Monday, 14 May 2012

The New Cinema of Shattered Minds

Delusions, split realities, multiple personalities; the erection and dismantling of psychosis, or something like it, is the most notable preoccupation in modern cinema.

Trapped in a room, stuck in a cave, tortured by visions, something's amiss, all is askew, zombies, monsters, killers, they're after you. Our heroes and heroines are men and women in trouble. Or everything's OK...until the wallpaper begins to peel.

The major questions in these films are 'what is happening?', 'what is real?' and even 'who am I?'. What is dream and what is reality in Inception? What is imagined in The Ward, Bug or Take Shelter? What is damaged? You, the world, or both?

The intensification of disorientation and misinterpretation of experience reach awakening and we see, finally, how much was delusion. We understand that an illusion had been constructed, Switchblade Romance, The Uninvited, that falls when the fake expands to bursting or fades to natural end. We see the lies beneath the crises, twisted adventures. We see how visions of happiness were always only that - visions.

The world was never out there but in here, in the mind. But what triggered delusion? The heart of all of these films, 1408, Triangle, is trauma. Trauma that forces a break from reality. In mental collapse pain is moved to another level and manifest in horrific metaphor. Elsewhere involuntary 'coping mechanisms' kick in where a happier narrative, Mulholland Drive, Dream House, masks and abstracts suffering, a Bougereau painted on top of a Bacon.

A dead daughter, a dead husband, a dead wife, guilt over murder, Shutter Island, Mulholland Drive, obsessive jealousy, loss and fear of loss, this trauma is a boomerang. These stories emanate from it (many of these films have a pre-delusion section in which we are obliquely 'told' what provokes it) and return to it. The tendency of the puzzle-story is that the completed jigsaw should reveal something terrible, even worse than what may have been suffered in the unreality. Yet that terrible, by its very human nature, in conjunction with the clarity of revelation, has an uplifting dolorous call - grief is love in death's grip.

Trauma has its foot in the door preventing The End's storybook closure. Because these loves live forever so must trauma. Trauma distorts reality. The truth is impossible to accept. You become new people playing different or multiple roles (where they are effectively opposing themselves) in dumbly detached and remotely twinned realities.

Stories are not going to save you (apart from in Sucker Punch, where stories are under partial conscious control) but they do, incidentally, help. Truth and understanding wait where they have led you, where they have finally failed.

Three trends of 21st Century cinema that come together in the new cinema of the broken are the puzzle narrative, the twist and unresolved ambiguity.

The puzzle narrative gained strength at the end of the last century with the success of Memento and The Usual Suspects. The revelatory twist that overturns what we have been led to believe achieved especial popularity, likewise at the end of the 1990s, on the back of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Ambiguity, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lost in Translation, letting the audience write the last page, is a directorial tic still emerging.

What brought these trends together, apart from the popularity of each? I don't know. Perhaps the traumatic events in the United States of America in 2001 have obliquely and subconsciously been depicted with the freshly forceful modes of storytelling to which they are peculiarly suited. Puzzles, twists and ambiguity lend themselves to confusion, paranoia, cruelty, sadness and cold brutish reality.

There's no way out. It doesn't seem real. It's just like a film. Like a dream.


  1. This style, device or just plain narrative did come into fashion over the last decade, and while it is rather incomparable when it's done right, it can also be a mercenary for convolution when flubbed. I wasn't a big fan of MEMENTO, but did like THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and unlike most I never connected with either LOST IN TRANSLATION nor MARCY MAY MARLENE. You late disclaimer here is most telling as is this entire creative piece.

  2. Sam,

    "...while it is rather incomparable when it's done right, it can also be a mercenary for convolution when flubbed."

    Yes, absolutely.

    "You late disclaimer here is most telling as is this entire creative piece."

    Thanks very much!

  3. The strength of the "cinema of broken", and it's tropes, has increased due to the changing culture of choice in media. Consumers demand more freedom to interpret the specifics of story structure, thus allowing them more ownership over the property. Clever producers and filmmakers will ultimately respond in kind and as technology progresses it will lead to a more unique film experience for each viewer.

  4. Aaron,

    "Consumers demand more freedom to interpret the specifics of story structure, thus allowing them more ownership over the property."

    Yes, I think you're right about the "changing culture of choice". It's a good point.

    When it comes to narrative ambiguity or confusedness, I wonder if it has become less about "clever producers and filmmakers" than a sort of artistic cowardice. Don't we want to see an artist's vision taken to its full conclusion rather than have it left to us? A filmmaker can appear intelligent/magnanimous without sticking his/her neck on the line.

    Thanks very much for the comment Aaron.