The Men Who Weren’t There: The Unreliable Narrator and His Effect on Audience’s Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-Noir
This essay asks how first person narration in the genre of neo-noir affects the audience’s perception of reality, particularly in the films Memento and American Psycho. In both films, the narrator plays a pivotal role in influencing the structure of the story. With a brief examination of film noir, its aesthetic origins, (the classic cycle beginning with The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941]), and the transition to neo-noir. I then examine the films Memento and American Psycho and briefly justify their place in the neo-noir canon.
Memento’s protagonist has anterograde amnesia, and his inability to create new memories thrusts the film’s structure into a uniquely non-linear format. Writer/director Christopher Nolan employs a technique where the film is told in reverse, while the protagonist attempts to make sense of the world around him, identify himself as a person, and find his wife’s killer, and all the while narrating his own tragic story. American Psycho’s protagonist is a product of his environment, where decadence and greed reign supreme. Unable to withstand the pressures of the yuppie society, his insanity leads him to murder. The protagonist’s self-awareness presents a nihilistic narrator, whose insanity skews every event in the film to an extent where the audience cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.
The essay then compares the two protagonists, both in their style of narration and their awareness of their flaws. A certain amount of psychoanalysis is applied to examine the two characters. Through analysis of key scenes in each film and quotations from their screenplays, this essay asserts that first person narration in neo-noir is the driving force in how the audience perceives the way the story unravels and that there is a clear manipulation and exploitation of events within it.
“We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are” (Nolan 226). The closing lines of the complex neo-noir film Memento present the thesis of this essay, with our protagonist questioning his own reliability as a narrator. As Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) narrates his own story, we are presented with the elements of first person narration and the audience’s perception of reality. The presentation of first person narration or internal monologue within neo-noir has a drastic effect on this understanding of truth, altering sequences and twisting the audience’s perception of the story to an extent where all is manipulated. It is narration that drives these stories and thus affects the audience’s perception of truth and reality. Combining the elements of traditional film noir and postmodernism, the “problem” of narration in neo-noir adds complexity to a genre which already explores the intricacy of human nature and the nihilism of American popular culture. Narration plays a critical part in the two films that will be examined. With Memento, due to the character’s own memory fallacies, the narration is not only self-aware but provides a map for the audience as to what is occurring within the film. In American Psycho, the narration allows the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) to reveal his own narcissism. Thus, his perception of events within the film shape the entire story, his method being his madness. Within these scenarios, the audience is at the will of the narrator. However, this is noir, a genre that is a nucleus of anti-heroes and human monsters. Both of these films make the same comment on American nihilism and retain the same themes of classic noir: pessimism, corruption, desire, and, of course, darkness.
What is Film Noir?
The cyclical nature of the debates about film noir’s classification within cinema history and its nature as a style or otherwise is as maddening and perplexing as the noir films themselves. Their inherent cynicism and narrative complexity are what make these films fascinating. The very argument, as simplistic as it seems, is whether noir is a style, genre, or movement. “Film noir [….] is a fabrication” (Bould 2), its very existence an enigmatic odyssey into the bleakness of the American soul. Because much of the debate around noir is whether or not it qualifies as a genre, it is best that genre be defined within a cinematic context. Genre is defined as “semantic approaches that catalogue ‘common traits, attitudes, characters, shots locations, […]’” (Bould 6, Altman 1999:219). Trying to define noir may be futile, as Bould concludes: “Film noir, like the femme fatale, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always out of reach” (Bould 13). Regardless of what noir actually is, its elements are instantly recognizable.
Coming from the term Série noire, a series of Marcel Duhamel crime novels from 1945, noir was coined to describe these kinds of hardboiled novels in pre-WWII France in “right wing press vs. left wing culture” periodicals (Bould 15). This term would then be used to describe the novels of Dashiell Hammett, used by Nono Frank in 1946. The first film critic to use the term film noir was Jean–Pierre Chartier, labeling Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Lost Weekend (Wilder, 1945)) as film noirs. He described them as “pessimistic, misanthropic US films” that were “driven by a logic of sexual desire that the public simultaneously required them to suppress” (Bould 15).
