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Discussing Ambiguity in Films

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Two films in the past few years have utilized ambiguity: The Master and The Tree of Life. Both films have polarized audiences and have both a fair share of admirers and detractors (I am an ardent fan of both). But these weren't the first films to have done this in the past. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive used this as well, and of course I cannot forget the great grandaddy of it: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I will defend any of these movies against anyone. I was one of the very few bloggers who loved The Master, and declared The Tree of Life to be the best film of 2011. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my second favorite movie of all time after Apocalypse Now, and Mulholland Drive would also be in my top ten.

So I thought I should have a discussion about ambiguity. I feel that the directors, like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Terrence Malick, are all trying to use ambiguity to have a deeper meaning in their films. Mulholland Drive and The Master end on unclear notes and both 2001 and The Tree of Life take uncommon narratives.

Spoiler's Alert for Mulholland Drive

Let me start my discussion with Mulholland Drive. The first two hours or so of the movie introduce us to Betty and Rita, and give multiple characters and scenarios that don't seem to fit in to the film, like the failed heist. The last half an hour changes the movie upside down. Soon both Betty and Rita are actually two different people, and unimportant characters before now get bigger roles. The film ends at a theater with a woman crying out "silencio." And that's it.

I believe that David Lynch has made a movie that make the audience the detective. The first part of the movie really is him laying out all the puzzle pieces and the last half an hour is what happened. The only way to completely understand the film is really to pick up all the clues, something which most audiences aren't used to.

Spoiler's Alert for The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson takes a similar approach for The Master. Instead of laying out all the characters' motives, Anderson keeps them cryptic, teasing the audience. The movie ends with an image that recurs throughout the film: Freddy Quell lying on a beach next to a sand sculpture of a naked woman. Anderson's use of symbolism is recurrent throughout the movie, which he also used in Magnolia. Like Lynch, Anderson wants the audiences to examine the characters and to fully understand them. He leaves many questions unanswered so that the audience will still be thinking about the movie after they've seen it. I haven't stopped thinking about The Master, even though it's been about four months since I last saw it in theaters.

Spoiler's Alert for 2001

2001: A Space Odyssey acts as a question-raiser. Stanley Kubrick leaves the movie very ambiguous. The first fifteen minutes or so are dedicated to scenes that seem irrelevant to the major plot seen later. What's the point of showing apes fighting each other? But as the movie progresses, these scenes remain important. Kubrick explores evolution in the movie. The final scene, which features Dave becoming a star child, represents him being reborn into an entity, which is caused by the monoliths. That's my interpretation at least, and I think Kubrick's intention was to have every view have his own interpretation.

Spoiler's Alert for The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life takes the most nonlinear approach out of all these films. Terrence Malick brings up symbolism through multiple scenes. The creation of the universe, the development of life, and even the dinosaurs all are metaphors for the O'Brien family. Malick's other movies show his love of nature and beauty, and with The Tree of Life he cranks it up to the full-notch. The film ends with all the people from Jack's life at a beach, representing all of his dreams and feelings. The people who love it really love it and the people who hate it really hate it (fun fact: David Lynch, a big fan of Malick, stated that The Tree of Life "wasn't (his) cup of tea"). It's a movie I feel that if you don't connect to you won't enjoy.

End of Spoilers

All of these challenge the viewer to do more than just watch the film. In years to come, I believe both The Master and The Tree of Life will be idealized by critics. That's already happened to 2001, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, and to Mulholland Drive.

It's understandable why people don't like these films. I didn't enjoy seeing 2001 the first time around. These films want to be more than just entertainment and really want to question the viewer. But I feel that all the films I have mentioned are classics that will go down in film history.



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