The Impostor's Kiss
Often, the somatic body is privileged over the rational mind: this is the case in Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento. Memento in particular is a film that instantiates the precepts of Michel Foucault and Friedrich Kittler: the body is an Aufschreibsystem , a mnemotechnic-somatic recording and storage system on the flesh and the body especially when viewed from the vantage point of its supposedly superior AI successor. I list the many films that feature different mental-physiological states, such as schizophrenia, paranoia, autism, amnesia, bipolar, split and multiple personality, etc.
The world they find themselves in is also ours: making demands on the body, the mind and the senses that humans are not yet equipped for. Information overload, formerly extreme environments such as highly technologized and media-saturated life-styles, or areas of mortal danger, like a war zone — the mind-game film implies — have become so normalized, or are so contingently omnipresent, that they require aberrant behaviour, i.
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The task in this essay, then, is to complement my earlier symptomatic, sociological and economic reading of mind-game films with a reassessment of their status as a privileged though minoritarian object of study for contemporary cinema from a philosophical perspective. Such a perspective takes films to have an avowedly ideological function, but also a therapeutic and pedagogical dimension: in terms of psychoanalysis, films can have a fantasy function i.
In terms of pedagogy, films can be active interventions, i. The ideological function is also severely challenged by the perceptual irritants, leaps of logic and general undecidability that the spectator has to contend with and make sense of. The other task of the article is to update the analysis given in the essay, mindful that there have in recent years been a number of popular big-budget films that qualify as mind-game films such as Inception , Source Code , The Revenant , Interstellar , Arrival , as well as Batman — The Dark Knight Rises or Birdman By contrast, a thriller with multiple twists, such as The Girl on the Train may look like a mind-game film, but is not, because the film does all the untwisting, straightening out and disambiguating by itself.
Thus, the fact that features of the mind-game film turn up across the genres — including thrillers, horror films and romantic comedies — suggests we may be dealing with a phenomenon as intangible and ubiquitous as film noir, and similarly marked by extreme affective states such as we find in melodrama and trauma narratives. Berkeley : University of California Press.
Even in mainstream Hollywood, trauma is taken as the default state of the once sovereign subject, so that both personal and group identity tend to ground themselves on the ungroundedness of trauma see Elsaesser b Elsaesser, Thomas. But mind-game films are different, in that — unlike some of the other meta-cinemas — they are neither anti-Hollywood, nor anti-narrative, but work with what I would consider the three constitutive features of mainstream cinema: properties that make cinema a phenomenon of modernity, as well as a legitimate object of philosophical inquiry.
These three inherent qualities and constitutive properties are: first, movement , i. How can cinema — or in my case, a meta-cinema like the mind-game film — be an answer to the modern wounds of radical scepticism or philosophical nihilism? How can it restore our trust in the world, when it is all make-believe, and dangerous or beautiful illusion? First, because its automatism acknowledges this rift between a world utterly indifferent to humans and the fact that these humans are nonetheless utterly responsible for this world, as Stanley Cavell has so cogently argued in The World Viewed Cavell Cavell, Stanley.
This explicit-implicit-complicit position is, I argue, an asset of the mind-game film, rather than a defect, and not only because it preserves its status as a thought experiment and strengthens its uses as a prototype cinema.
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Evidence Nancy Nancy, Jean-Luc. Kiarostami Abbas: The Evidence of Film. Brussels : Yves Gevaert. See Elsaesser c Elsaesser, Thomas. Deleuze, Cavell.
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The twelve key features of mind-game films I am about to present are partly extrapolated from my essay, and partly they are my version of insights and arguments drawn from the broad discussion of these films over the past ten years. More specifically, the features as they appear in the films emphasise matters of temporality, causality, complexity, contradiction, recursiveness and agency: 1 multiple universes, 2 multiple temporalities, 3 causality between coincidence and conjunction, 4 feedback: looped and retroactive causalities, 5 mise - en - abyme constructions, 6 the observer as part of the observed, 7 living with contradictions, 8 imaginary resolutions no longer dissolve real contradictions, 9 antagonistic mutuality under conditions of distributed agency, 10 agency — with the self, against the self, 11 time travel films as black boxes, 12 the mind-game film as pharmakon.
