Ambiguity in Film
Pulling the Rug and Pushing the Perception
Is there such a thing as good ambiguity and bad ambiguity in films, and does the difference lie not in superficial snobbery but in integrated questions of aesthetic form and purpose? Here we'll look at various examples of ambiguous film, and ask whether they earn their ambiguity on a perceptual level, or whether they achieve it merely on a manipulative one, and to help us along the way let us give an example from potential life to see how films can fall easily into one of the two categories.
Sometimes when sitting in a cafe, walking along the street, or passing someone's window, we may see instances of behaviour that we cannot categorically define, but whose ambiguity causes us no problems, or whose uncertainty forces upon us a choice. We see for example a couple arguing across the street. Their voices are raised and accusatory, but the man has not hit the woman, no offence has been committed, and we walk on. We might wonder why they are arguing, whether one is more in the right than the other, but the situation remains disinterestedly ambiguous. However, if the man were to hit the woman, we might still no longer know whether the man has a justifiable grievance or not, but the certitude of his action means that the ambiguity of the argument becomes secondary to the unequivocal act: the act of physical violence. We would no longer be disinterested bystanders, but feel we ought to act ourselves: either by trying to stop the man from hitting the woman again, or by phoning the police.
Taking this scenario as our basis, how might films choose to utilise it: perceptually or manipulatively? In the latter instance the film might minimise the apparent ambiguity and quickly illustrate the man hitting the woman, with the passerby going over and the man running away as he approaches. The woman tearfully thanks him, insists that she buys him a drink, and so on. Later we find out the fight was a ruse, set up to find a wealthy fall guy (let us say the fight takes place next to a fancy apartment block), who becomes fascinated by the apparently down-trodden woman, while the couple fleece the man for all he is worth. Near the end of the film, though, it transpires the man's bank account the couple has emptied was being watched by federal agents, that it was laundered drugs money our central character had accumulated before changing his ways, and before meeting the young woman. Discovering that she only wanted his cash, he allowed her to have it, but also the prison sentence accompanying it. Her partner gets a few years but she gets a briefer sentence, and when released visits the hero and says that she was forced into her part in the scam by her partner. Can he trust her? Here we don't have perceptual ambiguity, but manipulative ambiguity, so that the uncertainties of life get shaped into the assertiveness of narrative. One apparent categorical is replaced by another, so that initially we assume she is being beaten by her partner, then assume that the hero is being played by the woman, only to then assume that the partner was forcing the woman to scam the hero. Each stage of the plot contains the unambiguous, only for the apparent certitude to be reversed.
In classical narrative terms this would be peripety, or narrative reversal, but often films now contain several reversals to the point that the surprise elements reach redundancy. How many twists can we accept before deciding that however the film ends couldn't there be another reversal after the end credits? Such films play us, and when they are effective they do so without quite falling into one of two categories: the redundant or the implausible. If the redundant makes us feel the film could create yet another categorical reversal so that we cannot anymore believe in the behaviour of the characters so given over are they to the film's plotting as the characters become ciphers, so equally a manipulative film fails if its story becomes implausible.
This latter problem would be a question not of character development but plot inconsistency. If for example a film relies on contingency earlier in its story only for the twist to reveal that everything has been deliberately manipulated by a particular character, then we might look back on that earlier moment and wonder how the character managed to control events that were based on chance, especially if these events were complex, involving for example a train that was late. Did the person really manage to arrange for a cow to fall on the line eighty miles away from its destination so that it would allow for the chance meeting that wasn't contingent at all? This would be a failure of plot logic and arrive at the manipulatively implausible. In this instance we don't believe, where in the example of redundancy, of characters' endlessly playing each other, we don't care. One is a logical problem; the other an affective one.
Yet sometimes there are moments where we don't care because we don't believe. When in The Prestige the film informs us that a character had his fingers shot off for the purposes of his career as a showman, we're inclined to see it for what it is: an attempt to pull the rug from under the viewer even if it means the character becomes a cipher to the plot. It is true that our disbelief is not quite the same as something that is plot logically inconsistent, but it makes us wonder whether the film is anything but a demonstration of plot logic. The film isn't interested in complex characterization that would help explain and at least explore such extreme behaviour (as we find in The Piano Teacher, In My Skin and other films interested in self-harm). Its purpose is to serve plot mechanics.
