The purpose of this article is to define what a “thinking movie” is. To be honest, I find what even professional critic’s labeling as such to be very far from the mark. It is my objective to reveal how most films today (including many classics) are in fact not for the independently thinking audience.
What is a “Thinking Movie”?
Very simply put… A thinking movie is a film that cannot be fully understood without you having to use your own mind creatively. Also, you have to use your thoughts independently from how the film tells you to think. Allow me to contrast 2 films that further explain this. How many of us love Christoper Nolan’s film Memento? Believe me, I do too. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you try watching it first before challenging yourself with a movie like the more difficult Mulholland Drive. You may not want to read this article further if you haven’t seen either film (I really wouldn’t if I were you). I reveal quite a few spoilers, although I don’t go into a deep examination about the plot. If you have seen Memento, but not Mulholland Drive, just avoid Mulholland Drive’s subheading, for the meat of my thoughts are on Nolan’s film.
Is Memento a thinking Movie?
My distinction is that as difficult as Memento might be for some, I don’t believe you can deem it purely as a “thinking movie.” Why? Because 80% of the explanation to the movie is all directly shown to us. However it’s presented to us out of order and mostly backwards. So when you are watching Memento, all you have to do with your mind is shuffle the events into their proper order (and pay attention). No one tells you to do this, but it’s very obvious that this is what is expected of you. I mean… even the film itself shows you directly with each tying dialog line that we are traveling to the previous scene. “…I don’t…feel drunk.” Just because we may not be accustomed to thinking in this particular manner doesn’t make this a thinker’s film.
In short, Christopher Nolan is still TELLING you how to use your brain through the use of his screenplay. You are thus a follower, and NOT using your mind creatively of your own independent thoughts. The writer is basically reeling you in like a fish. You are going through his maze. You are not making your own maze to decide whether or not you want to go through it. That’s a key difference too. You aren’t making decisions with your own intuition.
Here is my best illustration that sums up my personal feelings on this subject. If freaking Albert Einstein himself thoroughly taught you the theory of relativity, and how he came across it, you would still be following his line of thinking. You wouldn’t be thinking for yourself even though following a genius is hard enough. Therefore, we can conclude that no matter how complex a story is that we may be following, it doesn’t necessarily mean we are using our own perceptive powers and personal ideas to make sense of it.
About twenty percent of Memento is for thinkers however. It’s up to the viewer entirely to figure out which character is lying and which one isn’t. What are the motivations of Natalie and Teddy? Does one or both have ulterior motives? If so, what are they, and why? Who is Sammy Jankis, and how does he relate to the main character? Who killed Leonard’s wife, how, and why? Those parts of the film definitely are for a thinking person. We are never directly told the answer, although it may be a simple exercise when each question is isolated from the rest of the film’s deliberate distractions.
However, despite these thinking questions, the big plot twist revealed at the end of the film is also directly told to you, the viewer. Therefore, even if you are not a thinking person and you never find the answers to the 20% of the film that is harder to understand, you still get a sense of resolve and may even disregard those questions as irrelevant to how the story begins, and ends. The fact that some may consider those details as irrelevant to the main story is perhaps understandably a valid argument.
Why is Mulholland Drive a thinking movie?
In Mulholland Drive, you are a detective completely outside of the plot, except you don’t even know your case! Also, nowhere in the film does it tell you that you have to be a detective. Every clue that is presented to you throughout the film can’t even be identified as a clue until you finally know what it is you are looking for. Basically all of Mulholland Drive’s answers are in the first 2 hours and in the last half hour you are asked the questions. So to me, Mulholland Drive is much like an algebra problem. Answer + Answer + Answer + Answer ( multiplied by 10) + Questions = More questions that require you to identify and recall the answers.
Also the big questions at the end of the film flat out seem to contradict everything you just saw. This drives so many viewers crazy, because they either believe that the plot makes entirely no sense, or they know they have to use their mind in ways they never used it before. There is also only one very key 20 second scene in the beginning that identifies virtually everything in Mulholland Drive to be from the main character’s own mind. Also this quick scene reveals that 4/5ths of the film is a dream and much of it is a twisted distortion of what actually IS happening outside of it. Unlike the false storytelling of the film “Hero,” this dream definitely has a bearing on the story, and the main character’s subconsciousness. That 20 second scene, however, never tells you, “Hey! I’m the key scene you need to make sense of to figure out the whole movie!”