Permitting myself a degree of abstraction and generalization, I would say that mind-game films gravitate around one central issue: dismantling both the sovereign subject and its antidote, the divided self of modern subjectivity, in view of accepting more complex but also self-contradictory, more limited but also more extended forms of agency.
Body is a key referent, but primarily in a non-Cartesian relation to the mind, reflecting new thinking about the embodied mind, so that the somatic body can take precedence over the rational mind, deploying energies and sensations, but also faculties and affordances not subject to either the mind-body split or to the classic hierarchy of mind over body. Mind-game films set up a situation, a character constellation and a dramatic conflict, where distinct narrative strands are intertwined and entangled, but where — unlike other multi-strand narratives — each narrative strand can have its own reality status e.
Rather than ratch up the levels of reflexivity and self-reference, mind-game films do their utmost to remove many of these kinds of frames, and to make their embedding invisible. I would argue that if mind-game films break up accustomed ways of understanding time, perceiving space, living identity and doubting reference , this break-up is also a prelude to the task of both furthering and undoing the work of media technology. Mind-game films like Donnie Darko also use cinematic frames of reference and filmic allusions, but like art-house films and installation work, they construct archaeology of media technologies in order to comment on the increasing mediatization that our own autobiography, sense of selfhood and public history has undergone.
The materialities of this accented cinema, in its tactile, haptic registers, deserve — and increasingly receive — separate study, in relation to questions of subjectivity, epistemology and the embodied mind. View all notes In other words, an un-framing of en-framing offers a re-orientation, a re-alignment, readying us for another en-framing, in the sense of new ordering systems that shift basic categories and their respective boundaries foremost among which are the boundaries between what is alive and what is dead, what is matter and what is mind, and what is human and post- or non-human.
The element of critique would be that mind-game films respond to what Rosalind Krauss with respect to contemporary art calls our post-medium condition. Yet mind-game films remind us that this intuitive transparency is an effect, over whose causes and mechanisms we have little or no control. Mind-game films are thus critical wherever they appear as film-philosophical elaborations of the double binds that social media put us in: promising us subject-to-subject interactions, while effectively delivering object-to-object relations, from which the corporations owning or operating social media platforms are able to extract usable data.
View all notes Whereas they previously seemed unframed while making us search for a frame , we can recognize that the destabilizing also acted as an early-warning system — much like deconstruction in philosophy and literary studies — of a quasi-ontological shift already under way. The aide told Mr. The unnamed aide was later identified as Karl Rove. Each narrative strand in a mind-game film may have its own temporality, including time running backwards Memento , looped time Groundhog Day , or time seemingly standing still or slowing down Interstellar.
There, almost the entire subplot concerning the death of a child, and the foreknowledge the mother has of this devastating loss, is meant to give us a narrative and affective context for the strange new temporality that the alien heptapods bring to mankind. Unlike the separate and incompatible timelines discussed above, here the weaving together of different temporalities serves less to create ontological doubt, but opens up a potential confluence and coexistence of different timelines.
This applies to Interstellar where two radically different time-scales and speeds enable an incest phantasy to form the loop that saves mankind and to Dunkirk , where — apart from the different perspectives from land, sea and air on the retreat, there are also three different temporal strata that combine to form a kind of symphony of sacrifice and overcoming, turning defeat into victory.
For the soldiers embarked in the conflict, the events took place in different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week, stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; and if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Christopher Nolan, quoted in Stolworthy Stolworthy, Jacob. Closely aligned with unframed enframed ontologies and multiple temporalities of varying degrees of forward or backward momentum is the question of causality. Classical narrative usually works according to an explicit or implicit logic of linear causality: either through deadline structures that give forward thrust and whittle down alternatives, or by keeping to a strict question-and-answer logic that tightens the cause—effect nexus, all in an effort to make the ending seem at once natural and inevitable and thus both pleasurable and persuasive.
Thus, unintended consequences are prevented, by eliminating their presumed or purported causes, while open outcomes are anticipated and pre-emptively foreclosed. In mind-game films, by contrast, given the multiple and interconnected narrative strands, causality is based on a series of interdependent and thus interacting factors, each of which can be both cause and effect, taking us into the realm of retroactive causality. In Lost Highway the film actually starts somewhere towards the end of the story, but the audience is not given any clue that they are about to witness flashbacks.
