It seemed a strange thing when David Fincher’s film Fight Club appeared in multiplexes across the U.S. in October of 1999. Here was what appeared to be a very transgressive anti-consumerist film, financed and widely distributed by 20th Century Fox, one of the largest studios in Hollywood. An intriguing mix of action, dark comedy, and social commentary, Fight Club became a cult item, proving to be much more popular on video than it was at the box-office.  Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is its revelation that the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) and his friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) are twin sides of a split personality. This sort of unreliable narration has become an increasingly common cinematic narrative strategy since the 1990’s. Because of its “mainstream” status, Fight Club stands as a key text in a developing narrational mode of cinema that radically departs from classical Hollywood narratives through the use of dramatic deception of the spectator––yet manages to straddle both art-house and mainstream acceptance. 
In the first part of this essay, I will attempt to define the general aspects of this narrational mode, and the mechanisms operating within the films that comprise it. These films share various normative qualities, such as extreme modes of character subjectivity (e.g., dreams, flashbacks, psychosis, etc.), a lack of narrative closure, and a dramatic manipulation of the spectator’s expectations that produces an enforced submission to the narrative. Following from the work of Gaylyn Studlar, I would like to argue that these unreliable narrative strategies result in an especially masochistic spectatorial pleasure that is in large part linked to the fundamentally masochistic diegeses of these films. Because of the way unreliable narratives use extreme subjectivity in order to tell their stories, identity becomes a very unstable concept on the diegetic level, reflecting not only the loss of identity/ego boundaries inherent in all cinematic spectatorship, but the loss of identity that is necessary to the special (un)pleasures created by the narrative strategies of these particular films.
In the second part of the essay, I will discuss the implications of these narratives’ diegetic masochistic qualities, featuring Fight Club as my primary example. I begin with thematic connections between film noirs, a series of films long associated with the displacement of men, and unreliable narratives, a more (post)modern series of texts which I believe echo similar concerns. In their masochistic portrayal of (predominantly) men with shattered identities and rampant paranoia, unreliable narratives appear to reflect the purported “crisis of masculinity” voiced by white, heterosexual, middle-class males during the 1990’s. While spectators of any gender can enjoy the masochistic spectatorial pleasures created by the formal qualities of these films, the diegetic content speaks more directly to the contemporary concerns of men. The act of reconstructing these fragmented narratives is a method of pleasurably recuperating a threatened sense of masculinity––but the lack of traditional closure in unreliable narratives can never fully resolve this personal sense of crisis for male spectators. Since the underlying structural concerns of these films continue to reflect an unresolved crisis, the narrational mode serves to effectively perpetuate male paranoia over a feared loss of patriarchal power. Though the seemingly subversive Fight Club tends toward a blatant bias in its treatment of gender, it is indicative of unreliable narratives in general, a group of films that can be read as more reactionary texts than they might appear to be upon the disorienting first viewing. Truly, if these films reinforce nothing else, it is the old cliché that appearances can be very deceiving.
I. Unreliable narratives as masochistic texts.
As a matter of preliminaries, several concepts need to be explained. The terms fabula and syuzhet, derived from Russian Formalism, refer to interlocking processes through which the act of narration is created. The fabula is the complete story that the reader (or, in this case, the spectator) of a text mentally constructs as an extension of the syuzhet, or the text itself; to put it another way, the fabula is the basic story, but the syuzhet is the way in which that story is told. The syuzhet is the specific arrangement of information and events (e.g., scenes in a film) which allow the spectator to construct the fabula. As David Bordwell says, “Any syuzhet selects what fabula events to present and combines them in particular ways. Selection creates gaps; combination creates composition.”  Gaps in the fabula are created by events or durations of time which are not included or explained by the syuzhet; these gaps may be temporary, to be explained later in the film, or left as permanent gaps (as is often the case in films with unreliable narration). The fabula will necessarily be more expansive than the syuzhet because what the syuzhet actually shows (moments at which the syuzhet and fabula overlap) is a condensed version of the most pertinent fabula events. For example, a film may take place during a week in a character’s life, but the syuzhet will select only enough moments from that time period to fit into the film’s running time; likewise, the syuzhet will often provide expository information allowing spectators to extend their mental construction of the fabula to include past events in a character’s life that are not explicitly included in the film.
Though it may be argued that the spectator is a passive receiver of images, there are active cognitive processes at work in order to make sense of those images. The spectator is engaged in using “schemata and incoming cues to make assumptions, draw inferences about current story events, and frame and test hypotheses about prior and upcoming events.”  While the syuzhet itself provides text-specific cues, the spectator also brings sets of schemata (based upon past viewing experiences), such as familiar story patterns and generic conventions, to the text as a means of constructing viable hypotheses about what is being shown. “Our normal syuzhet, then, reduces to a demand for enough information for the construction of a fabula according to conventions of genre and mode,” says Bordwell. 
