Monday, November 16, 2009

Ambiguity in Films

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


I’m a movie fan, but I am not obsessive about it to the point that I watch a film over and over. I know people who do that, and I admire their ability to enjoy something so thoroughly and so frequently. But for me, such single-minded attention to anything ends up making it something I eventually no longer ever want to see again. I found this when, younger, I listened to music over and over until I HATED the same songs I had once loved (some of you may remember Stairway to Heaven, Freebird, Frampton Comes Alive? For the rest, substitute Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or [insert hot band here]).

I carefully manage my movie likes. I’ll avoid seeing a favorite for years so that it can get back as closely as possible to the experience it was when I first saw it. This, too, has its problems, however. I remember seeing Ken Russell’s The Devils while in college. I came out of the lecture hall it was shown in by one of the film societies (remember those?) literally wiped out by it. It led to a session with friends and way too much beer, where we argued over it into the wee hours. Then I finally tracked down a copy on VHS a few years ago and watched it again. “What was the deal?” I kept saying to myself, as it droned on. You can’t go home again.

So films matter to me. Because I husband my interest in favorite films so, I suspect mine matter to me a good deal more than do others being re-watched for the 90th time in two years by most others. Am I being elitist? Let me explain. I like a well-done film just as much as anybody. But if it has shown me all it has, then the cute line or the clever reveal or the amazing car chase just aren’t enough reason to go back. Take, for example, The Sixth Sense. This is a movie that is just about as clever as they get and yet, unlike something like Memento, it remains an audience favorite. It is a marvelously worked-out deception, and was a great first viewing experience. But, I’m sorry, it blew it all right there, and there’s nothing more. Believe me, I looked. I can’t go back except to study it in the clinical sense. And that’s okay. Me? I went back to Memento.

The reason is that intrinsic to the films I return to again and again is an element of ambiguity. I didn’t initially realize this, but later, when I was examining my habits, I found the common element was that they all had a quality of ambiguity. Each of the films that drew me back had things about it that I couldn’t pin down, couldn’t understand, couldn’t solve. And when I watched them again I often found new things in them that led to even further mysteries. Now, before someone asks if I ever resolved some of these, I have to say that, yes, I have. And, once done, I find that, with rare exception, the films fall off my watch-again list, thereafter. This has happened with Pulp Fiction, Three Days of the Condor, The Big Sleep, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (though I’m holding out hope for someday seeing the longer road-show version if a print is ever found). It has almost happened with Memento. It has not yet happened with Chinatown, The Parallax View, Winter Kills, The Third Man, The Conversation, The Tenant, or Lost Highway, to name a few.

Ambiguity is an element that, when present, provides the film with a density, a quality of reality, missing from most films. I liken it to reality because life always has unanswered questions lurking out there on the fringes, and occasionally right there in the room with you. If the film’s plot is the iceberg tip, then the ambiguous elements are the rest of the iceberg, the hidden part below the surface. Films without some degree of ambiguity aren’t just facile, they are artificial. They amount to pictures of life, rather than life, itself. Films utilizing ambiguity are far better facsimiles of life, because, like life, they offer the promise of more.

Even films that are hyper-realistic, fantastic, or completely artificial, yet present a consistent universe, nonetheless have, through the presence of ambiguity, the opportunity to gain a quality of reality. This makes for a deeper engagement, a far stronger story experience. So, rather than tying up all loose ends, the wise filmmaker leaves some strings hanging, some doors closed, yet letting us hear the muffled talking from within. With it lives a universe of possibilities. #


Lee A. Matthias

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