Metaphysical McGuffins

by John Holbo on January 3, 2011

I’m preparing to teach philosophy and film again and I’m looking for examples of films that hinge on more or less bald stipulations of metaphysically preposterous states of affairs. That is, cases in which something impossible happens, and it isn’t identified as science or magic. It just is. Examples:

The Exterminating Angel (hey, Criterion Collection has it out since last year! good!)

Groundhog Day

Being John Malkovich

In each case, it’s not hard to think of other films that are clearly sf or fairy tales/ghost stories, but that are more or less the same story, in terms of set-up, general mood and themes. Exterminating Angel is a bit like Dark City, maybe. Groundhog Day a bit like many an sf time-travel scenario. Anyway, time travel in general is not far from A Christmas Carol. Whether you use a machine to travel into your past and/or future, or a ghost; or whether it is just, bizarrely, unclear when the out-of-joint times you are in are is relatively incidental to the style of storytelling. Donnie Darko, for example? Being John Malkovich is a lot like various memory-implant/identity-swap sf scenarios, at least in terms of the set-up. It’s also like Freaky Friday, if it comes to that.

I call these ‘Metaphysical McGuffins’ – MacGuffin, if you prefer – (a term I’ve used elsewhere in a related, but distinct sense.) Quoting Hitchcock’s definition:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a McGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a McGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no McGuffin!’ So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

It might be that the McGuffin traps lions by magic. Or it might be some advanced technology, left by aliens. Since the point is, in a sense, that how it works isn’t the point, it hardly matters, does it? What is important is everything it sets in motion. It’s the beetle in the box of story. A ghost beetle or a robot beetle or a plain old beetle or Gregor Samsa or any old thing. Or nothing. You can divide through by the difference between sf and fantasy.

A lot of thoughts converge on this point from different directions: good old ‘sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic’ and all that. With the caveat that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from life as we found it. But, to repeat: for now I’m looking specifically for more examples of films that scrupulously abstain from saying how it works. They don’t commit to a nominal sf or fairytale frame. They just let it be that the thing is.

A few more slightly twisty examples.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a nice case because, although it’s nominally sf – the memory eraser – the element of metaphysical repetition and its resolution, the true Metaphysical McGuffin (‘Montauk’) is semi-distinct. So it’s really not clear whether the fictional state of affairs that really matters to the characters is ‘scientific’. Also, obviously this sort of story bears a certain resemblance to, say, It’s A Wonderful Life. (Which, by the way, goes down a treat as a Kirby Kracklin’ By An Open Fire sf story.)

Classing Eternal Sunshine as sf is a bit like classifying The Wizard of Oz as sf, on the grounds that balloons are examples of technology, so really it’s more like steampunk. (Well, not quite. But you see the point.)

Finally, Unbreakable. My personal fave superhero film of all time, despite M. Knight’s ever-sinking artistic stock (hey, The Sixth Sense was great – a very solid entry in the ‘it turned out he was a robot’ sweepstakes. But I don’t want to give away the ending.) It’s not clear whether superhero stuff is properly sf, or what. For that very reason, Unbreakable is nice for the McGuffinish way that it gives us no explanation of the hero’s powers. They are.

Oh, and Lost.

Final thoughts: an obvious consequence of calling the whole lot ‘metaphysical mcguffin fiction’ – mmf – is no longer seeing such importance in the distinction between sf and fantasy and just plain old … fiction (not a new thought, obviously, but derived in perhaps semi-novel fashion). If Dark City is just Exterminating Angel is just Waiting For Godot … then a lot of things end up going in the pot together. As, probably, they should.



rm 01.03.11 at 2:24 am

Repo Man?

Shyamalan’s movies, that I’ve seen, end when the story is about to start.

Is there a film of No Exit?


sg 01.03.11 at 2:49 am

I watched I come with the Rain last night (because my partner is obssessed with Lee Byun Hung) and it has a kind of metaphysical mcguffin, centring around a resurrection/faith healing power possessed by one of the characters. No scientific, religious or magical explanations are offered, as if it were merely a property of his personality or something. The sculptures the serial killer makes with his victims could also be seen as a kind of (dark) magic.


Henri Vieuxtemps 01.03.11 at 2:54 am

Edward Scissorhands


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 3:03 am

The film version of The Children of Men implied a kind of plague, didn’t it? I know the book didn’t.


Maneki Nekko 01.03.11 at 3:03 am

The Boy with Green Hair


Salient 01.03.11 at 3:09 am

Does The Twilight Zone count? Rod Sterling seems to explicitly and aggressively disavow the “it’s science” explanation in every episode — so hey, “it’s the twilight zone” is Sterlingese, but does it more properly translate to “it’s magic” or to meta-acknowledgment “we’re relying on a metaphysical McGuffin here” ?

…I thought classification problems like those you consider with regard to Eternal Sunshine were why we’re all supposed to grudgingly switch over to the phrase ‘speculative fiction’ now. Eternal Sunshine is unambiguously speculative fiction in a way that Wizard of Oz is ambiguously not.


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 3:11 am

I also like the idea of The Matrix as a kind of wrongheaded “correction” of Dark City.


Salient 01.03.11 at 3:13 am

Edward Scissorhands

Hm. This might be a Tim Burton thing — Big Fish is a curious example


Jamie 01.03.11 at 3:15 am

Bertolucci’s “The Spider’s Stratagem” has a story that’s impossible and with no explanation, but the way in which it’s metaphysically impossible is mildly obscure and is not revealed until the end. The only really interesting thing about it is wondering what the point of the impossibility is supposed to be.


Jacob T. Levy 01.03.11 at 3:17 am

I’m with you on Unbreakable.

Run Lola Run? Pleasantville?


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 3:17 am

Speculative Fiction is a fine term for it, and I had actually thought about mentioning the Twilight Zone connection, as a possible alternative, neutral characterization. Metaphysical McGuffin is a bit more specific, in that it, as it were, condenses ‘speculative’ into something like Darko Suvin’s stipulation of the need for a ‘novum’ (he thinks he’s defining ‘sf’, more or less, but since the new thing doesn’t need to be scientific …). A new thing – a McGuffin, monolith – something impossible that happens.

Speculation, in general, can cover a variety of sins and saintlinesses. There’s something a bit more thought-experimentally precise about the thing I’m talking about, at least in a lot of cases.


mds 01.03.11 at 3:20 am

Anyway, time travel in general is not far from A Christmas Carol.

I should think not, given that the Doctor uses the TARDIS to explicitly alter—

—Wait, are we talking about the 2010 Christmas Special?


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 3:22 am

Ooh, I didn’t catch that one, mds. Just last week, was it? I do like it when the Doctor uses the Tardis to alter Dickens. As in that Edwin Drood episode.


Salient 01.03.11 at 3:27 am

Gulliver’s Travels? Spirited Away? Probably quite a lot of genuinely horrific horror movies — if it’s plausible to assume “manifestations of the imagination run amok” holds in the movie world, is that still a metaphysical McGuffin, or is that precisely the kind of implied explanatory mechanism we’re trying to avoid? (If the latter, I take back Big Fish.)


Salient 01.03.11 at 3:34 am

Eureka: this is a category over which Kafka’s Metamorphosis would reign sovereign, no?

Whereas The Trial, not so much; that’s more of a political/social McGuffin. Maybe one could construct a taxonomy of McGuffins from Kafka works.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 3:44 am

I think “The Trial” ought to qualify, so long as we admit that the law is a thing that can work like a machine, or can be more magical – a command from God – or sometimes can operate for no apparent reason at all.

But now we are getting a bit out of hand. “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce”? Still, the point is to get Kafka in the middle. Definitely.


Russell Arben Fox 01.03.11 at 3:44 am

Finally, Unbreakable. My personal fave superhero film of all time

The best superhero films yet, a brilliantly inventive and basically flawless telling of a comic-book story. Even besides how crappy he’s gotten, Shyamalan should have stopped making movies after that, because he was never going to top it (though Signs had some good moments in it).


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 3:47 am

I think in order for it to be a McGuffin, it needs to be relatively, experimentally discrete. It needs to be One thing, as it were. But I dunno … I want to keep it firmed up so it doesn’t turn out that every episode of every sitcom qualifies because something really preposterous that would never happen, happens. Although …


Jake 01.03.11 at 3:50 am

Solaris is usually identified as SF, but it’s pretty close to what you’re looking for: we never learn what the planet means or does. Its protagonist, Kris Kelvin, is a psychologist, not a physicist or biologist. There are stabs at explanation, but they fail.

The book is good too.


John Quiggin 01.03.11 at 3:52 am

By the end of The City and the City it seems that nothing impossible (in a physical sense) is happening at all. The inhabitants of the two cities conform to strict social norms, and the power of Breach to enforce those norms is self-sustaining. Or maybe this was obvious all along.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 3:52 am

Yeah, in non-cinema terms, Lem’s “The Investigation” is perhaps the most perfect example of what I’m looking for. A pure thought-experiment about a break-down of the principle of sufficient reason, told as detective story.


JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 3:56 am

or sometimes can operate for no apparent reason at all.

I’m trying to decide if this brings Catch-22 in.


JGabriel 01.03.11 at 3:57 am

Pulp Fiction — What’s in the briefcase?


Salient 01.03.11 at 3:59 am

I am possibly unduly overexcited about this topic because I think you’re after something very close to the kind of thing that I am trying to do in my own crummy writing: surgically modify the metaphysics of the world in a small and quiet way that diverges from reality smoothly over time, and watch what happens as the deviation of the story evolves from one little wrinkle into a singularity and defines the course of the narrative. Introduce a kid who can hit anything and watch what happens to baseball (and to the kid). Introduce a kid who understands everything that’s said to them in a way that allows instructors to confer arbitrarily complex academic proficiency, or a world in which imaginative deviation renders one increasingly incapable of rudimentary communication with others, and watch how stories evolve. I dunno, maybe if I get around to attempting to publish a book of short stories I’ll try to bill it as metaphysical McGuffinry.

(This sort of thing is easier to get away with in young adult fiction because the metaphysics of childhood are foot-shuffly and insecure, if not aggressively contrarian. What’s weird is how few examples of YA fiction fall under this category, at least as a proportion of YA. It’s the perfect playground for surgical metaphysics.)


JGabriel 01.03.11 at 4:00 am

On second thought, Pulp Fiction’s briefcase is probably just a straight McGuffin.



JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 4:03 am

Introduce a kid who can hit anything and watch what happens to baseball (and to the kid)

Rookie of the Year had occurred to me. (For folks who are blissfully unaware, “When an accident miraculously gives a boy an incredibly powerful pitching arm, he becomes a major league pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.”)


Jim Flannery 01.03.11 at 4:05 am

Lost Highway seems obvious. Also Stalker.


jmccance 01.03.11 at 4:06 am

I feel like “Primer” might qualify, since the mechanism of the time machine are never even technobabbled. The story simply offers a device that violates the normal rules of reality in accordance with some specific rules and follows it from there.


Henri Vieuxtemps 01.03.11 at 4:13 am

Stalker (the book, at least) gives a sf explanation, though: space aliens’ picnic on the side of the road.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 4:17 am

Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive (they are essentially the same movie) are interesting as an example of a particular subcategory of the metaphysical MacGuffin: the treatment of a psychological reality as if it were an objective physical reality.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 4:22 am

The Birds should probably be there with The Exterminating Angel as the classic examples of the genre. On the other hand, ISTM that Being John Malkovich ends up offering enough of an explanation for its MacGuffin that it should count as science fiction, albeit rather goofy sf. (It would have been better movie if it hadn’t.)


Ben Alpers 01.03.11 at 4:22 am

The Rapture, Safe, and Liquid Sky are all good examples, as is Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice.

Though it’s very definitely scifi, the recent film Moon might qualify, too.

Incidentally both Repo Man and Pulp Fiction essentially borrow their McGuffins from Kiss Me Deadly.


rv 01.03.11 at 4:25 am

The mixture of the mystic and swordplay in films both of and influed by the wuxia style.

Kung Fu Hustle. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Kill Bill I & II. The Matrix Trilogy. Shaolin Soccer.

Why do we accept these MacGuffins? This sort of logic is beguiling. “Why is a thing so? Hmmmm…. I imagine it to be like this…. that seems reasonable. I believe it is true.” This is followed by the next logical exchange. “I don’t like the state of affairs. Wouldn’t it be great to xxxx? You know what? I think we should do it!” This accounts for the current state of economics and politics, as well as my mother’s explanations for how the world works. If only there were films of those.


Dave Maier 01.03.11 at 4:25 am

I haven’t seen Deep Throat, so I cannot confirm this, but from feminist philosophers’ discussion of same I understand that an unexplained anatomical impossibility is central to its plot.

Reygadas’s Silent Night (as opposed to Ordet).

MacKenna’s Gold (though I believe in this case the impossibility is just a conceptual screwup)

Hmmm. Memento (not Korsakov’s, which is possible, but the fact that he *remembers he has it* (or is this just another conceptual screwup?))

Oh, how about Cet obscur objet du désir? Or does that count? Wow, this is hard.


JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 4:27 am

Salient: Probably quite a lot of genuinely horrific horror movies—if it’s plausible to assume “manifestations of the imagination run amok” holds in the movie world, is that still a metaphysical McGuffin, or is that precisely the kind of implied explanatory mechanism we’re trying to avoid?

Was thinking of this specifically with regard to The Birds. From Wikipedia (with a cite to an interview) , It was also decided that in no way was the behaviour of the birds to be explained lest the film be taken as science fiction. And as I recall the du Maurier story lacked any motivation as well.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 4:29 am

“I haven’t seen Deep Throat, so I cannot confirm this, but from feminist philosophers’ discussion of same I understand that an unexplained anatomical impossibility is central to its plot.”

Good lord, hadn’t thought of that. Gregor Samsa is spinning in his bed.


Dave Maier 01.03.11 at 4:29 am

Here we go: Peter Greenaway’s The Falls, and Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating.


JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 4:31 am

Deep Throat wins. Go forth and teach John.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 4:35 am

One classic exception that proves the rule is “Frankenstein”. In the 1818 version it’s science. In the 1831 version it’s become a bit more like magic. Which means that, overall: Metaphysical McGuffin.