Unreliable narrative films, however, self-consciously subvert hypotheses and schemata derived from traditional narrational modes. They occupy a strange borderland between mainstream Hollywood cinema and art cinema––though tending to lean more heavily toward the latter in terms of formal style. Unreliable narrative films have had a number of historical antecedents , but it was not until the early 1990’s that this style of film began proliferating dramatically. Unreliable narratives have emerged in virtually every currently active genre (and often mix genres) , and in films from very diverse areas of the world. 
Because the primary structural similarity between these rather disparate films is based more explicitly upon the formal style of the narration than the content, these films are often associated more with individual directors/writers (e.g., David Lynch, Charlie Kaufman, M. Night Shyamalan) than perceived as comprising a genre in itself. Spectators create schemata based upon prior films by those individuals and may begin to anticipate the unreliability of narration as a guiding factor in consuming later films (e.g., Shyamalan’s “twist” endings that have come to be expected by the public). However, this sort of auteurist method of reading of films by specific writers/directors does not necessarily extend to the larger category of unreliable narrative films in general. Rather, there are various norms––primarily in opposition to the norms of classical Hollywood cinema––that apply to unreliable narratives and help to nominate them as an emerging narrational mode of their own. Bordwell defines a narrational mode as “a historically distinct set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension.” Unreliable narratives fit this definition, as they also “transcend genres, schools, movements, and entire national cinemas.” 
Unreliable narrative films as a mode have many norms similar to art-film narration, but utilize these norms to a much greater degree. Easily the most important norm of unreliable narratives is the extreme subjectivity through which the syuzhet is presented, often in the form of flashbacks, dreams, or hallucinations. Unlike classical Hollywood narratives, unreliable narratives do not often mark the boundaries between “objective diegetic reality” and “characters’ mental states”; while Bordwell notes that art-film narration is known for blurring these boundaries , I contend that unreliable narratives must do so to a much greater extent in order to preserve the mysteries of the text. This is clearly the case in Fight Club, which is presented almost entirely in flashbacks from a point in the fabula at which the Narrator knows that he has a split personality––but that crucial fact is not revealed to the spectator until the point in the flashback (the so-called “change-over”) where the Narrator learned it himself. While the syuzhet in classical Hollywood narration strives to communicate fabula information to the spectator and thus leave few permanent gaps, the syuzhet of an art-film calls attention to itself by restricting information and leaving more permanent gaps in the fabula, often resulting in endings that resist narrative closure.  This norm must be exercised more extremely in unreliable narratives in order to preserve the narration’s unreliability by concealing the type of subjectivity from which the syuzhet originates; indeed, more complicated films of this mode will have endings which leave the entire fabula up to interpretation. Bordwell observes that the classic text ultimately reveals all of its secrets to the viewer (even in the classical Hollywood mystery film), finally allowing comprehension of the fabula’s “absolute truth.”  However, I must emphasize that unreliable narratives never reveal a sense of “absolute truth.” The type of subjectivity producing the unreliable narration may be revealed to the spectator (e.g., the split personality in Fight Club) or it may remain ambiguous (e.g., the split personality in Lost Highway [David Lynch, US, 1997]), but there will always remain a lack of narrative closure due to a lingering distrust of the manipulating text. As Edward Branigan points out, “No matter how ‘objective’ and final the narration seems, it could be the result of any one of many implicit narrations that might be imagined one [narrational] level higher. Hence there will always be a measure of uncertainty about what is being depicted.”  He continues that “Levels of the narration may be structured to create unusual effects because they mark differing epistemological domains which may be complimentary or opposed.”  In my opinion, these sorts of “unusual effects” are a trademark of unreliable narratives by radically casting doubt over everything provided to us by the syuzhet. 
“What is rare in the classical film [is]…the use of narration to make us jump to invalid conclusions,” Bordwell says.  However, that is precisely the object of the syuzhet tactics employed in unreliable narratives. These films mislead the spectator into making hypotheses which are then shattered at a later point in the film’s duration, requiring an active effort by the spectator to reconstruct the fragmented fabula—but the fresh hypotheses which result are just as routinely shattered in the films in question. This repeated inability to accurately judge the “truth” of the text disorientates the spectator, resulting in a state of enforced passivity to the unreliable narrative. Disorientation can occur within the scope of a single shot (e.g., through a misleading POV shot), specific pieces of the syuzhet (e.g., scenes which seem to contradict others), or the film as a whole. However, these films must also provide enough cues for the spectator to continue attempting fabula reconstruction. If these cues are not given, the spectator will become irretrievably lost within the convoluted narrative and give up on the film. 
