The poet and the detective: defining the psychological puzzle film.
In his 1985 book, Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell sets forth a poetics of narration. Appropriating the theories and language of Russian Formalists, Bordwell identifies variability in the selection and arrangement of story material across cinema history. Certain historical periods in this history have yielded films that possess similar narrative principles. The texts produced during these eras have textual elements and structures that prompt certain sense-making activities on the part of the viewer. Bordwell provides examples of these "modes of narration" in this book, outlining the narration in classical Hollywood cinema, art cinema, Soviet cinema, and Modernist cinema (Bordwell 1985).
In describing these modes of narration, Bordwell uses a taxonomy originated by Meir Sternberg to delineate specific attributes a narration may have. Sternberg suggests three categories: knowledge, self-consciousness, and communicativeness. The range and depth of the narration are components of how knowledgeable the narration is, the range indicating the degree to which we are restricted to a character's level of knowledge and the depth indicating how subjective or objective that knowledge is (i.e. whether or not we are aware of the character's thoughts, dreams, or hallucinations). Reliability of the narration is an aspect of its communicativeness. As Bordwell writes about all of these aspects while analyzing various modes of narration, giving just as much attention to how restricted the narration is as he does to the level of self-consciousness the narration possess, I think it more useful to consider the range, depth, self-consciousness, communicativeness, and reliability of the narration as five separate but related facets of narration.
For various cultural and economic reasons, Classical Hollywood narration (2) has come to dominate filmmaking in the United States. High levels of self-conscious narration in the first few scenes, giving way to less self-consciousness as the film progresses, characterize this mode of narration. Classical narration is typically omniscient and exhibits a low level of communicativeness, suppressing information and occasionally flaunting this suppression. As a classical film progresses, the narration's level of omniscience declines while it becomes more communicative. The range of knowledge provided by the narration is in a constant state of flux. In one scene, the audience may be restricted to the protagonist's level of knowledge of diegetic events, while in the next scene, they may be informed of something of which the protagonist could not have been aware. Through this rapid fluctuation in the range of knowledge of the narration, the film produces a sense of dramatic irony. Moments of increased depth of narration, such as a dream sequence, are clearly marked as such. Occasionally, these moments are not explicitly marked as subjective; however, subsequent scenes make it clear that the audience should revise their hypothesis as to how deep the narration was in the preceding scene. In this way and many others, classical Hollywood narration is prone to temporarily misleading an audience. However, these are generally isolated cases within a narration that goes out of its way to affirm its reliability (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson 40). In short, classical Hollywood narration functions to promote narrative clarity (Thompson 19).
Bordwell allows for a great deal of flexibility in this mode. In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, he explains why apparent deviations from the classical paradigm are not the signs of a new paradigm, but merely assimilated stylistic traits borrowed by the "movie brat" directors of the 1960s and '70s from European art cinema of that era (Bordwell, Staiger & Thompson 375). Just as Hollywood horror directors of the 1930s and '40s had appropriated German Expressionist lighting and composition to serve generic purposes, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg were using art cinema techniques while maintaining such classical conventions as temporal and spatial continuity, as well as character-centered causality and a resolution to the narrative questions posed during the course of the film.
Similarly, Kristin Thompson defines classical narration rather inclusively in her book Storytelling in the New Hollywood. She argues that many of the films of the 1990s that critics defined as "post classical" are really slightly modified versions of what came before. The causal chain is still central, the protagonist still drives the plot, and narration is still at the service of the story. The high concept blockbusters of the 1990s merely increase redundancy and extend spectacular action sequences, leaving the traditional structure and levels of narration essentially unchanged. Thompson does allow for some aberrations in American cinema of the '80s and '90s, namely David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). Both of these films were made in Hollywood and exhibit non-classical attributes, such as a lack of clear character motivation, dialogue for the sake of atmosphere (rather than plot), unmotivated shifts in the temporal order of events in the plot, and a lingering over ambiguities (Thompson 340). Thompson denies that either of these films had a significant effect on the form or style of Hollywood narratives. As "blips on the radar screen," they are not worthy of the critical attention that might be accorded a burgeoning mode of narration (Thompson 341). She gives much more esteem to the rise of independent film in the 1990s and does not note any connection between the deviant narration of Pulp Fiction and Blue Velvet and the success of small independent features.
Seven years have passed since the publication of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, and, if one uses Sternberg's assessment of narration as an indicator of defiance or adherence to the classical narration model, Thompson's claim that the work of Lynch and Tarantino amount to little more than inconsequential anomalies seems less and less true each passing year. Certainly, ambiguity and unmotivated shifts in temporal order are not omnipresent in the films of today. Yet a rash of narratives has been produced in Hollywood that promote ambiguity and sudden narrative fluctuation over brief isolated fluctuations and clarity of classical narration. Whether this group of non-traditional films constitutes a genre or a new mode of narration will only be known after an in depth analysis of how narration works in these films.
I dub this new group of contemporary American films the "psychological puzzle film." I define these films as those that possess narratives in which the orientation of events in the plot to diegetic reality is not immediately clear, thus creating doubt in the viewer's mind as to how reliable, knowledgeable, self-conscious, and communicative the narration is. Rather than prompting the viewer to ask questions about characters within the diegesis, the narration in these films prompts the viewer to question the relationships among character, narration, and the social reality inhabited by the viewer. These films prompt the questioning of the qualities of their narration by exhibiting one or more of the following: unusual story structure, violations of causal logic, or flaunted, unresolved gaps in the causal chain of the story. Viewers may attribute these characteristics to a mentally unstable character or a "theoretically empirical" phenomenon such as time-travel (in both these first two cases, the characteristics may be said to be realistically motivated within the diegesis) or to an authorial intention (in which case the gaps are artistically motivated as due to factors outside of the diegesis). The explanation for the unusual characteristics is generally delayed within these films and is answered with varying degrees of definitiveness. These texts, and their directors, have all achieved some measure of success in Hollywood, and the films exhibit many of the characteristics emblematic of classical narration such as continuity editing, local causal logic, and a high degree of verisimilitude. However, these texts clearly do not promote narrative clarity in the way that is typical of Hollywood fare, and thus call upon different sense-making procedures on the part of the audience.