Nor are these really flashbacks, because we only gradually realize we are faced with a split character, and even then, we never quite know if it is Pete who imagines being Fred or it is Fred escaping into Pete. In Memento , one answer has to do with the nature of revenge — a relentless forward drive, which in this film is bent into a repetition compulsion — as if to say: classical Hollywood loves linear narrative and nothing is more linear by way of agency and motivation than revenge. But now that we no longer believe in such full agency not even Tarantino, a director invariably relying on revenge, but also a master at bending it out of shape , how about presenting a hero who takes revenge but has no memory?
This means he does not remember that he has already taken revenge, has reached his goal, but he starts all over again. More generally, individual causal chains in the mind-game film can form positive feedback loops, so that it becomes impossible to differentiate between cause and effect, or when phenomena define themselves as effects in order to look for their causes.
For instance, in Terminator II, it is the photograph of the pregnant Sarah Connor, which travels through time and makes Kyle Reese fall in love with Sarah, when in the photo, Sarah is already thinking of Reese and their as yet unborn son John Connor. One that situates itself on the visual-perceptual level can be a similarly disorienting factor by inducing not only perceptual groundlessness, but also a kind of ontological vertigo.
I have in mind the mirroring and doubling process better known as mise - en - abyme.
In mind-game films, characters are often either literally in front of mirrors, which reflect mirrors and thus create endless reduplication, or the self-mirroring mise - en - abyme becomes one of the structuring principles of the various narrative moves and countermoves.
Mirroring, repetition and symmetry are, of course, major structural resources of classical cinema, but are usually embedded in the deep structure, or disguised by characters acting as substitutes or surrogates for each other. In the mind-game film, on the other hand, mirroring effects are much more on the surface, revealing their uncanny power, and thus also deconstructing the classical use of mirrors and doubles.
In a key scene from Back to the Future , Marty meets his own self, taking off into the past, when he has just returned to the present from that self-same past. Usually, a crucial piece of information is imparted in these scenes of doubling, thus acting not only as a mise - en - abyme , but also as a moment of self-empowerment through retroaction. In Inception , Cobb, in order to impress Ariadne, the young female architect, makes the city of Paris fold in on itself a spectacularly memorable scene , while subsequently, Ariadne reflects two large mirrors into one another, disorienting our visual-perceptual register, as if to bring home the more narrative mirroring of film-genres that takes place in the various dream levels.
A somewhat different but clearly related form of mise - en - abyme at the visual level is an Escher-like construction, where backward is forward, up is down, and inside is outside, also known as the Penrose Stairs, and as such prominently featured in Inception. While such optical illusions are well-known from Gestalt-psychology and similar to figure-ground reversals, the salient point about the Escher stairs syndrome, in relation to the mind-game film, would be the realization that especially ocular perception is always relative to the position of the observer.
This brings me to the next — sixth — key feature of the mind-game film, namely the extent to which such films pose philosophical problems about the nature of perception in relation to knowledge the epistemology question: how do we know what we know , as well as the existence of other minds the subjectivity question: how do I know there is another, who is bodily different from me, and yet whose mind and motives are accessible to me by way of self-observation. These conundrums are taken into the mind-game film by way of the underlying premise of the mutually embedded narrative strands or causal chains, namely that there is or can be no unambiguous position outside, and that any observer is part of the observed.
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The former observes things; the latter observes observation. Understanding Understanding. New York : Springer Verlag. Or this is why a film like Lost Highway can credibly posit that the protagonist rings the doorbell outside and also hears it ringing inside. Dick stories , or to a hysterical constructivism, where you try to fuse with the world you cannot get a distance from or assume an outside position , and you therefore abandon yourself to the forces you cannot master or control Inception, Looper, Arrival. To everyone else, i. Frankfurt : Suhrkamp. Continuing with the philosophical issues that the mind-game film raises, we can say that the mode proposes a logic of the both-and, rather than the either-or, thus flouting one of the basic premises of binary logic, that of the excluded middle i.
As we saw in my initial example of Minority Report , both determinism and constructivism can lead to an inability to act: the former determinism because any individual human action is already predestined premediated, anticipated in advance, the latter constructivism because of the arbitrariness or better: indeterminacy of the phenomenal world, so that again, human initiative can be or will be overridden by external, ultimately contingent forces.
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