The other day on Twitter a friend of mine asked his followers about movies that had expanded our cinematic horizons.
What are some movies that you would say expanded your cinematic horizons, and in what ways? (e.g. new genre, super weird, etc.)
— Kyle DeLaHunt (@dels) July 8, 2014
When I saw Kyle’s question the first thing that came to mind was Memento. It’s a movie I consider a part of my own personal canon, and a milestone in storytelling that has stuck with me for years. Also on that same list is Pulp Fiction. It only occured to me after I sat down to write this piece that both movies feature non-chronological timelines, and the kinds of stories I’ve been obsessed with for years.
Pulp Fiction doesn’t seem that groundbreaking anymore due to all of the movies that have since tried to capture its essence, but its influence cannot be overstated. When I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time in the theater (thanks, Mom!) I was blown away by the asynchronous storytelling. Those weren’t the words my 16-year-old self used to describe it, but the idea of hopping around the timeline to tell the best possible version of the story intrigued me.
There are chronological edits of Pulp Fiction out there, but I don’t think they work as well as the theatrical release. Consider that the first scene would have been Christopher Walken’s monologue about where he had hidden a watch from the Viet Cong, and that instead of miraculously re-appearing in the final scene, John Travolta’s Vincent Vega would have been shot and killed on the toilet before we ever got to know him. The watch story is now classic, but not something you want to open a movie with, and killing off a character the before the viewer has any stake in them is meaningless.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento also uses an atypical timeline to tell its story. The film centers around Leonard, a man who has lost the ability to create new memories, and who is searching for his wife’s killer. The opening credits show the last thing that happens chronologically in the story. From that point the scenes alternate between the present timeline and the past. The scenes from the present timeline are shown in reverse order, until the final few moments of the film when the two timelines converge. The point at which they converge is the beginning of the story. When the two timelines merge at the end of the movie, it’s one of the most gratifying and gut wrenching moments in modern movies.
Nolan uses the reverse timeline to help the viewer empathize with the way Lenny navigates the world. We, like Lenny, never know how we got to a particular point without first taking in some context. There’s a great scene that begins with Lenny running through a trailer park and asking himself “Okay, so what am I doing?” He spots another man running as well and Lenny assumes he his chasing the other man. Turns out he’s wrong, and is the one being chased instead.
Both movies prove that good storytelling doesn’t always mean starting at point A and heading towards B. They encouraged me to seek out the films that don’t play by the rules, and I’ve been rewarded for finding them ever since.