The Mind-Game Film. Cinema in the Digitalized Societies of Control

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

18 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Sociological Implications and the Mode of Storytelling
2.1. Intensified Focalization
2.2. The Mind-Game Film as a Mirror to the Society (of Control)
2.3. Mind-Game Film in the Light of Traditional Narratology

3. Multiple Levels of Storytelling, Viewing Experience and Identity

4. A New Understanding of Time
4.1. Time as a Medium in which we Exist
4.2. The Central Role of Time in Mind-Game Film (Diegesis and Editing)
4.3. The Central Role of Time in Mind-Game Film (Reception and Media)

5. The Media in the Society of Control

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Traditional tenets of cinema and storytelling are overcome and played with. Time, which used to flow naturally, and therefore unnoticed, has evolved into a crucial, freely modulatable dimension of its own and serves as an additional structural and narrational level on top of the spatial dimensions. This development is propelled by the rise of the digital image and its manifold possibilities of interfering with the flow of time. Likewise, the principle of "focalization" is extended beyond the idea of merely directing our attention, towards the total filtration of the film reality through the (subjective) vision of a (or several) character(s) (Buckland 8). Thriving on these central elements, mind-game films aim to deceive the spectator by determining when, or if, he/she receives certain information which is crucial to the understanding of the story. Just as no focal character can possibly be sure of his/her own perception's reliability or, for that matter, his/her own mental sanity, we cannot trust our perception. What we see is the image of an image, filtered through a succession of two minds, the character's virtual one and our own.

On the basis of Thomas Elsaesser's understanding of the term 'mind-game film' and Gilles Deleuze's general, more philosophical ideas about human perception and how it is reflected and played with in the realm of contemporary cinema, I will take a look at the appeal of this arguably new genre and argue that the essence of this 'trend' and the dynamics behind it lies in the sociological change towards a society of control (as attested by Deleuze) which is reflected in the cinema as a mirror to human perception, as well as in the new ways time is made use of, or exploited, not only in the diegesis, and as an additional dimension of the plot, but also completely outside of filmic reality. The 'cycle' as a crass deviation from the seamless, traditional display in the flow of time is applied not only in the sense of cyclic or parallel plot-construction, but also in the viewing-habits of the spectator. As Elsaesser remarks in regard to his mind-game-subcategory of the “Schizophrenia” (26), or the film with mentally deficient focalizers, we are invited to start all over again and search for clues. Films like The Sixth Sense, Fightclub, or The Usual Suspects, I would argue, almost force upon us the need to re-watch them accompanied by the newly acquired hindsight. They stir an inner urge in us to look for what we missed the first time around. The idea of a growing participatory dimension in film, which Elsaesser refers to in regard to fan-cult discussions and bursting Internet-forums (Elsaesser 16), is already reinforced by this need to negotiate meaning between two very different viewing experiences, or levels of comprehension, mostly separated by just one crucial snippet of information.

2. Sociological Implications and the Mode of Storytelling

Let us first take a look at the phenomenon of the 'mind-game film' in general terms. What are the governing principles underlying the mind-game film, and why do spectators and scholars alike feel the urge to mark its peculiarity by assigning the name, and thus proclaiming a new genre, or maybe even a new era, of film? Considering these questions, we will turn to the sociological implications in the mode of storytelling, as well as toward a classification in the light of traditional narratology.

2.1. Intensified Focalization

In his article “The Mind-Game Film”, Thomas Elsaesser makes a distinction between two types of mind-game films. On the one hand, he calls up films in which it is the characters whose minds are played with (by other characters). Hence, the mind-game takes place entirely within the boundaries of the diegetic film reality. More interestingly, the second type of mind-game - with whom we will primarily be concerned - occurs between the film itself and the spectator, from whom crucial information is withheld or obscured. This is often times justified by a mental pathology of the respective character. (Elsaesser 14) In this justification lies the first distinctive and novel feature of the allegedly new genre: the intensification of focalization. In films like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, our perception is linked to, and filtered by, the (deficient) minds of focal characters. At first glance, this simply is an instance of internal focalization which, as a narrative technique, existed long before the mind-game film came into being. The crucial difference, however, is the lack of a reference point or a background against which the abnormality of the character's (and thus our) perception would become visible. Much like the insane person himself, whose perception constitutes his subjective version of reality, we are deprived of the luxury of changing perspectives and occupying an objective vantage point.