You see now, don’t you? In Mulholland Drive you are not directly explained anything. You are not shown the method or several methods in which you should approach understanding the film either. I just told you them, but I had to figure it out.
Like the 20% of Memento that was in fact for thinkers, there’s probably about five times as much of similar questioning in David Lynch’s film. Why did “Rita” temporarily disappear? Why is her name now Camilla Rhodes? Why does Betty seem to be an entirely different person named Dianne? Who is the Cowboy? Who is he working for? What is the significance of the key? Where is Betty’s aunt? Why was there a dead person in Dianne’s house? How does Dianne know Rita? Why does “Rita” have amnesia? Why is she carrying a massive amount of money? Wait, is Camilla part of Dianne’s imagination? Are they the same person? But wait, that can’t be it because it doesn’t make sense with what I just saw… Who is the creepy homeless person behind Winky’s Resturant? What does he or even that scene have anything to do with the rest of the movie? Why is everyone in the film meeting at the party near Mulholland Drive, and why do they seem to be different people than before? How much of the movie is a dream and just how much completely differs from it?
There are many more questions for you to ponder on as well. You get the idea. These questions are never directly answered to you. You are shown, however, how to figure them out if you pay attention. Last but not least, many of Mulholland Drive’s questions are directly related to the main story line, although please don’t mistake me as if I was saying I didn’t thoroughly enjoy figuring out Memento’s thinking questions.
But I don’t understand what’s going on!
The nature of Memento’s storytelling requires Nolan to withhold information from the audience and gradually reveal more light. I’ve seen this tactic used to keep a viewer in the dark in other films. So often is it mistaken as a manner of storytelling that requires you to think. In the beginning scene of Memento there is absolutely no way for you to figure out why the event just happened, so your thoughts have absolutely no need to speculate. A man shot another man and it’s showing it to you in reverse motion. Just because you don’t understand what’s going on, doesn’t mean that you have to really think hard to find your way out of it. At that particular scene during the movie, you simply aren’t suppose to know, nor is a genius. That fact may seem obvious, but whenever I’ve seen this film with other friends, I hear them formulating all sorts of speculative questions throughout the whole movie. That will unnecessarily hurt your brain cells.
Once you get to the end of Memento, almost all scenes make sense to most viewers. This is a big difference to Mulholland Drive. Even though Lynch’s film as well gradually reveals information, it never actually distinguishes every scene’s significance easily. When the ending credits roll, many still have absolutely no clue how they are suppose to understand David Lynch’s film.
Are movies that “tell you how to think” for stupid people?
Yes. No, I’m joking. Mind you I am not saying that a film like Memento doesn’t require for you to think. It’s just that Christopher Nolan solves most of the answers for you much like a teacher, or just like how I am explaining the difference between a thinking movie and one that we merely just follow along. There are plenty of movies that I love that I don’t consider thinking movies. Memento is one of them.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the classic presentation of traditional story telling. Also, much can be learned by movies that don’t require you to use your mind creatively or ones that basically tell you how to think. In such films, you are more like a student rather than a detective. Furthermore, if you analyze a film that was explained to you word for word, sometimes you may find something interesting about a particular fictitious character’s development that may actually teach you something in the real world. You might even learn something about yourself or others. In fact, that’s a great example of a thinking person who analyzes a story that may not have been originally intended for him or her to ponder on. The author in that case didn’t tell you to dig deeper.
To conclude, well, I would love to tell you a list of movies that I consider to be improperly labeled as a “thinking movie.” However if I told you, then I’d be discouraging you from using your creativity to formulate your own opinions. Enjoy pondering on your films good people. Just make sure your own enjoyment of a film isn’t fooling you to believe it’s more challenging than it is. I’ve made the mistake myself. The more confusing the movie I’ve watched, the more I realized how my earlier ones I loved weren’t as difficult as I had originally thought. I’ve made a fool out myself many a time from watching movies, and I love it.
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