"Where Is My Mind?"

Chaucer's "Unreliable Narrator" Goes Neo-Noir:

The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Memento)

By Jen Johans

*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

The idea of an unreliable narrator is
fascinating literary device that seems to play
best in the noir realm as film manages to trick
viewers like no other medium and having an
old-style narration that ends up misleading
audiences is quite a unique piece of
craftsmanship.  When I researched the
unreliable narrator online, I found that it
originated in Chaucer’s
Canterbury Tales— and
since that book, writers have been using false
tricksters to guide readers and viewers with
tales of increasing complexity and danger.  

Probably the most famous work of unreliable
narration of the 90’s was Bryan Singer’s
masterful film,
The Usual Suspects.  I
remember first reading about the film when I
was just fourteen, discovering the movies being
debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.  I’d
always been a fan of Kevin Spacey, who up until
that point had had bit parts in a number of
films, most prominently in
Glengarry Glen
.  After seeing a few trailers on television
and building up great anticipation, I had to
wait months for it to be released in Minnesota
and finally it opened at a movie theatre far
from my home.  I conned my big brother into
attending (telling him it was simply a crime
film instead of an “independent” one) and my
parents grudgingly drove us the 45 minutes out
to see it.  

The movie was a whirlwind of wit, intellect and
dazzling performances—I became the biggest
advocate for Spacey and thrilled when he took
home the Oscar (screenwriter Christopher
McQuarrie had written the film solely for him)
and as an advocate of disability rights, loved
the way Spacey’s character Verbal Kint played
on the stereotypes people have in pulling the
wool over police officer David Kujan’s eyes
(Chaz Palminteri).  Palminteri was the third
choice for the role of Kujan—actors Robert De
Niro, Christopher Walken and Al Pacino all
turned down the part (since then, IMDb
reports that it is the role Pacino regrets most
not having played).

Initially, the idea for the film came from
imagining a film poster of five men in a lineup—
taking the name from a line from
McQuarrie wrote most of the screenplay at
work, dreaming up the plot the same way
Verbal Kint does in front of a Quartet note
board at the solicitor’s office where he worked.  
The film’s ending is a genuine puzzle and the
last three minutes alone should be shown to
editing students in their first class—it is using
cinema simply to amaze and there’s a near-
rush felt by the audience as we learn what
really has transpired.  

Actor Gabriel Byrne told IMDb that he
originally thought he was the criminal
mastermind, Keyser Soze until he saw the work
at a film festival.  Soze, inspired by the
murderer John List who killed his family and
disappeared for seventeen years was originally
named Sume after a former boss of McQuarrie
but after reading the screenplay, Sume told the
writer that he didn’t want his name associated
with an “inherently evil villain” so it was
changed (IMDb).  

All in all, the film warrants a second viewing
and in doing so, some critics found that the
mystery doesn’t hold up (since essentially it’s a
magician like work, pulling the wool over your
eyes and concocting a monster plot where
there never was one).  However, movie buffs
and fans of great acting and writing have
turned this into one of the 90’s most referenced
crime films and it’s still a personal favorite of
mine—most notably for Spacey who’s so good, I
imagine I’d pay the price of admission just to
see him read a cookbook.

Spacey followed up Soze with another neo-noir
for director David Fincher with
Seven, an
intelligent but downright disgusting thriller
that I felt sickened trying to view as the
morally bankrupt plot left nothing to the
imagination and had no purpose other than to
horrify.  Ironically, most fans called Fincher’s
Fight Club even more disturbing and
while it definitely was a chore to sit through,
the film was also brilliant, darkly comic and
impossible to forget.  More an assault on our
commercial society and late 90’s generation
than a film about a bunch of guys just wailing
on each other, (as some critics simply
dismissed it)—audiences seemed to
misunderstand the purpose, completely
missing that that the film is an allegory in the
way that Peter Greenaway’s intensely sexual
and over-the-top
The Cook, The Thief, His
Wife, and Her Lover
was a response film to
England’s monarchy in the 80’s.  Based by the
novel by Chuck Palahniuk,
Fight Club also calls
up allusions to
The Graduate and the works of

Fight Club follows our narrator (Edward
Norton in a role never given a name other than
“Jack” in an ironic joke) as his homeostasis is
altered when his condo full of Ikea purchased
possessions blows up, forcing him to face his
life and realize that he’s missing something
vital.  Insomniac and dispassionate in his job
as an insurance calculator for an automotive
company, he takes to attending support groups
for diseases he doesn’t have—anxious to simply
feel and connect with strangers for a brief
period.  It helps him temporarily until he
meets Tyler Durden (over-the-top and perfect,
Brad Pitt who’s worked before with Fincher in
Seven)—a loose cannon with whom he co-
creates a “fight club” where men can work out
their aggression on one another until this leads
to acts of homegrown terrorism

