter Island uses Daniels amnesia to cast mystery over the true on goings of the film. Through projecting his perceptions of the world onto the audience, Daniels sways viewer’s opinions of the facility and the people it contains. This method produces an effective portrayal of the contemporary neo-noir protagonist, highlighting the unknowing victim of amnesia and identity loss.
2. Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Gondry’s neo-noir film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looks at the concept of identity from an eccentric new angle. Rather than the focusing on an unwilling victim of amnesia, this film highlights an active pursuit of memory loss.
This film follows protagonist Joel Barish and his unusual relationship with Clementine Kruczynshi. Stuck in a confusing and draining partnership for two years, the two want nothing more than to move on and forget the other ever existed. Clementine, however, takes this desire quite literally, enlisting the help of Lacuna Inc. to wipe all memories of Joel from her mind. Naturally, upon learning of Clementine’s actions, Joel follows suit.
“Suffice it to say, Miss Kruczynski was not happy and she wanted to move on. We provide that possibility.”- Howard, Lacuna Inc.
The majority of the film takes place inside Joel’s mind during the chronological rehashing and erasing of his memories. As each memory is revealed, Joel begins to feel nostalgic for his life with Clementine and begins desperately trying to hold on to the disappearing portion of his identity.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind looks at the protagonist’s identity crisis in a way profoundly different from any popular amnesia-based films seen today. Rather than exploring the consequences of amnesia, it looks into the process of losing one’s memories in a way audiences are able to understand. Through Joel’s experience, the film emphasises the value of one’s memories and, in turn, a person’s identity. As the story progresses, Joel becomes more desperate and helpless, trapped within his own degrading mind.
This touching film allows audiences to feel a deeper connection as a determined protagonist struggles to hang on to his difficult yet alluring femme fatale. Maintaining key conventions, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind serves as a modern neo-noir film that explores the concept of identity in a new and original manner.
1. Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000)
Possibly the most infamous amnesia-based movie of all time is one of Christopher Nolan’s earliest works, Memento (2000). This film follows the story of Leonard Shelby as he hunts down the man who killed his wife. Suffering from amnesia, he uses a series of tattoos, notes and Polaroid’s to keep him progressive in his search.
This character represents the height of the neo-noir identity crisis. Unable to form permanent new memories, Shelby finds himself unable to trust anything but the hand written clues he leaves himself. This tormented, confused character is both morally ambiguous and lost in a world filled with people he believes are out to destroy his goal.
The storyline, which plays out reverse-chronologically, complements the identity crisis that serves as the primary theme within the film. This techniques allows viewers to remain on the same page as the character throughout the story, giving them insight into his world and allowing him to warp their perception of characters and events.
Leonard Shelby’s character within Memento is an amplification of the traditional neo-noir protagonist. Christopher Nolan has admirably and effectively pulled this off, allowing audiences to be fully immersed in Shelby’s world while still serving under the neo-noir film genre.
The exploration into memory loss by each of these films are enchanting and effectively extend the neo-noir identity crisis into the contemporary world. The adaptation of such a characteristic allows for the film genre to continue to remain popular as the film industry continues to evolve.
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