The genre’s aesthetic roots are in the German Expressionism movement with The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari (Wiene, 1919) (Bould 26) with its tilted angles, oneiric set design and chiaroscuro and its realism taken from the French, from such films as La Bête Humaine (Renoir, 1945), where “poetic realism diffuses such energy […]” (Bould 35). Its sinister stories are taken from the hardboiled crime novels and Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930’s. In essence, aesthetically and stylistically, noir is an amalgam of established genres that revitalized certain elements to wipe off the shiny veneer of truth and sanity in American cinema and culture.
While noir began with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the last film of the noir cycle is Touch of Evil (Welles, 1956). Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963), would launch the sub-genre of neo-noir. The clearest difference between classic noir and neo-noir is that the latter is completely self-aware and self-reflexive in its nature. However, the classic elements noir have made classifying a film as neo-noir overly simplistic. While there would be more authentic neo-noir films like Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), other films would be too easily defined as neo-noir when they were only distantly related to the genre, like Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003).
Neo-noir takes the themes established by classic noir and builds upon them, exemplifying post-modernism. In classic noir, there is the protagonist that suffers from the problem of identity. Neo-noir adds a twist, like a temporal memory problem, making the character deeper and, in a way, more representational of the American male in the modern world. With neo-noir, the same American nihilism that was prevalent in classic noir is thrust into the contemporary culture filled with materialism, consumerism, technology, and a post-modern use of the styles that influenced today’s cinema. Neo-noir literally means new blackness, the kind of darkness audiences cannot help but explore.
Memento: Telling the Story Backwards
Christopher Nolan’s Memento revolves around a man in search for his wife’s rapist and murderer. However, when the film begins, it seems that he has already found the perpetrator. The immediate beginning, however, reveals the unique and iconic structure of the film. The protagonist, thus far unnamed, is holding a photograph as it undevelops and fades into bleak whiteness. His environment rolls backwards, as if the film were played in reverse. With this minimal amount of information, the audience begins its journey to truth and the murky state of what is real with the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).
The film cuts to Leonard sitting on his bed in a hotel room. Unlike the previous scene, which was in color, this scene is saturated black and white. It is in this scene that the narration begins and Leonard starts to establish himself and, less reliably, identify himself as a person. With noir and neo-noir’s themes of identity, Nolan’s protagonist, it seems, must start from scratch, as he begins, “So, where are you? You’re in some motel room” (Nolan 106). This is not explained, keeping the viewer in the dark as to why Leonard must explain and establish himself with such anonymity. The anonymity of the person is articulated metaphorically when Leonard says, in respect to the room, “It’s just some anonymous room” (Nolan 109). Leonard then begins to explicitly speak of himself: “You know who you are and you know kind of all about yourself” (Nolan 2:37).
This abstruseness in structure and narration makes this film qualify as neo-noir. The film’s protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffers from a condition where he is unable to make new memories called anterograde amnesia, this having been caused by the same assailants guilty of his wife’s murder. There are now two factors that skew the way the story unfolds, as told subjectively from Leonard’s perspective: first, the story is subjectively told from Leonard’s point of view, and second, he has the “condition” he refers to innumerable times. However, Nolan utilizes another element: Memento is told in reverse. Memento is iconic for its unique non-linear narrative, in that all of the color sequences are edited in reverse with the black and white sequences working as interstitials. Similarly from Leonard’s perspective, the black and white sequences are seen in a linear format. With these three obstacles, astute attention paid to the film is paramount.
While a subjective and non-linear/linear narrative is uncommon, the viewer is not distanced from Leonard at all. Leonard’s narration makes the film a personal diary for himself. The narration brings in the audience closer to the character and the film, making it so that his journey to self-identification and exploration into his wife’s murder is just as much our passage.
