Cues in Films with Surprise Endings
and why They are Missed:
An Analysis of the Film Fight Club

Matthew Fink
Western Connecticut State University

ABSTRACT

The film Fight Club was examined to figure out what causes people to miss cues in movies that often decipher the ending or surprise in a film. The conclusion is that these cues are overlooked due to the first stage of perception, attention. So much is going on during the film in any given scene that these cues burrow themselves into the scene and often go unnoticed the first time around.

INTRODUCTION

Cues in Films with Surprise Endings And Why They Are Missed: An Analysis of the Film Fight Club

In narrative films our expectations are cued by an event or events. In some cases these cues are overlooked and cause the ending or a part of the film to surprise us. Why are these cues so easily overlooked?

A perfect example of such a film that contains these cues is Fight Club. The researcher took an in depth look at the movie and the cues overlooked throughout the movie.

There are two reasons that could cause the over looking of these cues in films. The first one was a psychological approach dealing with various concepts such as the hindsight bias, perception, counterfactual thinking, confirmation bias and belief perseverance.

The second possibility is that some films are just too complex for the mind to take in all the possible information at once. With having to worry about the plot, setting, characters, relationships, etc. it seems like the cues are so miniscule on the first viewing that it's rare to pick them up.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Many films try to capture our attention through the entire film but only few are successful. These films often hide clues that keep us guessing about what is going to happen in the end. These clues are hard to spot, but why?

Narrative form, according to Bordwell and Thompson (1993) is "a type of filmic organization in which the parts relate to each other through a series of causally related events taking place in a specific time and space" (p. 495). The film this study pertains to is in narrative form.

Attention, the first stage of perception is the first possible cause of overlooking cues. Coon (2000) says that perception is "the mental process of organizing sensations into meaningful patterns" and attention is being able to only concentrate on one thing when multiple things are going on. Coon gives the example of attention being like a bottleneck. When a message goes through, it's hard for anything else to go through. It's like trying to listen to two people talking at once (p. 212). Leibowitz (1965) says that "we perceive what we want to perceive" and "we select from the many possibilities of perception those which relate to our needs at the moment" (p. 29).

Another possibility for missing the cues is counterfactual thinking. Williams, Lees-Haley and Brown (1993) say many factors influence counterfactual thinking, such as alternative options (p. 2). Counterfactual Thinking is the process of imagining alternatives to reality. Thinking about what might have happened instead of what happened (Landman & Manis, 1992). Landman and Manis (1992) say that counterfactual thinking is imagining different outcomes to reality. They refer to this as "what might have been" (p.473).

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking according to Carroll (2002). It's having a belief and only looking for things that confirm the particular belief. An example Carroll gives is "if one believes that during a full moon there is an increase in accidents, one will take notice when accidents occur during a full moon, but be inattentive to the moon when accidents occur during other times of the month" (p. 1). McMillan and White (1993) say that confirmation bias is when people have a hypothesis and only take in information that supports their hypothesis and turn down any information that may prove their assessment wrong (p. 443).

Another psychological reason for cues being over looked is belief perseverance. Senor (1992) says that belief perseverance occurs when a theory is already formed before any solid evidence supports the theory. When evidence that conflicts with the theory is presented, it just causes the person to believe more in their original theory (p. 133).

METHODOLOGY

The researcher watched Fight Club for the first time to see if the outcome of the film could be deciphered by the cues throughout the film. Using a data sheet (see appendix I) every time a cue was noticed, the researcher filled out the sheet which contained three sections. The first section was a description of the cue and the second section was the time it occurred in the film. If the researcher thought he knew the ending, he would jot down an asterisk next to the cue to show when he thought he figured it out and he would also note what he thought the ending was in the third column. The researcher was not allowed to rewind the film, only pause it to have time to write information down.

Once the film was over, the researcher, now knowing the outcome of the film watched it again paying close attention to each cue to see and mark down on a similar data sheet (see appendix II) what cues were missed. This allowed the researcher to see what was overlooked for cues during the film. The second data sheet contained only 2 columns. The first column was for the description of the cue and the second column was the time it occurred in the film. Once the researcher felt the clue gave away the ending, an asterisk was marked next to that particular cue. This time the researcher was allowed to pause and rewind the film.

The researcher watched the film one more time now knowing all the cues and the ending. During the third time watching, the researcher paid close attention to each cue and why they were missed. Using psychological phenomenon such as the hindsight bias, confirmation bias, perception, counterfactual thinking and belief perseverance, the researcher came up with a reason why each individual cue was missed. The researcher used a similar data collection form (see appendix III) to the first viewing except the third column was for reasons for missing the cue. Each cue was looked at in either a psychological way using one of the terms that fit in or the cue was looked at being unnoticeable due to the cue being too mundane to notice.

With the three viewings of the film and the data collection, the researcher composed a theory based on the research.

RESULTS

First Viewing:

CLUE

TIME

ENDING?

The narrator is unhappy, plot motive

4:20

No

Tyler keeps flashing on the screen, spliced into the film

6:12

No

Tyler blew the narrator’s house up

1:00:00

No

 

Second Viewing:

CLUE

TIME

“I know this because Tyler knows this” – The narrator talking about the bombs Tyler has planted everywhere.