Which is why I liked this bit from dsquared’s Christmas Sermon:

“Lukas looked at me with a wild expression, rather like that of Victor Frankenstein on being asked if he’d thought about switching power suppliers.”


Dave Maier 01.03.11 at 4:35 am

Also: speaking of Rivette reminds me of the way his Haut/Bas/Fragile morphs into a musical halfway through, which brings up the question: what about musicals generally? Of course it’s not impossible that people would break into song in (what one might think to be) inappropriate situations; but that people simply accept it as normal (and join in themselves) at least demands explanation.


Ben Alpers 01.03.11 at 4:37 am

Miracle Mile and Last Night (the 1998 film, not the one released last year) share an apocalyptic McGuffin. Perhaps (the more clearly apocalyptic scifi) The Quiet Earth qualifies, too.

The Norwegian film The Bothersome Man definitely fits the bill.


JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 4:39 am



Ben Alpers 01.03.11 at 4:43 am



Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 4:50 am

The mixture of the mystic and swordplay in films both of and influed by the wuxia style.

This is clearly wrong. Acrobatic martial arts aren’t a MacGuffin at all, metaphysical or otherwise. Thinking about why it’s so wrong helps clarify the original concept, though. When John H. refers to movies “in which something impossible happens,” he doesn’t just mean something that couldn’t happen in real life, since that would include pretty much all genre movies (and quite a few non-0genre ones too). Movies that offer a more or less coherent account of a reality different from our own are science fiction or fantasy or whatever. He’s talking about something different. Eternal Sunshine is a nice example because, as he says, the meeting at Montauk is not explained by the premise of the memory-erasing technology.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 4:55 am

if it’s plausible to assume “manifestations of the imagination run amok” holds in the movie world, is that still a metaphysical McGuffin, or is that precisely the kind of implied explanatory mechanism we’re trying to avoid?

I’d missed this when I wrote almost the same thing at 28, suggesting it as a major subcategory of metaphysical MacGuffins. (It stops qualifying only if some causal mechanism is offered within the movie.) But now I think subcategory isn’t quite right — I think any metaphysical MacGuffin has to have this aspect to some extent, if the movie is going to work. Some have it more than others, tho.


Ben Alpers 01.03.11 at 4:58 am

How about Synecdoche, New York? Or Barton Fink?


BJN 01.03.11 at 5:05 am

Zelig is almost a great border case. There is no real logical explanation, and one would be beside the point, but the newsreel at the beginning, and the fact that psychoanalyzing why he is what he is sits at the center seems to specifically put it outside what we are looking for.

I do think we need a somewhat solid-er definition though.

The Muppets


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 5:06 am

“Acrobatic martial arts aren’t a MacGuffin at all, metaphysical or otherwise.”

It would be kind of funny to make a film in which it is a macguffin. That is, people suddenly find themselves capable of this and they don’t know how or why.

As a rule, genre rules aren’t mcguffins because they aren’t true IN the world of the fiction. Otherwise, people would notice them. And if the people do notice them, then you get absurdism. And, possibly, a mcguffin.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 5:14 am

How about Synecdoche, New York? Or Barton Fink?

To me, Barton Fink is definitely not — there’s no suggestion that anything that happens is impossible within the world of the movie. (Altho it’s true that the humor in a lot of the Coen brothers’ movies operates by applying genre conventions partially or selectively.) Synechdoche, New York seems a clearly better example — but of course it’s obviously not so clear, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

As a rule, genre rules aren’t mcguffins because they aren’t true IN the world of the fiction.

Exactly. Except, I think you meant to write “are” rather than “aren’t” (or “impossible” rather than “true”.)


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 5:25 am

“As a rule, genre rules aren’t mcguffins because they aren’t true IN the world of the fiction. ”

“Except, I think you meant to write “are” rather than “aren’t” (or “impossible” rather than “true”.)”

Well, it depends how you take it. What I have in mind is the fact that characters in sf films can’t say things like ‘since I’m a classic red shirt ensign-type character, that means I’m going to die on the planet’. If the characters start studying themselves, to learn their own fates then we have “Galaxy Quest”, as opposed to “Star Trek”. Genre in which genre rules are like weirdly binding rules of physics is parody. So, in the standard case: genre rules aren’t true ‘in’ the fiction. It’s true ‘in’ the fiction that there are aliens. It isn’t true ‘in’ the fiction that Will Smith’s character is bound to defeat them, against all odds, in the last 5 minutes of the film. The characters can’t perform rational inductions on their own behavioir patterns/regularities exhibited by their environments and deduce that they are inhabitants of a classic genre.


OneEyedMan 01.03.11 at 5:32 am

Cold Souls has almost no explanation of soul extraction technology

Both Terminator and 12 Monkeys have no real explanation for how time travel works or what mechanisms generate the restrictions on their use (for example, why everyone has to go back naked).

Science Fiction movies are filled with simple, unremarked upon solutions to problems that are difficult or impossible in our own universe like AI, time travel, faster than light transportation and so on. I see why you want to exclude those but it makes for a lot of border cases.

If I recall Hearts in Atlantis (movie) correctly, there is no explanation of Anthony Hopkins’s powers


Jackmormon 01.03.11 at 5:42 am

How is the Metaphysical McGuffin distinct from Todorov’s Fantastic? Or is it that the latter term is too bound up in specific arguments and literary periods?


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 5:54 am


Ah, I get you now. Different meaning of genre conventions. This stuff is tricky!


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 5:56 am

“How is the Metaphysical McGuffin distinct from Todorov’s Fantastic?”

I hadn’t thought about that, and am only sortakinda familiar with this bit of Todorov. It’s distinct but somehow related. Todorov’s category is allegedly mistakable for Gothic or Grotesque, per the link. The Blackwood and Poe examples given aren’t really Metaphysical McGuffins in my sense. The Black Cat isn’t quite Groundhog Day. But, at a certain point it’s hard to tell, perhaps. I like the bit in “1408” where Kusack’s skeptical investigator is interviewing Samuel Jackson’s hotel manager character about the room:

“Gerald Olin: I have never used the word “phantom.”
Mike Enslin: Oh, I’m sorry. Uh, spirit? Specter?
Gerald Olin: No, you misunderstand. Whatever’s in 1408 is nothing like that.
Mike Enslin: Then what is it?
Gerald Olin: It’s an evil fucking room.”

And it is! We never find out that it’s a ghost or a spirit or specter, after all. It’s just evil! There’s something nicely metaphysical mcguffinish about that. But it’s not really a clear example of what I’m talking about. Because once the horror sets in it really loses all distinction with any other horror film, thematically. And it isn’t ‘fantastic’ in Todorov’s sense, because there’s no attempt to preserve ambiguity as to metaphysical reasons.

Similar example: it’s better if we never find out where the Alien comes from, in “Alien”. It’s just a kind of metaphysical manifestation of appetite and will to life and all that. Better to keep the story simple that way. Not just because it’s more ‘symbolic’.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 5:57 am

Just to complete the thought: “1408” is similar in structure to “The Exterminating Angel”.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 6:02 am

… of course there is a whole set of movies where the characters do recognize that they are inhabitants of a classic genre — Scream and so on. And then there’s the opposite (?) case, like in a lot of Coen brothers movies, where the characters think that genre conventions apply but they don’t. But neither of those are mmf in the strict sense, I think.


ben w 01.03.11 at 6:05 am

A Void.


Dan Simon 01.03.11 at 6:09 am

Isn’t the “implausibly unlikely coincidence”–the cornerstone of innumerable works of fiction, whether cinematic, dramatic or literary–the Ur-MM?


IO 01.03.11 at 6:10 am

This seems to be Haruki Murakami’s oeuvre: a weirdness obtrudes into everyday life, and the protagonist (and the story) just goes with it. The first story that comes to mind is “Sleep,” in which a woman finds that she no longer has any need for sleep. She realizes that this is indeed an abnormal occurrence, but the story never settles on an explanation, magical or scientific, as to why or how this has come to pass.


Salient 01.03.11 at 6:22 am

If I understand correctly, it’s not just that there’s no explanation given to us, the audience. There’s no explanation in the world itself. It’s not just that characters don’t know how to explain the phenomenon; it’s that characters can’t possibly explain the phenomenon, because the phenomenon is inexplicable in their world. It’s not even just that characters are baffled, like in 2001, it’s that the movie leads us to belief they have to be baffled — and if they’re not baffled, they must be deluded or imperceptive or dim — because something not just implausible or inexplicable, but flatly impossible, is happening. It’s impossible! It’s happening! And it’s therefore nothing at all.

This differs from the Fantastic in that the McGuffin is, quickly enough, accepted on its own terms. “Oh, okay. We live in a reality which obeys all the rules we’re used to, except apparently you can possess John Malkovich by jumping into a chute. Sweet! Let’s go find out what it’s like to be John Malkovich!” Whereas in a Fantastic work (like Ubiq), the characters are torn with metaphysical questions about themselves and the reality they inhabit, and are hesitant to accept that reality as genuine, in a Metaphysical McGuffin world, the characters more or less just roll with it.

(For folks who are blissfully unaware, “When an accident miraculously gives a boy an incredibly powerful pitching arm, he becomes a major league pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.”)

Eh. That seems different in many senses. For one, the phenomenon is explicable within the world (an accident). Straining plausibility with a silly explanation is different from avoiding explanation or acknowledging explanation as flatly impossible. Really, “this kid is super good at pitching” is not an alteration of metaphysics itself, whereas “this individual seems to be incapable of failing at X” forces some mild reconsideration of what it means to play a game with such a person. In the former, you can cheer the kid on. In the latter, how could you?

The more general case being questioned here seems to be Super-Kid Saves The World type story, a subset of Thing Kid Has Always Dreamed About Comes True. But a McGuffin, metaphysical or no, cannot be the product of an individual ego. If it was, the inherent explanation for the phenomenon would be “this character can impose his or her will upon the world” — that’s how the world works, though perhaps the characters are mostly ignorant of this until they learn it. Therefore, the phenomenon is not flatly impossible in their own world — it was possible all along. For example, kids really can become wizards with Magic Missile, if they find the right amulet. [BTW, thanks for the suggested reading, John. My niece loved it.]

Anyhow, in the crummy story I’m writing the kid isn’t exactly pleased or displeased with this ability, in such a way that clarifies it’s not his will being imposed upon the world, etc, because I’m more interested in exploring what it means to play a game and upon what assumed circumstances of human life that meaning relies. Altering the metaphysics of play, hopefully to learn more about them. Eh. It’s an idea.

Was thinking of this specifically with regard to The Birds.

Yep. I’d typed The Birds only to realize that I’d also have to say “and nearly every meant-to-be-horrific Japanese horror movie I’ve ever seen”


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 6:32 am

“If I understand correctly, it’s not just that there’s no explanation given to us, the audience. There’s no explanation in the world itself.”

Then again, it’s not that Bill Murray knows there’s NO explanation. Though it’s hard to imagine what it could be. It’s notable that, in the three films I list in the post, the characters are notably uninquisitive about the deeper explanation although they are compelled to experiment a bit to figure out what the rules of the game are. They aren’t plagued, as the characters in “Cat” and “Willows” are as to the whole ‘is-it-or-isn’t-it?’ question, re supernatural or merely psychological or otherwise explicable.

A major category about which nothing has been said yet: religion. Science. Supernatural. Religion. There is a sense in which the category of metaphysical mcguffin is curiously orthogonal to standard religious narratives and miracle stories and such. (Christ on the cross is not a metaphysical mcguffin, for example.)


rv 01.03.11 at 6:36 am

“Acrobatic martial arts aren’t a MacGuffin at all, metaphysical or otherwise.”

While I take your point that a genre is not inherently a MacGuffin, I find many films made in the wuxia style to be inherently so.

Borrowing a quote from Wikipedia, “The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.”

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, The Matrix Trilogy and Kung Fu Hustle events are set in motion by either characters seeking mystical martial arts abilities or by characters seeking a character that will obtain those abilities.

“I think in order for it to be a McGuffin, it needs to be relatively, experimentally discrete.”

If a MacGuffin is repeatedly used in a genre so much so that it begins to define a major aspect of that genre, does it disqualify it from being a MacGuffin?


mclaren 01.03.11 at 6:40 am

1980 film “Resurrection.” 1983 film “The Dead Zone.” 1992 film “Orlando.” In the first film, a woman gains the power to heal people after a car accident — no explanation given. In the second film, a guy wakes from a coma after a car accident and has the power to see the future — no explanation given. In the third film, Queen Elizibeth I commands a man to stay young forever, and he does — no explanation given.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 6:51 am

““The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.””

I am changing that. We are shifting from ‘the obscure object of desire’ to ‘that obscure engine of motive’ more generically. The McGuffin is the engine of motive, of which ‘desire to get’ is only a prominent instance. I think that’s a reasonable generalization of the, admittedly, strictly narrower, Hitchcockian category.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 6:58 am

I’m having a hard time articulating what is wrong with several of the examples given, which fit the terms but don’t seem like the right sort of thing, not really. So the fault is somehow mine for not finding a way to rule them out. It’s not sufficient that something weird happens and there’s no explanation, although that’s a necessary condition. The added bit seems to be that the effect of introducing the ‘novum’ is thought-experimental, in a certain way. Some folks are metaphysical mcguffins, and some people just have really bad origin stories, for example. And sometimes the plot is thin in a wonderful way, and sometimes it’s just weak.

What’s the difference between “The Dead Zone” and “Groundhog Day”? In both cases a character gains a weird power/curse for no explicable reason. But only the latter really seems to me to be what I’m talking about. Because the former is just an occasion for a good story. (Very much like “1408”, another Stephen King story, after all.) And the latter is more … metaphysical? That’s not good enough.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 7:47 am

What’s the difference between “The Dead Zone” and “Groundhog Day”?

Right, it’s clear they fall on opposite sides of the line, but it’s hard to articulate why. I think there has to be some crossing of narrative levels — it’s not just some strange or mysterious physical process or thing, it’s presenting as if it were a physical fact something that isn’t one at all. Something that has a cause, however vague, can’t be an mm.