The narration is not always present, but is included in key moments. For a while it is included primarily in the black and white scenes, but once Leonard begins speaking on the phone with someone shrouded in anonymity, that conversation narrates his background for us, explaining who Sammy Jenkis is. Thus, the narration switches to that of the uncertain temporality and is called into action when an instinct berates Leonard’s consciousness during the color sequences. When he reads the back of a Polaroid photograph (which acts as a clue) it is as if he is reading this evidence to himself. The film’s climax is technically its beginning, and just before Leonard kills the man he thinks killed his wife, he tries to make sure he is right by reading the back of the polaroid of the man is he is about to kill: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him” (Nolan 107). The cold tonality of those words reflects the complete conviction of Leonard, who does not always understand he cannot trust himself. Nor can he trust anyone else, including the film’s femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), who uses Leonard for her own bidding. He cannot remember, even when she is perfectly explicit about her intentions. He cannot trust anyone, not even himself.
The film’s real climax is where it is revealed that Leonard has already avenged his wife’s death, and that Teddy, the most suspicious man in the film, is actually a cop. Narration plays a critical role in this climax. Teddy tells Leonard his entire history, that Sammy Jenkis never existed, that his wife’s assailants were caught, and that he has been going around town killing other people because Teddy is a corrupt cop who pitied him, and decided, with Leonard’s condition, he could make some money on it. Leonard is shocked, and in his madness, writes on the photograph of the man who just told him the truth: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him”. He slumps into denial, and Leonard performs his monologue:
“I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. But do I? Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?! Yes. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” (Nolan 225-226).
This monologue is critical, as it explores the ideas of identity and its main purpose in the film noir genre. It taps into the existential layers of the genre, deconstructing the American antihero in a species of film which is known for its crimes and misdemeanors. The film’s philosophical aspect relates to Locke’s Problem of Identity, or whether memories actively create a person (Smith 2007, 35-44). Because Leonard is only left with the memory of his wife, he has transformed into a monster. Every time he closes his eyes, it will be as if he has to wake up from something else, with no memory of what just occurred. Leonard, as much as he knows that “we all need mirrors”, has no mirror he can use.
The way the film unfurls, the story’s structure is reliant on Leonard. Though the narration may flow in and out, the audience is always at his bidding. Nolan compared the narrative structure to a “Mobius strip”, the impossible shape that twists and turns in a serpentine way, with no discernible beginning (Spicer 2007, 59). Like the Mobius strip, Leonard cannot discern his own beginning; only what he thinks is his inception. His narration, personable\ and worthy of empathy, seems to be completely responsible for the audience’s trust in him. Even at the genesis of the film, while he is narrating a montage of his routine, he says, “You kinda have to learn to trust your own handwriting” (Nolan 110). He says this as a way to establish a system, some sort of semblance of sanity. But he cannot. He cannot even trust his own handwriting.
American Psycho: Vanity and Insanity
Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the equally divisive American Psycho does not immediately strike one as neo-noir. It is less of a noir pastiche compared to Nolan’s Memento, but the film is able to attain a certain naturalistic feeling of film noir without the distracting self-awareness. American Psycho is deadly satirical of the yuppie consumerist culture of the 1980s. Instead of the Red Scare being the source of social anxiety, it is rather failure and alienation in yuppie culture. The social anxiety is less of a political motivation, but the motivation of a generation to be greedy, vain, and self-indulgent. This consumerist point of view is stressed throughout the film, and mirrors the American nihilism and apathy the same way that classic noir did, but with the appropriation of materialism. Its dark, cunning protagonist would make this film classified as “criminal noir”.
Patrick Bateman is a man who, underneath the layers of “Valentino Couture”, “water-activated gel cleanser” and “exfoliating gel scrub” is no human being (Harron/Turner 8). He is a mad man, one whose insanity drives the entire film and its plot. His internal monologue shares his apathetic and vain personality, revealing the paltry depth of his humanity.
A product of the 1980’s culture, Patrick Bateman is fully aware of his “flaws”. He fully admits that he may or may not be sane. Over a montage of his daily routine, focused on physical beauty, he says, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping you […] I simply am not there” (Harron/Turner 8). With this in mind, the film progresses, with Bateman intermittently commenting on his life, like a stream of consciousness.