We don't want to say that manipulation is unequivocally a bad thing, but any film which causes us to lose interest in character, or call into question plot logic, indicates failure, and it is often a failure that comes out of the desire to manipulate in the first place. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is interesting from this point of view. Aronofsky is a filmmaker fascinated by manipulation, but also with an interest in characterization and situation, especially evident in The Wrestler. Yet in Black Swan he falls into the problem of redundancy as he arrives at bad ambiguity. Here we have Natalie Portman as a ballet dancer getting lost in her role as the Black Swan of the title. As Aronofsky follows her descent into madness he does so with hyperbolic manipulation. The film has various scenes that we can take to be real or take to be fantasy, but rather than the indeterminacy of Belle de Jour, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or Last Year at Marienbad, we have the certitude of certain scenes retrospectively called into question. Whether it is a lesbian scene between Portman and her rival, or a scene where it looks like Portman has murdered this rival, the film isn't so much ambiguous as offering counter-certitude. We take the lesbian scene as given, and then are asked to call it into question. This doesn't seem very far removed from the horror device of the murder that takes place in what we then realize is a dream sequence. Ambiguity isn't the right word one feels for such moments: counter-certitude seems more appropriate, and would be a typical example of bad ambiguity if one accepts that it isn't even finally ambiguous at all.
Yet what would make a film like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie pass for good ambiguity since Bunuel also consistently pulls the rug out from under us? There are scenes in the film that play as if they're actually taking place only for the viewer to see that they're no more than an anxiety dream. When one character wakes up after a meal where he and his friends are on stage and the curtains open to reveal a large audience, this is a dream sequence too. Later the characters are shot by terrorists at a country house only for a character to wake up out of another dream. But where Bunuel is interested in the surrealist undermining of cause and effect to the point that affective responses must be constantly questioned, does many a horror film and thriller that use dream sequences and several plot reversals do so not to undermine the affective response and force a sort of affective vigilance on the viewer, but to weaken affective responses for shock effect? In Bunuel's case he wants as we have proposed affective vigilance; he wants us to ask questions about the manner and means by which film can manipulate our feelings. The horror and thriller directors often want pragmatically to create shock and surprise by whatever means possible. If Bunuel asks us to question film language and the devices utilised; directors utilising 'bad ambiguity' want us to take it ever more for granted, but to then manipulate the viewer into buying into the devices no matter how vulgarised.
Is this finally a matter of taste, or can we more concretely explore how it is a question of the Bunuelian allowing us to comprehend better 'reality', for all the surrealism of the work, and the Aronofskyian of Black Swan asking no more than that we understand the techniques of manipulation? When near the end of Black Swan it looks as if Portman has killed her rival only for us to be then informed that it's an hallucination, how does this compare with The Piano Teacher, Michael Haneke's film about perfectionism in the world of music? The Piano Teacher concludes with Isabelle Huppert's character sticking a knife into her shoulder blade, but the madness it presents to us is 'objective', objective in the sense that we do not assume Huppert is creating this event in her mind; we view it as an eyewitness might. Aronofsky's is subjective (as it is in Pi and to some degree in Requiem for a Dream) but that initself isn't the problem. The problem lies much more in working with the subjective as if it is the objective, by creating not the tentative tenuousness of a mind disintegrating, but strenuous and assertive devices that ask us to take her view as an objective one until that world is supplanted by another one we are supposed to take as real instead. Haneke illustrates that Huppert's Erika Kohut's mind is mentally dissolving, but shows us this disillusion from the outside. We are positioned as a troubled bystander, and watch the ambiguous behaviour of Erika as we would have to read the behaviour of someone who commits self-harm in front of our eyes. We cannot know their thoughts and feelings; we can only witness the accumulation of details that hint at their psychosis. Aronofsky shows it from the inside, but keeps playing tricks on us so that what we get is less a revelation of Portman's madness, than the filmmaker's ability to wrong-foot the audience. He expects us to take something for reality that he then insists was only a fantasy and so on. The Piano Teacher, like for example Lodge Kerrigan's excellent Keane, demands we view a character's mental problems from the outside all the better to understand them as mental problems and not only narrative devices.
