People tend to trust everything they see in movies, almost to a ludicrous degree. It seems strange today that people found Kurosawa’s Rashomon (by no means his strongest movie) so mind-blowing, simply because it showed contradictory versions of a story on screen, which was considered totally “against the rules”. Hitchcock had tried it a year earlier in Stage Fright, which just caused everyone to totally reject that movie, but for whatever reason, Rashomon broke through to American audiences. Even so, it was quickly declared the exception that proved the rule: every movie after that that tried it was called “Rashomon-like.”Eventually, visualized lies became more common, and most audiences have been trained to not feel betrayed, but there still seems to be a deep-seated need for audiences to believe everything they see. When my college showed The Usual Suspects, I heard a fellow English major walk out afterwards, trying to figure out the movie with her date. She started by saying, “Well, we know that everything we saw on screen really happened, so what would explain all that??”
I was baffled. Let’s ignore for a moment that the whole point of the movie is that everything we’ve seen except the first and last scene was a big lie. Instead, let’s just focus on the fact that movie first shows us Gabriel Byrne blowing up the ship, then later shows Kevin Spacey standing in the same spot and doing it in the same way. How could any sophisticated college student refuse to accept that they might have been shown a false (and shifting) flashback?In books, on the other hand, unreliable narrators are very common. Sometimes we trust them to relate the events as they happened but don’t trust their moral perspective (We don’t accept that Huckleberry Finn is going to hell). Others tell such a self-serving narrative that we strongly suspect that they’re twisting everything (Humbert Humbert in “Lolita”). Others flat out lie to us (the killer of Agatha Christie’s “Roger Ackroyd”). Books can even have unreliable third-person “omniscient” narrators (The text of Voltaire’s “Candide” keeps telling us that everything that happens to its hero is the best possible outcome, but we don’t believe it).
Movies occasionally have unreliable voice-overs (Days of Heaven, Election), but the events we actually see are still portrayed objectively. Even the visualized lies of Stage Fright, Rashomon and The Usual Suspects are not true examples of unreliable narrators, since, in each case, the lies eventually end and we return to an objective reality at the end of the movie.
Some would say that it’s inherently impossible to have a truly unreliable narrator on film. After all, as I’ve said throughout this week, we aren’t looking through the hero’s eyes but rather over the hero’s shoulder. One of the things they try to teach you in film school, however, is that a well-directed movie is not objective, and every scene is still “from” a character’s point of view, even if we can see them on screen. They teach you to stop using co-equal two-shots and instead use more “over the shoulder” shots, so as to let the audience know which character to emotionally identify with in each scene. This creates a situation that novelists would call “limited third-person”, where the narration is told about, not by, the hero, but is still mostly limited to his or her perspective.But if “Candide” can have a skewed third-person perspective, why not movies? Ten years ago there was a rash of movies showing us the hero’s delusions onscreen: Fight Club, American Psycho, A Beautiful Mind, etc, but in these movies, it was the images that were lying to the hero, rather than the hero lying to us through the images. When it was revealed that it was all a delusion, the heroes were as shocked as we were. Has there ever been a movie where everything we see on screen is dubious, told to us by a narrator who has reason to lie to us? The closest thing I can come up with is Mike Hodges’s woefully underrated Pulp. Can you guys think of any others?