The funny thing is that altho this category had never crossed my mind until John H. pointed it out (or invented it?), it now seems perfectly intuitive and well-defined. And yet for some people here, the line doesn’t seem to be visible at all.


Ben Alpers 01.03.11 at 7:53 am

A major category about which nothing has been said yet: religion.

Two films I mentioned above have religious overtones: The Sacrifice and The Rapture (in the case of the latter, it’s more than just overtones).


phosphorious 01.03.11 at 8:00 am

A movie I have always lumped togetehr with “Groundhog Day” is “Joe Versus the Volcano.”

Warmer or colder?


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 8:08 am

“Two films I mentioned above have religious overtones: The Sacrifice and The Rapture (in the case of the latter, it’s more than just overtones).”

I think I’m less inclined to include them for that reason. I don’t think I’m just being difficult or begging the question. Religion is an explanation, so if it’s religion it doesn’t qualify. (You might get a religious version of Todorov’s ‘fantastic’ if it’s religious without being clearly so.) Don’t know about “The Sacrifice” however. Don’t know it.

Haven’t seen “Joe Versus the Volcano”. Have often heard it is quite a good film.

“Right, it’s clear they fall on opposite sides of the line, but it’s hard to articulate why.”

I think it’s that “Dead Zone” is basically more familiar genre fiction. So it seems like the thing that gets it started is just an occasion for telling a familiar sort of story. In the true metaphysical mcguffin, there is something more distinctive about the set-up that turns the set-up into an experiment, to see something new; not just an excuse, to see something basically old – a good horror story or ripping yarn or the like.


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 8:18 am

. In the true metaphysical mcguffin, there is something more distinctive about the set-up that turns the set-up into an experiment

Hmm. Are you sure about this? I wouldn’t have thought familiarity vs. novelty was part of the equation. In fact, it as you point out yourself, many classic examples of mmf are parallels to more conventional genre stories. Like if we think “The Metamorphosis” is mmf, it’s certainly not because there was anything new about the idea of a person turning into a monster or animal. I agree with you that the mm is inherently a kind of experiment, but I don’t think that’s because it’s new, necessarily.


Loren Michael 01.03.11 at 9:34 am

Uh, Stranger Than Fiction? I think it’s a much better example than John Malkovich, given there’s no explanation given nor sought for the odd phenomenon.


Grimgrin 01.03.11 at 10:20 am

I’d suggest “Shonen Bat”/”‘Lil Slugger” from Paranoia Agent, a young boy in a ball cap and roller blades wielding a baseball bat, who goes around randomly attacking strangers. He may not seem like one at first, but he is, and I can’t really say why without spoiling the ending.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 11:10 am

Oh, yeah, Stranger Than Fiction! I forgot! Shonen Bat? That sounds quite mysterious.


Alejandro 01.03.11 at 11:25 am

There are several Borges stories that might or not count, depending on the prcise definition, but I think the clearest example is “Funes el memorioso”. Funes gets the power of perfect, absolute memory without any explanation being propoed or searched for; only the consequences for him are explored.


Tim Wilkinson 01.03.11 at 11:26 am

Isn’t this more a a case of conceit than McGuffin? A McGuffin takes centre stage but its nature is unknown or irrelevant. Metaphysical conceits provide the background and premise of the action rather than the foreground, and their nature (with or without an attempt at explanation – radioactive spider bite, whatever) is of central importance. Actually, maybe this background/foreground thing is ill-conceived. It’s more just the idea that a McGuffin is easily interchangeable with something else, while the exact nature of a conceit is fundamental to the whole thing.

Or maybe I’m being a bit too strict about sticking to the Hitchcock/Tarantino conception. Let’s compromise: I’ll accept that it doesn’t have to be in a suitcase or briefcase (was going to say luggage, but a briefcase is not luggage, is it.)

And another thing – Groundhog Day is much more eternal recurrence than time travel, isn’t it? – it’s what happens when Hollywood gets its hands on Ouspenksy.


Chris Bertram 01.03.11 at 11:44 am

_Sliding Doors_ ?


ndg 01.03.11 at 12:01 pm

Unbreakable is nice for the McGuffinish way that it gives us no explanation of the hero’s powers

I don’t buy Unbreakable because there is an explanation: Mr. Glass’s argument from standard deviation is weak, but no weaker than Spider-Man’s spider etc.

Seems a bit handwavy to keep Eternal Sunshine in because it’s not “really” SF, too; it explains its technology as well as 99% of genre films.

Scott Pilgrim has a lot of that abstention from explaining how anything works, but that doesn’t sound like what you’re looking for either.


John Holbo 01.03.11 at 1:03 pm

“Seems a bit handwavy to keep Eternal Sunshine in because it’s not “really” SF, too; it explains its technology as well as 99% of genre films.”

I’m not denying its tech explanation is sf. The point is that the tech explanation is not an explanation of the thing that happens that really matters to the characters. Oddly enough. A nice trick, I think.


Ian Cooper 01.03.11 at 1:07 pm

I’m going to quibble with your use of the term McGuffin. I thought the McGuffin was the object that sets the story in motion because it orients the actions of the characters. Often the McGuffin has no actual function in the world of the story. But it is different from the magical premise of the world of the story (the crucial dramatic device, of which you must suspend disbelief). In e.g. Transformers (silly movie but I liked it) the magical premise is that aliens come from outer space and disguise themselves as vehicles; but it is the Cube that is the actual McGuffin.


lt 01.03.11 at 1:07 pm

What a great thread! I might suggest my favorite Woody Allen film “Purple Rose of Cairo” – it would seem to be an example of a very successful MM in that one accepts the premise (character walks out of the movie screen and into the real world and from then on Jeff Daniels plays the double role of character who wants to be in the real world and actor who wants him to go back into the movie) willingly since it’s so metaphorically clean and persuasive.


Charlie Stross 01.03.11 at 1:09 pm

Surely someone’s mentioned Kevin Smith’s Dogma by now?


Wax Banks 01.03.11 at 1:23 pm

films that hinge on more or less bald stipulations of metaphysically preposterous states of affairs

‘The Ten Commandments,’ say?


Wax Banks 01.03.11 at 1:30 pm

Religion is an explanation, so if it’s religion it doesn’t qualify.

Aren’t ‘religion’ and ‘religious claims’ sorta different classes of things?

Where does The Adventures of Baron Munchausen come in, btw? The eventual blurring of the framing/inner narrative lines turns out to be merely ‘how stuff is,’ and everyone in the town is content to go along with the craziness; plus (bonus for the kids!) it’s a nice film about growing old and staying lively…


Wax Banks 01.03.11 at 1:31 pm

Surely someone’s mentioned Kevin Smith’s Dogma by now?

Isn’t it too much a commentary-on-its-own-material kind of film, though? i.e. No one in the film need ‘explain’ its metaphysics because the whole thing is meant as a riff on crazy RL metaphysics to begin with. A blog post on film, really.


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 1:34 pm

But Liquid Sky is aliens.

Orlando doesn’t just have a sex change, it has an immortal.

I’m not sure the premise of The Birds is metaphysically impossible.


Sally 01.03.11 at 1:42 pm

There’s that movie with Wil Ferrell where he is the tax auditor whose life is being written by an author whose narration he can hear in his head. Forgotten the name of it. Maybe someone else remembers.


etbnc 01.03.11 at 1:46 pm

Donnie Darko: Might depend upon which version one watches. I watched the director’s cut on DVD, with its commentary and extras, and I liked it just fine.

According the commentary, however, the director’s cut has more explanatory bits that make it less ambiguous than the original release. Apparently the writer/director wanted just one interpretation to emerge. From what I can tell, making it clearer annoyed about half of its first fans who really liked their own interpretations of the vague version.



bianca steele 01.03.11 at 1:57 pm

Speaking of Tilda Swinton, there is a metaphysically impossible bit in Michael Clayton, essential in a kind of Shyamalan way but not a huge part of the plot. It’s a shame G


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 1:58 pm

Speaking of Tilda Swinton, there is a metaphysically impossible bit in Michael Clayton, essential in a kind of Shyamalan way but not a huge part of the plot. It’s a shame Gilroy’s career is shaping up like Shyamalan’s, too, unfortunately.


jcs 01.03.11 at 2:01 pm

I believe “Stranger than Fiction” fits the criteria.


chris y 01.03.11 at 2:05 pm



politicalfootball 01.03.11 at 2:53 pm

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems to qualify, first for transporting Morgan to the Middle Ages, then for bringing him back. (Don’t know what the movie adaptations did about this.)


politicalfootball 01.03.11 at 3:00 pm

I’m not sure that Macguffin is the best way to describe this, though. Isn’t this more like a special category of deus ex machina?


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 3:15 pm

Stranger than Fiction seems to fit but on the other hand Ferrell and Hoffman drain all the weirdness out (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it but IIRC Thomson isn’t in quite the same movie), which is itself kind of weird, but. And it may fit into the category of things that have already been done so many times they’re their own genre (I’ve definitely seen straight, non-SF fiction that does the same thing). It is resolutely uninterested in the fact that it’s weird, but not I think in the way those other films are.


Brett Bellmore 01.03.11 at 3:46 pm

“Unbreakable is nice for the McGuffinish way that it gives us no explanation of the hero’s powers. They are.”

The thing is, it’s unclear to me that the hero in “Unbreakable” actually has any powers, at all. The closest you see during the actual film is falling out of a 2nd story window, and landing in a swimming pool. And even that leaves him stunned to the point where he nearly drowns.

I thought that was part of the story line: He didn’t actually have any powers. The cartoonist was just a deluded mass murderer, who didn’t understand statistics.


tomslee 01.03.11 at 3:48 pm

I’d like to think that The Woman in the Dunes qualifies, as the reason for her being there is preposterous, but I’m probably just showing off that I’ve seen such a cool film.


Salient 01.03.11 at 3:48 pm

the characters are notably uninquisitive about the deeper explanation although they are compelled to experiment a bit to figure out what the rules of the game are

Ah, right; if they were inquisitive about the deeper explanation, that would be Fantastic.

Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems to qualify

No, it really doesn’t. That’s a device that allows the author to tell a story about someone from one time zone running amok in another.

One way to distinguish those sorts of devices from Macguffins is that Macguffins shape the narrative, they don’t just help it along. In CYIKAC, the guy teleports, and then that’s that: the point of the ‘port is to get him where he needs to be for the plot to continue. We’re all supposed to look the other way for a moment and suspend disbelief. That’s a good indicator that you’re not looking at a metaphysical Macguffin, which is a metaphysical quirk that the characters are driven to explore or react to: they are uninquisitive about the why, but are driven by the how. The Yankee doesn’t expend any time or energy attempting to engage with or explore the metaphysics that dropped him in the Middle Ages, or trying to figure out what the rules of the game are. The device doesn’t drive the story, it facilitates the story that Twain wanted to tell regardless. A Macguffin is not a thing that happens, like an instance of lightning in your living room; it is a thing that, like the stormcloud hovering over your head, simply is, prompting colleagues to wonder to the point of preoccupation, not “Why is there a stormcloud over your head?” but “How does this stormcloud interact with me and my world?”


Another Duncan 01.03.11 at 3:49 pm

The Butterfly effect, although there is an hereditary component to the ability, the mechanism of the ability itself is never explained. For TV, the sadly short lived Pushing Daisies seems to fit.


phosphorious 01.03.11 at 4:08 pm

Some one else mentioned “Purple Rose Of Cairo” which I would have if I had thought of it. So, first!

And I take it what your looking for is not mere surrealism or magical realism, but a single and specific break with normalcy that goes unexplained, and which sheds light on “the human condition.”

“Cemetery Man” perhaps? Not very good, it’s sort of packed to the gills with MM’s, without ever really going anywhere, but zombies rising from the grave is taken as normal and never explained.


donquijoterocket 01.03.11 at 4:13 pm

I’ve got to believe either The Ruling Class or The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds fits here according to my understanding of the criteria.


politicalfootball 01.03.11 at 4:44 pm

One way to distinguish those sorts of devices from Macguffins is that Macguffins shape the narrative, they don’t just help it along.

I’m having trouble with this distinction. Surely Connecticut Yankee‘s narrative is shaped by this device in much the same way the Groundhog Day is – and both fit the description better than Eternal Sunshine. (I actually don’t think Eternal Sunshine belongs in this category. That movie’s resolution is, I think, rightly regarded as a mere plot inconsistency.)

The Yankee doesn’t expend any time or energy attempting to engage with or explore the metaphysics that dropped him in the Middle Ages, or trying to figure out what the rules of the game are.

See, again, I’m not getting this. He spends the book adapting his life and outlook to his new situation. In, say, Groundhog Day the protagonist similarly spends his time figuring out how the world works, and how he can take advantage of his new situation, without really reflecting on how he got there or what it all means. In both cases, that’s an exercise left to the reader/viewer.

But I admit to being a bit hazy on the concept in general, as I noted above.


Bruce Baugh 01.03.11 at 4:49 pm

One of Damon Knight’s many definitions of science fiction is helpful here in marking the side of the fence that metaphysical McGuffins aren’t on. He wrote that sf appeals to the authority of science to justify its conceits. This doesn’t mean that only hard sf is sf. (Since, for starters, a lot of hard sf is just as wrong as any other kind, and many hard sf authors are quite willing to talk about their cheats and shorcuts in ways that horrify fans who venerate hardness as such.) It’s that if the story hands an explanation that sounds and acts scientific, and expects us to go with it, then what we’ve got is sf.

Thus, to pick an example I happen to like a lot, The Dead Zone, film as well as book, is science-fictional horror. There is a bit of exposition about unusual neurological activity, the evolutionary legacy of currently little-used lobes, and so on. There’s a lot of mystery about the details, but there’s a solid sense of it being a matter of rare circumstance that could happen to others as well, not fate or destiny or anything, nor insoluble mystery. We have a kind of an answer, a framework in which we can expect to find an answer.

I’ve always thought that the “appeals to the authority of” approach is really fruitful. It feels to me like there are two occasionally overlapping sort of stories relevant here: those where the story undermines claims to authority that the characters and/or narrators make, and those where the authorities are not consulted.


