Discussion On “Puzzle Films”

“Do you find clues to be helpful in mind-game films or would you prefer to piece it together on your own?”

The answer to the question, I think, depends on what one means by “clues”.  If by “clues”, one means specific elements of the film one can glean so as to “prove” an interpretation, than clues are not only helpful, but necessary—and as such, one cannot “piece it together on their own”.  However, the question is almost certainly asking about “clues” in the sense of deliberate clues—that is, specific “pointers” the filmmaker put in specifically so as to point towards or at least imply a specific solution.  In that case, I would still answer, “Yes—certainly.”  At least as far as I am concerned, one needs a starting point—a sense of direction—if one wishes to take a journey without becoming “lost”.

This does not mean, necessarily, that I always want a solution to be given to me—although that often does suit the film (for example, a “twist ending” film like The Sixth Sense).  Sometimes it is preferable for me, as a “thinking” viewer, to be left to find the solution for myself.  After all, the process of solving the puzzle—the challenge, the re-thinking of premises to find “where I went wrong”, etc.—contributes just as much to the fun as to actually finding the solution (although this is, of course, not to be taken too far—lest the “player” give up in frustration).

Further, it is often better in such films to leave enough “clues” of the sort that more than one interpretation can be made—so that the fun of “solving” the puzzle will not be limited to “one” time.  With this, the viewer, upon re-watching the film, will eagerly put their theory of the “solution” to the test—and see if it “holds up” to the details.  David Andrews, in his “Oneiric Fugue” essay, uses this to great effect as he lays out the “dream/madness” interpretation of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, referring to such clues as the pillow seen before the credits—and then critiques his own interpretation.  Also, Belinda Morrissey channels this “multiple solution” appeal in her “Impossible Memory” essay, as she creates a list of potential solutions for Memento (in the final “notes”) and for Mulholland Drive (in the essay text).  In both cases, all solutions are valid in some form, depending on how the viewer interprets the clues.  Filmmakers Christopher Nolan and David Lynch, here, leave their respective puzzles sufficiently “open-ended” so that the game can be enjoyed again and again, as the “object” of the game seems to be not to find “the” solution, so much as a solution which fits the facts of the game.

Question: When is a “dream” reading of a film (i.e., that the film’s events in question are not “really” happening, but are rather in a character’s “head”) a valid means of interpretation?  Do certain criteria have to be met to confirm validity—and if so, what could they be?

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