Puzzle Films

What is a Puzzle film? There are a few different definitions for what could be considered a puzzle film as it is not a thoroughly researched area of Film studies and is relatively new. Before I go over the different theorists’ definitions, I want to cover the history of the term ‘Puzzle Film’. HISTORY David… Read more »

by Cameron Lusty 5 months ago

What is a Puzzle film? There are a

few different definitions for what

could be considered a puzzle film as

it is not a thoroughly researched area of Film

studies and is relatively new. Before I go over

the different theorists’ definitions, I want to

cover the history of the term ‘Puzzle Film’.

HISTORY

David Bordwell, a film theorist whose

works include cognitive film theory and

narratology, highlighted in his book the

“surge of complex narratives” as early

as the 40s to the 50s and noted that it

occurred again from the mid-60s to the

early 70s. Charles Ramirez Berg in his

article agrees with Bordwell that Puzzle

films have been around since the 40s by

citing Citizen Kane (1941) as one of the

first examples. But when was the term

first coined?

Kiss and Willemsen claim the origin

of “the term ‘puzzle film’ stems from

Norman N. Holland’s 1963 article entitled

‘Puzzling Movies’, in which he referred to

a new genre of European art films of the

late 1950s and early 1960s”. Interestingly,

they note it was to describe a genre of

films originally but then the term was

revived by Bordwell to describe more

of a classification of films then a genre.

This illustrates that while the complex

narratives of ‘Puzzle films’ existed

in cinema for decades, they weren’t

comprehensively defined until

relatively recently.

David Bordwell’s book Narration in the

Fiction Film (1985) laid the foundation for

what would become puzzle film theory

with its assessment of different narrative

types (a must read for any film studies

students/fans). Bordwell then coined the

term himself which was then applied and

developed by other theorists such as Elliot

Panek, Kiss and Willemson, and others.

Kiss and Willemson noted that “recent

film history has seen the emergence of

a range of films, both surprising cult hits

and major blockbusters, making clever use

of confusing plots”, including Mulholland

Drive (2001) and Memento (2000). Charles

BY CAMERON LUSTY PUZZLE FILMS

What is a Puzzle film? There are a

few different definitions for what

could be considered a puzzle film as

it is not a thoroughly researched area of Film

studies and is relatively new. Before I go over

the different theorists’ definitions, I want to

cover the history of the term ‘Puzzle Film’.

This is achieved through “unusual story

structure, violations of causal logic, or

flaunted, unresolved gaps in the chain of

story. This feels much clearer and specific

than Bordwell’s definition.

Kiss and Willemsen took Panek’s term

further and developed the “impossible

puzzle film”. They define this as films

“characterised by pervasive paradoxes,

uncertainties, incongruities, and

ambiguities in the narration” which

provoke a “state of ongoing confusion

throughout the viewing experience”.

So, as you can see there are a few different

types of puzzle films, and they are all open

to interpretation and criticism. If you want

to read more about puzzle films then

check out the following books: Narration

in the Fiction Film (Bordwell); Puzzle Films:

Complex Storytelling in Contemporary

Cinema and Hollywood Puzzle Films (both

by Warren Buckland); Impossible Puzzle

Films: A cognitive Approach to Complex

Cinema (Kiss and Willemson); The Poet and

The Detective: Defining the Psychological

Puzzle Film (Panek); and for an intro, then

Janet Steiger’s Complex Narratives, an

Introduction.

16 • ISSUE 46 • MY LIFE

Ramirez Berg concurs and Quentin

Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) as inspiring

the new wave of films, in what he dubs

the ‘Tarantino Effect’, which he defines as

“unorthodox film narration”.

So, it feels we are in a new wave of puzzle

films (I’m sure you can think of more), but

how do you define it? In the next section

we will look at the different theorists’

different definitions, but spoilers: it’s not

so cut and dry.

DEFINITIONS

When it comes to defining puzzle films

there isn’t a rigid definition but more

a vague set of conditions that a film

can meet to be considered a puzzle

film. Warren Buckland sums it up best

by saying that each puzzle film is in

“possession of a clustered subset of

some set of properties, no one of which

is necessary, but which together are

sufficiently many” to be considered a

Puzzle film. Straightforward right?

David Bordwell does provide a clear

characteristic of a ‘puzzle film’: “the

complex telling (plot, narration) of a

simple or complex story (narrative)”. In

other words, the content of the story (the

narrative) can be simple but the way it’s

told (the plot/narration) must be complex.

Elliot Panek in his article for Film Criticism

Journal (2006) developed his own category

of films that deviate from Bordwell’s

classical narration: “psychological puzzle

films”. He defines it as films that “possess

narratives in which the orientation is not

immediately clear, thus creating doubt

in the viewer’s mind as to how reliable,

knowledgeable, self-conscience, and

communicative the narration is”.