Accessibility to unreliable narratives is also worth noting in relation to the production and distribution of these films. Many are produced outside of the Hollywood studio system and become relegated to distribution in independent art house theatres. Not surprisingly, these tend to feature increasingly complicated syuzhet structures and more open, ambiguous endings than their Hollywood kin. The unreliable narratives which are most often backed by major studios (the presence of a major star notwithstanding) tend toward a “twist” ending or revelation that changes the perceived “reality” of what has hitherto seemed to be a more or less straightforward fabula (e.g., The Sixth Sense or The Others). After the “twist” in these films, the “true” fabula is often partly reconstructed within the diegesis itself as the characters briefly flash back (often in a montage) to moments from earlier in the syuzhet. Because these moments often appear different when seen through the lens of the reality-shaking knowledge provided by the “twist,” this flashback process provides spectators with images with which they too can make sense of what has already been presented by the syuzhet. In Fight Club, for example, during the revelatory conversation as the Narrator realizes that he and Tyler are the same person, there is a brief montage as he thinks back to various moments in the syuzhet at which he is suddenly standing in for the invented Tyler persona, doing things that he had always imagined Tyler doing. These twist endings in major-studio films may partially clarify to the spectator how he/she has been misled, but they ultimately lack the sense of “absolute truth” associated with closed Hollywood endings. Only a sense of semi-closure––made all the more false in light of how the spectator has been manipulated throughout the film—is reached that makes the film seem more coherent than the more ambiguously open endings found in various non-Hollywood films (e.g., Mulholland Drive, Spider), in which cues to assist in reconstructing the fabula are not given, resulting in enough permanent gaps about crucial fabula events that the story can only be reconstructed via careful interpretation.
Using Gaylyn Studlar’s theorizing of masochism as a primary spectatorial pleasure in cinema, my assertion is that unreliable narrative films are an especially masochistic form of text on both a spectatorial and diegetic level. However, I must first lay the groundwork of my argument by summarizing Studlar’s theory. Jean-Louis Baudry describes the cinematic apparatus as producing a “forced immobility” of the spectator during which the movie screen acts as a substitute for the “dream screen” (which originates during the oral stage of development, as the infant dreams upon the mother’s breast) on which the dreamer projects images. Cinema then produces a “more-than-real” sense of reality which mimics dreams and allows for regressive, narcissistic pleasures that originated during the oral stage, including the loss of body limits and ego differentiation.  Studlar uses Baudry’s premise to theorize that spectatorial pleasure is essentially masochistic since, in a dreamlike state, the spectator subconsciously associates the screen with the powerful oral (or pre-Oedipal) mother as a symbol of plentitude. One of the great strengths of Studlar’s theory (stemming from its basis in Deleuzean psychoanalysis and object-relations theory) is that spectatorial pleasure is “not limited to the male spectator” and can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of gender.  This is because oral pleasures develop from the pre-Oedipal phase of development, in which castration anxiety does not factor and woman is still seen positively as plentitude (instead of negatively as lack, a sense eventually imposed upon her by the patriarchy in order to “consolidate its own power” by defining her as Other).  Studlar links the oral mother to unpleasure via the threat the mother poses to the infant’s survival by being able to control access to the breast, which the narcissistic infant always wants.  While nursing, the infant sees him/herself as undifferentiated in body (and ego) boundaries from the powerful oral mother, and thus the mother symbolizes everything to the child, while the father figure (or superego) serves only to come between mother and child; therefore, the child assumes a bisexual identification with the mother and only assumes the symbolic role of the father (represented by genital likeness in the case of males) in order to reject phallic sexuality by suspending orgasmic gratification.  The masochist, like the infant, desires reunification with the oral mother, defying patriarchal superego norms against bisexual identification, non-procreative sexuality, and pleasure in submission.  However, that symbiotic reunion is physically impossible, and death, as a complete obliteration of ego, becomes the only fantasy solution to masochistic desire: a fatal state symbolizing final defeat of the father/superego and reunion/rebirth from the oral mother as a nonsexual person who defines self in relation to the powerful female.  In its emphasis on submission to the “cold” female, the masochistic aesthetic depends upon fantasy, distance, suspense, and fetishistic repetition––continually disavowing reality, defying classical narrative causality/closure, and prolonging unpleasure through deferral of satisfaction. 