Zack 01.03.11 at 4:50 pm

If suspension of laws of physics and biology count, I nominate Up: balloons are strong enough to float a house and yet can also be weighed down by an old man and a boy – but only when they’re pulling on ropes. It’s a fantastic movie, and also further illustrates the blurring of genre lines discussed in the first post.


Russell Arben Fox 01.03.11 at 4:58 pm


there is a metaphysically impossible bit in Michael Clayton

Which bit was that? Maybe I’m not remembering the film well, but recall it as being a pretty tight, conventional paranoid legal thriller; a few typically stupid genre plot devices, but nothing impossible.


I thought that was part of the story line: He didn’t actually have any powers.

Obviously Shyamalan (and Willis too, to his credit) played it pretty close to the vest, but Unbreakable wasn’t entirely without evidence of the reality of David Dunn’s super-powers. He has no apparent upper-limit on the weight he can bench press, he walked away from deadly car and train accidents without a scratch, and when he touched people he received visions of their various misdeeds.


Lambent Cactus 01.03.11 at 5:11 pm

Early Edition?


Jesse M 01.03.11 at 5:12 pm

Seems an interesting implication of your definitions is that the MM happens only to the central characters. No global disasters allowed, because these would automatically become the concerns of science, mystics, and all manner of truth-seekers. And these central characters, knowing that somehow the rules of the universe have changed just for them, proceed to treat the new rules as if they were a self-consistent universe, and simply move on with living in the new situation — either by living slightly augmented everyday lives, or by switching straight into survival mode.

This makes Being John Malkovich and Groundhog Day the paradigm cases, and Exterminating Angel and The Birds borderline cases. It places Eternal Sunshine pretty squarely within the category, as well, because of the Montauk meeting.

I know it hasn’t come out yet, but how about the premise of that new Matt Damon movie coming out, Adjustment Bureau? It looks like a massive MM that basically becomes a meta-reality that only Matt Damon’s character has access to.

How about this alternate definition: “An event that changes the laws of reality solely for the central group of main characters, so that they have to accept it and see its consequences through to the end.”


Jesse M 01.03.11 at 5:15 pm

Oh, and for a non-film Metaphysical McGuffin – House of Leaves is both an incredible book, and a pretty clear-cut MM, in which a house that’s larger on the inside than the outside becomes a catalyst for all sorts of breakdowns in the physical laws of conservation and continuity.


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 5:16 pm

I meant the part where Clayton’s son tells the Tom Wilkinson character about the sword and sorcery novel he’s been reading, and the TW character reads the book for clues–successfully, IIRC. Am I misremembering? Something from the book makes another appearance later, but that could probably just be “literary,” not intended in any psuedo-mystical sense. It is actually difficult to distinguish a paranoid thriller from hidden connections, especially when there are plot holes, but it’s too much to imagine the novel is part of the conspiracy, and the fact that it’s a fantasy novel suggests maybe we should read the film as a kind of fantasy.


roac 01.03.11 at 5:19 pm

Haven’t seen “Joe Versus the Volcano”. Have often heard it is quite a good film.

Well, you didn’t hear that from me; I thought it was lousy. (Though I would rather sit through it three or four times than watch even five minutes of Synecdoche, New York again.)

This is a fun question, as evidenced by the volume of replies; but I have to ask how meaningful it really is. All fiction is lies, in the sense that it asserts that things happened that did not happen — it would be easy to demonstrate by documentary evidence that there was not such a person as Leopold Bloom living in Dublin in June of 1904, therefore Ulysses is a lie.

JH is asking for examples of fiction that embodies a certain category of lie, which as I admit is an entertaining exercise. But enough examples have been produced to illustrate that a lie of any type “succeed” as a work of art. The real, and largely intractable, question is what “success” means.

Joe V. the Volcano was not a success, in my opinion, because its ending confirmed what had already become apparent: The filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to try and make the story plausible, because Hey! It’s all just a metaphor for the alienation of modern life anyway. Which IMO is just too damn easy.

(IM further O the movie only got made, and certainly only got made with big-name stars, because Shanley the screenwriter had just had a big success (of both kinds) with Moonstruck. The same way Johnny Depp, having made a shitload of money for Disney by hijacking the Jack Sparrow character, was allowed by Tim Burton to distort the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — as if anybody was dying to know Willy Wonka’s backstory.)

(Incidentally, what kind of academic blog has a spellchecker that doesn’t recognize “synecdoche”?)


roac 01.03.11 at 5:23 pm

It may be worth pointing out that no. 90 is the answer to the question at no. 86.


mark f 01.03.11 at 5:33 pm

I haven’t seen the film version, but Jose Saramago’s Blindness (and, from what I understand, most of his other work) would seem to qualify.


mark f 01.03.11 at 5:35 pm

Frailty with Bill Paxton.


Ben Alpers 01.03.11 at 5:43 pm

One interesting near non-example (if I’m understanding the category of the Metaphysical McGuffin correctly) is the wonderful A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven), whose plot Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a point of making neurologically plausible according to the science of the day (though the film doesn’t draw excessive attention to this fact).


Junius Ponds 01.03.11 at 5:46 pm

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” might be a good example. Unlike “L’Avventura” and “Sous le Sable”, you don’t have the (psychologically impossible but physically possible) possibility that the disappeared people went into the water. And unlike “The Last Wave”, no supernatural explanation is given.


Anon 01.03.11 at 5:56 pm

I’d second _Primer_, mentioned above.

King Kong.


Fr. Dougal McGuire 01.03.11 at 5:56 pm

Out Of Africa !


phosphorious 01.03.11 at 6:06 pm

Brother from Another Planet

Man Facing Southeast

Neither of these is a movie about aliens, their presence merely drives the plot.

Also, I would recommend K-Pax as a candidate here, except that I refuse to recommend K-Pax for anything, for any reason.


Lee A. Arnold 01.03.11 at 6:08 pm

In story structure as taught in Los Angeles by both Truby and McKee about 20 years ago, a “McGuffin” (after Hitchcock) is a physical object. It is merely and only the object that both the bad guys and the good guys are chasing (a bag of cash, a nuclear trigger, or the “letters of transit” in Casablanca). A McGuffin does not have meaning beyond that: it may suggest some plot points to the writer, e.g. whether a battle ends up in a factory warehouse or on the moon, but it isn’t integral to the character development.

The One Ring would not be an example, because it is much more than a McGuffin: it is also a talisman of knowledge that drives the understanding of the characters. Search for (or delivery of) a talisman puts you squarely in the fairytale quest genre, with a number of certain and unavoidable rules, many of them formalized long ago by Propp.

A McGuffin doesn’t always “set everything in motion”, at least from the viewpoint of the narrative (i.e., the “telling” of the story, as opposed to the real events if they were put in an omniscient and logical order). For example, the “inciting incident” which starts the protagonist in motion may be some sort of mystery or happening which keeps the character going until the McGuffin is revealed in the middle of Act 2. (Often useful to save the McGuffin for later, because second acts are so difficult to write.)

On the other hand, a “metaphysically preposterous state of affairs” that changes the entire world or arena of the action (e.g. a few Bunuels, Groundhog’s Day etc. etc. etc.) is, in Hollywood, just another “premise”.

If the change instantiates in one individual and begins the story, then it usually follows a superhero story structure, with its own necessary rules: solves problems, certain specific weaknesses, Kryptonite, time runs out, can’t go out in sunlight, whatever. (Superheroes can be in a metaphysically absurd world, or in this one.)

Groundhog’s Day is a clever combination, because the protagonist’s “Kryptonite” is human emotion — he can’t handle it — and there’s a time limit in every day. Better than that, Groundhog’s Day also inverts the “fish out of water” structure, a perennial Hollywood favorite in which an outsider, from another place or class, contradicts the expectations of the other characters from moment-to-moment, and may upset the existing society — common in comedy (e.g. Marx Bros, Meatballs). In the best “fish out of water” stories, the protagonist also teaches the others how to live (e.g. My Man Godrey). Groundhog’s Day inverts this into a self-realization plot, or what used to be called an education plot. Bill Murray is a consummate “fish out of water” comedian — things don’t happen to him, rather he makes things happen to other people — and continually wakes-up thoughout it, making it all the better.

The Romantic turn (from Mary Shelley through Tolkien to Star Wars) combined the early 19th century’s unease with burgeoning scientific technology with timeless concerns about human arrogance and hubris. But a story structure like Groundhog’s Day may work emotionally so well within the feature-film format that you don’t think about whether it is science or magic. In fact, it would be too much information: it makes a whole new subplot to introduce and then dispose of, certainly attenuating the emotional impact and using up valuable screen time.


LizardBreath 01.03.11 at 6:30 pm

Ionesco’s Rhinoceros? Lots of Tom Stoppard (the coin that keeps coming up heads in R&G Are Dead and so on)? Or are these not quite the right sort of thing?


phosphorious 01.03.11 at 6:47 pm

Slaughterhouse 5?


JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 7:05 pm

This one is offered clearly as a stretch, but the more I think about it the more I actually think it fits: Nick’s Russian Roulette winning streak in The Deer Hunter . Yeah sure, no actual metaphysics were necessarily harmed* but … . For better or worse for this categorization, it absolutely fits Dan Simon’s “implausibly unlikely coincidence” from 58.

*And leaving Western Pa (which is actually Ohio) to go hunting and arriving a few hours later in the Cascades almost fits the bill, but I think that is just a more common and mundane incongruity.


Salient 01.03.11 at 7:09 pm

I am frankly still sort of unclear as to why Eternal Sunshine is a metaphysical Macguffin, and would love a full-plot-spoilers explanation of why. Am I forgetting something?

See, again, I’m not getting this.

I’m glad, because it’s pushing me to think more carefully about a distinction that’s intuitively clear to me but proving difficult to articulate.

The short and unsatisfactory answer is that singular events, things that happen once and then are done, can’t be metaphysical Macguffins. “The laws get bent for a second so we can get on with it” is fundamentally different from “the laws have changed.” The plot of an mmf story revolves around seeking answers to the question, how does this world work? (How do/can I live in a world with this (ongoing, persistent) metaphysical anomaly?)

There are two issues with CYIKAC. One, he gets knocked unconscious and ‘awakens’ elsewhere, which provides a default explanation of ‘it’s a dream’ with a side order of ‘dream is destiny’ [aside: upon further reflection, IMO Spirited Away and Gulliver’s Travels and Waking Life are emphatically not mmf; learning about the rules of a new world into which one has emerged is either Fantastic or fantasy or both — not to say this categories don’t overlap, but to be a Macguffin it must be a discrete identifiable alteration in the metaphysics of one’s own familiar world, not a transition to a different world — but this aside doesn’t apply to CYIKAC].

Also, in CYIKAC, the protagonist assumes the world is pretty much as it was, i.e. no lasting metaphysical change to the universe as a whole, and then goes about living life in an unfamiliar part of it. It’s really not materially different from stories like Gulliver’s Travels, in that sense at least. Sure, he ‘ported to an unfamiliar time instead of an unfamiliar space (both actually), but it’s really a travel story.

Ok, so here’s the point I think. “What if a character went back in time” isn’t asking a question about altering the metaphysics of time, it’s momentarily suspending them. The difference is crucial because in the former case but not the latter, you’re hoping to learn something about the metaphysics of time.

I see it as surgery, and (before this thread) often referred to this idea as surgical metaphysics. As an author, I step in and revise the governing metaphysical rules of the universe in one particular way. The relevant characters react to this anomaly in ways that would be consistent with how real people would react to such an anomaly: they adapt to it, perhaps they attempt to explore or exploit it, perhaps they investigate more carefully how the world works; most of them don’t spend a lot of time wondering why the change happened, or even if it’s a change or just an undiscovered phenomenon (any more than your average person heretofore unexposed to magnetism would wonder why magnets work the way they do upon a first encounter).


chris 01.03.11 at 7:11 pm

It seems to be practically a characteristic of what’s being asked for in this thread that the characters around the bizarre and inexplicable occurrence *don’t even try* to find an explanation or cause for it — which is, itself, bizarre and inexplicable, because the human desire to find patterns and causes for events is so strong that we “find” patterns that aren’t really there, aka superstition.

If people react with superstitious theories of supernatural agency to random rumbles of thunder or volcanic eruptions, how much more likely is it that they would react with theories of agency to events completely outside their worldview? (Unless, indeed, they tried to shoehorn it *into* their worldview via one of the supernatural powers many of them already believe in.)

Having your characters remain oblivious to the extraordinary event that drives your plot may save you some pages/minutes that distract from the story you are trying to tell, but only at the expense of having your (generally) supposedly human characters not behave like humans.


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 7:14 pm

I think A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale might fit this reasonably well and might write a blog post about why. Byatt most often stays away from fantastical themes she can’t fit into the British literary tradition, so the novel is an interesting rarity.


Salient 01.03.11 at 7:15 pm

Come to think of it, surgical metaphysics might be just a subcategory of what John’s talking about though. I can’t really envision a category that includes Lost but excludes Connecticut Yankee.


bianca steele 01.03.11 at 7:21 pm

@Bruce Baugh
I would not say “scientific,” necessarily, but “naturalistic.” The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely science fiction. The Cleft may not be science fiction if only because it represents itself as texts surrounding the origin of a religion. Aliens–as I see them–are naturalistic. Ghosts are not but are sometimes considered by the religiously orthodox as something like the return of the repressed operating among those who only accept naturalism, that is, perverse. Similarly, noir is paranoid but is far from science fiction: the realization that people can lie is really not a revelation for most of us


roac 01.03.11 at 7:24 pm

L.A. Arnold at 111: I have always said that the One Ring is a Reverse McGuffin, in that it is something that has to be gotten rid of rather than something that has to be found. But your point that a McGuffin is by Hitchcock’s definition meaningless, while the Ring is not, is an excellent one.

Some other examples of stories where the goal is to get rid of something rather than to acquire it: “The Bottle Imp” (Stevenson), “Casting the Runes” (M.R. James), the Twain story about “Punch, brothers, punch!” (don’t know the title). I thought of those off the top of my head; there must be others.


