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Reinventing People or Places: Ambiguity as an Attraction

Sairaa Bains discusses how the unknown can widen the scope of our thoughts about certain pieces of art



Ambiguity is attractive and guarantees attention. This idea of vagueness or uncertainty can be found in the abstractness of art or even in the retelling of past experiences. Novels or films that are relatively open-ended leave more ground for thought and reflection. Without any degree of ambiguity, most things would be predictable and wouldn't hold the same multilayered meaning anymore. The concepts of time, nostalgia and memory are very ambiguous and can be moulded in any possible form or shape. Ambiguity also allows the narrator to pick and choose which version of events appeals to them most. It's almost an act of rewriting one's past or picking a particular memory amidst the large storehouse of memories that you use to define yourself.

Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things uses silence and prolonged moments of stillness between dialogues to create an unsettling atmosphere where much is left to the viewer's interpretation. Even though the film itself is not particularly frightening, the ambiguity it creates makes you feel a sense of familiarity with the content that is being discussed. This uncanny feeling of having known some thoughts, ideas or people, resurfaces throughout the film. Its multilayered storyline also generates several interpretations, not restricting the viewer's imagination. The unexpected twists and turns in the narrative with repeated emphasis on certain objects and ideas creates an impending feeling of existential angst. The main protagonist, Lucy, sees herself in old photographs in her boyfriend Jake's house and also seems to receive calls from people she talks about as a part of a daily dinnertime conversation. This becomes even eerier given the repetition of certain dialogues or images throughout the film. These strange happenings merely seem like a coincidence until the viewer tries to attach some practical meaning to the events that unfold.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things is also memorable in its exchange of dialogue that remains subtle but profound. Remembering some of the conversations between characters allows the viewer to join the dots, linking together the dialogue as well as particular symbolic objects. Towards the end of the film, Jake points out the absence of any kind of objective reality because everything in life is "tinged" or "coloured" by an individual's emotions and past experiences. This is ironic because as the movie progresses, there are plenty of hints that suggest Lucy is nothing more than a figment of Jake's imagination. He unknowingly invented an idealised version of his girlfriend - which indirectly turned out to be a relationship with his own imagination. In this way, I'm Thinking of Ending Things blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, allowing some things to appear almost surrealistic.

At the same time, the ambiguity with which some ideas or past memories are discussed make it feel like there's never any definite form of truth - whatever exists, exists because of the meaning we give to it. Similarly, in Julian Barnes’ book, The Sense of an Ending, broad concepts of time, history and the fallibility of memory are present. In this book, the narrative moves back and forth covering the intrinsic motives of the characters as well as their past deeds of neglect and despair. The main protagonist, Tony Webster talks about his high school days in a retrospective fashion but seems to modify some elements to fit his own version of events. These gaps both in memory and narration make the reader question the entire storyline of the plot itself. In this way, The Sense of an Ending highlights the false notions of selfhood and the idea of reinventing pasts.

The book opens with a few listed experiences that the narrator finds memorable or significant in his life. As the narrative of the book progresses, you come across these listed items that the main protagonist supposedly remembered. This makes you wonder why the narrator chose these few moments as defining, as opposed to a large number of other memories. It's almost as if you step into the character of the narrator and try to purposely pinpoint or relate to these few life-changing moments. Ultimately, this list of events turns out to be partially untrue. With this twist in the narrative, Barnes highlights the idea of remembering past events as being equivalent to spotting a needle in a haystack full of 20 other needles. Since we do not separate our memories or create boundaries around them, one memory spills onto another. This becomes evident when the narrator states, "What you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed." More than half of our memories are incomplete and made wholly of bits and pieces conjoined together. This makes our remembrance of events highly unreliable because things aren't always the way we initially imagined them to be.

Amidst the chaos and confusion of such metaphorical concepts that sometimes transcend human understanding, art provides a medium to appreciate the unexplainable. The invention of people or places and the manipulation of memory certainly leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Both I'm Thinking of Ending Things and The Sense of an Ending reiterate these ideas of ambiguity in their storylines to create art that stimulates thought on multiple levels.

Ultimately, any artwork, be it film or literature, is given a profound meaning through the mindset or thought processes of the audience that thrives on it.


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