3:00

A quick flicker of Tyler is spliced into the film.

4:00/6:00

At one of the meetings the narrator is wearing a name tag that says hello my name is Cornelius, but that is not his name.

6:45

Marla Singer asks the narrator who he is because his name is different at every self help group he goes to.

19:00

The narrator passes Tyler in the airport without noticing him and then wonders if it was possible with all the traveling he does to wake up in a new city as a different person.

19:43

The narrator to Tyler after meeting him on the plane – “We have the exact same briefcase.”

23:15

Tyler talking about making explosives from household items.

23:40

The narrator’s apartment is bombed.

26:20

The narrator explains how Tyler splices things into films.

33:00

The narrator explains how Tyler sometimes speaks for him.

46:38

When Tyler is having sex with Marla, you never see his face to confirm it’s him.

48:00

The narrator has no idea why Marla is in the house and she gets upset and leaves.

49:30

Tyler explains the story of how Marla ended up there and the narrator says – “I already knew the story before he told it to me.”

50:00

Tyler tells the narrator not to say anything to Marla or else “we’re” done.

53:24

The detective calls to tell the narrator that his condo was blown up by a homemade bomb and Tyler says “just tell him you did it”.

56:20

The narrator says “Tyler and Marla were never in the same room.”

57:52

Tyler explains to the narrator that enough soap could blow up anything.

1:01:44

The narrator says “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth.”

1:05:45

The narrator fights himself in front of his boss, it reminds him of his first fight with Tyler.

1:17:53

The narrator answers Marla saying “us” meaning him and Tyler, but Marla doesn’t understand. Tyler is also telling the narrator what to say.

1:25:00

Tyler says to the narrator “Why do you think I blew up your condo?”

1:39:51

Marla approaches the narrator and the narrator yells at Marla saying Tyler isn’t here, Tyler is gone. Marla gets upset and leaves.

1:44:55

The narrator finds used plane tickets, starts traveling to find Tyler. He claims he knows just by looking at a bar that Tyler was there. One bartender give him a wink. The narrator says “Am I asleep? Had I slept? Is Tyler my bad dream or am I Tyler’s?” He also said “Everywhere I went I felt I had already been there, it was like following an invisible man.”

1:48:00

When the narrator arrives at one bar, the bartender says welcome back and explains he was there last week. The narrator starts to realize he and Tyler are the same person.

1:50:00

 


Third Viewing:

CLUE

TIME

REASON

“I know this because Tyler knows this” – The narrator talking about the bombs Tyler has planted everywhere.

3:00

Cue is too small, Perception

A quick flicker of Tyler is spliced into the film.

4:00/6:00

Confirmation Bias, Perception, Counterfactual Thinking

At one of the meetings the narrator is wearing a name tag that says hello my name is Cornelius, but that is not his name.

6:45

Cue is too small

Marla Singer asks the narrator who he is because his name is different at every self help group he goes to.

19:00

Cue is too small

The narrator passes Tyler in the airport without noticing him and then wonders if it was possible with all the traveling he does to wake up in a new city as a different person.

19:43

Perception, Confirmation Bias

The narrator to Tyler after meeting him on the plane – “We have the exact same briefcase.”

23:15

Cue too small, Perception, Confirmation Bias

Tyler talking about making explosives from household items.

23:40

Cue too small

The narrator’s apartment is bombed.

26:20

Perception, Cue too small, Confirmation Bias

The narrator explains how Tyler splices things into films.

33:00

Perception, Cue too small

The narrator explains how Tyler sometimes speaks for him.

46:38

Perception, Cue too small, Confirmation Bias

When Tyler is having sex with Marla, you never see his face to confirm it’s him.

48:00

Perception

The narrator has no idea why Marla is in the house and she gets upset and leaves.

49:30

Perception, Confirmation Bias

Tyler explains the story of how Marla ended up there and the narrator says – “I already knew the story before he told it to me.”

50:00

Perception, Confirmation Bias

Tyler tells the narrator not to say anything to Marla or else “we’re” done.

53:24

Confirmation Bias, Perception, Cue too small

The detective calls to tell the narrator that his condo was blown up by a homemade bomb and Tyler says “just tell him you did it”.

56:20

Perception

The narrator says “Tyler and Marla were never in the same room.”

57:52

Perception, Confirmation Bias, Cue too small

Tyler explains to the narrator that enough soap could blow up anything.

1:01:44

Perception, Cue too small

The narrator says “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth.”

1:05:45

Perception, Confirmation Bias

The narrator fights himself in front of his boss, it reminds him of his first fight with Tyler.

1:17:53

Perception, Confirmation Bias

The narrator answers Marla saying “us” meaning him and Tyler, but Marla doesn’t understand. Tyler is also telling the narrator what to say.

1:25:00

Perception, Confirmation Bias

Tyler says to the narrator “Why do you think I blew up your condo?”

1:39:51

Confirmation Bias

Marla approaches the narrator and the narrator yells at Marla saying Tyler isn’t here, Tyler is gone. Marla gets upset and leaves.