"[Such] films [...] present their parallel worlds without marking them off by [...] the conventional means by which films indicate switches of register or reference." (Elsaesser 20).

2.2. The Mind-Game Film as a Mirror to the Society (of Control)

Later in the article, Elsaesser elaborates on this notion of conventionality in film. He states that the classical narrative style can be broken down into a number of rather specific conventions. When it comes to the set-in-stone guiding principles, like teleology and the premise of a comprehensive causal chain of events, "(post hoc ergo propter hoc)", Elsaesser reasonably claims that these actually serve as restrictions that keep the film from becoming a mirror to our reality - which may be determined by coincidence at times, and which is in no way a linear chain of causal events, but a multitude of paths, many of which never come to anything (Elsaesser 23). Hence, the classical means of channeling reality into film is by no means the correct or natural way to go, but merely a variant amongst others. It is in this context that Elsaesser draws on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's notion of the "rhizome" as a non-hierarchical, non-dichotomous sorting principle of knowledge and reality. For Deleuze, film can serve as a mirror to human perception, because it is organized according to the very same logic and the very same rules of framing, setting focus and arousing attention. By implication, sociological change inscribes itself into the medium, as the individuals' self-concepts and their perceptions of the surrounding society and its superstructures change, along with those structures themselves.

In his Postscript on the Societies of Control, Deleuze builds upon Michel Foucault's description of the ongoing sociological shift, away from discipline as the governing principle of our society(/ies), and towards a "society of control" which thrives on the aforementioned rhizomatic, or network-like, structures that permeate modern societies (in the form of new, similarly network-esque media, like the ubiquitous Internet). Technological progress leads to medial evolution, leads to sociological and economical change, which, in turn, shows in cinema as an emulation of human perception.

Control as the paramount motor of our societies and markets is enabled and propelled by the media. The growing interconnectedness turns societies into networks and allows for the work-sphere and other institutions within the system (schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.) to reach out further into people's lives. In the course of this, the institutions lose the clear and distinct boundaries they had back in the era of discipline. Deleuze illustrates the techniquedependent mechanisms of control using the example of the prison, which becomes obsolete as an institution of enclosure (quite literally), as the rise of alternative penalties, like the electronic collar, continues. Prison is brought to the convict and into his life, rather than transferring him from one institution to another. The same holds true in the realms of schooling, work and business, where the dichotomies of working versus not-working and learning versus not-learning fade away and every interaction in a society may be relevant; everybody works and learns continuously. Companies and individuals alike become marketing agents whose success depends, first and foremost, on their profile, or their image, within the society. (Deleuze: Postscript 139-142)

The predominant mood in the society of control is thus influenced and characterized by a huge amount of uncertainty, which stems from the collapsing boundaries around, and between, the institutions, and which is further defined by "epistemological problems [...] and ontological doubts" (Buckland 15). In other words, concepts of who we are and what constitutes knowledge about ourselves and our environments are blurred.

Thomas Elsaesser goes beyond this notion of uncertainty and claims that the sociological change has brought about a sort of madness which has become the "appropriate" state of mind for living in the society of control.

"[...] [P]aranoia [...] is [...] the appropriate - or even “productive” pathology of our contemporary network society." (Elsaesser 26)

The abundance of mental pathology in focal characters as well as the futility in trying to evaluate the impressions that we, as spectators, receive, concerning the level of truthfulness and integrity, are the mind-game film's methods of reflecting the uncertainty within our (control) society. The scripted madness of focalizers reflects the madness of actual individuals whose mental deficiency is their "individual solution to a collective problem" (Elsaesser 32), namely the mechanisms of control.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Mind-Game Film. Cinema in the Digitalized Societies of Control
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar (English Department))
Digital Movies, Chaos Cinema, Post-Cinematic Affect: Thinking 21st-Century Motion Pictures
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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482 KB
film, sociology, deleuze, elsaesser, cinema, motion picture, society of control, societies of control, mind-game film, mind game, film studies
Quote paper
Malte Mindermann (Author), 2014, The Mind-Game Film. Cinema in the Digitalized Societies of Control, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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