Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Narrative Breakdown Podcast on Unreliable Narratives!

Hi guys, long time no see.  New content still isn’t ready, but I guest-hosted once again on The Narrative Breakdown with James Monohan and Cheryl Klein.  This time we’re discussing unreliable narrators in film and prose. Alas, I sound a little frazzled in this one (It was the end of a long day!) but James and Cheryl carry my weight ably, so it’s well-worth a listen!


j.s. said...

Whoa, so your next NARRATIVE BREAKDOWN episode is going to be about SERIAL? Counting the hours till the final episode...

Saw THE SIXTH SENSE again mostly because of you and completely revised my opinion of it way upward.

Surprised that you guys were lauding THE USUAL SUSPECTS whose unreliable narration is pretty much exactly the sort of twist-only gimmick that you all seemed to detest in the Agatha Christie book. I hate that film. Everyone I meet who likes it has to answer this question before I'm remotely inclined to take their opinion seriously: "Have you seen it more than once? And if so, when was the last time?"

Likewise with GONE GIRL. I'll admit that I've only seen the film and not read the novel, but, after a certain point (and especially in retrospect) the entire thing comes apart for me, also for reasons I feel like I've learned to articulate from you. The entire complicated framework of GONE GIRL requires Amy to be at least two completely different and totally irreconcilable characters -- the psychopathic master plotter (more than 75% of this very narrative is "all part of her plan") who thinks about as much of killing an old college flame as she did of vindictively framing another for rape. And the sort of woman -- affected "cool girl" persona for herself or her imagined mates or not -- who would want Nick in the first place; who would romanticize their bookstore quickie; who would go with him to the middle of nowhere to care for his sick mom; who would non narcissistically, unselfishly, and very much unpyschopathically, not tell her parents to eff off when they need to take back her trust fund money....

The whole story rests on a series of plot twists, the biggest of which are actually disguised character cheats, huge authorial lies about who the characters are where we have to pretend it's remotely possible that anyone who so devalues human life and who's so ruthlessly predatory going after what she wants would ever have been normal enough to put herself into the rather ordinary predicament of a bad suburban marriage.

Indeed, if we buy the final "true" Amy who manages to manipulate and kill her way back into her home and her marriage with improvisatory glee, you have to wonder all the more how it's possible that she felt she needed such an elaborate plan to get what she wanted in the first place. Of course, the Amy we're left with wouldn't have. Yet without it there would be no story.

Matt Bird said...

We'll be talking past each other to a certain extent here, because I've read the book and not seen the movie, but from what I've heard, the movie took a relatively small problem from the book and magnified it.

I thought the book did indeed go off the rails at the end for precisely the reasons you cite (I said so on the podcast but that was cut for time): she's suddenly revealed to be a cartoonishly-broad lifelong-psychopath in a way that doesn't ring true to human nature at all. I think Flynn simply lost the courage of her convictions and fell back on conventional airport-bestseller morality.

As you say, if she was that cold-blooded, she never would have gotten into this situation. It would have been far stronger to have us (and Amy) realize that the "fake" diary was actually more true than Amy herself had realized: she had simply snapped from the pressure of lobotomizing herself to fit the desires of this shallow guy and then created this insane plot simply out of revenge for being cheated on, then got in too far to back out.

I had naively assumed that a movie could easily fix this problem by snipping out that needless late-stage backstory-reveal, but it seems like Fincher (never a fan of women) went the opposite direction.

The crazy thing is that, from what I understand, Reese Witherspoon optioned the novel before it came out, and developed the project for a long time, and SHE hired David Fincher, but then Fincher turned around and fired her because he had a different view of the character, so he replaced her with Pike, who is literally a Bond villain.

In retrospect, one reason that I found Amy to be a believably-complicated and sympathetic character, even after the first big twist is that I knew Witherspoon had optioned the book and I was picturing her.

I've always liked Pike, but audience-identification isn't really her thing, which, I suspect, is exactly why Fincher hired her: Now we're never going to risk identifying with the wife's point of view.

(And as for Amy killing the other guy, I've heard that the movie makes this scene more cold-blooded, but it wasn't that bad in the book, where she seemed to be in genuine danger from him. It helps that, in the book, the body types of the Affleck and Harris characters are reversed.)

j.s. said...

A few follow-up questions about your mention of the inversion of Nick and Desi's body types in the novel vs. the film: 1) If Nick is kind of a skinny nebbish, then why does Amy see him as a desirable trophy hubs (let alone one who'd require her masquerade as a "cool girl")? AND 2) If Desi is such a muscular hunk, and the murder in the book is far less cartoonish, how the heck does Amy do him in? Also, you know, why is such a normal guy's guy type dude still pining for her? And how is his Amy-caused college nervous breakdown even remotely plausible?

As ludicrous as the mechanics of FIGHT CLUB's dual and dueling protagonists seem once the twist is clear (as you mention in the podcast), the thematic heft of what the book and the film have to say about masculinity, violence and millenial American society/culture still rings true to me in a way that all of GONE GIRL's purported insights in the modern state of our male/female marriage unions just doesn't. I'm with Cheryl. GONE GIRL's pretentious marriage nihilism is ultimately as phony and hollow as the Janus-faced Amy who Flynn sets up to "prove" it.

Matt Bird said...

I generally agree, and, alas, I don't remember how the book made sense of those things. Ultimately the first half of the book (a nuanced portrait of a fatally-flawed marriage tested by his insensitivity, and her lack of self-respect, and the death of the American economy) is betrayed by the second half (a lurid portrait of female psychopathy and male victimhood.)