In order to gain a better understanding of psychological puzzle films, it is worth exploring the lineage of these non-traditional narratives. (3) As Jonathan Eig writes in his article, "A Beautiful Mind(fuck): Hollywood Structures of Identity," many psychological puzzle films owe a great deal to the surrealist and avant-garde cinema of the 1920s and '30s, particularly the work of Luis Bunuel. Bunuel's Land Without Bread (1933) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) feature surprise moments that cause the audience to revise their impressions of the narration. Such surprises include doubled female leads and ambiguous, occasionally contradictory relationships between diegetic events.
Another obvious ancestor of the psychological puzzle film is Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). In her essay "Memories, Dreams, Screens," Ruth Perlmutter identifies Vertigo as "the quintessential neuro-pathological trauma film" (Perlmutter 125). Perlmutter's group of films, which she sometimes refers to as "trance films," all concern protagonists who are trying to repress knowledge of a trauma. The plot of each film reflects the imagined reality that the protagonist invents in order to deny the trauma, though, inevitably, fissures emerge in this invented facade, and the protagonist (and the audience) must face up to a grim past. Perlmutter identifies some characteristics of the group: embedded narratives, non-sequential order, fragmented plot lines, and displaced (or replaced or misrecognized) characters. These nontraditional elements are not used to convey "the messiness of life" (as in art-cinema) nor the possibilities of the medium itself (as in avant garde cinema), but rather they are used to convey a repressed consciousness. Instead of depicting utter chaos or no discernible reality, the films depict two competing realities--the conscious and the unconscious. (4) In these films, the act of remembering takes on classical characteristics of the flashback--highly restricted, deep narration that is clearly marked as such. An unreliable narration represents repression, marking the fantasy as either flashback or present-tense reality, only to reveal its unreliability at a strategic moment in the plot (Perlmutter 125). By combining a mentally unstable protagonist with a sprawling five-act structure, Vertigo provided a template for psychological puzzle filmmakers such as Lynch.
Another predecessor is Robert Enrico's short film La Riviere du Hibou, originally airing as an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964 under the title An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Based on Ambrose Bierce's short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, it begins with a scene in which a man is about to be hanged. This scene is followed by a brief, clearly marked flashback. The film then cuts back to the man standing in the same place that he was before the flashback. At this moment, the narration has switched from relatively shallow to extremely deep, though the narration has not indicated that the bulk of the narrative is but a fantasy in the mind of a dying man. After seeing the flashback, the audience is primed for the end of the flashback, for the return to "real time." By having a genuine flashback bridge the gap between true reality and imagined reality, the narration makes discerning that this is an alternate reality nearly impossible for the first-time viewer. This technique reappears in several psychological puzzle films.
Other analyses of the films covered in this chapter generally concentrate on interpreting the themes of the films, taking the main characters of the films and their thoughts and actions within the diegetic universe as the primary subject of scrutiny (Little 79). The audiences of these films have supposedly been positioned with the protagonists, but many analyses gloss over how exactly this occurs (or fails to occur). Many of these theorists make a good case for the reason why non-classical narration was used to tell the story. They are able to make a plausible connection between structure and theme. The most popular reason given for unusual narration is that such narration is part of the film's critique of Enlightenment values, specifically the values of order and reason. (5) However, critics often do not closely analyze the structure itself, dismissing non-traditional narratives as lacking "a clear narrative logic" and leaving it at that.
I aim for something a little more systematic. I briefly touch on the themes explored in these films, but I primarily concentrate on describing the narration of seventeen psychological puzzle films. The first grouping of films discussed possess narration that is deceptive throughout the duration of the films, sometimes clearly revealing previous scenes to be fantasy and other times leaving such distinctions ambiguous. The films covered in this group are Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), Jacob & Ladder (Lyne 1990), and 12 Monkeys (Gilliam 1995). I proceed to cover narratives that contain a single significant moment in the diegesis in which narration reveals itself to have been deceptive, describing the narration in The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese 1988), Vanilla Sky (Crowe 2001), The Matrix (Wachowski 1999), Fight Club (Fincher 1999), The Machinist (Anderson 2004), and American Psycho (Harron 2000). Following this is a discussion of the ambiguous narration in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive (2001). Next, I discuss three films that feature martyred protagonists who either travel in time or suffer from severe mental problems: Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001), The Butterfly Effect (Bress and Gruber 2004) and The Jacket (Maybury 2005). I conclude with an analysis of the unique narration in Memento (Nolan 2000).
Frequently Deceptive Narratives
Set in the near future, David Cronenberg's Videodrome tells the story of Max Wren, a television producer who, while seeking intensely violent and sexual programming for his network, comes across a hallucination-inducing program called Videodrome. As the plot progresses, Max becomes increasingly unsure of what is real and what is a hallucination. The narration is as un-self-conscious as most classical Hollywood fare, and it restricts the audience to the point of view of the protagonist, occasionally expanding to other points of view to make clear that Max has hallucinated.
What sets Videodrome apart from classically narrated films is the ambiguous depth of the narration. At times, we see Max's hallucination, indicating a deep level of narration. However, some elements of these hallucinations are real, in the sense that the events that transpire during a possible hallucination have some impact on diegetic reality. For instance, during one scene, Max slaps his secretary. After a brief reaction shot of Max, his secretary spontaneously turns into another woman. After another reaction shot, she turns back into his secretary. We are likely to believe that he has hallucinated the transformation. But the nature of the hallucination is misleading--we think he actually slaps his secretary, imagining it was this other woman, when in fact he probably does not slap anyone, as is revealed when his secretary tells him that he has done no such thing. When his secretary makes this statement, the narration becomes less restricted, but just as communicative and just as deep. We, like Max, see something that isn't real, and then learn of its unreality. This scene is an excellent illustration of how the narration calls for a more tentative reading of the onscreen events' relationship to diegetic reality. It is not enough simply to decide when a hallucination ends and reality begins. The narration in this scene implies that some elements of the hallucination were real--in this case, the act of slapping--and then, by presenting a less restricted narration, informs us that no aspects of the hallucination were real.
