by Matthew Baldwin
There’s a certain brand of movie that I most enjoy. Some people call them “Puzzle Movies.” Others call them “Brain Burners.” Each has, at some point or another, been referred to as “that flick I watched while I was baked out of my mind.”
But the phrase I find myself employing, when casting around for a succinct term for the entire genre, is “Mindfuck Movies.” It’s an expression I picked up from a college roommate of mine, an enormous Star Trek: The Next Generation fan who adored those episodes when the nature of reality itself was called into question, usually after the holodeck went berserk or Q showed up and hornswoggled everyone into thinking they were intergalactic dung beetles (or whatever…I never really followed the show myself).
Mindfuckers aren’t just Dadaism by another name—there has to be some rationale for the mayhem, even if it’s far-fetched (orbiting hallucination-inducing lasers!) or lame (it was all a dream!).
And they are not those movies where the audience (and the characters) think they know what’s happening, only to discover in the final moments some key twist that turns everything on its head. (Bruce Willis was balding the whole time?!) I love those films as well, but that’s not what we’re discussing. In Mindfuck Movies you know that Something Is Going On. It’s just not clear what.
Here are 16 of my absolute favorites from this rarefied class of motion pictures. And, really, the phrase “Mindfuck Movies” is too crude for such works of arts. These films are sophisticated. They make love to your mind.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanely Kubrick’s tour de force is grounded on scientific principles so sound that even now, 40 years after its release, it is still routinely cited as the finest “hard science-fiction” film ever made. (“Hard science-fiction” is defined as “stories in which Han Solo does not saunter around the surface of an asteroid wearing only an oxygen mask and a leather jacket”).
Yes, it’s a meticulously crafted and imminently rational three-course meal of a film. For the first two hours, anyhow. And then, in the final 30 minutes, it serves up a steaming bowl of WTF for dessert.
Why is the ending of 2001 so hard to comprehend? Because it doesn’t make a goddamned lick of sense—unless you read the book, that is. And this is by design. Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke intended the film and the novel to serve as companion pieces, to be consumed one right after the other.
Perhaps worried about the widening “Mindblowing Cinematic Science-Fiction Gap,” the Ruskies released this Solyaris four years after 2001 and doubled-down on the hallucinogenic quotient. Based on a novel by legendary sci-fi maven Stanislaw Lem, the plot revolves around a mysterious water-world and the cosmonaut in its orbit, as they attempt to communicate with one another. Think My Dinner With Andre if Andre were a Class-O Planetoid and the dinner consisted solely of psilocybin mushrooms.
Director Andrei Tarkovsky loved making these kinds of movies—his 1979 film Stalkers is equally fantastic, in both the adjectival and superlative sense. And he could also create a meditative, haunting, and beautiful sequence like nobody’s business...
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Here are the makings of a fun evening. Step one: Take your parents to see Mulholland Dr. Step 2: Endure the hottest girl-on-girl sex scene in the history of mainstream cinema while sitting a foot and a half from your mom. Step 3: Take your parents out for dinner afterwards, but instead of making chit-chat spend your entire meal staring into the middle-distance while attempting to make sense of the previous two hours.
It’s amazing that this film isn’t a mess. David Lynch originally filmed the story as a pilot of a television series, then re-shot some scenes and cobbled together a feature-length film after the studio executives took a pass. And yet somehow this rejected half-breed wound up as Lynch’s finest work to date.
Primer (2004)The first 20 minutes of Primer are among the most prosaic ever committed to celluloid: four wanna-be entrepreneurs dicking around in a garage, then sitting around a kitchen table stuffing envelopes. We know they are not working on anything new or exciting because the opening narration tells us as much. We know their previous research has proven fruitless because the characters argue about who’s to blame for their miserable lack of success.
And then they invent…something. The viewer doesn’t know exactly what they’ve invented, primarily because the protagonists themselves don’t know what they’ve invented. In fact, much of the film’s remaining 60 minutes focuses on their efforts to figure out what this thing does and how they can capitalize on it.
If the films in this list were arranged in order of ascending awesomeness rather than chronologically, Primer would still occupy the final slot. Made on a budget of $7,000 (seven! thousand!), Primer is one of the few movies I have ever watched twice in a row—and certainly the only movie I’ve ever watched at 8 a.m. after having watched it twice in a row on the evening prior. It’s like a deep-tissue massage for your brain—afterwards you may hurt like hell, but you’ll also feel strangely invigorated.