It's quite homoerotic as most women noticed,
much to some male viewers’s chagrin… and yes,
a few years ago the author finally outed
himself.  I’ve never read the book by Chuck
Palahniuk and know that, from research, the
ending varies greatly from his original plot.  
However, the author is quoted on
Online Encyclopedia
saying that he prefers the
film’s ending to his own.  Jim Uhl’s script
echoed the tone of the book as Uhls himself put
it, “a seminal statement of the times, a
statement about this particular generation,
much in the same way the 60’s were captured
in the better films of that decade,” (Fight Club
production notes).  The film perfectly captured
Palahniuk’s beliefs on the power of culture:

    The first way in which a new
    generation takes control of
    society is through the culture;
    the arts, films, books, music.  
    Through all entertainment.  
    People who feel safe and secure
    in the existing society are
    frightened by ideas that
    threaten their power.  People
    who hold the power in society
    want nice complacent forms of
    entertainment, films that
    comfort people and support the
    status quo. (DVD Booklet)

       Fight Club was a risky film to be sure and
one quite excessive in its violence but the
visuals and juxtaposition of shots are quite
novel—producer Laura Ziskin (yes, only a
female producer would touch it) really helped
keep this labor of love on track by giving
unprecedented power to Fincher.  In doing so,
former music video director Fincher (he
helmed some of Madonna’s better videos) shot
more than three times the normal amount of
film reels (IMDb).  The film’s huge narrative
shock and switch revealing our unreliable
narrator was quite surprising in the first
viewing but after one goes through the film
again, one notices what a clever craftsman
Fincher and his editor were as there are so
many clues littered throughout the movie (on
several levels of intellect to hit each part of the
brain visually, in a literary fashion etc.).  

For example, one I just learned during my
research was regarding the term “paper street”
which is the street the two men live on in
.  According to IMDb, a paper street refers
to a “street that has been planned by city
engineers but has yet to be constructed.”  A
source of invention by someone who invents… I
kick myself for not knowing my architectural

Actually, there’s a list of clues available for the
film online at
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.  
Although it’s filmed in L.A., the setting of the
work was always Wilmington, Delaware but
predictably and with justification, the city
officials were worried about duplicate attacks
witnessed onscreen so the setting is
anonymous, giving viewers a more terrifying
experience as we see that it could occur
anywhere. Harry Knowles from
online described it best:

    It forces you to have dangerous
    thoughts, confront them as you
    would any problem before you
    and expects you as a reasonable
    human being to come out with
    the right answers… If you leave
    this movie afraid that this could
    happen here, GOOD.  YOU
    SHOULD BE AFRAID.  That is the
    whole point.  To scare you.  To
    make you not want to be a space
    monkey.  Another mindless,
    thoughtless follower.  Another
    brick in the wall.  A
    goosestepper.  A fool.

       His words and the film itself took on a
whole new resonance after the events of 9/11.  
Suddenly a film about a generation without
direction, without “great wars” or purpose who
resort to terrorism from consumer slavery
became a bit too hard to handle as in a scene
where Norton’s character prays for a plane
crash and at the end when buildings come
tumbling down.  It only had two years there
(released in ’99) when the film fit in with its
time but following 9/11, everything changed
and suddenly the film feels like a period piece.  

I hadn’t seen the film since before the attacks
and admittedly watching it now felt pretty
eerie but again, I was able to view it simply as a
film, a work meant to inspire thought and take
it on that level (the way I’ll now have to watch
Seinfeld and Kramer in general as a show and
character and remove Michael Richard’s
bigoted opinions from the work of art itself).  
While some critics—and with reason—call the
work simply dangerous and some young men
did indeed go out and start up their own fight
clubs (missing the point of the work),

I definitely encourage viewers to approach it
with their “thinking caps on” (as we said in
grade school)—it’s easy to merely want to
switch it off without giving it a second thought
but fight against the instinct.  

The film is like Spike Lee’s
Do The Right Thing,
which many people felt would incite riots (and
was blamed for the misfortune of being
released before Rodney King)—a brilliant work
that should incite thought, not violence and it’
s sad that critics don’t give American
audiences more respect and let the few who
may let media do their thinking for them, give
the millions of other intelligent viewers a bad

As the production notes for the film read (and
admirably, they show all sides to the work),
there is “more violence in the first 10 minutes
Saving Private Ryan than if you watched
Fight Club for an entire year.”  Author Bret
Easton Ellis wrote this analysis for “Gear

    Fight Club rages against the
    hypocrisy of a society that
    continually promises us the
    impossible: fame, beauty,
    wealth, immortality, life without
    pain.  Now it all comes together
    with Fight Club, a relentless,
    dizzying take on the male fear of
    losing power that’s a wild,
    orgiastic pop masterpiece.