This isn't to insist on 'objective' accounts of madness, merely to ask that the subjective be presented within the context of a problem rather than a device. If the character's world is unstable shouldn't we be made aware of the basic instability of their mental faculties, rather than the assertive approach of the filmmaker? Both Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind are examples of films taking us into the minds of their protagonists, then telling us what we took for reality was a mental projection. In A Beautiful Mind it happens relatively early in the film; in Fight Club near the conclusion. Can we say the filmmakers are more interested in the audience than in the problem, and what films might we think of that work the other way round: where the problem proves more pertinent than the narratives it will serve?
A couple of Alain Resnais works, Je t'aime Je'taime and Mon oncle d'amerique, are brilliant examples of films that want to use film form to explore problems of subjectivity without falling into narrative traps of easy peripety and audience surprise. When Seymour Chatman says of Mon Oncle... that it is "easy to get caught up in narrative "excess"", what is interesting is that the narrative is nevertheless presented as excess. As it predicates itself on ideas by the biologist and behaviourist Henri Laborit, so in time a story develops concerning the three human examples Laborit focuses upon. But what it doesn't do is lose itself in the story to the detriment of the problem it searches out: the issue of what makes humans behave as they do, and how they differ from other life forms. Mon Oncle... looks at the problem externally, but the earlier Je t'aime, J'taime pursues it internally: through the thought processes of a central character who, after an attempted suicide in the wake of his ex taking her own life, agrees to enter an experiment in time. He enters a time machine, and the film uses its sci-fi device not to create a story but to investigate a problem as we have Claude Rich's mind bouncing around from one memory to another. This is the stubborn indiscernibility of memory removed from space and given over to time. As the film jumps about to explore the past events of Claude Ridder's life, so we concern ourselves less with chronology than the ephemeral nature of time's workings. The events no longer take place in space; they are recalled in time, so Resnais acknowledges the difficulty of recreating spatial coordinates from the position of temporal disarray. This means that the flashbacks aren't there to locate us readily in time past that quickly becomes space present, as we often get in flashback films where each period of past time is concrete chronology. No, instead Resnais presents Claude's memory as a kind of guilty argument, an account of Claude's own move towards an attempted suicide, and an attempt to make sense of the ex's. While Chatman says "when an explicitly argued film does come along, the general public and the critics are likely to be puzzled and even angry," we may wonder if viewers are even more inclined to anger over the form than over the content.
Both Mon Oncle... and Je t'aime, Jet'aime are likely to anger viewers more than, say, Malcom X and Braveheart, even though the latter pair are much more ideologically assertive works than either Resnais film. However Spike Lee and Mel Gibson's movies remain chronologically straightforward and spatially coherent. It is not so much that a film presents an argument that is the problem, it is whether the form gets called into question in relation to conveying it. When people attack a Godard film for its ideological forcefulness, often the problem is much more with its argumentative approach, its formal assertiveness not especially its ideological one. We can probably say with more certainty that Braveheart presents a pro-Scottish and anti-English perspective more than we can say Eloge de l'amour presents an anti-American one, but Braveheart absorbs its persuasion within narrative, Eloge de l'amour's persuasiveness is slightly aloof to it.
The problem one suspects resides not in argumentation and assertion, but instead argumentation and spatial disorientation. Resnais asks us to accept in Je t'aime, Je t'aimethat concrete space loses out to the problem of time as Claude does not remember events in strict chronological blocks (since none of us do), but in fragments salvaged from time past. Here we have ambiguity created by the ontological problem of time, not ambiguity serving the ready needs of narrative rug-pulling. Chatman mentions the Le Monde critic saying that Mon Oncle... was "profitlessly inverting the relations of knowledge and fiction", resulting in the "worst of didactic films". Would this make Braveheart the best of didactic films since it doesn't involve this reversal? The problem seems more with the reversal than with the didacticism.
However if Mon oncle... is so didactic, what exactly does it happen to be saying? Its form may have an element of the pedagogical, but that hardly makes it categorical in its meaning, and Resnais often resembles Godard in the propositional sense invoked by Gilles Deleuze when he mentions Godard's ideas. "Ok, but ideas, having an idea, isn't about ideology." (Negotiations). It is instead about addressing a problem, but at the same time doing so through story, not completely eschewing it. As Mon Oncle...scriptwriter Jean Gruault says, "this may sound pretentious, but we used Laborit, although not to make a didactic film. It's like Proust using the notes of his father - who was a doctor - to create his characters, especially their medical histories. Laborit for me is a bit like Marx was for Brecht: an illumination for telling a story." (Film Comment Sept/Oct 80) The notion of the ideological is contained by the demands of a story, however unconventionally conceived. When Resnais says (in Film Comment July/August 75) in relation to Hiroshima mon amour that "there were three or four lines that were more clearly political, and which Marguerite Duras (the author) and myself enjoyed...when they were spoken by the actor it did not fit with the actor", he is acknowledging the importance of the ideological but at the same time shows wariness at its predominance to the detriment of other elements.
