Angry Robot

mindfuck films

Vanilla Sky is yet another recent mindfuck film, like The Game, The Matrix, Waking
Life, Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, Totall Recall, ExistenZ, 12 Monkeys, Memento, Lost Highway, and Mullholland Drive. So what makes a mindfuck film?

Well, I’m not exactly sure (I’m making this up as I go along – this ain’t no
film-texbook genre). One thing to look for is a hefty plot twist, one
that forces the protagonist to question reality itself. Said reality tends
to be nothing more than a simulation, and a conspiratorial simulation at
that. Common themes are waking/dreaming, truth/fiction, self-deception as
vacation, etc. In many ways these films can be traced to Hitchcock
(especially the plot twists of Vertigo and Psycho). In almost all ways
they can be linked with Philip Dick.

It’s also notable that many concern
themselves, directly or tangentially, with videogames. The Game – well, look
at the title; ExistenZ is explicitly about videogames; The Matrix big-freeze
effect is inspired by videogames’ 3D replays. My pet theory at the moment is
a McLuhanist one. He argued strongly for art’s prognosticative role, in
particular its ability to warn of cultural changes brought about by
the onset of a new medium. In this case the fearsome new medium is
videogames, with their simulative ability growing every day.

10 comments on "mindfuck films"

  1. Jenny says:

    Two films, which don’t quite fit the video-game theory, but that I think of as potential mindfuck films are The Truman Show and The Usual Suspects. The first one fucks with the protagonist, and the second one fucks with the viewer.

  2. D says:

    True, Usual Suspects works well (the whole story turns out to be bullshit). And the Truman Show is an interesting example. Had it been done differently, it could have been more of a mindfuck, but that’s not what they were after.

    It comes down to the difference between shock and suspense, in Hitchcock terms. To quote at length from Truffaut’s interview:

    There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

    We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

    The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

    In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

    I guess the mindfuck film is better posed when it does away with suspense, aka dramatic irony, and concentrates on shock. You want that big, juicy, brain-blasting, oh-my-god-everything-has-changed feeling. Something Hitch obviously did the best in Psycho, and his career never really recovered after that. (Detailed excellently in this book.)

    Hmm, long-ass post. You set me off on a favourite subject, I guess.

  3. Jenny says:

    Reading your last bit about shock vs suspense made me think about another film, The Sixth Sense. What is interesting there is that the level of shock vs suspense depends on the viewer. The “oh-my-god-everything-has-changed” feeling is reinforced by the “gotcha” of replayed scenes from earlier in the movie, that you now understand differently. The viewer gets to have it both ways: have the oh-my-god feeling and watch the protagonist experience it too.

  4. D says:

    Well, that’s a case of shock. The effect can work on viewer and protagonist at the same time, in fact only in cases of dramatic irony – suspense – does it not work that way. In that case, the audience is told about something, but the protag. is not.

    Interesting: the replaying of old scenes after the moment of shock, this happens in other films. Fight Club, Usual Suspects, off the top of my head.

  5. Cal says:

    I just saw Donnie Darko, and apart from its mediocare ending, still ranks highly as a Mindfuck film.

  6. D says:

    Oh shit I’ve been meaning to see that one.

    Also worth noting on this page: Arnie actually says “what a mindfuck” in Total Recall.

  7. anon says:

    Hi, just surfed in from google searching for mindfuck.

    Reminds me of that scene in Pi where the guy actually takes a power drill to his head, a literal mindfuck..

    IMO the best mindfuck films are those like lynch’s work where plot is secondary and synbology and emotion is the main course of the film.

  8. D says:

    In a way, anon, in good mindfuck films the plot is revealed to be meaningless. I know what you mean about emotion and symbolism, although I’m not sure that related to the mind-fuckedness of these films. I could be wrong.

    Spider’s another one – see here.

  9. Robert says:

    First, Donny Darko is not worth it. The whole script pretends to be going somewhere special, but there is no payoff.

    And I can’t believe you folks haven’t mentioned Jacob’s Ladder.

    And can someone explain the end of 12 Monkeys for me? I’m getting it, very slowly, and I still don’t understand whether the female doctor “insurance” actually stopped the bad guy or not.

  10. D says:

    I can’t remember 12 monkeys too well… Good point about Jacob’s Ladder. That’s an awesome mindfucker.

    Also, I think Raising Cain fits in there somewhere, if only for the debt that Fight Club owes it.

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