During a scene in which a man on television starts talking directly to him in his living room, Max acknowledges that this is not possible and therefore must be a hallucination. Yet, Max acts as though this halluciation might have some truth, asking the apparently unreal man for clues as to what Videodrome is. Here, we know that what Max is seeing isn't real, but the mere fact that the scene is included would lead us to believe that the questions and answers being posed have some effect on the diegetic reality of the story. The central question of the film may be stated as this: Are Max's hallucinations merely a symptom of a video-induced tumor, or are they part of a message that has been beamed into his subconscious that contains some truth about the origin of the Videodrome tapes? We are trying to solve this mystery with "one hand tied behind our backs," so to speak, not knowing from moment to moment what is real and what isn't. The narration exhibits low levels of reliability, repeatedly yanking the rug out from under us, as is the case with the "imagined slap" scene. However, the narration usually corrects these temporary misleads, letting us know whether or not these hallucinations are real. The more important mystery becomes what truth these hallucinations might have.
The possibility is that, deep down, Max knows the true nature of Videodrome and that the film is the process of this truth being gradually revealed to his conscious mind. This conscious/suppressed unconscious dichotomy makes defining the levels of restriction and communicativeness problematic. The protagonist is acting as two separate agents with two different levels of knowledge about the diegetic world. In many psychological puzzle films (and in the case of Videodrome), the viewers are restricted to the less knowledgeable half of this split personality--the conscious mind.
Jacob's Ladder works in much the same way as Videodrome. The narration of this film contains competing depth cues. At times, the film leads viewers to believe that events in a scene are really happening, only to reveal that everything was just a dream. The first such misleading moment occurs when the protagonist, Jacob, is critically injured during a tour in Vietnam. In the absence of other cues, we would likely assume that the war scene is the "present tense" from which the bulk of the story will be told. Yet, in a subsequent scene, we see Jake wake up on a subway train. At this point, we are likely to believe that the previous narration has misled us and that the subway scene is the "present tense" while the war scene is part of Jacob's flashback. It isn't until the very end of the film that we understand that this scene on the subway does not signal the end of a dream or a flashback, as we might have guessed, but rather the beginning of an elaborate fantasy. We realize that our first hypothesis was right, that the war footage is indeed the present tense. That doesn't mean that the narration is really reliable because it is originally telling the truth. It actually means that it is less reliable, because it misleads us at least twice. But by not providing the cues of Jacob falling asleep in Vietnam, or a slow zoom in on his face in Vietnam, and by having the subway footage start with a shot of him waking up, the narration cues us to interpret the material erroneously.
Throughout Jacob's Ladder, the narration presents four competing possibilities for the diegetic reality that the protagonist inhabits. The first possibility is that Jacob is a Vietnam veteran who works for the post office. He is suffering from delusions, and his goal in this reality is to find out what is causing these delusions. The most likely causes are mental damage brought on by psychotropic drugs or a shadowy cabal intent on controlling his mind. The second possible reality situates Jacob in hell. In this instance, Jacob's hellish visions are reality, and his impressions of the everyday world are merely a hallucination or fantasy that masks the horrible truth. A third possibility is that the hellish visions and the imagined life as a postman are part of an elaborate dream that he has, and when he awakes, he is in bed with his wife Sara. The very end of the film seems to validate a fourth possible reality: that Jacob is still in Vietnam, hallucinating a possible post-war future. This hallucination is a combination of his desires (e.g., sleeping with a former co-worker) and paranoia (e.g., fearing a shadowy cabal intent on destroying his mind). In the final analysis, Jacob's Ladder is the psychological puzzle film that bears the closest resemblance to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge: they both chronicle the fantasies of a dying man.
At the outset of 12 Monkeys, the narration establishes itself as unreliable. The first title tells us that five billion people die in 1997 from a virus. This would suggest that the film is science fiction, with a standard level of narrative depth. Another title appears a few seconds later, informing us that the previous title was a quote from a paranoid schizophrenic. This suggests that the story might not be science fiction, but rather the story of a mentally unstable individual, in which case we should expect a deep, unreliable narration.
The following scene depicts a man being shot in an airport and a boy witnessing the murder. The film cuts from a close-up of the boy to a close-up of the protagonist James Cole in jail. Thus, the narration cues us to believe that the preceding scene was the flashback of James. The narration is unreliable here because it leads us to believe that James is the boy, and only the boy. As the film explains, James is able to travel through time. At the end of the plot, James is revealed to be both the man being shot and the boy. The narration would have been less misleading if the flashback had ended without a close up of the boy or the man (as is the case the next few times when this memory is shown later in the plot).
However, this unreliable and ambiguously deep narration does not last throughout the entire film. The possibility that James's time travels are only a figment of his imagination is dispelled roughly half way through the film. In an earlier scene, we have witnessed James's journey to World War I era France. While in the midst of trench warfare, James interacts with a fellow time traveler, Jose. Later, we see James's modern-day psychiatrist, Katherine, giving a lecture about strange, anachronistic phenomenon. She mentions Jose's mysterious appearance in France and displays a photo of him lying in a trench. This scene provides the corroborating evidence of Jose's and, by extension, James's journeys through time. Significantly, Katherine is not aware of the connection between Jose's appearance and James's ability to time travel until later in the plot. The narration during this lecture scene is not restricted to his point of view. At this moment in the plot, we have more knowledge than either Katherine or James. Since we believe that James is not hallucinating, the mystery of whether or not some events are part of diegetic reality is solved. The rest of the primary plot concerns James's efforts to convince Katherine that he is not hallucinating and their mutual efforts to convince authorities that James's doomsday predictions should be taken seriously. From that point on, the primary question that the characters and the audience are trying to answer is: what is the nature of the threat? 12 Monkeys features narration that temporarily disorients us, only to establish a consistent internal narrative logic.
Pulling the Rug Out from Under the Audience
Ambiguous depth and unreliability are not the only ways psychological puzzle film narration hinders audience interpretations of a film's story. A different breed of psychological puzzle film, typified by Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, tricks the audience into believing that a significant portion of the plot is real, when in fact it is merely a hallucination or fantasy. Instead of tricking the audience throughout the course of the film, as Videodrome does, The Last Temptation of Christ and similarly constructed films mislead the audience only once and do not provide any explicit cues that might lead a viewer to suspect the unreality of what he or she is seeing and hearing. The significant change in depth of narration in The Last Temptation of Christ occurs when Jesus Christ is taken off the cross while apparently alive. The following scenes are part of an extended hallucination, but viewers are not cued to realize this until afterwards, when the narration unambiguously informs us, via character dialogue, that it has lied to us about the depth of narration. As in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Last Temptation of Christ precedes this hallucination with explicitly marked moments of deep narration: Christ hallucinates while alone in the desert. This creates an expectation of a consistent internal narrative logic in which the narration makes it clear when what we are seeing is the hallucination of the protagonist. The viewer is lulled into expecting that the narration will be clear about moments of such depth, only to be fooled in the end.
