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March 2002, Week 2


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jane mills <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 14 Mar 2002 20:50:30 +1100
text/plain (159 lines)
Un chien Andalou, The Big Sleep, Se7en, The Usual Suspects, The Matrix,
Velvet Goldmine, Gummo, Mulholland Drive. All films that have incoherent or,
to some, incomprehensible plots and storylines. (For some reason I am always
completely baffled by films about counter espionage.) Does it matter? Do we
need to understand the plot of a movie to enjoy it? Could you let me know
more titles of incomprehensible films, any academic articles on the subject,
and your views on the subject?
Jane Mills

re: Drew Perry: "The Big Sleep: ok. But you found the rest of these films
incomprehensible? I think that's a matter of viewership, rather than an
inherent property of these films per se."
Jane M: The others films were ones mentioned most often by others I've
talked to on this subject. It seems too easy to put things into the
reception theory box whenever it gets difficult to explain some aspect or
other of cinema - and in doing so I wonder if we don't lose sight of the
film text?

re: Scott Andrew Hutchins: "anything by Maya Deren":
Jane M: Does it really all boil down to the role and representation (or
not) of the unconscious? Which is where the surrealists (I include Lynch)
presumably enter into incomprehensibility (or perhaps the
impossibility/difficulty of visualising the non-visual)? Any more thoughts
on the relationship between attempts to represent the unconscious and the
comprehensibility of the film plot?

re: WLT: "I'm a little surprised to see Seven (or Se7en if you prefer), The
Matrix and Velvet Goldmine mentioned since they're completely comprehensible
to me and I've never heard complaints. Perhaps that's because The Matrix
uses decades-old science fiction ideas and so much of the real-life
references in Velvet Goldmine were also familiar."
Jane M: Genre is clearly important. It doesn't offer the whole answer,
however, since I know people who found Mission Impossible comprehensible
(me) who didn't know the genre (who did). I wonder if, sometimes, audiences
are so carried away by an aspect of the film - perhaps mise-en-scene, or
soundscape or performance or some other aspect, that they stop engaging in
the plot? I suspect this happens (intentionally) in the film 'Suture', also
some/many action movies. What might a film have that compensates for a lack
in plot comprehensibility - or which contributes to acceptable
incomprehensibility? Also: you use the word 'complaint': but does it have to
be a complaint? I've given up bothering about the plots of most nineteenth
century operas - it's not what I'm there for. Ditto many films. Does anyone
else find that incomprehensibility doesn't affect their pleasure?

re: John Dougill: "There was a long discussion last year about Blow-Up, a
film which like Performance shortly afterwards hovers on the edge of
incomprehensibility in true sixties style."
Jane M: What was it about the sixties that didn't make sense? Are there
other examples from other films, other texts?

re: John Dougill: "It seems that which is easily understood is easily
disposed of by the mind. That to which one cannot relate at all is simply
dismissed. But that which puzzles one lingers in the mind"
Jane M: Nicely put. I enjoyed Memento the second time, after reading the
website to which you refer that painstakingly puts the narrative together in
a forward and linear fashion, but I didn't get (how could I?) the thrilling
rush that I got the first time when the plot was incomprehensible. If I'm
honest, I probably enjoyed it more the second time - but then I enjoy the
movies I see over and over again more than any others precisely because the
sum total of time spent enjoying it accumulates interest that I reap with
each viewing.