Studlar notes that all cinematic texts, even those that are not masochistic on a diegetic level (e.g., male characters whose masculinity is not threatened by submission to females), employ masochism as a spectatorial pleasure.  As she explains,
The apparatus provides the grounding that permits multiple partial, shifting, ambivalent identifications. This process defies the rigid superego control expressed in patriarchal society’s standards for carefully defined sex roles and gender identification and points to the importance of bisexuality and a mobile cathexis of desire in understanding cinematic spectatorship. 
As in the oral infant’s relationship with the mother, ego boundaries are lost during the viewing experience, but this “frightening loss of control” is made less threatening by its association with the bliss of maternal plentitude.  By entering the theatre, the spectator effectively enters into a contract with the film, surrendering control over the fantasy and over his/her own gender identification; “a measure of illusionary ego control” over the fantasies is retained by the spectator, but only through the ability to disavow that the dreamlike fantasies are real, thereby allowing the contract to be broken by walking out.  In the darkened theatre, the spectator is positioned as “passive receiving object and active perceiving subject. As subject, the spectator must comprehend the images, must give them coherence, but the spectator cannot control the images, just as the nursing child cannot control the mother.”  This unpleasure in the inability to control images is rooted in the primal scene, the infant’s inability to control the father’s sexual interference with the mother.  That said, it is important to note that, in the masochistic scenario, the desire for actual suffering may be secondary to the desire to be passive, dependent, and submissive. 
Returning to my argument, if cinematic spectatorship in general can be considered masochistic, then unreliable narratives produce especially perverse unpleasures. The defining features of unreliable narratives distinguish them as a type of masochistic narrative fitting Studlar’s theories, so it is my contention that the psychic processes described by Studlar also apply directly to unreliable narratives. Just as Studlar says that the diegetic subject matter of the masochistic text (“disavowal, suspension, fantasy, fetishism”) also becomes its formal qualities , I would note that the form of an unreliable narrative film’s syuzhet must inherently be a reflection of the source of subjectivity (e.g., dreams, memory, fantasy) used within the diegesis. As I will continue to explain, these films foreground masochism on both a spectatorial and diegetic level, clearly reminiscent of the masochistic texts described by Studlar. While Bordwell notes that classical Hollywood narration generates satisfaction by fulfilling the spectator’s hypotheses , unreliable narration creates pleasure by shattering hypotheses and delaying satisfaction indefinitely through permanent gaps in the fabula and open endings. Studlar writes that classical Hollywood closure restores patriarchal order and results in the fulfillment of an Oedipal (heterosexual) trajectory toward family formation, but masochistic narratives [including unreliable narratives, I would argue] defy this sort of closure by suspending fantasy indefinitely, breaking the illusion of reality created by the cause/effect flow of classical narratives.  The spectator endures the spectatorial unpleasure associated with classical narratives (and cinematic spectatorship overall) because he/she knows that the plot predicaments will eventually be resolved, resulting in the pleasures of narrative closure , but the absence of closure in masochistic narratives “marks a fetishistic return to the point of loss [of the oral mother].”  Just as the cinematic apparatus cannot manifest real objects, a text––but especially an open-ended text that denies the pleasure of narrative resolution––cannot actually reunite the spectator with the oral mother, and the disavowal of separation from her must end with the film as ego boundaries are restored. 
Though it could be argued that a self-conscious mode like unreliable narration has a Brechtian alienating effect upon the spectator, Steven Shaviro points out that narrative devices which violate conventional causal logic and temporality actually serve to please spectators all the more since
Brechtian techniques have an entirely different impact when they are transferred from the stage to the screen. The fact is that distancing and alienation-effects serve not to dispel but only to intensify the captivating power of cinematic spectacle. Precisely because film is…already an “alienated” art [due to its simulacral quality in both image and sound], its capacity to affect the spectator is not perturbed by any additional measure of alienation. […] Alienation-effects are already in secret accord with the basic antitheatricality of cinematic presentation. 
