Unlike later mindfucks, Cube’s characters are simplified archetypes. However, foreshadowing more recent films, Cube’s plot is postmodern in that it challenges the very notion of identity.

In Waking Life, the unnamed protagonist does what these heroes do best, contemplate existence.

Waking Life’s many characters engage in wide ranging discussions on existence. But their identities are not challenged

Hero David Aames wears a mask in Vanilla Sky.

A Beautiful Mind is based on the life of a real life mathematician, John Nash, who is overcome by schizophrenia and then gets it under control, though he never banishes it.

A Beautiful Mind’s script reveals the mindfuck secret midway through.

A Beautiful Mind is finally about waging a personal struggle against mental illness. This storyline wins favor with popular audiences and helps the film win an Oscar for Best Picture.

The Others: Mindfuck films with women protagonists often develop the theme of female madness.

The Others: Women are required to work within the prescribed social system. Here protagonist Grace Stewart faces madness in defense of her family.

The Sixth Sense: Unlike most mindfuck heroes, Malcolm in the end is a positive force, able to help Cole. He has to face the same kind of horror at his own identity as do the other mindfuck heroes, but the film ends more hopefully than most . Perhaps his transcendence accounts for the film’s great success.

But who do we trust to help us with this identity-affirming work? These films no longer pose questions such as, “Who can I trust to tell me the truth about society, or God, or my wife, or the Kennedy assassination?” Now the films make audiences ask, “Who can I trust to tell me the truth about my own identity?”

Seemingly we no longer can generate self-knowledge. Thematically, these films assume that we have ceded that responsibility—to politicians, doctors, Hollywood image makers, high priests on the pulpit, or advice texts on TV or in the self-help section of the bookstore. In this sense, what Baudrillard analyzes as the deletion of the referential universe results in our deleting our own identity.

Image-makers fill the resulting void, and these are the monsters hiding behind the dumpster behind the diner in Mulholland Drive. And film may an art form especially appealing to a fascistic artist, to a director or screenwriter who seizes the responsibility for psychic definition by controlling the viewer’s eye and the ear, who manipulates what we believe and what we trust, who creates characters for us. I believe the monster behind the dumpster behind the diner in Mulholland Drive is someone like film director David Lynch. I also believe that Donnie Darko finds a portal to another dimension from a screen projecting the movie The Evil Dead because movies have the power to impress a new reality onto our brains in ways unsurpassed by any other medium.

Although film can “deconstruct” character quite easily, at best it can only flirt with a postmodern template for character. Baudrillard’s claim for the disappearance of a referential universe in fact does not explain the mechanisms of audience response to mindfuck films and their development of their protagonists. In fact, most viewers of fiction film will arrive at some comfortable interpretation of what motivated the protagonist or of what happened in the plot. If Diane Selwyn is not Betty, then she is Diane. Malcolm Crowe is either alive or dead.

This either/or construction on the part of viewer response presupposes some identifiable center; in viewing the film, at a certain point in the plot, perhaps at the end of the film, we find some reference point allowing us to accept that we have been fooled; then we can move forward in our interpretation confident that the opposite of what we had believed is true. Postmodernism suggests that no such center exists, a disquieting and frightening notion.

Interestingly, the very physical process by which film creates its illusion of realistic motion provides an apt metaphor for the same philosophical problem. When those unacquainted with moving pictures see a film, their assumption is that the film stock itself must have a free-flowing collection of images which, when projected, create an image of continuous motion. People must be taught that film is indeed comprised of discreet static images, or frames, which are frozen on screen for a split second before being replaced by the next frame. They must learn about persistence of vision.

Frames provide a physical structure for film. The frames themselves can be manipulated, or deconstructed, but they remain frames. They can split into sections, as in Jim Cunningham’s “Fear/Love” motivational tapes in Donnie Darko, or be subliminally inserted into other texts, as in Fight Club. But they always remain frames. A more aptly postmodern, mindfuck script for Fight Club would not reveal that Jack and Tyler Durden are one in the same. It would reveal that the character we have come to know as Jack is not recognizable as anything or anyone. The plot would offer no underlying structure to clarify identity.

Perhaps the most postmodern image in recent film comes in the final shot of Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 thriller Cube. After all the debates the characters, and the audience, engage in about the nature of the world and the power structures that control it, a door opens onto a vast terrain of blinding white light. An overwhelmed innocent steps out into this all-encompassing “reality.” It can be a terrifying image. At least the Starchild from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 promised rebirth. Cube— like the most prophetically postmodern of classic tragedies, Macbeth —appears to promise nothing. But Cube has a plotline concerned with the structure of society, not with the structure of identity. Viewers may find it easier to accept that they cannot identify social forces than to accept that the “individual” cannot be identified. In a sense, our desire to recognize ourselves makes a truly post-modern identity film more difficult.

It might be argued that another film from 2001 achieves this more fully than any of the five films thus far discussed. Richard Linklater’s Waking Life appears to be concerned with all of these issues around identity. The plotline very clearly follows one of the mindfuck templates described earlier. An unnamed hero suffers a possibly fatal accident early on, then awakens into a dream world of philosophical conversation and exploration. This hero begins to assume late in the movie that this dream state may be death. The closing image in which he floats off into the air like a helium balloon does little to confirm or deny this interpretation.