The method of introduction, sentient of his insanity, obtrudes the viewer into a world where there is no strict dichotomy of reality and fantasy. The viewer thus shares the inability to discern reality with Bateman. Only in a few moments is there a hint of some boundary between reality and fantasy that is demonstrated to the audience. While at a night club, Bateman tries to pay for a drink with a ticket, but the bartender says that they are not valid anymore and asks him to pay the price for his beverage. When she turns away, Bateman, talking to her but facing a mirror, he says, “You are a fucking ugly bitch, I want to stab you to death and then play around with your blood” (Harron/Turner 8). She does not notice this and it is as if the disclosure had never happened. However, in terms of definite contrasts into Bateman’s ability to perceive reality, this is the only pronounced indication that the audience is given until the end of the film.
The comments that Bateman makes about his coworkers and life are the same kind of mundane and pedestrian remarks others make. From being deathly envious of a coworker and his ability to get reservations at an expensive restaurant to his irritation at his betrothed’s insistence on getting married, Bateman’s internal monologue epitomizes the subjectivity of narrative storytelling. Everything he says is from his perspective and influences the way the audience perceives the world around him.
Bateman, though, seems to show some vulnerability in the film, which suggests a social commentary relevant to the era. Already driven by madness, the pressures of society seem to drive him insane. When asked by his fiancée why he cannot simply quit his job, he answers honestly, not only for himself, but for everyone around him: “I… want… to… fit… in” (Harron/Turner 13). His vain mentality is explained by the culture that surrounds him, in that the standards and expectations are unattainable without extreme stress.
American Psycho is not a proto-typical neo-noir, and seems more characteristic of horror, with its sadistic violence and generous amount of gore. However, the film’s inherent pessimism, satirical cynicism towards yuppie culture, and fatalism for its protagonist makes it a veritable qualifier for the sub-genre. After murdering Paul Allen, Bateman goes to his apartment to create his alibi. The narration in the scene begins like the archetypal criminal in classic noir. However, it regresses to Bateman’s typically narcissistic thought process. He says, “When I get to Paul Allen’s place, I use the keys I took from his pocket before the disposing of the body. There is a moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park and it’s obviously more expensive than mine” (Harron/Turner 30:14). Bateman is so blinded by greed that he can barely keep his focus on the murder. His purblind attitude towards everything is essential to understanding the plot of the entire film.
Patrick Bateman has not killed anyone. He has not even killed Paul Allen. It was all in his imagination. That does not mean he is sane. He manifests his blood lust in books with drawings of the murders he thinks he has committed. His sanguineous fantasies are just as much as ours as they are his. His blood lust is an addiction one that layers itself so that Bateman’s world is then deemed incomprehensible.
The morbidity of the film is one defined by the world that the protagonist lives in, an amalgamation of fear, desire, lust, and greed. Bateman’s awareness of his mental state is clear from his formal introduction, making his apathy for it all the more terrifying. Even if the film works as a confession, he admits “[…] there is no catharsis” (Harron/Turner 94). His entire perspective is non-compos mentis, poisoned to where he is unable to discern between reality and fantasy. This juxtaposition of self-awareness and lack of awareness of one’s environment deliberately misleads the audience’s understanding of what is happening. Bateman’s character is illustrated with complexity; his madness is imbued with every frame of the film. After all the events of the film, even he admits, “I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…” (Harron/Turner 94). Everything that has happened has only opened a door into his mind, even though, it really has not happened at all.
Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman: Two Narrators, Two Problems
Memento and American Psycho explore the noir-esque element of first person narration and its unreliability and effect on audience perception of truth. The methods of narration that Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman employ are similar, yet different. While both films are considered examples of neo-noir, they do not utilize narration the way that classic noir did. Generally, classic noir featured a narrator who told his story with narration and flashback, as the narrator himself tried to make sense of the events to make a coherent story. However, both Leonard and Bateman’s narration is more in the style of stream-of-consciousness, narrating what is occurring to them at that moment, as opposed to what has happened in the past. (Hollinger 1996, 243). Classic noir “[…] most often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the vents of their lives to their own design” (Hollinger 1996, 243-44).
