Friday, December 19, 2008

Predicability in Movies: was there ever a case where...

This post was inspired by HALF of the movie FLIGHTPLAN.

I have watched HALF of the movie FLIGHTPLAN. In the movie Kyle Pratt (played by Jodie Foster- I didn't know that know that Kyle could be a girls name) takes her 6 years old kid on an airplane, the kid disapears, and the Flight Manifest said she was never there. So the captain and others think that Kyle is nuts.

Having not seen the rest of the movie yet I wonder which is true: (1) Kyle Foster IS nuts, or (2) there is some weird conspiracy going on. Gee, I wonder which one it will be!

In the real world I would of course assume (1). But since its a movie I absolutely know that (2) will be the case. The only point of suspense for me is will the final explanation make sense?.

SO, here is my question: Do you recall ever seeing a movie or TV show where it is clear that EITHER (1) the main character is nuts, or (2) there is a massive conspiracy. and it ends up being (1)? (I don't count if it ends up being a dream.)

YES, I know that if the main character was just nuts the story might not be as interesting. However, they should have the main character be nuts once in a while so that its not so predicable. That way when watching these things we would have a genuine question and genuine suspense. As for making it interesting- thats their job!


  1. I suppose "A beautiful mind" has a delusional character who is, in fact, delusional. But of course, this isn't much of a surprise, given the topic matter (or the name of the movie).

  2. Yes, there are plenty of examples of (1) and a an enormous number of examples of (2). Both are cliché, but (2) is a cliché by Hollywood standards, which makes it, as you experienced, unwatchable.

  3. Donnie Darko?
    The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

    Harvey :)

  4. Well Donnie was not actually grazy, he just saw future himself.

  5. In Fight Club the main character is nuts. Even though there are some hints during the movie, it came as a surprise to me.

  6. - The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The protagonist is brain-washed, but that had been his own conscious decision (great film!)

    - Abre Los Ojos (or the unnecessary remake, Vanilla Sky). Not sure whether that counts, because the main character is in a dream-like state, although the dream is controlled by someone. But it isn't a conspiracy!

  7. Hitchcock's Suspicion, though the ending does ruin the movie.

  8. Total recall, though the ending is a bit ambiguous.

  9. K-PAX.

    This post and its comment-thread is a spoiler fest; not that I have not seen any of the mentioned movies. :)

  10. Well, there are a number of movies where we discover that we were shown things from a "subjective first-person perspective" which was probably false... but they don't usually have the "conspiracy" spin to them, as I can remember.

    Pi might qualify, but even that's stretching it a bit.

    Spider (by Cronenberg) might be a better example.

    But actual thrillers, where you discover after a significant part of the movie that all the exciting stuff you'd spend an hour believing in was "not actually there"--I think the "Hollywood blockbuster" format is quite hostile to such a "reveal".

    I mean, we already know that we're watching illusions, and we don't mind. (That's another popular variant: The "the main character is actually/maybe hallucinating in a padded cell" spin. For me, that usually provokes the same response again: "Yes, yes, let him hallucinate--his visions are more interesting than shots of the padded cell".)

  11. Having just watched Honeydripper .... (spoiler alert coming):

    Tyrone "Pine Top" Purvis (Danny Glover) is nuts ... in the sense that his blind guitar playing alter ego (Keb' Mo') does not exist; this is revealed in the final scene of the movie.

    Of course, Mr. Purvis is not really nuts; his seeming insanity is---as usual in movies of the Frank Capra school---a signifier that he is the most sane person in the movie.

    There is a scene in this movie that (oddly enough) strongly reminded me of Grothendieck. Scene 9: "No One Coming", beginning around minute 1:15, has the following fine dialog, in which Glover's character images a slave, newly arrived in America, with "music in his head and heart, and every damn piece of him is full of music", who encounters for the first time a piano:

    "and he goes over ... and he sits down on the bench ... and he spreads his fingers ... over it ... the way he seen that minuet player do ... and he thinks ... (sighs and whispers) ... and he thinks ... 'Lord help me, I can do some damage with this thing.'"