Salient 01.03.11 at 7:26 pm

which is, itself, bizarre and inexplicable

Yeah, this is a fundamental and perhaps inextricable storyteller’s problem. Q. How do you tell the difference between a character and a real person? A. When exposed to an anomalous phenomenon, a character is drawn to it, whereas a real person rejects the impossibility of the anomaly and explains it away.

The roleplaying game World of Darkness plays off of this. A lot of the supernatural effects (like turning invisible) are simply explained away by the witnesses (I must have blinked while he left through that door). The game-playing characters, conversely, witness supernatural activity and seek to investigate it further. In other words, like in a lot of fiction, the cameo bit parts are played by real people and the main parts are played by characters.

My favorite example of that literary phenomenon is DeLillo’s Underworld, with Shay is a main-role character and his brother as a supporting-role real person.


phosphorious 01.03.11 at 7:30 pm

I find myself obsessively engrossed in this thread.

Groundhog’s Day seems to be the inarguable example of the kind, so it must contain the necessary and sufficient conditions for the Category in question.

Is part of it that the MM impinges upon a standard genre, changing it slightly? Groundhog’s day is a romantic comedy. . . but not just a romantic comedy, thanks to the MM. The Dead Zone, I dare say, is just a sci-fi movie.

(Also, to finally start the argument that has been simmering: Professor Holbo’s use of the word “Macguffin” is perfectly acceptable, Hitchcock’s original definition be damned.)


ScentOfViolets 01.03.11 at 7:31 pm

What was it that was so popular a while back? Oh yes, “The Life of Pi”. IIRC the McGuffin there was the mysterious floating island that ate people. Never did figure that one out. I’m wondering if this would count as a metaphysical McGuffin.


JP Stormcrow 01.03.11 at 7:33 pm

the goal is to get rid of something rather than to acquire it

Jumanji and Borges’ “The Zahir” , both of which could be part of the broader category, although I think they are probably just more boundary examples.


Mrs Tilton 01.03.11 at 7:36 pm

The Anchorman. It is a small, but absolutely crucial, element of the plot that animals be sentient and able to communicate across species barriers. The film never explains this phenomenon; it is presented as a given, with no hints of the supernatural or the scifictional. The human characters are not even aware of it.


Shatterface 01.03.11 at 7:40 pm


No, really: it’s a natural phenomenon but also hinted at as some kind of metaphysical punishment for Hiroshima.

Also the Everette de Rosche scripted film(s) ‘The Long Weekend’ for the same reson as The Birds.

The ‘science’ of Total Recall, Strange Days, The Matrix, Minority Report and Inception is pretty much handwaving so the writers and producers can get on with exploring philosophical concerns through heart-stopping action sequences.


roac 01.03.11 at 7:48 pm

Mrs. T: Granted that the trans-species animal communication is a critical element of the actual plot of Anchorman, I would argue that the actual plot is not an essential element of the movie. Which is to say, they could have written a different story involving the same characters, and to all intents and purposes it would have been the same movie.

Incidentally, is there a formal limitations period for the prohibition on spoilers, which makes a lot of this impenetrable for people who haven’t seen the particular movie under discussion? Nobody gets mad if you mention that Anna Karenina gets run over by a train, so there is a line somewhere. Where is it?


Nine 01.03.11 at 7:54 pm

How about Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films ? Cure, Charisma and the like.


Shatterface 01.03.11 at 7:54 pm

Ah, shit – was just about to start Anna Karenina. :-)

Do zombie movies count? Some have a quasi-scientific explanation (Night of the Living Dead) and some have a supernatural explanation (Rec) but most just present the characters with the existance of zombies with no attempt at explanation.


Shatterface 01.03.11 at 8:09 pm

What about TV series which suspend resolution and only commit themselves to a natural or supernatural explanation after several seasons, and where many fans might even reject that final explanation, like Lost, Battlestar Galactica or Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes?


LizardBreath 01.03.11 at 8:20 pm

Oh, I’ve got a good one. I never actually saw the movie, but a friend once described Basic Instinct to me as taking place in a universe almost exactly like our own, except that an ice pick was a conventionally used piece of home bartender’s equipment.


bob mcmanus 01.03.11 at 8:22 pm

126:Similarly, noir is paranoid but is far from science fiction: the realization that people can lie is really not a revelation for most of us

Noir is not the revelation that people can lie but the revelation that no one ( husband, partner cops) can be trusted. Most of us do not believe out spouses will kill us for the insurance, or that we will kill our spouses, for that matter. The self-revelation is common to noir.

Great thread.


etbnc 01.03.11 at 8:34 pm

Anchorman: The one in which Ron Burgundy’s unexplained superpower is the ability to play jazz flute?


fish 01.03.11 at 9:16 pm

Yes Man

Liar Liar (Jim Carry seems to like these)

Bedtime Stories

Remote Control (Adam Sandler too)


fish 01.03.11 at 9:23 pm

Ugh, but Waterworld.

Field of Dreams?


fish 01.03.11 at 9:24 pm

Kevin Kostner’s career?


Lemuel Pitkin 01.03.11 at 9:46 pm

What’s tricky about this is that you’re combining two fairly complex categories, metaphysical and MacGuffin, and you can miss each one on either side. The metaphysical half means, essentially, inserting some non-narrative attribute of a story — a metaphor, as in Exterminating Angel and “Metamorphosis”; a psychological fact, as in David Lynch; a genre convention; or the premise of the story itself, as in Groundhog Day — into physical, causal reality. This rules out anything that is given some kind of scientific/magical/religious explanation. But on the other side it also rules out anything that remains, as it were, purely meta — so the impossibly-unlikely coincidences that are features of all sorts of stories don’t count unless they are treated as physical facts rather than conventions, e.g. by being recognized as impossibly unlikely by the characters. As for the MacGuffin part, it needs to set the plot in motion — this rules out e.g. the coin flips in Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern. But it also needs to be a discrete thing. Not necessarily an object — we have to prefer Holbo to Hitchcock here — but something that can be fully specified in a short sentence. This makes Lost Highway a better candidate than the otherwise isomorphic Mulholland Drive.

So stuff misses by being, let’s say, too physical or too meta, or else too small or too big to be a MacGuffin.

What’s interesting about this discussion is there seems to be a sort of figure-ground reversal going on. Some people — John H. obviously, but also most of us in comments — look at the core examples and see a clear, definite form, even if its boundaries are inevitably a bit fuzzy. While other people see just a set of more or less arbitrary rules and start looking for borderline cases, so that the category quickly dissolves.


roac 01.03.11 at 10:01 pm

fish @ 143: Costner is excellent whenever he plays a jock or an ex-jock. Bull Durham, Tin Cup, the one I can’t remember the title of where he played opposite Joan Allen. (But Ron Shelton wasn’t the director so it can’t just be that.)


Substance McGravitas 01.03.11 at 10:05 pm

A summary of an episode of a GI Joe cartoon:

Cobra Stratovipers attempt to steal the McGuffin Device, which no one knows what it really does. However, GI Joe stops them. In the process, the McGuffin device falls from the firebat into the woods and another Firebat crashes into an orphanage. The Joes save the kids then rebuild the orphanage. Zartan goes alone (since the Dreadnoks are engaged in a deep philosophical debate about mints) to recover the McGuffin Device. After wreaking havoc on the construction site, Shipwreck ends up telling the orphans a ridiculous fairy tale about The Duke and his three sons (Leatherhead, Frog Face and Ship Shape) and their quest to get some hamburgers. Beach Head has Shipwreck go check for unexploded missiles in the forest. Shipwreck finds the McGuffin Device and Zartan finds him. However, Zartan’s Swampfire is located by the Joes, so she disguises himself as Shipwreck and ends up telling the rest of Shipwreck’s story. One of the orphans, Jenny, knows something is wrong and goes off and finds the real Shipwreck. Zartan uses one of the orphans, Bobby (voice David Mendenhall), as a hostage to escape, but Shipwreck stops him and activates the McGuffin Device. The characters from his story come to life and the Cobra jets fall apart. Shipwreck finishes his story.


Lee A. Arnold 01.03.11 at 10:13 pm

Chris #123 — I agree. A necessary part of the premise that John Holbo is trying to typologise seems to be: the characters are not to ask certain obvious questions. So it may be best to continue to call this the “fantasy” premise, because the characters themselves must be partly unreal. (I sometimes wonder whether this sort of denatured entertainment becomes more prevalent in the throes of mindless empire and war.) I find it unwatchable but then the occasional gem comes along, like Groundhog Day, or else a genius like Fellini or Bunuel finds a new emotional shape for the audience. If the characters asked “why,” then they would be thrown into a different, regular sort of story, with the regular list of intellectual and emotional plot points, and Bunuel would have been unable to create his new ideoplastic effects.


Salient 01.03.11 at 10:21 pm

If the characters asked “why,” then they would be thrown into a different, regular sort of story

A character is a person dispossessed of metaphysical resilience.


lt 01.03.11 at 10:33 pm

Also, along with Kafka one should mention Gogol’s the Nose and Roth’s The Breast, more or less a parody of the Kafka.


lt 01.03.11 at 10:34 pm

And it occurs to me also it’s odd no one has mentioned magical realism, the much-hyped label for so much Latin American literature during the so-called boom, which would seem to share some but not all of these qualities.


chris 01.03.11 at 10:40 pm

When exposed to an anomalous phenomenon, a character is drawn to it, whereas a real person rejects the impossibility of the anomaly and explains it away.

Am I misunderstanding, or have you just defined scientists as not real people? Science (and enterprises that resemble science) try to explain phenomena, but not necessarily to explain them *away* — “it didn’t really happen” is certainly one possible explanation for observations of a phenomenon, but is (usually) only resorted to when there’s good reasons to believe it didn’t really happen *and* no equally good or better evidence that it *did* really happen. Impossibility certainly qualifies under the first part, but even previously-considered-impossible things can be scientifically accepted if the evidence for them is strong enough (continents moving, species changing into other species over time, light being bent by gravity, the entire solar system being made out of the remnants of exploded stars of almost inconceivable antiquity).

Science is still trying to explain the two-slit experiment (AFAIK). But “it’s a trick” is not taken seriously as an explanation anymore (even though it might have occurred to the first people on the scene).

(And, of course, we don’t know how *real* real people behave when exposed to anomalies in defiance of universal law, because any phenomenon that occurred often enough to study the typical responses of real people to it would, ipso facto, be part of the universe and not such an anomaly. At most, we could describe how people react to events *they previously believed* were impossible — but then there’s a range of reactions including attempts to understand what the new thing is and how it works.)

Some people—John H. obviously, but also most of us in comments—look at the core examples and see a clear, definite form, even if its boundaries are inevitably a bit fuzzy. While other people see just a set of more or less arbitrary rules and start looking for borderline cases, so that the category quickly dissolves.

Well, pardon my anti-Platonism.


Tim Wilkinson 01.03.11 at 10:49 pm

bianca: re Michael Clayton I only remember that book as being a bit of faux-symbolism or something, and also as the occasion of a crucial coincidence – not a McGuffin, just a manifest contrivance. Maybe missed it. But it is unsatisfactory anyway.

Btw, fwiw, istm etc – somewhat similar film The American has a lot of the attempted pretentious-portentous, and its failure to pull it off is somehow much more pronounced, perhaps because it (inc. Clooney) obviously tries so much harder. I say ‘perhaps’ – I think it may be a bt of a McMuffin: it has basically all the right ingredients, and doesn’t have anything noticeably out of place, but still manages to be ersatz. (Or maybe a McGonagall – rhymes but doesn’t scan and is fundamentally devoid of insight and originality…bit harsh, and not in the same territory as a .)

Actually I think much of it is Clooney’s fault, along with a third kind of component, the failure to explain, in the sense of elaborate, something central to the plot that is not impossible nor even as surprising as a coincidence (viz., a bit of forward planning that is only revealed at its culmination, and is either undermotivated or based on second-guessing a double-cross in a rather inscrutable way, lacking the procedural detail required to tauten the plot as the factual noirish theme seems to require.).

Actually, so here we go, typology –

McGuffin – central to plot but could be altered without very fundamental plot revision, only going so far as some fairly free-standing motivations of the characters. It need not be not especially – and should not be too – remarkable, being arbitrary rather than surprising. In the purest, Pulp Fiction case, its nature is unelaborated.

Conceit – revision would require fundamental alteration – probably amounting to replacement – of the plot – which is likely to mean that it is introduced or prepared for from the start. Is remarkable but unelaborated. If successful, it or the plot it facilitates will be salient in some way, so it will be accepted as a single premise because salient, much as according to Lewis we accept a single small miracle in the class of possible worlds that corresponds to – is the extension of – a counterfactual supposition (e.g. the lhs of a c-factual conditional.) One example is repeated coincidence, generally of good or bad luck – this generally comic because gradually ramped up in a fairly obvious way, and generally ‘aimed at’ a 1st person central character – the amusing (non horror) side of ‘paranoiac’ fantasy. Should not be a:

Contrivance – revision would require major but not fundamental plot change, it is remarkable and elaborated, but arbitrary and unsatisfying. Coincidence first introduced too late in the game is often an example. A deus ex machina in the nonliteral sense. This is less of a concern in action flicks and other plot-lite genres…

Convention – central to the plot but generally in a pervasive, background, factor-outable way. It is remarkable, usually abnormal, but is understood to be an (prior) openly negotiated, willing suspension of disbelief, its extent often understood in some complex detail. May become habitual, a genre. May be determined by external tradition e.g. religion.

McMuffin – the unsatisfying absence of any remarkable element at all.


Tim Wilkinson 01.03.11 at 10:52 pm

One further-operationalised test for how fundamental a plot element is, is the Elevator Pitch Reverse Engineering Thought Experiment.


Salient 01.03.11 at 10:57 pm

Am I misunderstanding, or have you just defined scientists as not real people?

You are misunderstanding, probably because I was unclear. Scientists (and real people generally) believe in a resilient metaphysics. They don’t believe that the metaphysical rules of the universe change some days, just because it’s convenient for exploratory purposes or whatever. I think we agree about this. I think of myself (perhaps unfairly) as a scientist myself, as an apprentice grad-student mathematical physicist, and I admit I believe in a resilient metaphysics. If something weird happens, I’ll assume my own ignorance of a phenomenon, or even hallucination, before I assume the fundamental rules of reality have changed.