re: Neal King: "Cruising (with Pacino, directed by Freidkin) is pretty
darned hard to figure out"
Jane M: I've just found a chapter called 'The Incoherent Text' in Robin
Wood's excellent book "Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan" (Columbia Uni
Press. 1986) about incoherent texts that analyses Cruising plus Taxi Driver
and Looking for Mr Goodbar. Can anyone else think of other academic

re: Andrejevic, Mark: "Movies like Mission Impossible, Swordfish, and other
such gimmick movies that aren't deliberately incomprehensible, but have
subordinated things like comprehensible plots to other imperatives: getting
the next set of stunt/effect scenes laid out."
Jane M: I suspect that you use the term "gimmick" as a negative criticism.
But I can think of some Hong Kong action directors for whom the visual is
clearly more important than plot eg Woo's Hard Boiled (in places). Does
anyone else think this is a dereliction of a director's duties to their

re Laura Jean Carroll: "Wojciech Has's 'Manuscript Found in Saragossa', from
a novel by Jan Potocki, might be worth looking at. It's not that any
individual thing that happens is hard to understand, or that cause-effect is
obscure, but the plot is an overwhelming nesting of stories - a person tells
a tale, then someone in that tale begins on.
Jane M: Thanks - I'm interested to explore where mise-en-abime fits into all
this. Does anyone have other examples?

re: Drew Perry: "The Usual Suspects? You're kidding. No ... really?"
Jane M: I kid you not. But I'm *really* at sea with a film like Enigma. And
I never met anyone who didn't think this was as easy to follow as Goldilocks
and the 3 Bears. (Huh? You mean she didn't blow on daddy Bear's porridge to
make it cold and then eat it all up? She settled for Baby Bear's small

Re Drew Perry: "Any of these films, and others mentioned in this discussion
(Last Year at Marienbad e.g.) are only "incomprehensible" from a simplistic
expectation of concrete linear narrative conventions."
Jane M: If only it were that simple. Many non-linear plots (Ground Hog Day,
Run Lola Run, Sliding Doors etc) cause no problems for mass audiences in
terms of comprehensibility. Nor does Rashomon (ie a non-linear text for
non-mass audiences.) How important do others think linearity is to

Re Drew Perry: "The Matrix is frequently labelled "incomprehensible" - by
reviewers. I've never heard an academic refer to it as such. There are a
quite a few philosophy sites discussing it - because it is so
philosophically consistent, so intellectually solid."
Jane M: Not sure where you're arguing to: I've seen academics argue
furiously over the plotline of Mulholland Drive - but I confess its plot
comprehensibility is of no importance to my pleasure as a viewer (or as an
academic). This view, however, is not that of many of my non-academic and
non-film studies friends, which is why I began this thread.

Re: Drew Perry: "why should any complex, multi-levelled filmic text be
absolutely comprehensible in one
Jane M: Good point. Why do I find it so difficult to persuade my students to
see a film again? Do we as older academics (I speak as a wrinkly) arrogantly
assume that our students ought to see (or, impossibly, HAVE seen) all of
cinema? It seems to me that many of the earlier film theorists (Bazin,
Kracauer, Godard) whom we exhort our students to read, *did* see everything
that was made (or thought they did) and this has a paralysing effect on many
of today's students who can't possibly hope to feel that they can even get
half way to this point.

Re: Drew Perry: "We keep getting told that today's generation of
non-readers...are...visually literate. But then you keep hearing about how
film or television texts that stretch the conventions one iota (convoluted
narrative styles, profound existential subtext, allusive or open closures,
symbolic imagery etc) are incomprehensible, unfathomable."
Jane M: Aren't literacy and critical literacy two very different things? Are
you suggesting that academia and screen teaching is lacking? Should we be
aiming to get our students to appreciate the incomprehensible film text? (NB
last 2 questions are ironic)

re: Lou Thompson: "Pretty Woman: I tell my students the message is that the
pretty hooker marries the rich guy, but her less attractive friend hooker
has to go to college."
Jane M: Nice one. You could add that an actress who plays ball with
Hollywood gets to be the first female actor to earn the same top sum that
male actors had been earning for several years ($20million). Glass ceilings
get smashed in many different ways.

Thanks to everyone (so far) who has contributed to my knowledge and
understanding of this issue.

Jane Mills
Honorary Associate, The University of Sydney;
Senior Research Associate, Australian Film,Television & Radio School
27 Dudley Street, Bondi, 2026
Tel: 9300 8836
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