How does the mind filter what is real from what is unreal? How does it separate events perceived in an unreal environment from a real one? For most of us, fortunately this isn’t an issue. From initial consciousness the mind has been wired with a series of logical codes that allow us to infer and draw proper conclusions given certain information. But not all of us are so fortunate.
Brad Anderson’s 2004 film The Machinist struggles with the question of what can film, and the way that we watch films, tell us about the workings human mind. It does this primarily by using the tableau of film space to create a model of how the mind processes and understands information. Like the mind, the way that we watch films is inherently self-referential. Much like the first person limited narrative style of a novel, the first person limited style of filmmaking follows the experience of one particular character, like files on the walls of his or her life. We use the continuity logic of before and after to learn things as our characters learn things, building meaning from the events that come before and after (A pattern I discussed in my earlier post on Memento).
In order to tell a story that spans several days within the time constraints of roughly two hours, sequential editing forces us to fill in the gaps on our own, relying on the tools laid forth — that moving from a nighttime scene to a daylight scene means that the sun has risen and tomorrow has begun. Or that if we see a character waking up in bed and then cut to him walking to his car, dressed for work and with a mug of coffee, we assume that he got up, brushed his teeth and took a shower, even if we didn’t witness every moment.
This pattern is not unique to film, of course. As a writer, I often struggle with what one writing professor referred to as “furniture moving” wherein every minute detail of a character’s actions are described, from standing to walking to sitting to crossing one leg over the other and resting a hand on a knee, with no discernible influence over the larger story. Furniture moving is often the result of poor planning and bored writing, filling in gaps with useless details to pass the time until inspiration strikes and a better idea comes about.
Effective writers (by practice) and film editors (by necessity) find ways to compress events into salient points and present to the reader or viewer only what is essential to understanding the story. In other words, I can’t ever recall having read a lengthy and descriptive bathroom scene that did not pertain directly to the story at hand (although I have read a lot of Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, and may need to revise that statement at some point). But I’ve always assumed that the characters find the time to properly relieve themselves when I’m not around to read about it.
What is subversive about these traditional methods in The Machinist is the way that Anderson manipulates our familiar reactions to these gaps in order to create the misunderstanding that is so essential to the plot. We only have as much information as we are given, and then the conclusions and inferences drawn from it. Things like the logical gaps between scenes become the components of our apparatus, our main vehicle for learning and interpreting the information of this story. So what can we learn from a film if our apparatus is broken?
If ever a mind could be described as broken, it is the mind of Trevor Reznik, our tragic protagonist in The Machinist. Trevor claims to have not slept in a year and seems to harbor a creepy attraction to corrosive cleaning products, particularly bleach and lye. He doesn’t sleep so much as he slips into a catatonic stupor at the drop of a hat, and then there’s the weight loss. Trevor weighs himself daily and keeps a tally. We don’t know where he started but by the time we meet him he’s hovering around 120 lbs and fading fast. As more than one character tells him, if he were any thinner he wouldn’t exist. Trevor is a mess.
Somewhere, somehow, it appears that someone is out to get Trevor. He infers this, and therefore we infer this, because things in his life aren’t making sense. The equations that his brain uses to define reality are no longer functioning. He finds things askew — notes and games taped to his refrigerator, people who aren’t exactly who they’re supposed to be, and a whole trail of memories and recollections that no one else seems to share with him.
In the end we realize that Trevor’s mind is broken because it is a closed system that doesn’t know that it’s closed. In the ideal world, we confirm reality when we know our experiences are shared by others, and we’re able to witness the effects. We know that we are not alone and we know that what happened must be real because it happened to someone outside of us as well. Film doesn’t work this way.
Trevor receives no affirmation. The companions who aren’t figments of his imagination are utterly confused by him as he lives in a world of his own construction. Without the gap of sleep to generate definitions of before and after, Trevor’s memory exists as one long strip, tattered and ragged and worn down, readable only in certain areas. The elements of Trevor’s scattered memory resemble the flotsam from a shipwreck washed ashore — pieces with no rhyme or reason but are somehow harvested and collected into a coherent, albeit false, narrative.
Cut off from the real world, Trevor’s mind continues to cycle through events with no affirming responses and pushes him deeper into madness. Things start to get interesting (or maddening) — the sticky note games taped to his refrigerator. The giant fish he seemingly forgot about, rotting in his freezer which disappears moments later. The misremembered waitress, her face replaced with that of another woman whose existence means something to Trevor but he can’t figure out why. In the end Trevor’s world unravels as smoothly as the blanket he lugs around in the opening scene but instead of uncovering nothing, reveals a whole host of suppressed realities.
Like a spliced filmstrip rearranged on a cutting desk, Trevor’s hidden reality becomes lost in the shuffle. It is only when Trevor’s mind is forced to look back upon itself, see its reflection in the metaphorical mirror of true reality that it finds its way back.