Salient 01.03.11 at 11:02 pm

Also, laughing out loud at metaphysical McMuffin: ‘You can’t fool me, sonny, it’s Canadian bacon all the way down.’ Thanks for that. :)


Anderson 01.03.11 at 11:12 pm

Never did figure that one out. I’m wondering if this would count as a metaphysical McGuffin

Defined as something without intrinsic significance, Life of Pi itself is a MacGuffin.

… LB, you really should see Basic Instinct — intentionally or not, it’s a hilarious movie.


Greg Hays 01.03.11 at 11:51 pm

Julia & Julia. Not the cookbook movie, but the Kathleen Turner/Sting/Gabriel Byrne film where she drives through a traffic tunnel and reemerges into an alternate timeline where her husband wasn’t killed in a traffic accident minutes after their wedding.

LA Story also occurs to me, but I’m not sure the magic sign (“The weather will change your life, twice”) quite qualifies.

I’ve also toyed with Laura, but I think that’s just deliberate ambiguity.


Jim McFarland 01.04.11 at 12:08 am

There was a surprisingly effective little straight-to-DVD film two years ago that I think approaches what you’re looking for: “Triangle” (Christopher Smith, 2009). A yachting party, disabled by a storm, comes upon what appears to be an abandoned cruise liner. Once they board, they find that someone is trying to kill them off one by one. I don’t want to spoil the gimmick, so stop reading … HERE … if you want to experience it first hand, but I don’t see how I can avoid it in justifying my suggestion.

It turns out that the party is being hunted by the last surviving member of the party in its last iteration, because they have somehow been pulled into a temporal loop that can only be interrupted if all of them can be killed before the next iteration shows up and boards the boat and the cycle starts repeating itself. I don’t remember exactly how (or even whether) the metaphysics all lines up, but the basic idea is that the plot is structured more or less like a musical round (interlocking triangles), and by the time the protagonist has figured out that she (and her friends) are actually being hunted by her (earlier) self, the next ignorant iteration of the group has arrived, and she herself has to start killing them, in hopes of interrupting the cycle. Since each iteration of the protagonist actually *does* manage to escape the killer (a la standard psychokiller-hunting-female-protagonist “final girl” dynamics), the cycle will never end. What’s clever is how the premise gradually inverts the whole hero/villain, happy end/terrible end significance of the horror movie tropes it’s working with. Obviously the Bermuda Triangle is in the background, but I don’t think it’s ever explicitly mentioned. Not a great movie, but better than I had any right to expect when it wheezed out of the Redbox into my guilty palm. And it’s a metaphysical McGuffin; “Groundhog Day” on a Death Ship.


I repeat myself 01.04.11 at 12:43 am

ng the impression of a slovering sadistic grimace.
At the foot of the heathen diety a slender, pale faced
female, naked but for a golden, jeweled harness enshrouding her
huge outcropping breasts, supporting long silver laces which
extended to her thigh, stood before the pearl white field with
noticable shivers traveling up and down the length of her
exquisitely molded body. Her delicate lips trembled beneath soft
narrow hands as she attemped to conceal herself from the piercing
stare of the ambivalent idol.
Glaring directly down towards her was the stoney, cycloptic
face of the bloated diety. Gaping from its single obling socket
was scintillating, many fauceted scarlet emerald, a brilliant gem
seeming to possess a life all of its own. A priceless gleaming
stone, capable of domineering the wealth of conquering
empires…the eye of Argon.


Kenny Easwaran 01.04.11 at 12:56 am

I was going to suggest the rain of frogs in Magnolia, but then realized that it’s probably not actually important enough in the plot to count. I’m glad I’m not the first one to think of some magical realism – The Tin Drum might be a good one, while Like Water for Chocolate and Midnight’s Children seem to be in some ways too well developed to count.


Joshua W. Burton 01.04.11 at 1:18 am

The Time Traveler’s Wife, of course. And nearly everything that R. A. Lafferty ever wrote.


Salient 01.04.11 at 1:43 am

You misunderstand how art works.

This entire comment reads amazingly well in the voice of Detective Frank Drebin. “The movie itself is about men, women, loyalty and betrayal” is pitch perfect cadence, and “Woodworking isn’t about chairs and tables any more than stonecutting is” belongs in a Nielsen movie in spirit as well as in letter. So, thanks for that.

Plot is not argument it’s just the armature

Uh, perhaps you meant to say the winding? The field winding is what spins ’round and ’round the armature to generate the current. Unless you’re analogizing that the current is the story, and the armature’s job is to generate and convey it. But in that case, your thesaurus is getting ahead of you: specifically, you don’t want to be distinguishing the armature from the winding apparatus, and you should say plot is the transducer which converts the potential energy of the characters into the narrative energy of the story. Or you could say dynamo, which sounds cooler. I suppose you could be trying to declare that the plot converts the ambient field of metaphysics into narrative action, which has the benefit of being correct, but then you’d be conceding something incompatible with the contra-this-thread point you’re attempting to raise. Sorry to be boring you with our interest in field components!


Anderson 01.04.11 at 3:37 am

ee the “uranium McGuffin” in Notorious.

The microfilm in North by Northwest is a better example. You can easily grasp why uranium might be significant. The microfilm could be anything — Eisenhower getting a blow job.


Anderson 01.04.11 at 3:41 am

.. Riffing a bit, why does Thornhill accept the importance of the MacGuffin in N/NW? You could say it’s because The Government tells him it’s vital, and then compare that to the moviegoer’s blind acceptance of the metaphysical MacGuffin in the kind of movie this post is about.

But that would be mistaken, because Thornhill doesn’t care what the State wants. He’s in love with Eve, and his desire for her leads him to accept the MacGuffin without questioning it. How does *that* compare to our metaphysical MacGuffins? Is the audience’s patience with reality-shifting contingent on caring about or identifying with the characters?


Natilo Paennim 01.04.11 at 3:59 am

This is one of those CT threads that inexplicably always pops up when I stay way for a few days.

Carnival of Souls? It is a straight ghost story/urban legend, but it’s never “explained” in any meaningful way.

More Bunuel: The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (Ensayo un Crimen)

I will think of others…


mtraven 01.04.11 at 4:06 am

This movie doesn’t seem to exist, but if it did would certainly qualify in spades. As would any truly Dickian adapatation of PKD, none of which actually exist, which is a bit of a metaphysical conundrum in itself.


MikeN 01.04.11 at 4:07 am

Would the SciFi TV series “The Lost Room” fit the bill?


Natilo Paennim 01.04.11 at 4:07 am


High Plains Drifter could almost qualify, although to make it really fit with the thesis you’d have to edit out all the flashbacks.


I repeat myself 01.04.11 at 4:20 am

Brown flaking stains decorated the golden surface of
the ridge surrounding the alter, which banked to a small slit at
the lower right hand corner of the altar. The slit stood above a
crudely pounded pail which had several silver meshed chalices
hanging at its sides. Dangling at the rimof golden mallet, the
handle of which was engraved with images of twisted faces and
groved at its far end with slots designed for a snug hand grip.
The head of the mallet was slightly larger than a clenched fist
and shaped into a smooth oval mass.


John Holbo 01.04.11 at 4:41 am

I repeat myself: “but being philosophers I suppose that somewhere out in the aether you imagine is the idea of chair and table that the rest merely approximate. Ideas come first.
You misunderstand how art works.”

I imagine that you do repeat yourself a lot if you can’t come up with anything more original than that. Gads, it’s a dusty old bust from the stage properties closet, innit?

More seriously: why do you think the post presupposes Platonism?


JP Stormcrow 01.04.11 at 5:03 am

Very tangential to the thread, but while looking up some of Hitchcock’s interviews, I came across this interesting little tale concerning wealthy trader and Mexican War “spy” James Wiley Magoffin and a letter via James Dunkerley’s Americana: The Americas in the World, around 1850 (p. 510).

[Dunkerley quoting another book] The letter contained sufficient evidence for the Mexican officials to shoot Magoffin. Instead the Mexican officer in charge of Magoffin had become so fond of his convivial and extraordinarily hospitable prisoner–Magoffin later boasted that he had expended 2,900 bottles of champagne on his captors–that he handed Magoffin the upopened [sic] letter with the remark that if it was unimportant, just pitch to it into the fire

As for the letter, perhaps the best approach to adopt is that taken by Alfred Hitchcock, who employed the Scottish-Irish origin of Magoffin’s name to describe mystifying red herrings.


Aulus Gellius 01.04.11 at 5:30 am

Maybe part of the difference between a metaphysical mcguffin and a scifi/fantasy/whatever one is whether the impossibility is part of a traditional/generic system of metaphysical rules. If you wake a sleeping dragon in your story, you may also find a magic sword (if there’s no magic sword, and the dragon is the only touch of fantasy, that’s a marked choice by the author); if the dragon turns out actually to be an invading alien spaceship in disguise, you might deal with it instead by means of a new powerful laser developed by a reclusive scientist. Part of what a scientific/magical/kung-fu/religious “explanation” does is let one impossible phenomenon set your expectations for the fictional world as a whole. But if there’s a door into John Malkovich’s head, what kind of world does that lead us to expect? (The explanation given by the old man is, I think, so vague as not to help tell us what kind of impossibility we’re dealing with.)


I repeat myself 01.04.11 at 6:10 am

Grignr’s muddled brain reeled from the shock of the blow he
had recieved to the base of his skull. The events leading to his
predicament were slow to filter back to him. He dickered with
the notion that he was dead and had descended or sunk, however it
may be, to the shadowed land beyond the the aperature of the
grave, but rejected this hypothesis when his memory sifted back
within his grips. This was not the land of the dead, it was
something infinitely more precarious than anything the grave
could offer. Death promised an infinity of peace, not the finite
misery of an inactive life of confined torture, forever concealed
from the life bearing shafts of the beloved rising sun. The orb
that had been before taken for granted, yet now cherished above
all else. To be forever refused further glimpses of the snow
capped summits of the land of his birth, never again to witness
the thrill of plundering unexplored lands beyond the crest of a
bleeding horizon, and perhaps worst of all the denial to ever
again encompass the lustful excitement of caressing the naked
curves of the body of a trim yound wench.
This was indeed one of the buried chasms of Hell concealed
within the inner depths of the palace’s despised interior. A
fearful ebony chamber devised to drive to the brinks of insanity
the minds of the unfortunately condemned, through the inapt
solitude of a limbo of listless dreary silence.


john c. halasz 01.04.11 at 6:16 am



Petunia 01.04.11 at 6:42 am

I hope to keep myself on the proper side of Lemuel Pitkin’s Divide– among those who get it, so I ask ‘What about The Lake House?” with some trepidation. I’ve only seen it distractedly, in a hotel room, but as far as I observed, it depends on a time-skew as central, profound, and unexplained as that in Groundhog Day.

But it doesn’t _feel_ like one of the movies we’re talking about. I think a lot of this has to do with production values– it’s shot in the muted tones of the terrible weepy that it actually is, instead of the bright weirdness of Eternal Sunshine of Groundhog Day. And it has not one but two competing versions of the staring-into-the-middle-distance-accompanied-by-David-Gray-songs voice-over that characterize current primetime soaps like Gray’s Anatomy. Which the standard Metaphysical McGuffin Movie would never do. But there it is– a time-traveling mailbox. So maybe there’s a Lifetime Channel subcategory?

Also, the event that sets off The Road is rather underexplained (“long shear of light” is all I remember from the novel), especially given how thoroughly described its consequences are. But probably ignorance is part of the story. But McCarthy could have stuck with the purer allegory with which he seems to have started, and found himself in Metaphysical McGuffin territory.

In other news, Bianca– you’re totally right about the SPOILER ALERT horses in Michale Clayton. If it was meant to be literary, then it is so overboard as to be effectively metaphysical. In fact, I like it MUCH better that way– until you put into this context, it had struck me as an odd snag in an otherwise tight film. Now it’s a momentary dip into weirdness, which I will never complain about.


julian f 01.04.11 at 7:31 am

I’d say Black Swan, but like others in this thread, I feel that while I can intuitively identify what you’re talking about, I can’t define it precisely.

To my mind, folks who insist on viewing the events in Swan as hallucinations are missing out. These things are just happening. The ballerina standing in front of us is sprouting feathers.


John Holbo 01.04.11 at 10:35 am

“The post presupposes a propositional literature, that’s philosophy not fiction …

Your philosophy in your collection of films reads like the “dialectics of Shakespeare, John Donne and Jacqueline Susann”

No. You are making a Platonic sort of error yourself and projecting it on to me. (I don’t mind you making such mistakes on your own time, but don’t then go sticking them on me, if you would be so kind.)

Let’s reconstruct this wrong path you have gone down. Let’s start, as you do, with an off-the-rack sort of generic anti-Platonic argument, like so: literature is not just Ideas. You shouldn’t read Shakespeare as, in effect, an Argument that forgot what it wanted to be and ended up as a kind of amnesiac play that needs to be ‘treated’ by the critic, after which it is an Idea again. (See, for example, Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”. But any number of texts would make this case.)

Now, the problem with this is that it is, in its own way, too Platonic in its opposition to Platonism. It wrongly assumes that All Literature Works The Same. Namely, not in this Idea-ish way. But, in fact, some literature is more idea-sprung and some is less so. So, in resisting Platonism, for the sake of sensitivity to the texture of literature as it is – not how we Idealize it – you manage to lose sensitivity to the texture of literature that may happen to be more Idea-centric. (Are you with me so far?) In short, you grow blind to the fact that some literature is the Literature of Ideas.

Of course, you can decide that this sort of literature is a Bad Thing. But you should still admit that it’s a real thing, and not lose sight of the actual quality of actual artistic productions.

The sorts of films I’m discussing are pretty clearly idea-based. So, to repeat, if you don’t like that, you should say they are bad, not that they aren’t – as anyone with eyes to see art can see – substantially idea-drive. And here we need to avoid another mistake (which you also make, if I make no mistake). Just because something is, as it were, spun substantially out of an idea, or spinning by means of it, it doesn’t follow that it is must have grown into an argument, per se, or grown rationalistic or not allowed to contradict itself or any of that. In these cases, which are often absurdist, quite the opposite is the case.