Good ambiguity, the sort of ambiguity that keeps pursuing the problem rather than plays with the viewer's expectations, might be assertive but it is also equivocal, and while it might be ideological that doesn't mean it will sacrifice the affective possibilities in story and character to this dimension. If it happens to do so, as Godard's work often does, then this is to create new levels of equivocation rather than simply eschewing character for ideological ends. During Godard's politically radical period between 1968 and 1980, the work was at the same time didactic and questioning. As he would sit at the beginning of Numero Deux, surrounded by technology and making us aware of the means of production, as he would use a lengthy lateral track in Tout va bien, so Godard wanted to ask the viewer to fret over the power of cinema. Other filmmakers much less apparently ideological than Godard would of course leave such questions of power latent while making full use of their effects blatantly. At the same time Godard was making Numero Deux, Steven Spielberg with Jaws would return Hollywood to 'a cinema of attractions', to making cinema that ruthlessly manipulated the viewer whilst not at all acknowledging the ideological manipulation involved in this power play. "You feel like a rat being given shock treatment", The Village Voice claimed.
This isn't to say that manipulation and ambiguity are mutually incompatible, and a director like Haneke is interesting in his oxymoronic ability to combine the ambiguous with the manipulative. Benny's Video, Funny Games and Hidden are all films that play with the viewer's cinematic entrapment, but Haneke claims, in a Sight and Sound supplement piece on Funny Games, that at the same time he frees them from the unthinking nature of this captivity. "How do I give the viewer the possibility of perceiving this loss of reality and their own involvement in the process, so that they can thereby free themselves from being victims of the medium and become its potential partners? The question is not. What may I show you? Rather it is, How do I show viewers their own position in relation to violence and its portrayal?" In Benny's Video it might be with the combination of an off-screen event and ethical horror, in Funny Games, in identifying with characters whose position is shown to be hopeless, in Hidden, by making a suicide shocking and inexplicable, and a character's response to it utterly self-centred. In each instance the extremity of action contains within it an ambiguity of response, clearly illustrated in a moment in Funny Games where Haneke looks as if he has given the viewer the righteous event most other films provide. When it appears as if the family has wrestled control over the situation, Haneke shows one of the intruders picking up the remote and rewinding the footage prior to the family's revenge. If in Benny's Video and Hidden we're implicated in the actions of characters we're not supposed to like, in Funny Games our identificatory characters are agreeable but hapless, figures who in our identification with them bring out all the more the masochistic relationship we have with Haneke's images. After all, if we didn't much care whether they lived or died, there wouldn't be much masochistic despair in the moment when we think they've turned the tables only for the table to be set upright again moments later.
Haneke is a very different filmmaker from Resnais, but not always so very different from Godard. For all Resnais' experimentation, he isn't an aggressive filmmaker, aggressive in the sense that he wants to confront the viewer. His tone is often quizzical, enquiring, suggestive. His ambiguity is not only good in the sense that we've been exploring it: generating ambiguity that holds more to enquiry than manipulation. It is also good in that Resnais doesn't generally impose aggressive techniques on the viewer. He may say in interviews that he's been strongly influenced by Eisenstein and his theories about editing (Film Comment, July/August 75), but there is little of Eisenstein's kino fist. Resnais' collision of images is radical but gentle. Filmmakers like Penn and Peckinpah, also obviously influenced by Eisenstein, are more the reverse: relatively conventional (and this is not at all a criticism of these two great and important filmmakers) but far from gentle.
