Hypothetical Film Festival – Unreliable Narrators

There’s a very interesting plot device called the Unreliable Narrator, wherein the point of view you are getting the story from comes from a person who is possibly skewing the facts in their favor, creating a story that is not quite true. Here’s some films that use that idea to great effect.



Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)
Rashomon was the introduction of Kurosawa and post-war Japanese cinema to the world. The framing of the story was unlike anything that had really been seen in cinema, but had roots in older literature, particularly Shakespeare (whose works would be a major influence on Kurosawa throughout his career). A woodcutter and priest are seeking shelter in the husk of an old building while it storms outside. A passerby enters and they explain a strange murder of a samurai and the court case in which his wife, the bandit being accused, and the spirit of the samurai himself all testify. Through the three differing viewpoints we get three different pictures, with the added framing of these figures telling us the story. It’s a like a hedge maze of narrative.

Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)
The elderly composer Salieri tries to kill himself but is stopped. Later he is visited by a young priest and the old man tells the tale of his rivalry with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and how Salieri believes he killed the virtuoso. Salieri of course frames himself as pious and obedient, devoted to tradtion. Amadeus is seen a lewd and bawdy figure. Salieri sees his craft as a gift from God and cannot comprehend how someone as heathen and ribald as Amadeus was given a gift that far surpasses his own. The question we must ask is, how honest is this portrayal of the composer, and is this Salieri’s attempt to justify his hand in Amadeus’ death?



Memento (2001, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Both the film that introduced us to director Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight) and what presents probably the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Leonard is a man without the ability to form new memories. This was the result of a break-in at his home years prior that also resulted in the death of his wife. Now Leonard is on a hunt for the man responsible. Because of his lack of new memory he has tattooed key facts about the assailant on his body. Beyond that, he carries a Polaroid camera where ever he goes, photographing acquaintances and scribbling notes about them on the pictures. But what does Leonard really know? As we experience time in the same way Leonard does, we will ask lots of questions and when the disturbing conclusion comes about we will be left questioning Leonard himself.

Spider (2002, dir. David Cronenberg)
Dennis Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) has just been released from a mental asylum. The reason why he was there in the first place is not revealed at first, instead we follow him to the work home he has been assigned to in an attempt to transition back into society. He immediately draws the ire of the housekeeper and befriends housemate Terrence (John Neville). Mixed into his day to day life are nightmarish flashbacks to his childhood, focusing on his alcoholic father (Gabriel Byrne) and his beaten down mother (. The story of their tumultuous relationship is what forms Dennis and ultimately drives him to the asylum. The reason behind his nickname, Spider, is tied directly to this childhood incident. But then you must ask yourself, how reliable are the childhood flashbacks of a psychopath?



Bubba Ho-Tep (2002, dir. Don Coscarelli)
The film is told from the perspective of Elvis Presley (played brilliantly by Bruce Campbell), or it could be mechanic Sebastian Haff. Presley explains that he traded places with Haff in the 1970s to get away from the business, and for some reason the staff of his nursing home doesn’t believe him. Also living in this home is a black man who claims to be President Kennedy (Ossie Davis), explaining that he was dyed black and abandoned in the nursing home after the assassination attempt. Terrorizing the elderly at night in this home is an ancient Egyptian mummy who, for some reason, has taken on the garb of a cowboy. The two men, unable to get the staff on their side, take matters into their own hands and battle the mummy. But what if they are simply just two crazy people?

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