That is, just because literature of ideas isn’t the sort of thing you have to agree with, as you might agree with someone’s rational argument about something, it doesn’t follow that it isn’t, after all, idea-driven. There are more things to be done with ideas than are dreamed of in your rather narrow philosophy of the literature of ideas, I repeat myself. (But I’m starting to repeat myself.)

And if you want to read something that might change your mind about how art works – bring you around more to my way of thinking – I think Tom Gunning’s book on Fritz Lang would actually not be a bad place to start. Think about his discussion of allegory in Metropolis. (I mention it because I’ll be mentioning it again in a few weeks, when I teach “Metropolis”.) How allegory functions in a film like that. It’s idea-based – all allegory is – but not, as you assume, a matter of consistency in some narrow, argumentative sense, merely because it’s a matter of ideas. Since you accept Gunning as a sort of authority, think about how that might work.


wiggle puppy 01.04.11 at 11:19 am

Not certain if this is quite what you had in mind, but I don’t recall seeing How To Get Ahead In Advertising mentioned above.

While explanations are made for the state of mind of Bagley is in which produce his supposed delusion that a boil is turning into a second head, no explanation is ever given for what actually caused the boil to turn into a second head and his original head to revert to a boil.


logern 01.04.11 at 12:07 pm

Being There (Peter Sellers)


John Holbo 01.04.11 at 12:21 pm

By the way, thanks for all the examples, and keep them coming! I like a long list.


BenSix 01.04.11 at 12:22 pm

My frustration at having scrolled through the entire thread to see if anyone had posted Being There only to find it in the last comment is only matched by my bewilderment at the futility of such an act.

Anyway, Memories of Matsuko is an entertaining kitsch satire cum existential tragedy. Its protaganist skips, screams and slumps through an absurd array of unlikely scenarios. I’m not sure if Dumplings would qualify but the mystical powers of its titular foodstuff are never questioned.

Ooh, and I’ll join in with the applause for Murakami.


Alex Prior 01.04.11 at 1:13 pm

The Cat Returns (2002) from Studio Ghibli probably fits. Every mystery and strangeness is explained – apart from Haru’s ability to speak with cats, which generates the entire plot. And a lovely film, of course.


Ginger Yellow 01.04.11 at 1:58 pm

Can’t agree with the Primer nominations. For a start, the invention of the time machine is very much presented as science (well, engineering), lbeit in a distinctly anti-scientific vein – they were trying to make a perpetual motion machine. Furthermore, the actual mechanics of the time travel they stumble upon are crucial to the plot – indeed, they pretty much are the plot.

Likewise Ubik – the state of the fictional world is explained (by the end, anyway) as being the half-life of suspended animation. Perhaps a better example would be The Third Policeman, which I suspect PKD drew heavily on for Ubik.


ajay 01.04.11 at 1:59 pm

I’m looking for examples of films that hinge on more or less bald stipulations of metaphysically preposterous states of affairs. That is, cases in which something impossible happens, and it isn’t identified as science or magic. It just is.

This is basically a definition of the magical realism subgenre, isn’t it? Which itself is best defined as “modern fantasy minus the psychological realism”.

Weird stuff happens, people react to it realistically, and the stuff has a sort-of scientific explanation = science fiction.
Weird stuff happens, people react to it realistically, and the stuff has an explanation to do with supernatural forces = fantasy.
Weird stuff happens, people barely seem to notice or regard it as out of the ordinary = magical realism.


Lee A. Arnold 01.04.11 at 2:00 pm

Anderson #164 — This is also true of the “letters of transit” in Casablanca. If the movie is moving with other emotions, the audience won’t stop to care if the MacGuffin is really believable or not. I remember Robt. McKee pointing out that (1) such generic “letters of transit” did not exist, and (2) Paul Henreid isn’t getting past the Nazis even if he’s got one and wearing a fake mustache — because Nazis are stupid, but not THAT stupid. The audience doesn’t think to question this, because we’re crying over Bogart and Bergman. In Los Angeles, the verb “works” is sometimes used to mean “gets you right through the heart”. As in: When a movie works, you don’t need reason.

Similarly, I think that “films that hinge on more or less bald stipulations of metaphysically preposterous states of affairs” would divide into two kinds, those which ignore it because the movie works emotionally, and those which use it to create an effect (as in Bunuel).


Chris Cagle 01.04.11 at 2:01 pm

I agree with comments above that this is an un-Hitchcockian treatment of “McGuffin”- but based on what I think you’re asking for, I’d recommend any Carl Dreyer, especially Day of Wrath or Ordet.


etbnc 01.04.11 at 2:18 pm

Ubik (mentioned above): Reality now comes in a convenient aerosol spray! (“Safe when used as directed.”) One of my favorites in the Philip K Dick canon. As I recall the ending offers a pretty direct explanation, though. If I’m getting the category concept, I’m not sure it would fit, as written. If turned into a movie, who knows?

Along that line, it pleases me to see Saramago’s book, Blindness, mentioned. I haven’t seen the movie either, because I doubt it could pull off what the book does. I greatly enjoyed Saramago’s The Cave, too. Although this audience would recognize the source of The Cave‘s setting, it might seem like a metaphysical mcguffin to readers who haven’t already been exposed to it. I can imagine it as a decent movie. Perhaps it’s been done?


Anderson 01.04.11 at 2:31 pm

Lee # 185 – good example! And I see from Holbo’s next post that Charlie Kaufman thinks along the same lines.


Will McLean 01.04.11 at 3:14 pm

Ginger Yellow @ 183: Except that the rational explanation of Ubik is subverted in the final paragraph.


Ginger Yellow 01.04.11 at 3:50 pm

Well, yes, but the rational explanation for everything is subverted in PKD stories. It doesn’t mean there isn’t one. It just means PKD didn’t trust it.


I repeat myself 01.04.11 at 4:04 pm

Arguments against interpretation make no more sense coming from Sontag than Scalia. The question is how we should go about it. That would have to do with an erotics of interpretation, whether of sonnets or the constitution. Sontag’s aesthetic narcissism and Scalia’s reactionary dogmatist are two sides of the same coin. Read her defense of Syberberg.

Grouping Shyamalan with Hitchcock is an act of intellectual leveling justified only by a focus on ideas as intention, ignoring the fact that Hitchcock’s films are rich with ideas as articulated in his craft. Shayamalan’s work by comparison is a desert


Martin Schneider 01.04.11 at 4:28 pm

It occurs to me that you have to be REALLY tight about these definitions. Why? Because every fiction is speculative, and every fiction violates the rules of our universe in SOME respect. When you get into trying to figure out why Rookie of the Year is or is not part of this subject, it’s clear you’re off course, ergo the rules have to be tighter. The relevant object lesson here is the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis. Tommy Westphall, St. Elsewhere series finale, snowglobe, autism. It is surprisingly easy to make the case that not only all of St. Elsewhere, but MANY of the narrative TV series you enjoy, exist within that autistic snowglobe, thanks to the nature of cross-promotions and cameo appearances of one character in another series. All of The Wire takes place in the snowglobe. Dr. Who and Star Trek — both fully in the snowglobe. Gomer Pyle — is in the snowglobe.

Anyway. If you haven’t heard about that, go spend an hour melting your brain on the Tommy Westphall problem. But there was a point there, and the point is that all fiction violates the rules of our world on the level of “John McClane cannot watch a Bruce Willis movie.” The gist of the Westphall thing is that that vulgar epiphany can have surprisingly untrivial consequences. I think you need a continuum of “unreality potency,” which separates, as it were, Gomer Pyle from Kafka’s Metamorphosis as two distinct types of unreality. Because Gomer Pyle is speculative too if you don’t watch your p’s and q’s. And of course, Gomer Pyle is ACTUALLY not really speculative at all — that’s the point, let’s restrict the discussion.


ScentOfViolets 01.04.11 at 4:29 pm

More Examples? How about “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? I don’t think the prophesy counts as either magical or scientific. The same for Remedios the Beauty’s ascent or the patriarch’s ability to make himself weigh as much as forty men.

Per Ajay @184.


bianca steele 01.04.11 at 4:56 pm

I’m kind of sympathetic to the platonism complaint–at least I can understand where it’s coming from, I think. Take Dark City as an example. You’re comparing it with Exterminating Angel but there may be a reason from that. IIRC the director had written the script but needed a cowriter. His cowriter said something like, “This is really an existential drama, so you need to make it more like an existential drama,” and that’s what he added. So there is a story that was there before, and there is an existential drama, and it’s the latter you’re arguing is more or less the essential bit, at least for your purposes in looking for philosophically interesting bits.


ajay 01.04.11 at 4:57 pm

185 – yes, but just because “letters of transit” didn’t actually exist doesn’t mean they’re metaphysically impossible. I’m not sure that counts.

192 – I am actually quite irritated by this aspect of magical realism. You can go a lot of ways with a book including (for example) a priest who levitates while praying. You could say “This is amazing! It must be a sign from God!” or you could say “He’s possessed!” or you could go the SF route and say “He’s wearing an antigravity belt under his cassock! Where did he get it?” or “Of course he does, it’s well known that meditation can allow you to fly. We all do it” and then you have a book about a world where sufficiently mentally stable people can fly through the power of the mind alone.

But what you can’t have is a world where levitation while praying is unprecedented and considered impossible – our world, in fact – and no one seems to take it as anything unusual when it happens, or even look for a (magical or scientific) explanation. It’s back to the old Father Brown line about how he’s ready to believe that Gladstone was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, but not that he slapped Queen Victoria on the back and offered her a cigar – he’s OK with things that suggest laws he doesn’t know about, but not with things that contravene laws (the rules of human behaviour) that he does know about.


Agc 01.04.11 at 5:01 pm

In Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven the protagonist can alter all of reality with his dreams, an ability that is never really explained. His power can erase billions of people, alter history, create a race of aliens attacking the Earth, then make the aliens peaceful. Near the end of the book he suggests that the ‘actual’ world was ended in a nuclear war years before and everything that has ‘existed’ since then is the result of a dying dream he had.


Ginger Yellow 01.04.11 at 5:52 pm

I have a pet theory about Lathe of Heaven, based on the fact that the protagonist’s name can (with a bit of licence) be interpreted as “George Orwell is not well”.


Petunia 01.04.11 at 5:57 pm

Stuart Little: a moused birthed by human parents. Just wacky or a physical comment on the not-insuperable loneliness of childhood? You make the call!


roac 01.04.11 at 6:07 pm

Isn’t the essence of magical realism metaphor come to life? I have read that when Garcia Marquez was asked about one instance — where a character is killed, and his blood flows through the streets and stops at the feet of his mother — he said “It’s the umbilical cord.” If devout people think of a holy person as figuratively ascending toward Heaven while praying, why would they be surprised to see it happening literally?

I tend to think that GM invented magic realism (though precursors could no doubt be found), brought it to perfection, and wore it out, all in one book. I know that when I saw the movie of Like Water for Chocolate (haven’t read the book) I said Yeah, yeah, that again.


NickS 01.04.11 at 6:45 pm

Just to throw one more title out there.

The bus that arrives at the end of Ghost World is a nice minor miracle. It isn’t central to the plot but is, IMO, one of the key elements in making the ending as emotionally satisfying as it is.


I repeat myself 01.04.11 at 7:56 pm

Enough of this! Away with the slut before I loose my
Seeing the peril of his position, Grignr searched for an
opening. Crushing prudence to the sward, he plowed into the
soldier at his left arm taking hold of his sword, and bounding to
the dias supporting the prince before the startled guards could
regain their composure. Agafnd leaped Grignr and his sire, but
found a sword blade permeating the length of his ribs before he
could loosed his weapon.


phosphorious 01.04.11 at 8:16 pm

“The Odyssey is not information. . .”

Fair enough. . . but does it not contain information? Does it not impact upon our beliefs as well as upon our senses? Doesn’t it impact upon our senses by way of our beliefs?

The content of a work. . . what it’s about, what it means, whether or not it’s true or false. . . is part of the work, and certainly worth speculating about.


I repeat myself 01.04.11 at 8:36 pm

“Explain the purpose of this intrusion upon my chateau!”
“Your sirenity, resplendent in noble grandeur, we have
brought this yokel before you (the soldier gestured toward
Grignr) for the redress or your all knowing wisdon in judgement
regarding his fate.”
“Down on your knees, lout, and pay proper homage to your
sovereign!” commanded the pudgy noble of Grignr.
“By the surly beard of Mrifk, Grignr kneels to no man!”
scowled the massive barbarian.


Substance McGravitas 01.04.11 at 8:46 pm

It has meanings, not meaning. The S is important.

The assertion that the Parthenon has X*Y meanings instead of just X meaning is in support of an argument that it contains no information?

The Management: This comment responds to an earlier comment by a Seth Edenbaum sockpuppet. As per house policy, the earlier comment has been replaced by a random extract from Jim Theis’ classic The Eye of Argon, greatly improving its writing style and comprehensibility, but sadly rendering this comment redundant. We apologize for any inconvenience.


Jeff R. 01.04.11 at 9:11 pm

I’ll add The Hudsucker Proxy to the list, then.

And to the questionable category, a handful from the 80’s: Modern Problems and Zapped, probably in, and Weird Science as probably out, but not certainly so…


Substance McGravitas 01.04.11 at 11:14 pm

Thanks management! Especially since I’m pretty sure I read it wrong anyway, so now I look good.

Oh rats.


John Holbo 01.04.11 at 11:29 pm

from the post: “Finally, Unbreakable. My personal fave superhero film of all time, despite M. Knight’s ever-sinking artistic stock”

I repeat myself: “Grouping Shyamalan with Hitchcock is an act of intellectual leveling justified only by a focus on ideas as intention”

If it turns out that Hitchcock made a superhero movie I’ve never seen, that is better than “Unbreakable” – or even if he just had an idea of one – I am going to be a very happy man.

On the other hand, it might turn out that this act of leveling – insofar as it has indeed been committed – is justified by a focus on film, as being a thing that is run through a machine, projecting pictures on a flat surface.

