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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.