Spectators enjoy being mislead, being dominated by a narrative that provokes bursts of unpleasure by repeatedly shattering expectations. A masochistic narrative’s illusion of diegetic reality announces itself as a performance through “disavowing acts of memory and imagination” that fuse together past, present, and future, reflecting “the masochistic ‘art of fantasy’” , much in the way that unreliable narratives violate temporal continuity to pleasurably expose the workings of the deceptive syuzhet. According to Studlar, the suspension of reality is necessary in the masochistic scenario in order to disavow separation from the oral mother, but the superego threatens to shatter the oral fantasy by exposing that separation ; likewise, unreliable narratives must not provide too many cues and expose the narrative’s unreliability until the proper moment (if they do at all), since in a masochistic text “suspension of meaning becomes the narrative equivalent to the masochistic suspension of pleasure.”  For characters in masochistic texts to reveal their true emotions or intentions [or, for the sake of my argument, their means of subjective focalization in unreliable narratives] would end the narrative’s suspense and move toward gratification, instead of suffering.  Like the masochistic subject, the film spectator “is not permitted the control of knowledge,” says Studlar , and in unreliable narratives the spectator is forced to submit to a carefully controlled flow of cues within the syuzhet, as mentioned earlier. Much like the game of fort/da described by Studlar as mimicking the repetition of desire entailed in the union/separation of the oral infant and the breast , these cues help the spectator of the unreliable narrative construct the fabula, keeping him/her involved in the film––but the source of subjectivity in unreliable narratives must be carefully concealed to preserve the ambiguities of the text, either through contradictory cues (to shatter hypotheses about the fabula) or a shortage of cues. If this careful balance between revelation/concealment is not kept, the spectator may discover too soon how the narration is unreliable and thus feel a superior sense of satisfaction over the text (when cues are too numerous), or he/she may disengage from the film by feeling too much discomfort (when cues are too few, as in the earlier example of Last Year at Marienbad, a film that Studlar says “seems to consciously play on many conventions and situations that might be considered characteristic of a masochistic text.” ) Also like a game of fort/da, the extensive use of flashbacks and repetition of scenes in masochistic texts serves to freeze the narrative, making past and future simultaneous, since the “anticipation of pain and suspension of orgasm creates a paradoxical ontological present that ignores the objective boundaries of linear time.”  I would also apply this to unreliable narratives; for example, when a character flashes back to various fabula events after a “twist” in the syuzhet, the difference in how those events are perceived in hindsight allows for the character to masochistically replay the scene on a different level, in a different role—which is what flashbacks and repeated scenes allow in Studlar’s masochistic texts.
The loss of ego boundaries she describes is a particularly marked effect of unreliable narratives due to the unstable sense of reality created by focalizing a story so subjectively. Although Studlar says that oral spectatorial pleasure does not depend upon “conscious identification with a character” , diegetic masochism is certainly a norm shared by the films comprising this mode, due in large part to their emphasis on extreme subjectivity and insecure identities. The identities of the predominantly male protagonists in these films are often splintered or fragile via mental processes like memory, dreams, or even psychosis (e.g., Fight Club). This is not surprising, given Studlar’s assertion that symbiosis with the oral mother cannot be achieved “except beyond reality––in madness, death, or fantasy.”  Especially telling is her remark that “Like the film spectator suspended in a kind of waking hypnosis, characters in the masochistic text are often not quite sure if they are awake or asleep, perceiving or fantasizing into dream.”  Since texts creating characters with “fragmented and transformational psychic identities” produce a liberating dissolution of ego boundaries, Studlar argues that because the cinematic apparatus is already so adept at producing mobile, fragmented identifications, masochistic narratives “may be the most cinematic of all texts” —and this quality, I think, is also the great strength of unreliable narratives in their ability to exploit the fluidity of identification by making cinematic images all the more treacherous. The almost exclusively male protagonists through which the films are subjectively focalized can hardly be said to resemble the sort of “ideal ego” found in classical Hollywood narratives according to the hypotheses of Lacanian film theory. Instead, these men suffer from unstable, radically shifting identities, manifesting paranoia and hysteria due to an inability to make sense of their own world. This lack of ontological knowledge/control is often reflected by a lack of sexual knowledge/control over a femme fatale character, or a loss of other traditionally masculine qualities.  As such, the diegetic masochism of these films serves to decenter traditional masculinity, defying a sense of wholeness and power, deferring indefinitely a sense of narrative closure that would help restabilize both the male protagonist and the male spectator. Interestingly, female filmmakers have by and large not utilized unreliable narratives in feature films (with the rare exceptions, such as Mary Lambert’s Siesta [US, 1987], or Mary Harron’s American Psycho [US, 2000]), though the narrational mode could conceivably open a political space within which to use the underlying masochistic aesthetic to subvert the traditional Oedipal trajectory of classical narratives in quite a different way from the feminist anti-narrative films of the 1970’s. One reason for this may be that unreliable narratives indirectly speak to a sense of threatened masculinity; although conscious identification with a character is not required by a masochistic text, for male spectators of these films, it may be a dramatic identification due to the general sense of crisis that abounds in representations of masculinity within this quite contemporary narrational mode.
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