Of course, it might strike us as quite unusual for Christ to climb down off the cross, so unusual that we might suspect that it is all a dream or fantasy. However, two attributes of the narration block such a hypothesis. Up until this point, the writer and director have taken many liberties with the story of Christ. A title card prefaces the narrative that explicitly states that the film makes no claims to authentically replicating the life of Christ as chronicled in the Bible. Also, the narration has been quite self-conscious throughout the film. It's likely that this highly self-conscious narration would cause viewers to read departures from classical narration as authorial or artistically motivated, such as occurs in art cinema narration (Bordwell 209). During the crucifixion scene, the diegetic sound drops out. In a film with less self-conscious narration, we might see this as a possible marker for a change in the depth of narration. Because Scorsese uses so many technical flourishes merely as self-conscious narration, we would be less apt to read it as a change in depth.
A similar trick is played on the audience in Vanilla Sky, which tells the story of David Ames, a cocky heir to a magazine fortune brought low by a car accident that leaves him disfigured and suicidal. Near the midpoint of the film, David decides to take a drug that induces a lucid dream state. Everything after that moment in the plot is a dream, though we are not aware of this until much later in the film. As the plot progresses, the film begins to exhibit telltale signs of a dream or hallucination (e.g., individuals spontaneously turning into other individuals). However, Vanilla Sky provides a flaming story in which David has been incarcerated in a mental institution and is recounting his subjective experience to a psychiatrist. Thus, the film offers an explanation to cue interpreting such moments of unreality as bouts of madness. Again, we would technically be right in our hypothesis that these moments are unreal, but we would be mistaken in our knowledge of the extent of the hallucination. The narration's use of this framing story leads us to believe that while David hallucinated some aspects of his past, he actually engaged in others, namely the murder of his girlfriend. At the end of the film, the narration reveals that neither the crime nor the incarceration ever really happened. David's hallucinations are not isolated moments of unreality caused by madness, but an all-encompassing drug-induced dream.
In this case, the narration has become deeper and less communicative than a first-time viewer is likely to have suspected. We are entitled to see story events by virtue of these events significantly affecting subsequent diegetic events and by restriction of our knowledge to that of the protagonist: the scenes in which David finds out about the drugs that induce that dream, acquires these drugs, and consumes them. The film exposes this critical elision later. We wouldn't have known to look for this elision because David appears to wake up where he fell the night before. As is often the case in psychological puzzle films, the narration uses a moment when the protagonist loses consciousness to alter covertly the levels of communicativeness and depth (Perlmutter 126). After he thinks he wakes up, David is as oblivious that he is still dreaming as we are. In the sense that we have as much knowledge about the nature of his reality as David does, the film is being communicative. The true moment of low communicativeness occurs when the narration elides this crucial distinction.
While The Last Temptation of Christ and Vanilla Sky wait until the final act to reveal the true nature of the diegesis's reality, The Matrix exposes the illusion at the end of the first act. Yet, within this first act, the narration misleads us twice. During a scene in which the protagonist Neo is being interrogated, his mouth spontaneously glues itself shut, and a mechanical bug crawls into his belly button. As this happens, we may believe that the narration is less restricted and that we're witnessing supernatural occurrences. However, after this scene, Neo wakes up in bed, which would cue us to believe it was a dream and that the narration was deeper and more restricted than we first hypothesized. Our notion that the interrogation scene was a dream is then revealed to be false when Neo discovers that a mechanical bug really is in his stomach. This cycle of narrative deception is duplicated when Neo wakes from his slumber in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by machines.
Much like the worlds of reality and fantasy in Videodrome, The Matrix proffers a virtual reality that has an indirect causal relationship with true reality. Actions taken in the virtual world of the Matrix affect the bodies of the hallucinating characters outside of the Matrix. Because of this causal relationship, one might say that the narration never really radically alters its range or depth, but only appears to do so. In that Neo is always part of a world in which his actions affect things, we are never as completely restricted (or completely deep) as we think we are.
The dichotomy between conscious mind and unconscious, repressed knowledge to which Perlmutter alludes is most clearly present in Fight Club. In this film, the insomniac protagonist invents an alter ego named Tyler Durden who acts out his repressed desires. Tyler is presented to the protagonist and the audience as a real person. As in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the moment at which the alteration in the depth of the narration takes place immediately follows a clearly marked fantasy. While on an airplane, the protagonist imagines that another airplane collides with the one he is on. When he awakens from this reverie, we expect that he is returning to the reality that he inhabited before he began daydreaming. In truth, everything after that moment is partially hallucinated. The only element of this reality that is not real is Tyler Durden. This is another instance when the audience must not simply ask which scenes are imagined, but must discern which elements of each scene are real.
Similarly, The Machinist presents a sleep-deprived protagonist, Trevor, who cobbles together a partially imagined reality out of characters from a repressed memory. The narration presents a few clearly marked hallucinations alongside characters and situations that seem to be real but are later revealed to be figments of Trevor's imagination. These hallucinations appear convincingly real at first but are immediately shown to be hallucinations when other characters refute their existence. Frequently, Trevor will imagine that he sees an individual. Another character will claim that this individual does not exist. Subsequently, Trevor acknowledges that this individual is merely a hallucination. This repeated pattern of narration immediately revealing itself to have been unreliable establishes an internal narrative norm for the film--the narration may mislead, but only temporarily and briefly. Yet the film violates this norm at its end when the narration reveals itself to have been unreliable throughout the entire film. Some hallucinated characters were not immediately revealed to be unreal.
