Whenever I teach Christopher Nolan’s Memento or Michael Haneke’s Caché my students invariably respond in one of two ways: half hate the films – they struggle with their complex narratological structures and feel cheated by their ambiguous conclusions; the other half gush with excitement over the opportunity to talk about a film they’ve spent multiple viewings attempting to figure out. Moreover, the excited half usually have some kind of answer for their less-enthused classmates to help them with their frustrations. They point out the wipe in Memento that transforms Sammy Jankis into Leonard and claim this one shot is the key to understanding the entire narrative. Or, they berate their classmates for not paying attention to the four-minute long shot that closes Caché and argue that attentive viewing shows Majid’s and George’s sons talking, which divulges the answers to all the questions the plot seemingly leaves hanging.
Such is the nature of the puzzle film that it rewards compulsive and careful spectatorship. Indeed, the designation "puzzle" implies that there is an answer buried in these films and that it’s the job of the spectator to uncover it. These moments of revelation reflect "caché" in both senses of the word. They are brief hidden moments that most people miss the first time around and finding them requires repeated careful viewing and the manipulation of the image that DVD technology allows (frame-by-frame slow motion, zooms, pauses) to help uncover them. It’s significant, then, that this genre develops in the 1990s, just as DVD technology becomes so popular. But solving the puzzle is also its own form of cultural caché as those in-the-know form a select club of cinephiles participating in the hip subculture of indie movie fandom.
I teach puzzle films because they encourage careful and attentive viewing, producing the kind of spectators I fantasize about teaching: excited viewers with an eye for detail and a willingness to work through complexity to decipher meaning. This kind of cinephilia, often lamented as a dying mode of spectatorship, thus seems to be alive and well, only its locus has shifted from the movie theater to the home theater.
Kant, Puzzles, and Publics
Your take on teaching complex media was refreshing during this season of grading. My question will take a sentence or two to set up: Moving the site for puzzle solving behavior, an example of interested attention if ever there was one, works alongside moving public problem solving into private spheres, or at least out of deliberate sites. Your point is well taken, it is not that interested attention is in decline, teaching comes off as one of few remaning contact zones where puzzles are solved collectively. What does it mean for the political to equate public and private puzzle solving?
Puzzle Films and Cinephilia
Very intriguing post Sarah. I am also interested in how you flesh out the relationships between cinephilia and puzzle films since cinephilia has become such a popular topic among film scholars over the past few years. Do you find that students do tend to watch these films over and over again on DVD? And, do you think the move from DVD to other formats (such as itunes, Netflix streaming, cell phones, etc.) is changing the way these films are viewed?
Puzzle Films and Distribution Patterns
Very interesting post. I couldn't help reading your last line -- "This kind of cinephilia, often lamented as a dying mode of spectatorship, thus seems to be alive and well, only its locus has shifted from the movie theater to the home theater" -- and thinking of how the short theatrical release window for contemporary films (which has shifted from six months to three months (or less in some cases)) has had an impact on this kind of repeat viewing. In an earlier age, films could stay in theaters longer (months and occassionally over a year) which would allow for viewers to go back to the theater to solve particular puzzles. Are there any films from pre-1980 that had previously enticed audiences to attend theaters over and over again to solve them?
Beyond the Multiplex
Barbara Klinger also writes about "puzzle" films and argues that this new genre emerged specifically with the DVD market in mind. The fan research conducted for Beyond the Multiplex (2006) was likely completed five or six years ago, so I'm curious to hear Sarah H.'s take on one of Klinger's key points about the genre. She finds--largely due to the genre's association with the "technophilic" practices you also note (the utilization of DVD technology to make the viewing process more 'interactive')--that the fan base for the puzzle film is predominantly male. Have you found this to be true in your teaching and research on the genre?
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