What is to be made of an unreliable narrator? Generally, our cultural narratives are presented through an omniscient perspective, so much so in fact that often we miss or are simply incapable of recognizing when we’re presented with a dubious point of view. It is so engrained in us to trust the narrator or protagonist to tell the true story, we are far too often easy marks for unreliable narrators or liars. Even when the story lets it be known upfront that it is the subjective experience of a particular character, audiences are often burdened by their addiction to literalism.
Unreliable perspectives were used notably in a variety of popular films in the 90s and early 2000s, particularly in The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and Memento. Strangely, after the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind in 2001 fooled us with the perspective of a schizophrenic, mainstream Hollywood movies shied away from such narrative chicanery. That’s not to say that such films didn’t exist, but they have either been poorly received by audiences or just plain poorly made (2004’s Secret Window being both). In the wake of 9/11, did our need for distinct heroes and villains make unreliable narrators less palatable?
Occasionally in this young century, a film (or book) has broken through the mainstream with an unreliable perspective, but audiences largely chose to take the presented narrative at face value.
(500) Days of Summer (2009) is one of the most glaring examples in recent years. The movie, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as ‘Tom’ and Zooey Deschanel as ‘Summer’ is ostensibly a romantic comedy that indulges in a variety of symbolic and playful cinematic flourishes to tell the story of love found/love lost. While there is a (basically) omniscient narrator throughout the movie, the perspective of the movie is Tom’s, and the film lets the audience know early on that not everything he believes is necessarily true (we are told that as a child his romanticized view of love led him to misread the ending of The Graduate).
Many fans of the movie seem to enjoy it non-ironically as if it were a traditional rom-com, while almost every criticism of (500) refers to Summer as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (a popular term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin), which is derogative shorthand for an idealistic, quirky, nigh-perfect (usually she has some insignificant flaw) female who helps the male protagonist grow and better understand himself, or love, or the world. Or all. The true defining characteristic of the MPDG is that outside of her role in the male protagonist’s life, she has little to no personal drive.
The irony of this film’s critics labeling Summer a MPDG is that that’s precisely the way Tom sees her, a dream girl who exists to save him from the drudgery of his greeting card-writing life.
The first hour of the movie allows Tom to indulge in this fantasy, but reality abruptly reasserts itself about halfway through the story (overtly symbolized by the split screen party scene). This shift clues the audience in that Summer is not just a plastic doll for Tom’s fulfillment (or, contrarily, a ‘bitch’ as the opening narration asserts). Rather, she is a living, breathing woman with her own desires and her own proclivities in sex and relationships. She’s not perfect, but she’s also not a monster. At the risk of spoiling the ending, those who leave (500) with the belief that Summer is a MPDG are either misapplying the term or are trapped in the same delusion movie-watching mindset that gave Tom his rose-colored view of The Graduate.
(I’d argue that 500’s final scene meet-cute with Tom immediately falling for new girl, Autumn, is actually a subversively pessimistic suggestion that Tom hasn’t grown at all, but I digress.)
Learning To Question Ourselves
I wish more movies and books in the popular canon indulged in unreliable perspectives. While common wisdom claims this is the generation of irony, earnest narrators and protagonists remain quite in vogue. There is nothing wrong with sincerity, and in fact I frequently prefer it to irony which in the hands of lesser artists is nothing more than a feeble cover for having nothing to say. But fiction (and non-fiction, for that matter) benefits from a willingness to suggest, “Here’s one perspective, but it’s just one of many, and maybe it’s not even a very good one.”
In Steven Pinker’s (2011) exhaustive analysis of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he suggests that one of the major factors in our species’ shift towards more benevolent treatment of each other was the printing explosion that made it possible for books (especially novels) to proliferate and spread. Reading allows us to recognize that other people from completely different backgrounds still have recognizable experiences, beliefs and thoughts. It’s harder to dehumanize an entire group once you’ve been in their head.
Unreliable perspectives in our narratives can help us go even further: They make us more receptive to the idea that our own views might not necessarily be correct. In a culture dominated by Right vs. Left, Red vs. Blue, Us vs. Them, is there any doubt our civilization would benefit from more people being willing to say, “Well, this is what I believe, but I might be wrong”? When you read a book with no definitive perspective or watch a movie that questions its own premise, you are being trained in the valuable art of self-evaluation.
A recent scientific study has revealed that reading literary fiction improved “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence” in participants. Literary fiction is one of the few genres (alongside mystery) that frequently uses unreliable narrators or perspectives. However, whereas a mystery might use an unreliable narrator to fool the reader, the unreliable perspective in literary fiction is used to question traditional viewpoints and undermine simplistic interpretations of events.
This Is Not A Love Story…
Looking back on a number of my past romantic relationships, I can recognize the perspective I had at the time, I can even understand how I came to the view I had. But with time, those views seem less like mountaintop outlooks and more like the perception of a guy in the valley, just like everyone else. That doesn’t mean there isn’t objective truth, or that real wrongs weren’t done (on both sides), only that the story I tell myself and others originates from an unreliable narrator, just like all of our stories.
That’s really the message of (500) Days of Summer: Every story has two sides, and both are probably wrong. It isn’t the first movie to attempt that message, and it won’t be the last, but it is unique for coming out in a time when most media seemed locked into the Good Vs. Evil paradigm. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it does something better than almost any romantic comedy in recent memory: It gives both parties their own agency and trusts the audience to judge them for who they are, not for who they present themselves to be.
We live in complex times. Our art and entertainment should reflect that. It should challenge us to question what we know, and in doing so, it will teach us to be more engaged. Not just with films and books, but with the world we dance, kiss, screw, cry, scream, sing, laugh and, ultimately, live in.