The narration in the films described so far is unreliable, but not especially ambiguous. The audience is likely to be misled or confused for part of the film, but by the end, the film clarifies what is real and what is not. This cannot be said of American Psycho. The narration in the film American Psycho could be considered similar to that of Fight Club and The Machinist in that it may reveal certain situations to have been figments of the protagonist's imagination. However, the film concludes by leaving open two possible interpretations of events. Patrick Bateman is an elitist businessman who has a desire to murder several of his contemporaries. None of the scenes in the film, including the ones in which he murders people, is marked as hallucinations. Many characters in the film are extremely deferential towards Patrick. He frequently tells absurd lies, but no one around him questions his word. His increasingly erratic behavior goes unnoticed. Though several people witness his murders and though he leaves behind ample evidence of these murders, no one punishes him for these crimes.
The extreme degree to which others defer to Patrick might lead us to believe that we are witnessing a fantasy version of his life, in which he can act on his desires and not have to face the consequences. However, it is also possible that the individuals are willing to overlook (or simply unable to see) his unspeakable acts of violence and clumsy lying because they cannot conceive of someone as high-status as Patrick doing such things. The film can either be read as a commentary on the degree to which people around a powerful man are blind to his misdeeds or as the fantasies of such a man.
The consummate practitioner of ambiguous narration is David Lynch, whose films Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive use the detective trope to provoke the audience into looking for answers that the film doesn't provide. Both of these films feature duos of detectives who appear in the first act, never to appear again. Though these brief appearances can be written off as red herrings, the protagonists play roles comparable to detectives throughout the narratives.
Theorist Angela Hague provides a useful framework for dealing with Lynch narratives in her essay on Twin Peaks. Hague surmises that by having a plot that revolves around a mysterious murder, Lynch narratives cue viewers to read the films (or television shows) as detective stories. The postmodern detective story, or "anti-detective" story as William Spanos calls it, calls upon the audience's sleuthing abilities only to frustrate them by not providing a discernable answer to the riddle (Spanos 13). Some view this frustration as liberation from the controlling confines of traditional narrative, with its absolute logic. Hague uses philosopher Robert Carse's concepts of "finite play" and "infinite play" to describe the difference between the narration in Twin Peaks and standard detective narrative structure. On the one hand, finite play requires boundaries and rules. All questions must have a limited number of possible answers. On the other hand, infinite play is not goal-oriented. Players are encouraged to question the boundaries that have governed their perception in the past. Carse sees a fundamental difference between "trained" finite players and "educated" infinite players. The role of "player" could be applied to authors, characters, or audience members and is a useful paradigm for theorists trying to account for the varied reception of Lynch's narratives.
Indeed, many psychological puzzle films have protagonists that are in search of information about a violent event that has occurred in the past and thus may cue viewers to employ detective-story readings of the plots. In the case of Videodrome, the main character spends the bulk of the plot trying to figure out the relationship between his subjective experience and external reality. Yet, Videodrome cues the audience to read it as something other than a detective film by letting them know that the appropriate question to ask is not "who killed who," but rather "what is real?" The rug is pulled out from under us repeatedly, but we are made aware that this has happened each time, giving us a moment to secure our bearings. In Lynch's narratives, the characters' speculations usually stay at some level within the diegesis--who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, or where did Rita come from in Mulholland Drive. In Videodrome, the smaller mysteries lead to the larger mystery. We can see the connection, and it is related in diegetic terms. In Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the smaller mystery is only related to the larger mystery thematically. Possible answers to these larger mysteries are never made especially clear.
It is possible to interpret Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway as stories of failed efforts to repress emotional traumas. Perlmutter sees Mulholland Drive as a wish-fulfilling dream embedded in an anxiety-ridden nightmare (Perlmutter 128). This could also serve as a description of the plots of The Machinist, Jacob's Ladder, or Vanilla Sky. However, those three films have explicit revelations before their conclusions. Scenes that seemed confusing or excessive at first make sense in the light of the knowledge that the narration provides; they can be read retroactively as a consciousness's failure to assemble a completely coherent fantasy universe. Neither Lost Highway nor Mulholland Drive provides such closure.
In Lost Highway, the protagonist, Fred, is incarcerated for the murder of his wife. While in prison, he apparently spontaneously changes into another man. This could be read as a science-fiction plot twist or as the beginning of an extended hallucination. If the latter is the case, then there would seem to be a logical inconsistency in the plot, for if Fred never turned into another man, then there would be no reason for the police to let him out of jail. It is possible that they never did let him out of jail; however, no post-fantasy scenes occur in which Fred wakes up in jail. Clearly some conventions exist for the mystery detective noir genre. These conventions cue the audience to look for an answer by seeing gaps as temporary and looking for clues. Indeed, much of the dialogue in Lost Highway encourages such a reading by repeatedly drawing attention to the narrative gaps. Pete Drayton's father asks Pete what really happened that night, to which Pete can only answer that he doesn't know. It is crucial that Lynch uses detective story tropes. Detective stories set the audience the task of searching for something alongside their diegetic proxy, the detective.
As Ed Tan points out, processing any narrative involves cognitive processing akin to those employed while "problem solving" (Tan 92). However, filmic narratives are different from puzzles because the characters represent people in real-life situations, unlike the abstract elements of most puzzles or games. The affective may overshadow the purely cognitive with feelings and emotions that come along with imagining one's self invested in the outcome of a fictive universe. Relevance and concern play some role in processing narratives that they do not play in solving abstract puzzles. That is not to say that the role of such affective emotions in narrative processing is the same in all types of narratives. To viewers of the boilerplate mystery, vicarious involvement in the fictive world is of less importance than determining the identity of the murderer. Whether or not the viewer sees a film as a cognitive puzzle or an affective experience may shape his or her interpretation of the film. Lost Highway's use of detective story tropes encourages the "puzzle" reading strategy, but it does not provide a clear cut answer to the questions prompted throughout the diegesis. Audiences might be more likely to accept unresolved gaps and ambiguity as authorial in motivation if such generic cuing were absent. The desire for closure and concrete answers is a function of the classical Hollywood mode of narration, but it is also, more specifically, a function of the detective murder mystery.
The first two-thirds of Mulholland Drive are rife with the tonal inconsistency, abandoned plotlines, and odd, seemingly unmotivated character behavior that Lynch fans are likely to recognize from previous works. These departures from classical narration can be attributed to three causes: artistic motivation (serving no diegetic purpose); failed adaptation from television to film (roughly two thirds of Mulholland Drive's narrative was originally intended to be the pilot in an ongoing television series. This would serve to explain the numerous dangling questions without answers); figments of a fantasy/nightmare. The last of these interpretations hinges on a scene roughly two-thirds into the film.
