Poring over past musings here, I ran across this comment under our List entry for Cube (1997): “Incidentally, I feel like the whole topic of the ontological mystery is something this site could devote an article to…” You’re right, Simon Hyslop, so this Bud’s for you!
But there’s an aven bigger rock to pick out of the trench than just the “ontological mystery.” Perhaps we should illuminate why we like weird movies, or at least get as close to solving that conundrum as we can here. It’s just gift-wrapped in the ontological mystery genre because it makes for such a dandy distillation of the concept of weirdness itself.
Mirriam-Webster defines “weird” as “of strange or extraordinary character : odd, fantastic.” This suggests that in order for something to be weird, it must be puzzling, mysterious, and perhaps even ultimately unsolvable. So many movies honored on 366 Weird Movies can be described exactly that way. The top movies on this site, by reputation and backed by reader polls, as often as not have ambiguous meaning and a baffling ending that leaves us with more questions than we started with.
Where the hell is Eraserhead set? What is really going on at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What genre does Donnie Darko even fit into? How exactly has the family in Dogtooth survived in the world this long? Why is there a secret door in an office building that leads to the inside of Being John Malkovich‘s head? No reason.
All those movies are honored, timeless classics debated by film scholars year in and year out, but the questions are still open: just as with the mysteries of Cube, and stories in the existentialist tradition going all the way back to Sartre and. Come to think of it, most movies enrolled in the List can be stretched to fit the definition of “ontological mysteries,” or at least mysteries of some kind or another. It’s the unanswered questions in these stories that captivate us.
Sure it does. But why? Why aren’t we happy with “boy meets girl and they live happily ever after?” A lot of other people seem to be content with that. In real life, we seek answers and are never satisfied until we get them. That’s what the continuing pursuit of science is all about.
But right away you notice that real life never has a tidy ending with everything explained. There’s no real beginning or endings anywhere; every story stretches along an infinite thread in either direction.
The nature of the universe exposes us human beings as having one encumbering flaw. The fact that we defend it does not negate the fact that it is a flaw. The flaw is that humans need to understand things, need to have them sorted into logical categories, need to have everything match a mathematical order. This is a fault because it makes us unsuitable to coexist with nature.
Nature is chaos. We want a spreadsheet. And we go crazy when we can’t have one.
It would be a nicer world for us if our calendar contained a balanced number of days reflecting a round, whole integer of full rotations our planet takes to complete one journey around the sun. But nature gives us a planet with a year lasting just about 365.256 days and, giving us the old trollface, says “LOL deal with it!” So we fudge it with leap years and leap seconds and even more infrequent minute astronomical adjustments. We fight nature’s chaos and hammer it into our clumsy illusion of order.
We want a compass needle that points North and be done with it. But true North and magnetic north are coinciding again, only now, for the first time in 360 years. Why? No reason. Actually there is a reason, there’s a shifting molten core inside the planet like an egg yolk, always slightly off-center, and for that matter our lines of latitude are often off by a few degrees because tidal forces make the poles wiggle, so we’ll never have a compass and a globe that really agree with each other or anything else. Not perfectly. But we want to live on a mathematically perfect sphere.
My spirit guide, Kurt Vonnegut, said, in “Cat’s Cradle”:
Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
That’s the thing: we need to convince ourselves we understand even when we clearly don’t.
Humans are just not suited to this universe. It’s our flaw. It’s probably an inevitable quality of intelligence. So far as we can tell, no other living species has the drive to measure and mark everything. No other species tries to come up with a classification system for animals (species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain) just so we can say “this critter is sort of like this other critter.” And then nature gives us a hundred varieties of seagull, but half of them can interbreed. We end up in arguments about what a “species” is.
You can let the chaos of nature drive you crazy, or you can deal with it.
Don’t think for a minute that the chaos of nature doesn’t drive people crazy. Mental illnesses like autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia have symptoms that represent our flawed frame of reference for reality and the struggle to sort chaotic nature into the spreadsheet of human comprehension. Our brains, it turns out, aren’t computers, but bubbling vats of neurotransmitters and hodge-podge circuitry which is so unreliable, it can be short-circuited by looking at an ambiguous picture we call an “optical illusion.”
There’s really no “illusion” there. It’s our brains’ compulsion to sort chaos into order, even if we have to impose nonsense over it, that makes the illusion appear—to us. It’s also how we get conspiracy theories. Lately we’ve seen more evidence of this flaw come up in the rise of the Internet and the paradoxical advent of the information denialist culture. Why do we have Flat Earthers? No reason. Well actually, it’s because we send scientists out to find answers, and they come back to tell us it’s a warped space-time continuum out there, and then some of us reject that reality and look for the one that fits into our personal, paranoid frame.
I mean, who are these so-called scientist derps anyway? What if Pluto identifies as a planet? Huh, smarty?
Where were we? Ah yes, ontological mysteries.
You can let the chaos of nature drive you crazy, or you can deal with it. When we come to grips with chaos, we then can appreciate its beauty. When we accept that we won’t have all the answers, we can let the mystery go and just watch in rapt wonder as it frolics.
There is nothing so beautiful as an unanswered question. We find this fascination everywhere, in the infinite digits of pi and the boundless reaches of deep space. The most famous painting in history, the Mona Lisa, is prized because of the perfectly mysterious expression on the model’s face, holding her cards unrevealed for all eternity. The late, celebrated physicist Richard Feynman had a standing debate with an artist friend over whether his capacity to analyze a flower scientifically diminished his ability to appreciate its beauty. He held that it didn’t, because knowing more about the flower doesn’t make it less beautiful. Science is the pursuit of never-ending mysteries though, so we might also add that the flower is more beautiful because, even as much as we understand about it, we still don’t know everything about it.
I never hear anybody asking if an artist can appreciate the harmony of a spreadsheet. In spreadsheets we see the imposition of our own crude, brutal order. This is what mankind wants to do to the universe. We want to catch everything and pin it dead to boards, to organize the universe into columns and rows. We are the Borg, and resistance is given, because we are very weak and inefficient Borgs.
We still want answers, because answers are useful. But you can’t always get what you want. Sometimes it’s more useful to keep asking unanswerable questions. It reminds us not to get too high and mighty with ourselves.
Weird movies are nature. They test you. Some people flee the theater crying “I don’t understand!” The rest can sit there and gurgle baby coos of joy. None of us understand, but that’s the beauty of it! It’s just practice for dealing with the universe without going crazy.
I hope with this essay I gave you either a useful answer or more beautiful questions.