More than either of the previous films,
Christopher Nolan’s brilliant feature
demands audiences to view it a second time to
clarify the mystery rather than simply
entertain.  Andy Klein wrote the following in
his analysis of the mysteries entwined within
the film:

    [Memento’s] puzzles are so
    intriguing and so impenetrable
    at first viewing that filmgoers
    are almost forced to go back for
    a second look if they want to
    figure out just what the hell was
    going on. Memento is like The
    Sixth Sense and The Usual
    Suspects in that nearly every
    scene takes on a different
    meaning once you know where
    the film is going. Or should that
    be "where the film has been"?
    Unlike The Sixth Sense and The
    Usual Suspects -- indeed, unlike
    almost every other celebrated
    "puzzle film" in cinematic
    history -- Memento's puzzle
    can't be undone with a simple
    declarative explanatory
    sentence. Its riddles are tangled
    up in a dizzying series of ways:
    by an elegant but brain-knotting
    structure; by an exceedingly
    unreliable narrator through
    part of the film; by a
    postmodern self-referentiality
    that, unlike most empty
    examples of the form,
    thoroughly underscores the
    film's sobering thematic
    meditations on memory,
    knowledge and grief; and by a
    number of red herrings and
    misleading clues that seem
    designed either to distract the
    audience or to hint at a deeper,
    second layer of puzzle at work --
    or that may, on the other the
    other hand, simply suggest that,
    in some respects, the director bit
    off more than he could chew.

Christopher’s film was inspired by his brother
Jonathan’s story “Memento Mori,” which was
plotted just prior to the film as the two
brothers drove cross-country chatting and
then began simultaneous work on their
Memento puzzles.

The film version of
Memento stars Guy Pearce
(no stranger to noir, having previously starred
L.A. Confidential) as a former insurance
investigator, who following an injury received
while interrupting the rape and murder of his
wife, has suffered severe brain trauma and
anterograde amnesia.  Leonard is unable to
process new memories following the horrible
murder and finds he “resets” like a VCR
counter every ten to fifteen minutes as he goes
on the hunt to get revenge and track down the

While his brother Jonathan’s story makes a
stellar companion piece to the film, it’s also
vague, confusing, highly literary and
melancholy but nonetheless remains as one of
the best portrayals of disability ever produced
in short fiction.  While the style of Christopher’
s film is most definitely noir, Jonathan is
psychological, introspective and helps give a
more intimate study of the man’s condition.  
However, when the two collaborated on the
final thoughts for the film’s structure, they
realized that third-person would be the best
bet (
The Onion).

Christopher Nolan took the clever idea of a
fractured narrative and nonlinear
structure/chronology first flirted with in
Following (a brilliant find for film buffs) and
crafted one of the very best films of the neo-
noir genre with his follow-up
Memento.   In
Adaptations, Stephanie Harrison quotes Nolan
as saying that he wanted to “create an
experience that doesn’t feed into your head,
that bleeds around the edges,” (420).  He
definitely achieved his goal, as the structure of
the film is one of the bravest and most unique
pieces of editing and storytelling to be seen on
the silver screen in years.  

The film follows two trains of thought—the first
in color is shown in reverse chronological
order and the second interrupts each “reset”
with a black-and-white telephone conversation
that goes along chronologically.  At the end (or
the beginning), the two merge-- it sounds
wonderfully complicated and it is for the first
twenty minutes or so but if you just go with it,
you’ll find it begins to flow nicely.  

In fact, it even passed the litmus test of the
fussy, snobbish but brilliant A.O. Scott of
New York Times
when he called the film an
"existential crossword puzzle that folds
"straightforward events and simple motives
into Möbius strips of paradox and
indeterminacy.” Christopher Nolan shared the
genesis of this idea in his interview online with
The Onion:  

    …the structure of the film was
    from the process of sitting and
    thinking about how you put the
    audience into the position of
    somebody who doesn't know
    what's just happened. I finally
    came up with the answer: "Well,
    you don't tell them what's just
    happened, you tell them what's
    going to happen, and tell the
    story backwards, and that way
    you remove the information
    from the audience that's not
    available to the character, and
    that helps you get into his

Like David Lynch’s
Mulholland Drive, there are
several websites dedicated to solving the
mystery and possible plot holes (including
wondering how Leonard could remember he
has short term memory loss if he has short
term memory loss) in
Memento and Salon.com
has one of the best, as referenced earlier.  As
Nolan told
The Onion regarding his love of noir
storytelling, “the genre is really all about not
knowing what's going on around you, and that
fear of the unknown. The only way to do that
effectively is to really get into the maze, rather
than look at the maze from above, so that's
where I sort of come at it.”  This being said,
Memento is a maze in which it’s definitely
worth getting lost.
(c) Jen Johans.   filmintuition.com
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