Puzzling Spectatorship

Curator's Note

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.



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? 

Hi Daniel,

This is an interesting question and I agree that the shift in spectatorship is tied up with larger trends towards commodification and privacy. However, I think that puzzle-solving behavior still exists in a public sphere, although the nature of this has also changed. Although these films are primarily watched and rewatched on DVD, this still seems to be a communal event – people watch them together in their dorm rooms or with friends who similarly enjoy trying to catch the clues. Puzzle films are also a favorite for bloggers and fan sites which implies a kind of digital public that operates in ways akin to more traditional publics. On a certain level, it seems that the complexity of these narratives really calls for some kind of communal experience since the films can be so challenging to work out alone.


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?

Hi Sarah,

The development of alternative viewing technologies certainly impacts the reception of the genre. Puzzle films are typically associated with DVD technology and the manipulation of the image that it allows for is often cited as one of the primary means by which the puzzle is solved. Without access to this kind of manipulation, it is arguable that the films are harder to figure out. Similarly, the compression of the film in these different formats would play a role – since puzzles films require careful viewing, the more compressed the image, the harder it is to isolate these clues. In fact, the first time I taught Memento, one of my students who loved the film and claimed to have watched it fifty times didn’t notice the Sammy-to-Lenny wipe until he watched the film projected on a theater-sized screen for class. I also think that the development home-editing technologies and distribution sites like youtube have a role to play. Now it’s possible to watch a film like Caché once, read a blog to help figure out what you missed and then watch the relevant clips on youtube so that you “get” the film without the need to watch it multiple times.



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?

Hi Ross,

Thanks for a really compelling question. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know! Most critics argue that the puzzle genre develops in the 1990s alongside the advent of DVD technology and that it is the postmodern iteration of the classic mystery or thriller genre. However, Barbara Klinger’s Beyond the Multiplex (see Jesse’s post below) does try to track some of the features of these films back through cinema and, taking Memento as the first puzzle film, argues that its narrative structure has roots as far back as Edison. I’ve not spent anywhere near enough time thinking about the prehistory of the genre to argue for or against her historical trajectory but it would certainly be interesting to think about the idea of the puzzle in classical or early cinema. I’m working with a more specific definition of the puzzle film that a number of other scholars (again, see the post below) but I’d be curious if anyone else could venture a predecessor to Memento, which is typically seen to mark the advent of the genre.


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?

Hi Jesse,

I’ve only dipped briefly into Klinger’s book but I’m inclined to agree based on my experiences, although her classification of puzzle films is a bit off, in my opinion (I’d make a distinction between complex films that reveal their twists – The Matrix, The Sixth Sense – and films that deny any sense of narrative unity – Mulholland Drive, Run Lola Run – and puzzle films, which have a narrative unity but hide the means of putting it together). Still, most of the scholarship on puzzle films is male and reinforces Klinger’s argument. Similarly, in my classes it tends to be male students who are the most obsessed with these films, and the most cinephilic in general. However, the idea that women are uncomfortable with technology seems a bit too easy to me and somewhat outdated.  There is perhaps something else going on here in terms of gendered behavior given the sense of mastery that these films promise. This idea of finding the key and unlocking a right answer has a lot in common with the masculinist logic of enlightenment/scientific/empirical discourse. I don’t mean to suggest that men like definitive answers and women are okay with ambiguity, but I think we might want to try and reframe this question of gendered spectatorship as a response to narrative structures outside of specifically gendered bodies.


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