    What a great scene! Which (for me, watching it with my daughter) captured perfectly the profound passions that can grip the soul of an engineer who contemplates the beautiful minuets of abstract mathematics like Grothendieck's. We don't necessarily appreciate all the nuances, but we're gripped with confidence that fine music can be played.

    A fine, big-hearted, movie for a mathematical holiday season.

  12. Tell me, Gasarch, how in the world do you get your papers published when you consistently skip the apostrophe in "it's" and "that's"?
    Do referees notice these things anymore, or are you simply careless in blogs?

  13. Now that I think of it the recently released Reign over me is another example of a movie in which the main character (Adam Sandler) is either nuts or the victim of a conspiracy.

    The truth here is subtle: both ... and no more can be said, without giving away the secrets of this fine holiday-spirited movie.

  14. I'd say the Machinist qualifies as a case #1

  15. There is no way to discuss this without spoiling good movies. I can think of a great example that hasn't yet been mentioned, but I won't tell you! I can divulge that it is one of the IMDB top 50 for this decade.

    Anyway here are two movies that should have been examples of (3) the answer is left ambiguous. The stories are by the same author, Ira Levin.

    The first example is Rosemary's Baby, which was a great movie as long as Rosemary Woodhouse couldn't quite prove her case that witches were out to get her. The ending was so far off the wall that it still would have been great if she still couldn't prove the next day if it was true. But neither Levin nor Polanski added that twist.

    The second example is the Stepford Wives. In the book, Levin left the conspiracy ambiguous, which was perfect; but the movie didn't follow suit.

  16. Do referees notice these things anymore, or are you simply careless in blogs?

    Judging from the semantic content of that comment, people are careless in blogs.

  17. GASARCH: We're having a surprise test next week. What day will be most surprising for you?

  18. a classic: Ally McBeal

  19. "The sixth sense" could be classified as (1).

  20. Two more holiday-spirit classics that star a delusional (?) main character: Miracle on 34th Street, and Harvey.

    Perhaps the common theme is: "holiday-style altruism, kindness, and generosity seem delusional but aren't."

    There's deep game-theory here ... :)

  21. In the movie Brazil, the ending appears to be both (1) and (2).

  22. Yet another famous (1)+(2) ambiguity-themed movie: Rashomon. `Cuz the woodcutter, the priest, the bandit, the samurai, and the samurai's wife can't *all* be telling the objective truth.

    Not to mention, Steve Martin's comedy Bowfinger ... in which pretty much everyone is delusional.

    And for scientists, there's Bill Murray in The Life Aquatic ... which can be viewed as one of the finest extended meditations ever filmed on the theme of delusion in research.

    What a great topic ... it points-out the ubiquity of films with a 1+2 theme ... and helps me appreciate how fond I am of them.

  23. Contact could have been a perfect example for the "ambiguity"-class, but for some reason they decided to ruin it by adding a scene hinting strongly in one direction.

  24. Yet another example of (1)-(2) ambiguity: Life is Beautiful.

    At the simplest level, the child is crazy, and yes, his father colluded with Nazis to create that craziness. And yet, the movie is very far from being a cliche.

    These examples illustrate that (1)-(2) ambiguity plays a similar role in movie-writing to Godel-type theorems in mathematics.

    Namely, we long for an oracle to distinguish reality from non-reality, delusion from sanity, theorems from nonsense. But it is a law of both nature and mathematics, that no such oracle exists.

    The greatest movies *and* the greatest mathematics are born of the resulting struggle, to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable conflict, between reality and our hearts' desire.

  25. 12 Monkeys might be another example of both 1 and 2 being true. (I suppose Bruce Willis' insanity is debatable, though he's certainly not 100% mentally OK.)