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October 1996, Week 3


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Peter Latham <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 14 Oct 1996 17:25:46 -0500
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>Graham Heys requests:
>"Lately, I have been wriggling with the concept of an unreliable narrator.
>Specifically what precisely constitutes one?
I suggest that three purposes of the unreliable narrator are to 1]
delineate the narrator's character through the use of irony and 2] to
create a sense of foreboding when we know of the unreliability and 3] to
create a sense of mystery. The Usual Suspects is an example of the last.
Heavenly Creatures (1994) is an example of the other two. In HC, the
narrator is a diarist whose diary entries are read in voice-over. They are
unreliable as to both time and perception, time because the audience knows
of events subsequent to the diary entries, and perception because they are
grandiose and self-congratulatory. Together, they create the pircture of a
mind out of balance.
Unreliability is easily shown by a contrast between the spoken word and
visual image. In HC, the narrator says: My New Year's Resolution is to be
kinder to others.... while the film shows the speaker agressively expelling
a young man from a party. The risk of demonstrating unreliability less
directly is that it may beceome obscure, though The Usual Suspects did it
There is no reason why a narrator cannot become more self-aware during the
progress of the film. But such a progression runs the risk of focusing the
film on its voice-overs rather than on its visual events.
Peter Latham
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