At the end of the previous scene, the protagonist Betty has taken a mysterious blue cube out of her purse. She and her amnesiac companion, Rita, return to her apartment. Once they enter Betty's bedroom, Betty and Rita cross the frame from left to right. The camera stays on Rita as she goes to the closet to retrieve her purse from the hatbox, presumably to pull out the blue key to see if it fits the cube. The camera pans left and Betty goes off-screen for a moment. The camera pulls back and pans right, and Betty is not there. Rita seems confused as to where Betty went. The lack of a cut makes a "something strange is going on" hypothesis on the part of the audience more likely, though all other hypotheses have not been ruled out (Betty could have slipped behind the camera very quickly and quietly). Rita's reaction prompts us to look for an explanation for this spontaneous disappearance, rather than merely chalking it up as an artistically motivated flourish.
Rita then unlocks the cube. The camera zooms in on the blackness inside the cube, and the cube drops to the ground. A rational explanation of this action would be that Rita dropped the cube. However, as the camera tilts up, a red-haired woman looking is around the apartment. The film cuts to a view of the bedroom in which we have just seen Rita. There is no Rita. Presumably, this is a physical impossibility, perhaps the first that we have witnessed. The camera does a pan left over the bedroom, and then even tilts down, to show that no blue cube is on the rug. This camera move is significant. The narration is making sure that we know that something out of the ordinary has gone on, flaunting its unreliability (or making sure we know that something supernatural has happened).
Time Travel, Mental Illness, and Martyrdom
To clarify further the varying levels of ambiguity in the narration of psychological puzzle films, I will compare three films that deal with time travel and mentally disturbed protagonists. Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect, and The Jacket all feature a traumatized protagonist who gains the power to go back in time to alter injustices but in doing so negates his own existence. However, Donnie Darko leaves more room for interpretation by exhibiting a lack of redundancy and by postponing evidence of time travel until the very end of the plot.
Donnie Darko starts out with a moderately restricted, self-conscious narration. After two brief scenes introducing Donnie, his family, and the setting, the narration self-consciously inserts an intertitle that reads, "October 8th, 1988." A distorted voice accompanies the intertitle card, saying, "wake up." In the following shot, Donnie obliges, walking out the front door in the middle of the night in a sort of trance. That we hear the voice as we see Donnie's face would lead us to believe that Donnie is "hearing voices" and that we are hearing them along with him. In this way, the narration is letting us in on the thoughts of the main character, for a moment becoming highly subjective. Since it is nighttime, and especially unusual things are happening, we might entertain the possibility that this is only a dream.
Once Donnie leaves the house, we see a medium shot of Donnie smirking with the background out of focus. Then comes the film's first dissolve, to a shot of what appears to be a long shot of a man in a rabbit suit standing on golf course. This image is so incongruous and poorly lit that it is reasonable to believe that a first-time viewer might not realize what he or she is seeing, only knowing that something is very much out of the ordinary (cued by the dissonant, ambient music on the soundtrack as well as the low lighting). The use of the dissolve, as well as the indistinctness of Donnie's surroundings in the medium shot, leave us with two possibilities--either time has passed between the moment when he walked out of his house and he has walked all the way to a golf course, or he is still right outside his front door and is hallucinating. The long shot of the man in the rabbit suit accompanied by the distorted voice cue the viewer to believe that the voice is the voice of that character. However, Donnie would not have been able to hear the voice of the man in the rabbit suit in his bedroom, and presumably he did hear the voice at that time. Two possibilities exist--either the man in the rabbit suit can somehow throw his voice telepathically, or the voice and the image are hallucinations.
That no person is shown who would embody the voice through non-telepathic means and that Donnie reacts to the voice leads us to believe that what we are seeing is somehow unreal. We do not know whether what we have seen is a hallucination, a dream, or some amalgam of both. The traditional means of cuing the audience to understand that this was a dream comes in the form of having the character wake up in bed in the shot following the end of the scene. Increasingly, films play the trick on the audience of not providing the initial dream cue at the start of the dream sequence, letting the audience think what they're seeing is real until they see the inevitable shot of the character suddenly awaking. However, instead of giving us that shot, the film cuts back to the Darko living room. Moments later, an explosion shakes the house. We see that the father, the mother, and Donnie's sister Elizabeth have survived the explosion, but we do not see Donnie.
Next, we see Donnie waking up on a golf course. This would seem to indicate that at least part of what happened in the preceding scene was not a dream, unless of course the scene in which we see Donnie awaken on the golf course is part of an extended dream. At the very least, the scenes of Donnie leaving his house and seeing a golf course were all causally connected to the scenes that follow. Whether or not a man was in a rabbit suit or whether that man was part of a dream or a hallucination is still open for conjecture. The viewer may not know it at the time, but this is a key moment in the film. Through character dialogue, the narration informs us that two separate timelines are starting from this point in the plot. In one, Donnie stays in bed and is crushed by the jet engine. In another (the one which takes up the bulk of the plot), Donnie initially avoids being crushed by the jet engine and corrects several injustices before sending another jet engine back in time that does crush him, thereby negating his existence.
The audience isn't likely to be believe this rather outrageous possibility, especially when the range of narration is restricted to a mentally disturbed protagonist who sees men in rabbit suits. However, Donnie manages successfully to predict several events, thus lending credence to this time travel theory. In effect, the film ends up saying that Donnie is upstairs in bed about to be crushed by a jet engine and he has avoided this by wandering out to a golf course in the middle of the night.
This possible relationship between Donnie's visions and diegetic reality comes to light very gradually, and not at all very clearly. The narration of Donnie Darko is willing to communicate what Donnie knows about the causal relationship between his hallucinations and diegetic reality but not what this instructing spirit who guides Donnie knows. This spirit tells Donnie that something significant will happen twenty-eight days from his initial appearance but does not let us know what that event will be. In this way, the narration flaunts its low level of communicativeness throughout the film, creating a mystery that we, along with the protagonist, long to solve.
In contrast, the narration in The Butterfly Effect provides redundant cues to make certain the audience understands the causal relationship between protagonist Evan Treborn's flashbacks and the diegetic present tense. Evan has suffered from blackouts all his life. Though neither he nor we know it, traumatic events occurring to him caused these blackouts. Occasionally, he will experience a flashback that fills in these ellipses in his experience. After his girlfriend Kalie dies, he wills himself backwards in time by reading one of his journals. He alters circumstances in Kalie's life, and then returns to the present tense to find that Kalie is now alive and well.
