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Tuesday 20 November 2018
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Commentary

The unreliable narrator

The film Life Itself has received terrible reviews overall. My niece, who has a healthy sense of humour, assumed from the preview that it was a comedy. Sitting in the nearly empty hall at MovieTowne, about ten minutes into the film she exclaimed, “What the heck! I don’t know how to feel about this movie. I thought it was supposed to be funny.”

If the reader has ever seen a face that portrayed horror mixed with laughter, one will have a general idea of how much genuine confusion marked her face.

Think about the gory Quentin Tarantino films like Django Unchained or Kill Bill and you have a general idea of why this watered down version was confusing. However, I won’t discourage viewers from looking at it. I enjoyed it. In retrospect, however, if one were to view it with the eyes of the critic, I will have to agree with some reviews in that it felt like an effort at creating something profound.

From my own analysis, it ended up as too much of a neat, predictable narrative after what I thought was a catchy beginning. It was a grand idea (although I am not too sure what the grand idea ended up being) that grew weaker by the chapter. (The story is told in chapters).

From the perspective of the viewer who had been hauled off on a date by one’s niece, I was simply there to enjoy a film which had been chosen by her about which I knew nothing. Given my literary background I was hooked by a single line. It had to do with the “unreliable narrator.” Excited now, I began looking for the way in which the idea would begin to unfold in the film’s narrative. As mentioned, it began well, only to progress downhill. However, the idea of the unreliable narrator took hold.

“Life itself is an unreliable narrator,” so proposes one of the female protagonists who is about to write her undergraduate thesis on this idea. I mulled over the idea, not quite sure what that meant. Plot twists? Writing our lives? The nature of memory?

I don’t think the idea made much sense, but it triggered thoughts on Salman Rushdie’s essay Imaginary Homelands, an essay to which I refer to from time to time.

In it, Rushdie speaks about the nature of memory as it relates to the migrant writer but it is equally applicable to our own storytelling – the way in which we construct stories of our lives which are not entirely true – race relations, culture, harmony in diversity, rainbow nation and so on.

It makes us all liars in a sense but it also makes us storytellers. I for one, remember some details of my past but rely on my brother or cousin to add further details. Many times those details do not add up for my version is different to theirs or in some instances I have no version because I have completely forgotten. It is a scary thought that although these are memories of my own life, they are obliterated from my own memory or remembered differently.

The most I can do is piece together fragments to form a new whole that provides some sort of a picture that can explain the present.

I began writing on the film because as I sat thinking about it, related thoughts came flooding in – the nature of mental illness and the way in which depression, for instance, can obstruct memory or distort it; how, in order to cope on a daily basis, the average individual creates and perpetuates stories that helps her make sense of her place in the world.

How many children accept visions of themselves thrown onto them by parents, peers or other individuals? How many communities accept stories of their circumstances as their reality? How many of us have questioned whether visions of ourselves, others or another community are true or not? Who exactly are our unreliable narrators? Given that I am obsessed with finding and proposing a version of the truth that will uplift, I cannot end without inserting this quotation from Rushdie:

“The black American writer Richard Wright once wrote that black and white Americans were engaged in a war over the nature of reality. Their descriptions were incompatible. So it is clear that re-describing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it. And particularly at times when the State takes reality into its own hands, and sets about distorting it, altering the past to fit its present needs, then the making of the alternative realities of art…becomes politicised. ‘The struggle of man against power,’ Milan Kundera has written, ‘is the struggle of memory against forgetting,’” (Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands 1982).

 

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