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.