Story of a Cheat is hilarious and charming and, I think, one of the first postmodern works on the List, maybe thirty years ahead of its time. Postmodernism in fiction, as I learned of it in college and as I can just barely glean from subsequent academic reading, is largely characterized by the storyteller acknowledging that her audience has already been told enough stories, and knows enough about their construction, and that she (i.e. the storyteller) ought, in turn, to just do away with the artifice of suggesting that this is anything more than the product of a storyteller’s imagination.
So here, for instance, rather than a scroll of names for the opening credits, we see the cast and crew in action: the stars moving around on set, the composer at his piano, the producer emerging from his office. Meanwhile the film’s narrator, one of only three or four voices we hear in the film, is introducing us to everybody. Here we see an actress pretending to point at something off-screen, pretending she isn’t on camera.
Maybe this is meant to be a sort of stylistic parallel to the story itself, which is about a man whose life is steered, at pivotal moments, by acts of dishonesty, betrayal, artifice. Now he’s trying to be so honest he ends up subverting the narrative.
After stealing money from his family’s store as a boy, his punishment is that he gets no dinner. The dinner from which he alone is excluded turns out to be toxic, and kills his entire family. As an orphan thereafter, he asks himself: if the reason I’m alive is because I was dishonest, does that mean my family died for their honesty?
It’s a silly question, the sort of self-loathing false logic toward which a grieving mind is compelled, but it opens the door to some interesting philosophizing about ethics and chance and luck and misfortune. Choices.
The premise is that our hero is sitting at a café, in his 50s, writing his memoir. He narrates nearly every scene of the movie, excepting the scenes where we cut back to the café to see him writing and interacting with his waiter or with other patrons, and his voice dominates. When others open their mouths to speak, it’s his voice that comes out.
The interpretation that comes immediately to mind, I think because it scares me, is the scathing one about a phallus-flaunting narrator who won’t allow anybody to speak. An interpretation that says Story of a Cheat is basically a documentary about the navel-gazing patriarchy’s dominance of all media. And maybe there’s truth to that.
What I think Story of a Cheat explores more acutely is the inherent one-sidedness of any story. Whenever you crack open a book, such as the one our narrator is writing, you’re at the mercy of the author’s singular voice. When she speaks, it’s her own revised and refined voice we’re hearing. The words of every character, regardless of age or gender or agenda or race or creed, are the wrods that she has chosen to give that character. (I think this is more the case in literature than in film, which is more of a collaborative effort.)
What also gets my attention is the act of remembrance, particularly the remembrance of misfortune and mistakes. A story that’s always moved me – and of course there are a billion just like it – is the one of novelist Gore Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Gore, who was already blind in one eye when, as a boy, he peered down the barrel of a toy gun that was jammed, it was meant to shoot a wooden stick with a BANG sign. The stick shot out while he was gawking. It blinded his remaining eye.
I come across stories like that, of such cataclysmic misfortune resulting from the most innocent blunder, and wonder if there really isn’t some cosmic authority to which I might submit an appeal. Surely the universe shouldn’t allow such a life-altering consequence for something so insignificant.
But there’s none, of course. We live with our choices, and whatever comes of them. Disproportionately good or bad as those results may be.
Story of a Cheat illustrates this beautifully. It’s one of my favorites from the List so far.