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Impossible Puzzle Films

A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema

Miklós Kiss, Steven Willemsen

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Using a cognitive film studies framework, this book explores how our minds engage with complex storytelling

Narrative complexity is a trend in contemporary cinema. Since the late 1990s there has been a palpable increase in complex storytelling in movies. But how and why do complex movies create perplexity and confusion? How do we engage with these challenges? And what makes complex stories so attractive? By blending film studies, narrative theory and cognitive sciences, Kiss and Willemsen look into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind. Analysing the effects that different complex narratives have on viewers, the book addresses how films like Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive or Primer strategically create complexity and confusion, and, by using the specific category of the ‘impossible puzzle film’, it examines movies that use baffling paradoxes, impossible loops, and unresolved ambiguities in their stories and storytelling. By looking at how these films play on our mind’s blind spots, this innovative book explains their viewing effects in terms of the mental state of cognitive dissonance that they evoke.

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1. Contemporary Complex Cinema
1.1 Complex conditions: the resurgence of narrative complexity
1.2 Complex cinema as brain-candy for the empowered viewer
1.3 Narrative taxonomies: simple, complex, puzzle plots

2. Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema
2.1 Why an (embodied-)cognitive approach?
2.2 Various forms of complexity and their effects on sense making
2.2.1 Problematizing narrative linearity
2.2.2 Complicating narrative structures and ontologies
2.2.3 Under-stimulation and cognitive overload
2.2.4 Contradictions and unreliabilities
2.3 A cognitive approach to classifying complexity
2.3.1 Deceptive unreliability and the twist film
2.3.2 Disorienting but solvable puzzle films
2.3.3 Impossible puzzle films

3. Narrative Complexity and Dissonant Cognitions
3.1 The concept of cognitive dissonance
3.2 Cognitions in dissonance: from social psychology to narrative engagement
3.3 Types of dissonance in narrative comprehension
3.3.1 Narrative incongruities
3.3.2 Narrative impossibilities
3.4 Cognitive access to impossible storyworlds: immersed and reflected operations
3.5 ‘Impossibilities’ and embodied cognition
3.5.1 Disrupting viewers’ reliance on image schemas by perceptual impossibility
3.5.2 Disrupting viewers’ reliance on image schemas by formal impossibility

4. Taming Dissonance: Cognitive Operations and Interpretive Strategies
4.1 Cognitive dissonance versus narrative coherence
4.2. Reducing dissonance: interpretation and naturalization
4.2.1 Foregrounding
4.2.2 Narrating agency and authorship
4.2.3 Artefact emotions and metareflexive appreciation
4.2.4 Interpretation as dissonance reduction
4.3 Coping with dissonance: frame-switches and poetic and aesthetic readings
4.4 Frame-switching as hermeneutic play in impossible puzzle films
4.4.1 Switching between narrative and symbolical readings: Enemy and Mulholland Drive
4.4.2 Cognitive hesitation and the fantastic

5. Impossible Puzzle Films: Between Art-Cinema and (Post-) Classical Narration
5.1 From art-cinema to puzzle films
5.1.1 Art-cinema as a narrative mode
5.1.2 Dissonance in modernist art-cinema
5.1.3 Art-cinema as a cognitive reception frame
5.1.4 Narrative complexity and meaning-making in art-cinema
5.2 Impossible puzzle films and (post-)classical narration
5.2.1 High degree of tellability
5.2.2 Identification with goal-oriented characters
5.2.3 Strong reliance on classical genre elements
5.2.4 Adherence to classical narrative cohesion devices
5.2.5 Inclusion of quasi-rational frames of naturalization

6. Wallowing in Dissonance: The Attractiveness of Impossible Puzzles
6.1 Hermeneutic play and interpretive multiplicity
6.2 Orientation, navigation, mapping
6.3 Game logic and the fascination in failure
6.4 Effort justification
6.5 Diegetization of decoupling
6.6 Fascination in infinity
6.7 Destabilized ontological certainty
6.8. Eudaimonic motivations and intrinsic needs


About the Author

Miklós Kiss is Assistant Professor in Film and Media Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His research focuses on contemporary audiovisual media, intersecting the fields of narrative and cognitive film theories.

Steven Willemsen is a PhD-candidate and Junior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His research addresses the topic of story complexity from embodied-cognitive and narratological perspectives.


'Kiss and Willemsen’s book is an important step forward in the study of cinematic complexity. It offers a thorough analysis of complex storytelling techniques with a special focus on the "impossible puzzle films," reveals the cognitive effects and challenges they evoke and explores the reasons why viewers find them fascinating.'

- Professor Marina Grishakova, Institute of Cultural Research and Arts, University of Tartu

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