When Evan has his first couple of flashbacks, we may initially assume that the narration is deep. In his third flashback, he is able to take possession of his former self and take action that has repercussions on the present-day diegetic world. It is possible that all three flashbacks involved time travel, in which case the narration was not as deep as we initially suspected. It is merely showing us what is occurring in diegetic reality rather than depicting the inner thoughts of an individual character. We only know for sure that the third flashback was a depiction of time travel because Evan took action that had subsequent repercussions. However, it is possible that Evan could have acted as a causal agent in the previous two flashbacks had he been a bit less passive and more pro-active.
From this point on, we understand that although time is moving back and forth for everyone else in the story, it is constantly moving forward for the protagonist. What makes this unclear at first is that the time-traveling Evan inhabits the body of his former self. The character of Evan is defined by his actions rather than his appearance. In this relatively early resolution of initial ambiguity, The Butterfly Effect is similar to 12 Monkeys. The audience no longer has to spend time hypothesizing about the nature of the events and can concentrate on trying to predict what changes Evan's actions in the past will have on the diegetic present.
In The Jacket, the revelation that the narration hasn't been as deep as we initially thought comes just after the midpoint of the film. Until this point, we know that the protagonist, Jack Starks, has been shot in the head twice. We know that, after apparently being framed for murder, he has been incarcerated in an institution for the criminally insane. We see scenes in which Jack has projected himself into the future. These scenes are initially marked as flashbacks until Jack learns that it is the year 2007. At that moment, we know that these scenes are not flashbacks, but may either be fantasies or scenes depicting Jack visiting the future. The scene in which Jack proves to another character that he has time traveled occurs when he predicts that a certain treatment will cure a sick boy. This is knowledge that he could not have possibly attained without having traveled in time. While time traveling, Jack learns of a woman's death and uses his ability to travel in time to prevent it. As in The Butterfly Effect and Donnie Darko, the male protagonist sacrifices his life by traveling in time and altering circumstances to save the life of a female.
A Special Case
Perhaps most unique among this survey of psychological puzzle films is Memento. The story concems amnesiac Leonard Shelby's attempt to hunt down the man whom he believes to have murdered his wife. The narration of Memento exhibits extremely low levels of communicativeness and reliability by telling the story backwards and revising events as it goes along. However, when identifying the levels of the narration's communicativeness, we must take into account that at the end of each scene, Leonard is unable to recall the events that have transpired in the previous scene. Like The Butterfly Effect, Memento shows that the physical body of one character can hold more than one causal agent. Each time Leonard's memory is wiped clean, he becomes a new character with slightly different goals and different experience. Memento reveals how crucial diegetic experience is to establishing a unified, coherent character. If we consider Leonard to be a newly motivated causal agent in each scene, the narration is being totally communicative. It may not tell us everything that Leonard has experienced during the course of the story, but it is telling us everything he remembers. In fact, the narration is actually being more communicative than the narration of most other psychological puzzle films because it allows the audience to accumulate more knowledge than Leonard is able to hold in his head (assuming the audience possesses the cognitive aptitude to re-order scenes into their proper chronological order while watching the film--certainly not an easy task).
We think Leonard is the detective, when actually, he is the perpetrator and we are the detectives, moving back in time, piecing things together. Our knowledge of the situation moves towards greater resolution when we find out that Natalie is manipulative, and that Teddy isn't as bad as we might have initially hypothesized. From the beginning, we may hypothesize that the narration is capable of lying to us, the way that characters lie to Leonard. Leonard's speech about how memories are unreliable, while facts are not, perhaps has us put more faith in Leonard's system and, by association, the narration than we should.
It is important to note that the narration doesn't become unreliable until fairly late in the film. Up until that point, the audience has been engaged in "playing the game" of constructing the narrative in its proper order, in hopes of finding out what really happened. However, when the narration becomes unreliable, this process of putting every scene back in the right order becomes meaningless. The initial block against reading the film as a traditional linear narration was the out-of-sequence presentation of diegetic events. The more substantial block against this reading is the revelation of an unreliable narration. We might continue to assemble the scenes in their chronological order and draw causal connections between scenes, but none of this "reality" that we have assembled may have anything to do with the reality of the diegetic world. As Rosalind Sibielski notes in her article on Memento, this initial dependence on traditional (i.e. Western, Enlightenment-based) methods of deductive reasoning mirror Leonard's dependence on photographers as representative of his personal history (Sibielski 90-91). Things remain stable just long enough for us (and Leonard) to believe that we can use traditional detective methods to come closer to the truth.
Deception is one of the main themes of Memento. Some viewers might recognize the deceptive nature of the narration as an extension of this theme and leave it at that. Just as Leonard will not ever "figure it out," we may never figure out what really happened. These viewers see the movie as an attempt to make a point about the deceptive nature of human beings (and perhaps of film), and they think that knowing what actually happened in the story and what was a lie is either unknowable, beside the point, or both. However, some viewers believe that it can all be pieced together, that the deception of the narration is temporary, and that a rational, coherent version of events is available to careful viewers. They are likely to accept Teddy's version of events--a man only raped but never killed Leonard's wife, and Leonard has been going around killing people named John G ever since. They believe the film has an internally consistent logic that can be uncovered. The narration does not close off either of these interpretations, and so can be considered ambiguous.
This survey of psychological puzzle films reveals several recurring patterns in the levels of range, depth, self-consciousness, communicativeness, and reliability of narration that serve as defining characteristics of this mode. Many of these films have a split protagonist: the entity who represses and the entity who is repressed, corresponding to the consciousness or super-ego, and the unconscious id. The narration typically presents the super-ego as communicative, while the id flaunts its uncommunicativeness. Thus, the narration appears to be communicative at first, but upon further inspection, it often is not. Likewise, the narration often appears to be restricted to the point of view of a single individual consciousness. Typically, in one pivotal scene the narration changes range, depth, communicativeness, and/or reliability. This scene can occur at the end of any of the three acts. This scene reveals the unreliability of the narration and causes us to revise our impression of how deep, knowledgeable, communicative, or reliable the narration was all along. Also, many of these films contain partial hallucinations in which some causal relationship exists between the hallucination and diegetic reality. The challenge for protagonist and audience alike is to find out the nature and extent of this relationship.
