Cornelia Klecker: Mind-Tricking Narratives in Contemporary Hollywood

When we look at today’s landscape of mainstream film, one phenomenon seems striking: the viewers’ evident fascination for confusion. Meticulously designed narratives that force the audience to actively participate and lead up to the final mind-boggling plot twist have been extremely popular in recent years, as evidenced by films such as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, David Fincher’s The Game and Fight Club, and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. The list of these kinds of films could, of course, be prolonged considerably. They almost make up a small genre of their own – one that I would like to call mind-tricking narratives. As the expression already suggests, these are narrative techniques that deliberately play with the viewers’ experience, response, and expectations during the viewing of a film and feature an utterly surprising outcome in the end.

My thesis will be divided into two main parts each having a different approach of discussing trick-narrative films. First of all, I will consider these films from a narratological point of view. Starting with David Bordwell’s postulation that complex plots are merely a slight deviation and/or addition to the simple plot and can, consequently, be ‘squeezed’ into the pattern of Classic Hollywood narrative, I would rather like to argue along the lines of Warren Buckland’s concept of puzzle plots: Mind-tricking narratives are a third kind of plot – after the simple (or classical) plot, which is essentially mimetic (in the Aristotelian sense) and stresses the importance of the unity of action, time, and location, and the complex plot, which is based on the simple plot with the additional features of reversal and recognition that introduce a new line of causality. The mind-tricking plot goes beyond the complex plot. It is obscure in the sense that the arrangement of events is not just complex but complicated and bewildering; the events are not simply intertwined but entangled.

By closely analyzing and comparing the narrative structures of selected films in order to find potential similarities and common underlying patterns and establishing further sub-categories to the basic two categories of mind-tricking narrative mentioned above, I will seek to answer the following questions: How do plots have to be structured in order to achieve the desired goal, i.e. to trick the audience’s mind? And how does a filmmaker withhold the necessary facts from the viewers to deduce, conclude, perhaps even predict, the unavoidable outcome, yet at the same time present enough information that the story holds true and seems probable even after the audience’s re-evaluation or even reviewing (without employing a deus ex machina)? In other words, in narrative, how do you withhold information and at the same time plant clues?

Having established how mind-tricking narrative in film is done, I will move on to the second main part of my thesis, namely, the cultural aspect. In other words, I will try to answer the question of why films with these kinds of plots are made, or to be more precise, why these films have attracted such large audiences only in recent years. In order to answer this question, this section will combine a number of different approaches, from reception theory to cultural studies. Parts of the explanation of this phenomenon will still be found within the realm of film, such as the evolution of editing that resulted in the sophistication of the viewers as well as the long tradition of alternate storytelling and montage in avant-garde and independent film. Noël Burch’s elaborations on filmic time and space that counter David Bordwell’s theory of the natural development of Classic Hollywood narrative will also play a central role.

However, in order to fully grasp a cultural phenomenon, such as a sudden popularity of a certain kind of film, I have to leave the area of film in its narrowest sense. I will take several postmodern concept and notions, such as the perception of time, the fascination for confusion, and the postmodern condition that is defined by a crisis of identity and a loss of a sense of history and thus of a sense of self, into account. Furthermore, the influence of other new media, such as television, DVDs, videogames, and the Internet will be elaborated on and plain commercial reasons, in other words, the production companies’ desire to encourage repeated viewing and DVD sales by releasing more complex films, will be considered.

(University of Innsbruck)