Mystery, engine of cinema: Chinatown, The Brown Bunny, The Usual Suspects

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Dionysian Mystery

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Dionysian Mystery

The invisible heart of cinema, pumping images across the screen 24 frames per second is not the projector, but mystery. Every true film contains a secret, one perhaps not even known by its creator, a secret not limited to the frame’s visible margins, not even to the cut, invisible as it may seem. This secret is the image’s spirit contained in the black frames between the images which propel them forward into our perception, the obscure incantation which animates the Golem.

Walter Benjamin’s brief, magnificent text on mystery and riddles, (page 267, here) illuminates the opposition between mystery as the core of a subjective, eternally revitalizing experience, to the riddle, which resides only passively in the object.

Filmmaking is essentially a practice akin to the original Mysteries, a rite religious in nature, its directors priests who initiate us into the secret cult of cinema, cult which draws its potency from the concealment of its images’ meaning, much like the Dionysian Mysteries whose power waxes the more indecipherable the representations of the secretive rites become. We are entirely aware of the profound symbolic significance of these images, but their meaning has been refused us at the pain of death, thus generating the mystery. These remnants of images painted on the walls of a Pompeiian Villa deny us their symbolic significance, dynamizing this significance in our subjective selves, regardless of who or when we are.

A brief glance at the quintessential cinematic genre built upon the riddle – the detective film – reveals the profound difference between a work which is but riddle, and one whose continued evolution is assured through mystery.

The Usual Suspects is the quintessential “riddle film”, in which the appearance of mystery lasts only so long as the solution has not been revealed. Like any machine, its magic ceases to function once its inner mechanism is exposed. A re-visioning of the film becomes valueless, for the appearance of its mystery has already dissipated, and knowing who Keyser Söze is, he ceases to interest us. In other words, once the riddle has been solved, once the film has been seen, its secret exists only objectively and no longer holds our wonder in its grip.

However, in films imbued with mystery such as Roman Polansky’s Chinatown, a closer exegesis only leads to further confoundment. Although Chinatown also contains the machinery of riddle, the film is set in motion by the pistons of mystery. When we discover that Katherine is the daughter Evelyn Mulwray had with her father, the film’s riddle has been solved. Yet the solution of this riddle illuminates little of the film’s true mystery – Gittes, his obscure past, the machinations of power, the making of cinema. In other words, the whispered, almost mystical name of obscured place and time – Chinatown – becomes the icon of mystery itself, and the film’s engine. This narrative disclosure, rather than unlocking the film’s secret through an act of revelation, discovers an opening into a yet deeper, darker labyrinth. Through occultation mystery empowers the film and guarantees its motion.

Vincent Gallo’s much-unloved The Brown Bunny is another film animated by a spirit containing both riddle and mystery, and the film’s poor reception may have been due to a confusion between its perception as riddle rather then its presence as mystery.

The bleak barren desert, and Vincent Gallo’s character traversing it seem at first to be riddles. When Chloë Sevigny’s Daisy is raped at the film’s end, and Bud refuses action, we are baited into accepting this narrative event as the riddle’s solution – righteously, we tell ourselves that we now understand the motivation for his actions. This simple explanation is a provocation of the viewer for the pleasure of insubordination of his expectations, an antagony akin to an innocent’s confession to a murder, for the pleasure of feeling wronged.

Although the bait is appetizing, the rape solves neither the emptiness of the desert nor the vacuity in the soul of the man who wanders across it. Even with the riddle solved, the desert remains desert, the man remains empty, the sphinx remains perplexed – the images have not surrendered their potency. The rape scene, much like the infamous blowjob scene which complements it, are in fact ultimate gestures in a mysterious ritual, of which the entire film was our baptismal preparation. Only through these sacred acts of violence and bloodletting can the ritual be empowered, and the characters apotheosize into cinematic figures.

Superficially, a chain of logic in both Chinatown and The Brown Bunny is apparent, but the pictures insist on a far more profound and mysterious significance. These images flickering across our retinas carry a force that surpasses their exegesis. Their potency is in the visual gesture itself, in the Mystery which not only proffers no explanation, but for which explanation is forbidden, at the pain of death.


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