A story’s success depends powerfully upon how the writer chooses to tell it. Good writers understand and respect the beauty of minimalism and simplicity, delivering taut masterpieces like Blood Simple. Great writers craft more enriching narrative experiences by bending, breaking, dissecting, and disassembling the traditional rules and conventions of storytelling. While many craftsmen attempting such experimentation only discover that their ambition exceeds their competence (Uwe Boll, Blackwoods), the following three auteurs managed to create works of pure magic.
1. Rashomon: Four people (Bandit, Woodcutter, Samurai, Wife) give conflicting eyewitness accounts of the same rape/murder–every cinema snob knows that much. But that’s not what what Akira Kurosawa’s breakthrough film is really about. The three peasants sorting through the various contradictions and inconsistencies, desperately trying to piece together what actually happened in that bamboo grove–that’s the story. Several crew members apparently found it frustrating that the characters never uncover the “truth,” but Kurosawa is more interested in lies–and what they reveal about the human condition.
2. Memento: A blurry Polaroid fades to white. A spent bullet casing levitates off the concrete. A doomed man’s skull reassembles itself as he sucks his last words back into his lungs. These are the opening images of Christopher Nolan’s atmospheric examination of the nature of memory–a brutal execution played out in rewind. From there, the director cuts between two overlapping time frames–scenes in color unfold in reverse order, while scenes in black-and-white proceed chronologically. And when these narrative threads inevitably meet in the middle, the viewer finally witnesses the full extent of the amnesiac protagonist’s self-deception.
3. The Conversation: Francis Ford Coppola’s understated drama lacks the novelty of clashing perspectives or a rearranged chronology, but it does offer viewers a compelling deconstruction of the “unreliable narrator." Harry Caul specializes in surveillance. He earns his living by listening to the lives of others–and occasionally, he hears something dangerous, something deadly, something that could put innocent people at risk. But there exists a gap between what Harry hears and what he believes he knows–and as the narrative context changes, so does the content of his garbled recordings.
[Originally written July 24, 2012.]