Autochthonic McGuffins

By: Joshua Glenn
January 3, 2011

At Crooked Timber, earlier today, our friend John Holbo announced that he’s looking for examples of movies that “hinge on more or less bald stipulations of metaphysically preposterous states of affairs.”

In a “metaphysical McGuffin” movie, according to John, the movie scrupulously abstains from ever revealing how the state of affairs — e.g., the recurring 24-hour period in Groundhog Day — works. Such movies “don’t commit to a nominal sf or fairytale frame. They just let it be that the thing is.”

    Off the top of my head, I think of:

    • The dead aliens in the trunk of the car in Repo Man
    • No more children being born in Children of Men (and other autochthonic mcguffins — what a phrase! — like the suicide virus in The Happening)
    • The tornado in Wizard of Oz

    • Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell falling out of love with Cary Grant (impossible!) before Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday begin — ditto Woody Allen ditching Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan
    • Walter Matthau getting hired as a little league coach in Bad News Bears

    • Navin Johnson becoming a millionaire in The Jerk
    • A Nazi sub getting stranded in Canada in The 49th Parallel
    • A troupe of soldiers being brainwashed in The Manchurian Candidate
    • African-American sheriff in Blazing Saddles
    • Warren Beatty’s inability to get it up for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde

    • Any movie where Frank Sinatra is supposed to be an intellectual (Some Came Running, Manchurian Candidate)
    • Mark Wahlberg’s penis in Boogie Nights
    • Sharon Stone’s vagina in Basic Instinct
    • Bill Murray as a romantic lead

    • Cheerleader movies; I simply don’t find them one bit believable. Not a single moment. Cheerleader culture is as well-established in our imaginary, but not a jot or tittle more based in reality, than the culture of elves and dwarves. IMHO.
    • Movies in which Adam Sandler is supposed to be soulful and/or successful
    • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

    • All movies about geniuses
    • Most cinematic insanity (Peeping Tom, Fight Club)
    • Any movie where Eddie Murphy fires a gun

    I’ve played fast and loose with the definition of “metaphysical,” in these examples. My point is that, thanks to what Walter Benjamin calls the “second nature” effect, it’s tricky to distinguish between laws of nature and social laws, nature and culture. I’m exaggerating when I suggest that it’s every bit as impossible to imagine Walter Matthau being hired as a little league coach, or Eddie Murphy firing a pistol, as it is to imagine the same day repeating itself endlessly… but I do so in order to draw attention to the absurdities which realistic movies ask us to take for granted. I know — The Jerk is absurdist, not realistic. My real point is that all realistic movies are absurdist.

    ***

    READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

    Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

    What do you think?

    1. Fast and loose indeed. Sticking to the slow and tight, what’s truly interesting about the indeterminate metaphysics of a film like “Groundhog Day” is the way that one goes back to view it again and again — to get a fuller sense of its way of being, if not its *why* of being. An interesting challenge might be to ask what genuinely “realistic” fiction film (let us even include questionable examples, like the early work of De Sica) “needs” to be watched more than once.

    2. Interesting. I think you miss the boat with the brainwashing in Manchurian Candidate– to the audience the filmmakers were making for, this was an accepted really possible thing, not something that _could_ have been explained, if that had been their point. I like the rest of these pretty well. For the Adam Sandler bullet, I would have added “and/or funny” to the end.

    3. Andy — don’t you think that any puzzle film, whether it’s about time travel or a murder mystery or multiple perspectives, etc., demands to be watched multiple times in order to see how it all fit together?

    4. I’d make the argument that any film worth watching once is worth watching more than once. If you can get everything you want or need to get out of a film the first time, it is in a sense content-free (or at the very least, all the plot twists are so heavily foreshadowed that they are immediately obvious in retrospect (if not in regular spect) and all the minor details are uninteresting, which is close enough to content-free for me). Information is the unexpected, and since the film medium plays with attention while having a much wider band of expression than any person can immediately grasp, there is potential to layer information within a film so densely that even a fundamentally realistic treatment of a fundamentally realistic (and even mundane) subject could require many replays in order to find all the surprises.

      In the related domain of writing, William Gibson is very skilled at this kind of semiotic compression, and his recent trilogy is an example of a reasonably realistic and straightforward story told with his usual packed writing.

    5. Mulholland Drive. And really, for that matter, most Lynch films, but that one especially. Inasmuch as the film, absent the framework of “it’s a David Lynch” movie, there’s a lot of profound metaphysical strangeness that goes on within the context of an otherwise very normal and recognizable world.

    6. sinatra as intellectual – that’s very funny. but navin johnson becoming a millionaire… i find that to be grounded in the practical and possible, why *wouldn’t* he invent the opti-grab? true, we see no prior evidence of him as tinkerer/inventor – but it’s somehow of a piece with his way in the world.

    7. I’m glad that you want to stick up for Navin Johnson, Winds — his childlike wonder and optimism are vastly preferable to my own cynicism. I suppose I don’t find Navin’s tinkering impossible — it’s the idea that he’d actually reap financial rewards from his tinkering, instead of getting ripped off. The movie does want us to see Navin’s wealth as a violation of nature and probability, don’t you think? Why else would he be punished for it later?

    8. does he really get punished, though? i think, having entered existence with his opti-grab, he just rides the boethian gyre… and isn’t his millionaire-ness kind of a satire on millionaires anyway? in other words not improbable but typical? the fresh wine, the dancing friends etc.

    9. Something that always bothers me in films, and that occurs in more movies than I’d care to count, is when two characters are having a conversation, then the scene changes moving them to a different location, usually one that would have taken substantial time to get to, and their conversation picks up in the new location exactly where it left off without any explanation of why the conversation wouldn’t have been continued or completed on the way there. Maybe it doesn’t fall in line with the other examples, but nearly every movie requires viewers to suspend disbelief in this way.

    10. The most memorable scene in The Jerk is when Navin is shuffling down the road, away from his mansion, pants around his ankles — having lost everything. That’s not punishment?

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