Amazing Stories – Literally: Nolan, Kubrick, and the Puzzle of Puzzle Pictures
The Sixth Sense has come and gone as has its (alleged) twist ending. It’s hard to categorize The Sixth Sense but like The Shining or Inception I shall dub it as part of the puzzle picture genre that keeps appearing then disappearing only to come back. At first sight, the very existence of puzzle pictures is a puzzle since most people just want to enjoy a good show and not experience some cerebral mediation on filmmaking. Directors for obvious reasons are tempted into this territory. It allows them to, literally, have their cake and eat it, too, by showering the audience with endless riddles (many of them irrelevant to main narrative). Watching The Ninth Gate one wonders whether the director is trying to keep the main characters or audience confused.
The approach of puzzles comes in many varieties of course. Kubrick liked to use his puzzles to make some deep political or philosophical point. Life is a lot like chess (Kubrick was an avid chess player) and one never knows what one is getting. So the layout of the story of The Shining is like the corridors of the Overlook itself, a dizzying experience. This is perhaps the extreme of puzzle pictures. Memento and Inception are in the middling field where the ostensive rules of the game are presented, violated, restored, and then (re)presented in various fashions. In Memento, the protagonist’s actual body is a puzzle and reading the body as a text is a clue to solving the problem. Inception goes further and has puzzles within puzzles as various dream-states have different temporal and physical realities.
Why do directors like to torture audiences like this? Because, done correctly, the pay-off is too sweet to pass up. Nolan’s Inception won praise not least for essentially keeping the entire film cohesively tied together and avoiding turning a good film into another Dune-like disaster. Even an experience critic probably couldn’t guess the wallop delivered by the American remake of The Ring. The downside, of course, is constructing a puzzle that won’t be easily uncovered instantly requires a lot of care and expertise and can be fumbled easily. The Matrix has probably one of the easiest to grasp. Early on, given the kind of allusions used, Neo’s doubt as to whether he is the “one” (apparently unaware that his very name is an anagram!) is resolved by a certain “fact” that Trinity divulges. I won’t spoil it but the bow to Snow White is pretty obvious, silly, and hard to miss.
Why, then, do we enter these maze-like movies? Perhaps the best answer is one Cormac McCarthy gave regarding novels. Most novels are – surprise! – compose of other novels. And movies are often just composites of, yes, other movies. The fatal flaw isn’t that much cinematic material is derivative – that’s true of everything. The problem for most movies – because they concentrate on movement and action – is that the audience, having seen the previous movies, is going to be able to anticipate the next step or level within a film. Presumably, directors no less than everyone else can tell where things are going, too, and soon become bored with the routine narratives they have before them and are tempted to play around with them in all sorts of weird ways.
The point is not to argue for or against the puzzle genre. It’s too amorphous a category to be ever stopped. Most puzzle pictures are obvious in toying with easy topics like time and space. But a film like Chinatown stands out as a puzzle because of both the internal mystery and the shifts and turns the characters and atmosphere take on then transform.
There lots of examples of the genre being done well (say, Fight Club) but also many examples where it misses the mark considerable (A Beautiful Mind comes to, well, one’s mind). Certainly, A Beautiful Mind stands out on its own in terms of performances. But with a madman on the loose and Russell Crowe available obviously who wouldn’t like to mess around with a mathematician’s head?
Probably, the most sober criticism of the puzzle genre is when the director and performers mess it up for no apparent reason negating even the strangest rules possible. Terminator Salvation especially has been attacked on this point. Terminator 3 also had its problems but, in comparison, continues to come out as a solid if not excellent piece of entertainment a la T2. But honestly how many films will realistically reach the heights T2 attained with its mind-bending allegiance to time-travel paradoxes? It can be done as Twelve Monkeys demonstrate. Perhaps the best rule for the genre is directors should only try them very early or very late in their careers. The middling years have turned out, on average, just plain annoying to most people. Even the strong have problem understand what Kubrick was up to in Barry Lyndon or what Michael Bay is up to in any film of his.