Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Telling Stories: Unreliable Discourse, Fight Club, and the Cinematic Narrator

Academic journal article Journal of Narrative Theory

Telling Stories: Unreliable Discourse, Fight Club, and the Cinematic Narrator

Article excerpt

"The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club."

-Fight Club (1999)

Forty-five minutes into David Fincher's film, the viewer enjoys a brief respite from its violence and gore: a surreal sex scene featuring the protagonist's would-be love interest, Maria Singer, and an unidentifiable man. At the scene's conclusion, our protagonist wakes up abruptly, presumably from a delightful dream, and enters the kitchen only to discover that his roommate, Tyler Durden, actuaUy did have sex with Maria the night before. Tyler (Brad Pitt) explains that he rescued Maria (Helena Bohnam Carter) from a suicide attempt, that he brought her home, and that one thing led to another. The film then moves back in time to show the viewer how it happened. To a first-time viewer, this is just another example of Tyler's getting what our unnamed protagonist (Edward Norton) wants-good looks, enlightenment, and now the girl. Someone who has seen the film before, however, understands this flashback differently. Jack, as I shaU caU him, and his roommate are in fact the same person - Tyler is Jack's alternate personality.1 And once we know that, we understand that Jack himself rescued and slept with Maria.

But of course the flashback shows us Tyler, not Jack. The discrepancy is not a problem for viewers, who realize that the flashback features Tyler because his personality dominates at the time. It is a problem for critics, though, who would explain how this film manages to show one image while communicating another.2 Films such as Fight Club, films in which what we thought was true turns out not to be true, have much to teach us about filmic narration, and the scenes between Tyler and Maria, twice embedded in frame narratives, are an intriguing place to look. Indeed, not only is Fight Club an example par excellence of films that interrogate perspective and interpretation, but these issues inform its story and discourse to such an extent that the film becomes nothing less than an allegory of cinematic storytelling. Understanding this allegory will require that we revisit our definition of "narrator" and perhaps of "narration" itself, insofar as these terms currently account only for textual narrative fiction. There are, certainly, aspects of textual narrators that translate easily to cinematic narrators, but Fight Club raises questions about whether these aspects can explain narrators qua narrators across media. I will argue that while we need a conventional communication model to understand narrative film, a film such as Fight Club suggests that our conception of a narrator must be substantively different for films than for verbal texts.

For one thing, the entities in a film that might communicate are rather harder to pin down than those in a novel. Since the Cahierists introduced the notion of the auteur, critics have been inclined to refer to the director as though he were the sole creative force behind a film. This usage has become, of course, shorthand - one cannot possible list the hundreds of people actually responsible for creating a film. But auteurism does highlight our need to ascribe intentionality to someone or something, be it a director, a producer, or a studio. Because in film we have no single author, we create an entity - usually identified with the director's name - to which we can attribute intention, the source of meaning. In order for us to receive a message, even a message as banal as "it's a wonderful Ufe," there must be a "Frank Capra" out there somewhere, even if he is encased in scare quotes. Furthermore, when we say "Capra," we can't simply mean the man, as he was only one of many responsible for the film, and we can't mean the narrating voice, as we might in a novel, because there isn't one.

So are we left with the implied author? Is that the only agent left who can communicate with a film's viewer? Seymour Chatman thinks not, as long as we agree that a narrator need not be human. …

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