Both narrators continue the tradition in that they are unreliable, but the difference between Leonard and Patrick is in the why. Leonard is a man who cannot trust himself because of his inability to do so. His ability to lie to himself and change the progression of the story is increased by his mental condition. Patrick Bateman, however, is just insane. He has the full mental capacity to tell the truth to himself, but refuses to, because he is completely blinded by the yuppie culture he thrives in. His insanity is not only a product of his own perversions, but also of the culture. At times, the consequence is that Bateman at times can be honest and objective about certain scenes, where Leonard is living a lie to the extent where it completely affects the entire film. Despite his temporal limitations, Leonard remains just as guilty as Bateman, as the self-delusion he creates is an act of deliberation rather than an accident of his condition. This aspect is where the two characters relate to one another in an unusual way; both are able to lie to themselves and to continue to live their lives, where they have no qualms with their actions.
However, both men make the choices to lie to themselves, and thus remain unreliable narrators. Leonard asks himself, “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” (Nolan 224) This is a true statement for both Leonard and Bateman, but the latter does it deliberately in a sociopathic way. Leonard’s motivations are for solace and personal fulfillment. Memento is an example of a “neo-noirish revenge film” (Schmidt 13), where its main narrative purpose is for the protagonist to seek revenge. American Psycho is what one could consider a “criminal noir film”, where its protagonist is less of an antihero and more deliberately a villain. The film’s main goal seems to seek the opposite of redemption, and acts as a seduction of the viewer to the dark side. With narration, this allows Bateman to almost personally entice and seduce the viewer. The styles and uses of narration intensify the film, making each moment seem more personal and intimate. Whereas American Psycho deals with the identity of a generation, Memento deals with the identity of one man. This affects the viewer’s empathy for the character, in both positive and negative ways, and sends the narrative structure, and viewer’s ability to perceive reality, careening off the edge of conventionality to a point of no return.
The medium of film has always been able to reflect social atmosphere through characters and stories, film noir and neo-noir often acting exemplary models. The genres reflect the seedy darkness of American humanity. However, what make noir and neo-noir unique is the ambiguity that illustrates the classic archetypes: the antihero, femme fatale, and villain. Often, no character is the de facto good guy. As classic noir transitioned to neo-noir, the ambiguity was intensified with more graphic depictions of the sinister stratum of fear and loathing in the United States. The films Memento and American Psycho continue the neo-noir aesthetic and utilize voiceover to critically affect the narrative structure. The films exploit the subjectivity of the narrator with the interpretation of events. With Memento, the film’s protagonist is unable to create new memories, thrusting the viewer into a spiral as the film is told in reverse. This narrator is unlike any other, one who cannot even trust himself. In American Psycho, a film satirizing yuppie culture, Patrick Bateman views the world in a deathly nihilistic lens. His narration is able to portray his abilities to see the world in both an objective way, in observing his culture, as well as one blinded by madness and consumerism, the culture he so astutely observes. Narration is the driving force of both films, shaping the audience’s perception so that each film is understood as entirely subjective from the protagonist’s point of view, thus shaping the audience’s perception of reality. There seems to be no clear dichotomy between fantasy and reality, especially when both narrative styles seem to be a stream of consciousness. What is critical to both of these films is the audience’s ability to separate reality from fiction. Narration adds a very personal element to the films, in that the audience can never truly distance themselves from the characters. Thus, trusting the protagonist is vital, but proves almost foolhardy by the end.
While one character may inspire empathy, the other inspires repulsion. Yet both of these characters, holding the audience at their mercy, reflect the nihilistic American soul, presenting an unsatisfied and disturbed persona of a post-WWII people, all executed with a sinister framework.. In neo-noir, there is no light; there is only darkness.
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2012 in Film: #38
American Psycho (2000) | Directed by Mary Harron
Thoughts: I first watched American Psycho several years ago, and I stopped it because I couldn’t really handle it. Watching it now, I see it as a derisive, snarky, pessimistic satire on consumerist and yuppie culture. Brilliant in some aspects, such as Christian Bale’s portrayal of Patrick Bateman. Fascinating film, and horrifying all the same.