However, Godard's ambiguity, like Haneke's, but for very different reasons, is aggressive. They are both filmmakers who want us to be aware of the process of making images, and what control they have over us as a consequence. When Godard frequently cuts out sound in the middle of a scene in Slow Motion, or utilises slow motion in the same film, he is asking us to acknowledge the nature of the form. Equally, when Haneke rewinds the footage in Funny Games, and does likewise more diegetically in Hidden - where the characters themselves are watching footage that has been recorded and then rewind it - so we are made aware of the means of production, and that what we are watching is a made object. But where Godard risks diluting our affective responses, Haneke wants to work them and then asks us to question how easily we have been played. Godard is one of the greatest of filmmakers partly because of the risks he takes concerning affectivity. If we're moved by certain Godard films, by Breathless, Contempt, Pierrot le fou, Slow Motion and Eloge de l'amour, then the achievement is astonishing not least because he has put in place so many obstacles and refused so many devices for this feeling to be probable.
Haneke utilises many devices but does so in the good faith of a filmmaker who knows he cannot leave us unaware of their use, no matter if they are as effectively deployed, and more completely called into question, than by any other filmmaker who adopts them. In this sense many of Haneke's film are consistent with body genre movies: films where the director elicits a categorical response from the viewer. In the three Haneke films mentioned, we are likely to respond physiologically as we would in a horror film or a thriller, and then asked to call into question these responses. But Godard asks us to feel beyond the contours of the physiological, as if saying to us that we shouldn't engage in the story, shouldn't care too much about the characters, shouldn't get caught up in the situations. There is an affective space beyond; one Godard seems to search out. Reviewing Slow Motion, The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael negatively proposed that "if it were possible to have lyricism without emotion, that might describe the film's style", but one could see this as not only Godard's aim but his achievement - that he wanted to find a feeling without an emotion; a paradoxical claim of course, but not a meaningless one. If film has such a standard set of devices to access emotion, how does a filmmaker achieve feeling without working the audience's emotions?
One way of looking at this is to think of a remark actor Bruno Putzulu made to Godard during the Eloge de l'amour shoot. One day Godard asked Putzulu how he was, and Putzulu explained that he wasn't so good. Putzulu had split up with his girlfriend of ten years, and reckoned "it's only afterwards, when things are finished, that they take on sense." Godard put the line into the film. (Everything is Cinema) There are a couple things of interest here. One is that Godard has so little respect for conventional narrative pre-conception that he can easily find space for happenings around the shoot. The second is that such incorporations suggest feeling over emotion, as if it isn't an event he wants to incorporate, more a mood, taking into account those who see emotions as "your body's response to threats and opportunities", according to Joe Shirley. "It's your body's preparation to meet your environment in an optimal way. It's all about survival. Emotion is something that's built into animals that go way back, very primitive." Feelings, though are "something that is, I think, relatively new on the evolutionary scene. It is a conscious experience of something that is modeled on emotion, but goes way beyond emotion". (joe shirley.com) Why Godard can so easily absorb Putzulu's comment into his film is due to his interest in being very suspicious of emotion: its tense is too immediate, too practical, as if Godard did not want to make films that accumulate emotional reactions, but instead build on hints of feeling. One reason why Godard treats even emotionally charged events with ridicule is because he doesn't seem quite to trust such immediacy of response, and usually presents them as absurd. Whether it is the shoot-out at the beginning of Prenom Carmen, Michel's death at the end of Breathless, or the accident at the end of Slow Motion, Godard has little interest in generating emotion from an event, but is more interested in trying to find a way of containing all events within some vaguer, more ambiguous notion of feeling. If Haneke creates troubling emotional events, Godard retreats from emotion and tries to find purpose more in an accumulation of (often melancholic) feeling.
What neither Haneke nor Godard allows for are the simple assumption of emotion and the consequent manipulation of this basic response. In films where a character plot-heavily plays another, where the director has a character (and the viewer) jump after an object happens to fall over, or when a character wakes from a dream where the audience has been identifying with, and been shocked by, events within it, we are in a world of suspect ambiguity. One might here be reminded of a comment Nabokov made concerning eavesdropping in literature, which he regarded as the sign of the amateur. We might reverse this and say that bad ambiguity in film is often the sign of a professional: of a career man knowing how to work his audience. Is good ambiguity much more the sign of the artist trying to work with the problem to hand rather than with an audience to please? Pulling the rug and or pushing the possibilities of perception are two very different ways of utilising the image, and easy assumptions about ambiguous cinema can confuse the categories, leaving tired, easily manipulative images to fall under the same rubric as challenging ones.
© Tony McKibbin