Movie Trope Thursday: Mind Screw

Yellow Submarine

For some reason, I like a little of this trope in literature but I tend to hate it in film. This is when a work of art leaves you thinking “What was that?” because much of it doesn’t make sense unless you think about it very hard. Most old movies with the exception of avant-garde avoided this trope completely and understandably as this trope was (and still is but to a lesser extent) considered off-putting to a general audience. When these types of movies started to make their way to the big screen in the 1960s, some audience members liked it but many were turned off by it. While I am a classic film buff I have seen a great deal of later 20th century cinema and while I can recommend even a mediocre old Hollywood film I find I cannot stomach as many movies from later century cinema. Even a lot of classics that people love from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, I might not be a big fan of. Considering the fact that movies became more comfortable with this trope in that time probably doesn’t help my personal opinions. It is odd that I am okay when Franz Kafka and James Joyce attempt it (Kafka is even my favorite writer), but strongly dislike a movie attempting something similar. I guess it reads better to me as it goes smoother in my own mind rather than having it be displayed.


Before I incite an angry mob with my polarizing opinions, I want to discuss movies that I think handled this trope well. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is probably the poster boy of this trope. None of it was meant to have a definitive meaning and it is all meant to be left to the interpretation of the viewer. One viewer can have a completely different watching experience from another when seeing this movie which seems to be its intention. Those behind the film wouldn’t even state their own interpretation of it as they didn’t want to taint another viewer’s experience with it and have their own ideas be seen as gospel. 2001 definitely drags perhaps more than it should and I don’t think anyone would deny the obvious best part of the film doesn’t occur until about the halfway point (the scenes with HAL). Despite these possible downfalls, the film is a fascinating experience but for a number of viewers it is probably only a one-time viewing experience.

Porky in Wackyland

I personally tend to really like mind screws in animation. Again, I am not entirely sure why I can love it in animation but hate it in live-action but those are my personal tastes. Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (1969) have fun with surreal animation which fit in with the overall mood and setting of their films. Yellow Submarine fits in with the more bizarre take on cinema in the 1960s and it is actually my favorite film from The Beatles which is saying something since all three of their movies could be considered masterpieces. On the older animation side, they too took risks in terms of mind screws in their work. TV Tropes points out Woody Woodpecker’s occasional fondness for this territory which fits such an off-the-walls type of character who often blew things out of proportion for comedic purposes. Bob Clampett seemed to be particularly fond of this trope and considering his most famous cartoons include Porky in Wackyland (1938) and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (1946), this should not be seen as surprising. Clampett is actually my favorite Looney Tunes director and he used this trope quite a bit. Maybe I don’t mind it so much after all at least when it involves The Beatles, Daffy Duck, and Woody Woodpecker.


Okay, now time for my more controversial takes on this trope. Luis Bunuel started off using this trope in his avant-garde classics Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) which I mentioned in previous posts I really don’t care for as I got bored watching them. Not to insult the great Bunuel on his birthday (which is today) as I do like his other movies after his avant-garde spell but I just couldn’t get into these movies that seemed pointless since nothing really happens in them (on purpose, mind you). I liked L’Age d’Or when it occasionally traveled into black comedy, but the black comedy plot is engulfed by weirdness. After some silent movies and Bunuel’s take on the mind screw, most mainstream movies didn’t attempt an overall mind screw experience. Last Year in Marienbad (1961) changed things up, and more filmmakers started to experiment. Jean-Luc Godard fully embraces this trope with his uneven Weekend (1967) which is a film you never know where it is going to go. I’ve mentioned before my opinions with this one and like Bunuel’s earlier efforts I liked the black comedy moments but didn’t like the overall experience. It was one of those movies that I was curious to see but once I started I thought “What did I just get myself into?” I’ve had that reaction to a number of Godard movies yet I keep giving them a chance because there have been some that I liked (that tend not to be the more mind screw flicks). While I am mixed on Godard’s filmography, I do find myself a fan of most Ingmar Bergman movies even if the initial film experience is not always the most enjoyable. Bergman is the type of filmmaker that makes you think of his films long after seeing them and you end up understanding more about them than you did in the moment from reflection, but I tend not to have this experience with Persona (1966) which is Bergman’s most mind screw film. It is one of those movies where you think “This is happening… OR IS IT?” and the line between reality and fiction is strongly blurred. TV Tropes even states “Anyone who says they get what’s going on is lying.” At least Bergman is a very visual director and one can admire his stylish touches. Even though I’m a sucker for scenery and cinematic direction, I couldn’t get into Persona like I could with Bergman’s other classics.

Stunt Man

I suppose I find myself more bored than anything else if I cannot grasp what is going on. Franz Kafka and James Joyce work because they tend to have a hidden meaning that can be clearly defined at times, plus their lyrical imagery works better in one’s mind rather than on-camera. That is at least my opinion on this trope. I think animation with mind screw imagery can be fascinating and perfectly compliment their bizarre, boundless worlds and characters. On the live-action screen, I just find it meaningless. While I love art in a movie, the main reason why I or anyone else watches a film is to be entertained and have fun. I personally just don’t have much fun watching movies that run with this trope so freely. I did not enjoy watching Weekend or Un Chien Andalou, however give me a Bob Clampett cartoon that runs with this trope any old day. Many people will disagree with me and say they find it fascinating and love these movies and I will still give mind screw movies a chance, but more often than not I find myself wishing I didn’t once the film gets going and I realize what kind of experience it is going to be.


Click here for the TV Tropes article

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