Waking Life has only a philosophical discussion for dialogue, so in that dialogue postmodernism is addressed directly, as is existentialism, lucid dreaming, and a wide range of other concepts of existence. In its scope, the film’s themes surpass even Donnie Darko. Yet in the way that it treats the characters’ emotions or addresses audience processes of identification, Waking Life hardly seems concerned with identity but rather treats its characters as mechanisms of thought. With very few exceptions, its characters do not come close to offering full and complete identities. Though the characters express a passion for intellectual curiosity, scarcely another human emotion is worked in the script.

The few times other emotions are expressed in Waking Life, they tend to be destructive, as with the two gunmen in the bar, or the Red Man in jail. Interestingly, these are among the only narrative scenes in the movie. These characters relate anecdotes and tell stories about what has happened or what will happen. And the characters engaged in narratives all come to unpleasant ends. Virtually every other character speaks about human life theoretically.

As a viewer, I found the characters who spoke narratives and their unpleasant fates far more interesting than the basic Cliff Notes version of philosophical history spoken by the professors and thinkers throughout the movie. This is the case even though, as in most of Linklater’s compelling work, it his distrust of traditional narrative that gains critical attention for being his most original contribution to feature fiction film. In sum, Waking Life may include identity in its characters’ broad discourse on existence, but identity is not its chief concern.

Donnie Darko comes the closest to presenting a true postmodern conception of character. The plot offers too many possible answers to the question, “Where is Donnie?”—as seen in a note on the refrigerator at the beginning of the story. And the plot give too many possible answers to the question, “Who is Donnie?” The other movies may make us pose questions about how we conceive our own identities, but they seem to provide structures to answer those questions. Of course, the actual meaning of any provided “answer” within the plot development is open for debate.

It should come as no surprise that of all the characters discussed in Hollywood’s recent midfuck films, only two, Diane Selwyn and Grace Stewart, are women. Perhaps more significantly, not a single director or writer of any recent mindfuck movie has been a woman. (Sylvia Nasser’s book about John Nash formed the basis of A Beautiful Mind, but the screenplay was written by Akiva Goldman.) This is not so unusual for Hollywood, where the vast majority of producers, directors, and screenwriters have always been males.

Throughout Hollywood history, neither sex has held a monopoly on characters who slide into delusion. Examinations of delusional characters have often been relegated to sub-genres, so we tend to find deluded men like Victor Frankenstein in a horror film (Frankenstein, James Whale, 1931) and deluded women like Virginia Stuart in melodrama (The Snake Pit, Anatole Litvak, 1948). Traditionally, male characters have been allowed far more latitude in reworking reality to their liking than have the women.

The classic Hollywood hero, as defined in countless Westerns and action/adventure films, recognizes some flaw in a social order and then acts to correct that flaw. From John Wayne on, the male hero has been permitted to step outside the boundaries of society and is recognized as heroic for doing so. Tyler Durden, Leonard Shelby, and Donnie Darko are all destroyers, and each of them achieves some measure of triumph in that destruction.

The same cannot be said for Diane Selwyn. In traditional Hollywood film, women are required to work within the flawed social system, relying on what are seen as feminine wiles to achieve any triumph. Consequently, madness for a woman can never be heroic. Grace Stewart in The Others comes about as close as a woman can come, precisely because her madness derives from her resolutely clinging to her family. The ending of The Others is by no means happy, but at least Grace has found a place and a purpose. Mulholland Drive’s Diane Selwyn, who has no family in the film, is not granted even that level of comfort by the plot.

The preponderance of male heroes in today’s mindfucks (in tandem with the preponderance of male directors and screenwriters of such movies) may suggest something beyond institutional Hollywood sexism. Perhaps male protagonists are better suited to this role of facing identity confusion (and male storytellers more interested in narrating this construction) precisely because men have been the traditionally dominant gender.

If the underlying idea in these movies is the fear that we cannot trust ourselves to know ourselves, such an idea would strike more acutely at those who have previously had the highest degree of confidence. Film has consistently told women that they are incapable of independence, that they are defined by those around them, by their men and their families. But for men, who have been schooled to believe in their own individual ability to see clearly and act accordingly, the idea of the mindfuck can be all the more devastating.

Finally, all five of these movies seem to suggest that self-imposed delusion may be a valid alternative to reality. Even in Fight Club, which ends with the destruction of the illusory character at the hands of the real character, we must recognize the tremendous service that illusory Tyler Durden has provided for the real Tyler. Fantasy has given meaning to the real.

But another recent movie, A Beautiful Mind, which shares a structural similarity with these five movies states a clear preference for reality over fantasy, a far more palatable conclusion in a culture which elevates reason over imagination. Not surprisingly and perhaps because of that kind of resolution, this movie won an Oscar as the Best Picture of 2001 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Although the mindfuck in A Beautiful Mind functions differently than the mindfucks in these other movies, it has the same narrative structure. The audience, along with the hero, John Nash, is tricked into believing in a reality which is ultimately proven false. Yet the plot differs in timing and message. We learn the truth about John Nash at the film’s midpoint rather than toward the end. (The other movies either reveal the truth at the end of the second act or in the climax.)

And John Nash learns to defeat his delusions in a positive manner. Malcolm Crowe, Diane Selwyn, and Donnie Darko appear to be dead at the end of their movies. The “ironic hopefulness” at Fight Club’s conclusion leaves Tyler Durden’s status open-ended. And Leonard Shelby simply allows the delusion to win out. A Beautiful Mind offers far more optimism about our ability to overcome our delusions. Perhaps that partially explains why it won such a prestigious award. But it used the same device to reveal its story that these other mindfucks did. It simply left us in a safer, more comfortable place after it was done with us.

Continued: Notes

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