In classical Hollywood films, the narration provides certain cues to let the audience know that although time has been elided from the story, the events being depicted in the plot are part of a continuous reality in which causes result in (and precede) effects. The implied continuous nature of diegetic reality allows the audience to make hypotheses about the probable effects of characters' actions. Traditionally, breaks in the cause-effect chain mark an event, or series of events, as "not real." Classical narration may lead us to believe that one series of events is part of the same continuous reality of the rest of the plot when this is not in fact the case, but it almost always reveals this deception immediately after it has perpetrated it. This is not so with the psychological puzzle narrative. In these films, the gap between narrational knowledge and audience knowledge of the causal relations between sections of the plot serves as a defining characteristic of the group. These gaps occur more often than in classical narration, and these gaps can persist for most of the film.
Certainly, episodic narratives exist in which scenes do not have direct cause-effect relationships to one another. The oft-cited Pulp Fiction and films written by Stephen Gaghan depict diegetic worlds in which events are more thematically related than causally related. However, scenes in these episodic narratives do not have information that contradicts information in other scenes. Some art films may have events that contradict events in other scenes, but unless the characters within the diegesis acknowledge this contradiction, then the deception remains at the level of the author, at the surface of the text. In the psychological puzzle narrative, the mystery is linked to characters within the diegesis. Scenes do not fit together, in terms of cause and effect, for the audience as well as the protagonist.
Classical narration often withholds critical information from the protagonist and the audience to create suspense, most notably in detective films. Over the course of the film, it provides competing cues as to what will happen, or what has happened (e.g., will the protagonist survive, or, who murdered the victim?) Though the narration in such films could be considered deceptive or unreliable, classical narration generally manifests its unreliability through the dialogue. In other words, the characters appear to be doing the lying, rather than the narration. In psychological puzzle narratives, the narration is responsible for the deception, but this deception does not remain on the surface of the text, as with art-cinema narration.
In classical narration, the narration is essentially at the service of a character. Typically, it is at the service of the protagonist. In the case of the detective story, it is temporarily at the service of the deceptive antagonist and then at the service of the detective protagonist. In art-cinema narration, it is operating at a level outside of the diegesis, presenting deceptions of which characters could not be aware. Psychological puzzle narratives offer a narration that acts as a disruptive force, blocking the protagonist's clear comprehension of events. Unlike classically narrated films, no proxy, no embodiment of the deceptive narrator exists within the diegesis. The deceptive narration is a manifestation of an aspect of the protagonist's mind. In future analyses of psychological puzzle films, it may be helpful to think of this disembodied entity as a character in and of itself. Certainly, such an issue needs to be addressed. As useful as Sternberg's categories of qualities of narration are, they need to be modified to account for the ways in which psychological puzzle films are narrated.
In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, David Bordwell writes that classical narration presents a puzzle that is "born of story: what is in her past? What will he do now?" He contrasts this with the puzzle presented by the art film that is "one of narration: who is telling this story? How is this story being told? Why tell the story this way?" (Bordwell, Staiger, Thompson 374; emphasis in original). One may ask whether the digressions from classical narration evident in the psychological puzzle film serve the same purpose as those in art cinema, namely: to indicate the "messiness of life," or a character's mental instability, or an authorial voice. The norms being played with in the psychological puzzle film are those of the detective film and those of the art-cinema film. An element of non-filmic interactive storytelling exists in these films. Younger audiences that are increasingly comfortable with the burgeoning interactive medium of video games may find puzzle narratives appealing for this reason. It is not enough say that these characters are mentally unstable and that when the narration diverges from the classical mode, it is merely reflecting their fractured look on life. We seem to seek the nature of the instability even when we realize we are watching a psychological puzzle film, and take pleasure in trying to figure out the rules of the narration that presents the story to us.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
Bordwell, David; Staiger, Janet; Thompson, Kristin. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Eig, Jonathan. "A Beautiful Mind(fuck):Hollywood Structures of Identity." Jump Cut #46. (Summer 2003). < http://www.ejumpcut. org/archive/jc46.2003/index.html>
Hague, Angela. "Infinite Games: The Derationalization of Detection in Twin Peaks." In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks.
Lavery, David, Ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995. 130-143.
Little, William G. "Surviving Memento." Narrative 13.1 (Jan 2005): 67-83.
Perlmutter, Ruth. "Memories, Dreams, Screens." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 22.2 (April-June 2005): 125-134.
Sibielski, Rosalind. "Postmodern Narrative or Narrative of the Postmodern? History, Identify, and the Failure of Rationality as an Ordering Principle in Memento." Literature & Psychology 49.4 (2004): 82-100.
Spanos, William V. "The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination." Repetitions: The Postmodern Occasion in Literature and Culture. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. 13-50.
Tan, Ed. Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 1996.
Thompson, Kristen. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
(1) The author of a text could be a director (as posited by auteur critics), an actor, a producer, or a filmmaker collective. All of these approaches link the group of films to an individual or a group of individuals.
(2) The classical Hollywood mode of narration, as well as the historical and economic conditions that brought it about, are discussed in detail in Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson's The Classical Hollywood Cinema.
(3) It is interesting how, in critical discourse, the key to understanding the reality of a film can be another, similarly constructed film. In her discussion of Mulholland Drive, Ruth Perlmutter compares the film to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (Perlmutter 127). When critics or viewers use "forerunner films" in this manner, they assume that the older film has a clearer reality than the more recent one. In the case of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the film's reality--that the entire film was the memory of a dying individual--is assumed to be indubitable. One might surmise that viewers who had seen Occurrence ... before Jacob's Ladder would have an easier time understanding it than those who hadn't. Perlmutter is careful to qualify this interpretation of Mulholland Drive as a possible reading.
(4) Yet some people don't impose that reading on these films. Some viewers read them as art films, in which there is no concrete solution to the mysteries, nor are the dual stories supposed to symbolize the fractured psyche of a character. Also some viewers read such films as incomplete, imperfect classically narrated detective stories.
(5) In the case of Mulholland Drive, the critique may be directed specifically towards the ordered, logical, linear Enlightenment values of Hollywood.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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