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August 1998, Week 4


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Sun, 23 Aug 1998 09:59:55 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (58 lines)
Lang Thompson wonders:
> Inspired by "The Usual Suspects," I wondered how many films have the
> equivalent of literary unreliable narrators or indeed what that would
> consist of in a film.  I think specifically it would have to be where the
> viewers actually witness the events described or done in flashback as
> opposed to a speaker or narrator who is simply not telling the truth
> verbally.
There's been quite a bit of discussion about this issue over the years,
often depending on discussion of particular films.  One of the more
notorious (so to speak) examples has been Hitchcock's STAGE FRIGHT,
which supposedly "lies" visually as well as through the voice-over
narrator telling a story.  Some of the conversation involves the
definition of what "cinematic narration" actually consists of.  See
Seymour Chatman's COMING TO TERMS for one attempt to deal with the
question of agency in narration.  Maureen Turim's FLASHBACKS IN FILM
also provides a useful set of perspectives on the uses of that device.
There are different levels and types of unreliability, I think, and
much of it has as much to do with audience readiness or willingness or
ability to "read" a narration as "unreliable" as the process by which
the actual narration occurs.  Unreliability might be a function of
revelation: an understanding that occurs at or toward the end of the
film that requires rethinking all that we've seen before.  (THE USUAL
SUSPECTS does this, as does NO WAY OUT, the remake of THE BIG CLOCK
with Costner.)  It might be a function of revealing that we have been
"misled" by what we seem to have witnessed.  (THE USUAL SUSPECTS is an
example here.)  In a variation on that state is our awareness of
several versions of the "truth" that may or may not resolve themselves
in favor of one version (MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS could be an
example, but so is RASHOMON.)
A more complex version of "unreliability" in literary narration has to
do with our awareness as readers that the narrator is not necessarily
misrepresenting the facts but is certainly misinterpreting them in some
way.  (Classic examples include Ford Madox Ford's THE GOOD SOLIDER and
Nabokov's PALE FIRE.)  Since that level of misrepresentation and
double-level of  reader consciousness rely so often on first-person
narration, which is difficult if not impossible to represent in film in
a fully-equivalent way, the issue becomes more complicated.
There's been some discussion of related issues on the NARRATIVE
discussion list as well as MOVIES-SEIVOM, which discusses
self-referentiality in film.  It's a complex and interesting set of
Don Larsson
Donald Larsson, Mankato State U (MN)
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