UPDATE: Oh, it looks like I’ve been responding to a Seth Edelbaum sockpuppet. Fool me once … Well, we’ll leave it at that.


john c. halasz 01.05.11 at 12:04 am

Actually, I don’t see what’s so wrong with letting 3rd-son-of-Adam be. O.K., so he’s overweeningly arrogant, somewhat maliciously disdainful, adventitious in his references, and utterly repetitious in his declamations. He’s also instantly recognizable. (I’m surprised you missed the hint). But he’s also basically right on a fairly standard account. Works-of-art involve “ideas” in the Kantian sense, but not in the sense that their “ideas” can be cashed out or encapsulated in standardly cognitive concepts. (And the extent to which they can be so encapsulated counts against the quality of such works, renders them mechanical rather than “organic”,- which, incidentally, is part of the standard objection to allegory). Yes, their reading/reception involves a “play” of our cognitive faculties, but in the mode of reflective and not determinate judgment, as purposeful purposelessness, not subservient to referential functioning. And he even grasps, via LeGuin’s comment that such works are “objects, not subjects”, the separate status of works-of-art, independent of both their producers/creators and readers/appreciators. Their reception always involves a simultaneous suspension and maintenance of disbelief, such that they yield the paradox: how can something so obviously fake yield the effect of such convincingness? The criterion for such works is “genuineness” and they serve to cultivate veracity in the sense of accuracy (of expression and disclosure), and not the truth functions or conditions of logic-choppers, which tend to repress such modal concerns. None of this is exactly news, nor does it require endless reiteration. It’s simply a matter of recognizing the criteria for differentiating between discursive domains.


novakant 01.05.11 at 1:19 am

Here’s a really good book about film:

The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema


daelm 01.05.11 at 11:08 am

john, i think you should go on all the forums you can find – on any subject – and post that you’re looking for “MMF suggestions”.

and then you should tell us about the suggestions you get.



Tim Wilkinson 01.05.11 at 1:21 pm

bianca etal. (contains Michael Clayton -spoiler- )

– I think I vaguely remember the equine angle, but think I must have applied charity (obviously from a subjective position) to write any essential role out of the story. The ease with which I did so if I did suggests it was (capable of being interpreted) not even a contrivance, but a mere adornment.

It seems hard to see why these peripheral bits of mystery should have been included (or retained – perhaps they are remnants from a more recognisably fantasy/magic realist/allegorical original script). Poss reasons for including these irrelevant and detachable bits of hokum: 1. to beef it up in one way or another, whether in the sentimental vague-feeling-of-significance dept, or in the complexity-of-plot dept, or the general bangs-per-minute rate. 2. to add an all-bets-are-off element of unreality, of unknown kind and extent.

I can’t help thinking that these were in there to assuage someone’s sensibilities about a matter-of-fact, naturalistic depiction of corporate corruption, in particular the banal procurement, planning and execution of a corporate hit. By adding hints of other-wordliness, the impact of this illustration is saved from infringing what has to be described as a taboo. (A bit like get-out clause of lame alien or tinfoil jokes made to relieve tension and reduce seriousness when discussing conspiratorial politics. Or the frayed edge of deniability presented by the fool or satirist’s humorous stance, as a deliberate flaw was said to be put into every Persian carpet.)

But then I tend to be a bit of a boundary-of-discourse watcher when it comes to political thrillers.

But the idea about thrillers is precisely that there is a strategic element – part of the experience is trying to work out what is going to happen – which requires that there be not utterly arbitrary elements (heist flicks like Inside Man are an especially good example – the entire premise is advertised as laying out the elements of a perfect crime. In a sense the compact is that a possibility proof will be offered. The standards for suspension of disbelief are accordingly strict.)

But even in the general case, the action needs to be convincing enough to do its job – according to what that job is. Similarity to trolley cases is worth noticing here – just as a trolley case presents an easily comprehended set of circumstances as more a immediate, more tractable and more certain vehicle for a wider or deeper point, so a film uses the action to do so. And just as the trolley case depends on being adequately and persuasively specified, and above all being possible, so the plot of a film needs to avoid arbitrariness (to varying degrees). Integrity in the action is as important as anything.

Also relevant: the modality of examples – as actual, predictable, possible, clarificatory, explanatory, representative, etc – and rhetorical force. Discussion of Zizek’s rat-lasers, how much and in what way does it matter if he more or less made it up, etc…

(jch – I have no opinion on Edenbaum but trolling is very much a cumulative activity – no post need be outrageous viewed in isolation. And the big thing about ‘I repeat myself’ is that he, er, repeats himself, when no one is interested in contesting (and almost no-one interested in restating) his angry statements of the bleeding obvious. This time, the idea being that the action, the plot, is not the whole of a fictional work. But of course it is a part of most dramatic work, and that is what the conversation is about, though making reference as required to further less tractable ands more elevated elements of the dramatic narrative.

That’s not so much logic-chopping as conceptual clarity, and while conceptual clarity may be hobgoblin of little minds, it plays a more understated role for most others, and is most notable in most cases for its absence. Repeated obtuse insistence on getting into an argument over irrelevances is a form (perhaps the main form) of trolling, after all.

Again no interest in the Edenbaum character (if that really is his name), but it is really a basic characteristic of a ban that exceptions are not made to it except under, er, exceptional circumstances. Otherwise it is more like automatic moderation, which would be fine if it didn’t have transaction costs.)


john c. halasz 01.05.11 at 9:31 pm

Actually, Tim Wilkinson, S.E. did make a number of distinct points in his comments here, not just the utterly uninteresting one that plot is not the sole function of works. Rather, the general point was plot and other elements function in what he would call a “formal” and I would call a “modal” fashion, and grasping that is crucial to avoiding a lot of silly or stupid mistakes or misunderstandings. (One commenter above said that if a character fails to respond to a cognitive anomaly in the reality of the plot, he regards that character as unreal, er, ignoring the fact that all fictional characters are unreal). And lot’s of such silly or stupid comments, (often in the form of snark that just shows the commenter has missed or is ignorant of the point), occur on these threads. I myself found the premise of this whole thread uninteresting, insofar as not just, as other commenters pointed out, it gets Hitchcock’s notion of a “McGuffin” wrong,- (whereas S.E. got Hitchcock significantly “right”)-, but such speculative premises or conceits are so widespread and various in such works that it amounts to setting off on a wild goose chase. To make realism here normative, (perhaps in league with a scientific/engineering ethos), is just to mistake that it too, in its various forms, is just such a premise.

Conceptual clarification is one thing, but conceptually clarifying the non-or-a-conceptual is another matter altogether. S.E. may be lacking in literary-critical, er, tact, but that anti-philosophical point is basically what he’s always repeating. It’s not exactly news, as aesthetics is 250 years old, and one needn’t be truculent about the matter. But a reminder can be useful in the context of repeated solecisms. And though S.E. is so repetitious that he’s instantly recognizable, that just means that he’s also easy to ignore rather than rising-to-the-bait. A “troll” is always relative to the presuppositions of the house style, and thin-skinned intolerance is not necessarily a credit to the enforcement of community norms.


chris 01.05.11 at 10:25 pm

One commenter above said that if a character fails to respond to a cognitive anomaly in the reality of the plot, he regards that character as unreal, er, ignoring the fact that all fictional characters are unreal

Unrealistic. Alien characters behaving inhumanly is good writing; human characters behaving inhumanly is bad writing. If your characters aren’t going to behave like human beings, then you shouldn’t deceive your readers by pretending that those characters are human beings. If a given author intended characters to behave like, and be accepted as, human beings but instead wrote them as acting inconsistently with human behavior, then that author failed at his/her purpose as an author.

Humans react in a variety of ways to things that are outside their previous experiences. But they almost always *do* react (even concealing your surprise is a reaction, and in a book, will most likely be known to the reader even if it is concealed from the other characters) — a human tendency so strong that lack of reaction is often taken (by the reader, other characters, or both) as evidence that the character knew all along about the thing that should have been surprising.


phosphorious 01.06.11 at 2:42 am

I myself found the premise of this whole thread uninteresting, insofar as not just, as other commenters pointed out, it gets Hitchcock’s notion of a “McGuffin” wrong,- (whereas S.E. got Hitchcock significantly “right”)

This is a little bit like saying that the turn-of-the-last century quest to split the atom was uninteresting because they were misusing the word “atom.” After all, as Democritus defined it, an atom could not be split.

Meanings change, and all concerned were quite clear that Hitchcock’s Macguffin was not at issue.

John Holbo wanted movies that were of a kind with Groundhog’s day and Being John Malkovich. Attempts to define the category involved speculation about how style and philosophical content relate, or can relate.

Whatsisname, for some reason, thought this was silly.

It isn’t.


John Holbo 01.06.11 at 2:50 am

Thank you, phosphorious. Just to make it even clearer. It may be that my critical category is uninteresting. Certainly I can’t compel anyone to be interested in it. But if the reason you find it uninteresting is that you believe it’s impossible – or a priori wrong – to use ‘mcguffin’ in an only para-hitchcockian, rather than purely hitchcockian sense, then you are simply confused about how language works.


john c. halasz 01.06.11 at 4:18 am


Umm…”how humans behave” is what’s in question, not the premise, eh? At any rate, the complexion of fictional characters is relative to that of the fictional worlds that they inhabit. The two mutually disclose each other. How a character reacts and how that world “is” are flip-sides of the same coin. That’s a good part of what is to be discovered. (That “character” is not really separate from world is what is to be gotten into and refreshed; it’s not just a matter of describing furniture). Now fictional characters and worlds will always be underdetermined compared to the real world case. Works always foreshorten and economize their means. But then if they actually sought to provide a “complete” account that would be TMI, utter tedium, which would be an even larger failure, missing the point of providing a work at all.

The point about the character being judged in terms of his, (i.e. actually the reader’s), cognitive functioning is that it amounts to an over-identification with the character, (which is a fictional “nothing” anyway). It’s not that cognitive elements are not involved in reading; it’s that they are being selected and (re)arranged by different “rules”. And works don’t serve to foster identifications, but ultimately to break them. The “function” of works is to “contain” and body-forth otherness, not to maintain the bounded defenses of the reader’s ego, but to foster a confrontation with ek-sistence in the world,- (by means of its fictional re-doubling),- to get the reader into the outside, beside himself.


The point wasn’t that you got the plain sense of Hitchcock wrong. It’s that the category is so over-generalized as to admit of just about anything. (Cf. the above comment thread). And the addition of “metaphysical” does little to clarify or specify the point: is any playing with the “infrastructures” of meaning thereby metaphysical? (To call the “Malkovich” premise “metaphysical”, is a bit like complaining about all those little people in “Guilliver”). Are the various ways in which works reify metaphors and thereby draw out their “meanings” merely the occasion and pretext for the ensuing rigamarole, which itself must be reduced and explained in terms of the existing physical world? (There are apparently many here who plainly think, “Yes!”). I really don’t need any lectures about atoms, anymore than S.E. needed a lecture about how electric motors actually work, if that, indeed, was the reference of his metaphor. Perhaps rather some people need to learn about how not to iron out and remove, rather than interpret, metaphors! Nor do I need a lecture about how language really works, about which anyone who actually speaks is really ignorant and confused!


John Holbo 01.06.11 at 4:33 am

“To call the “Malkovich” premise “metaphysical”, is a bit like complaining about all those little people in “Guilliver””

How so and why?

“The point wasn’t that you got the plain sense of Hitchcock wrong. It’s that the category is so over-generalized as to admit of just about anything. (Cf. the above comment thread).”

It’s actually pretty common for concepts to exhibit this sort of (potentially but not necessarily) distressing penchant for spread. Language, for example. Art. Literature. Mind. Meaning. Romanticism. Realism. If it should turn out that ‘Metaphysical McGuffin’ is a bit the same–exhibiting a certain tendency to encompass all of comedy, or all of fantastic fiction–then I would consider that par for the course and quite acceptable. Consider ‘all the world’s a stage’, for example. What that does is expand the category of the stage play to a very considerable degree. Which might be objectionable. But maybe it shows something about the concept of ‘stage play’ that it at least tempts this over-extension. We don’t have to eat the whole thing.

There’s a nice quote from Beckett in the book I’m reading now, in which he compliments someone on ‘raising so many hares and then not chasing them down’. I think you are missing the potential element of flexible playfulness in a concept like ‘metaphysical mcguffin’. It isn’t intended to be some sort of stiff bat with which I whack everything into Platonic pieces, or a vast net of completeness, or anything like that.


Lee A. Arnold 01.06.11 at 6:28 am

Ajay #185 — No, it is not metaphysically impossible for there to be lions in the Scottish highlands. There just aren’t any.

In other words, MacGuffins are not metaphysically impossible, by the original definition.

The point of Hitchcock’s joke is that MacGuffins are interchangeable and unimportant and many of them are finally ridiculous.

On the other hand, a movie premise can be fantastic and impossible, whether or not it is given a magical or scientific exposition.


bryan 01.06.11 at 4:26 pm

I guess a large number of zombie movies would fall into this category, dependent on if we relax the requirement that the impossible event not be confined to one person or small group of individuals.
Of course in the last few years it is more common to give a quasi scientific explanation for what done it – generally a virus of some sort.

I guess the zombie movie that comes closest is Dead Girl – it even seems more metaphysical in that when the original MacGuffin escapes instead of unleashing zombieism on the world she just creates her replacement and the world goes on basically the same…
note: there is also a boy zombie now, no one says what happened to him.


Milton 01.07.11 at 3:51 pm

great thread (except for whatever/whoever edelbaum sockpuppet discussion is supposed to be about). here are two films i have been trying to think about w/r/t lemuel & john’s comments way back abt what distinguishes groundhog day from the dead zone. i also thought of them b/c most of the suggestions so far have been by folks with good…..taste?… film. these aren’t necessarily recommended viewing.

(1) what women want (mel gibson acquires the ability to read women’s minds) and;
(2) the invention of lying (nobody in the world except ricky gervais realizes lying is possible)

it seems like john would want to throw out (1) on basically the same grounds as the dead zone. but what about (2)? it’s more like an epistemic macguffin than a metaphysical one, but it shares some qualities w/ the thought-experiment type films john is interested in……no?


ripley 01.09.11 at 2:46 am

Surprised that Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t on here!

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