1:44:55

Perception, Confirmation Bias

The narrator finds used plane tickets, starts traveling to find Tyler. He claims he knows just by looking at a bar that Tyler was there. One bartender give him a wink. The narrator says “Am I asleep? Had I slept? Is Tyler my bad dream or am I Tyler’s?” He also said “Everywhere I went I felt I had already been there, it was like following an invisible man.”

1:48:00

Perception, Confirmation Bias, Cue too small, Counterfactual thinking

When the narrator arrives at one bar, the bartender says welcome back and explains he was there last week. The narrator starts to realize he and Tyler are the same person.

1:50:00

Confirmation Bias, Belief Perseverance, Perception

 

REPORT OF FINDINGS

Many films are made solely to surprise us. These movies contain numerous hints of the ending of the film through out the movie but often these hints are not picked up until the second viewing of the film. A film that does a great job doing this is the film Fight Club starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. The researcher will discuss some of the major clues that take place in the film.

The film, about an insomniac (the narrator) played by Norton who becomes addicted to self help groups, meets a man named Tyler Durden played by Pitt who is a soap salesman. The self help groups only help the narrator until Marla Singer shows up (The narrator and Tyler's interest later on in the film). Her faking being sick to go to these meetings causes the narrator to not enjoy himself and be able to release. Tyler and the narrator decide to go in together to create something they call "Fight Club" which is an underground bare knuckles fighting league which gives the narrator his release. Pretty soon Fight Clubs are popping up in every major city in the US due to Tyler Durden's pushing the Fight Club franchise. The clubs soon turn into a cult like organization with very destructive plans due to Tyler's vision of Fight Club. By the time the narrator realizes that Fight Club is turning into something more then he can handle, Durden is gone and no where to be found. The narrator is now stuck with one question on his mind, who is Tyler Durden?

During the first viewing, the researcher was able to only pick up three clues. Although these clues were important, the researcher did not come up with any reasoning for the cues and therefore could not come up with a theory for the ending of the film. This part of the research shows that the basis of this study is legitimate because the viewer could not figure out the ending and only picked up 3 clues out of the dozens that are really in the film. The difference between the first and second viewing show that the first time around it is hard to come to any conclusion on the ending and also hard to pick up clues.

During the second viewing of the film was when the researcher was able to see almost all the cues and make sense of it. During the second viewing everything is explained and much easier to pick up because the viewer already knows the outcome of the film from the first viewing.

One of the most obvious yet subtle clues happens in the very opening scene of this film. The narrator is chained to a chair while Tyler holds a gun to his mouth. He explains how the group which organizes project mayhem has buildings lined with explosives and they are ready to detonate at anytime. The narrator says, "I know this because Tyler knows this" (Fincher, 1999). That quote gives away the enormous twist in the plot the film takes towards the end.

Looking at this cue using psychological concepts, the overlooking is caused by perception. The first stage of perception is attention. Within attention, there is selective attention which is giving some messages priority while we leave others behind. When two people talking at once, you can tune in to one person but not both (Coon, 2000, p. 211-212). This applies to this cue because so much is happening in this particular scene. Being the opening scene the viewers ears and eyes are focused on developing the story and not the little clues which may enter. At this point you don't know who Tyler Durden is so by the narrator saying "I know this because Tyler knows this" nothing stimulates or stands out other then what is happening in the scene (Fincher, 1999). Little do we know this simple dialogue answers the question the movie asks of who is Tyler Durden.

At four minutes and six minutes into the film another clue showing the importance of Tyler is given, but it is so quick it is hard to pick up. Later on in the film the narrator goes onto explain how Tyler worked in a movie theater and how he used to splice pornographic pictures into the film in between frames. No one ever noticed what the pictures were since they were only on screen for a part of a second but it left them wondering. At four and six minutes into the film you can see Tyler spliced into the film. This shows us Tyler will be important in the film later, but this quick splice is hard to pick up during the first viewing. In film there are always imperfections such as dust and grain and seeing a quick flash on the screen is usually no big deal. The audience will pick up on this imperfection but will not realize what they saw until later.

Once the narrator divulges that Tyler splices footage into films, this confirms that it is possible that the confirmation bias made us miss this cue. The confirmation bias is when someone has a particular theory on their mind and something occurs that may disprove their theory but they stick with their original thought (McMillan & White, 1993). The theory in this situation being that film has imperfections and that this particular incident was just an imperfection.

For many people, having their theory proved wrong will trigger the hindsight bias. Hindsight bias is when someone misses something and has their own prediction on the outcome of an event, but when their prediction is proved wrong, the person will go on to say they knew what was really going to happen all along even though they really know they had no idea (Williams, Et Al, 1993).

Similar in this case to the confirmation bias is counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking is when we imagine alternatives to reality (Landman & Manis, 1992). When Tyler's splice shows up in the film, counterfactual thinking can lead us to believe that we saw something else, perhaps a piece of dust on the film.

Throughout the movie, the narrator never has a name until the twist in the plot takes place. We begin to realize this six minutes into the film when the narrator is at the testicular cancer meeting and his name tag says his name is Cornelius. Nineteen minutes into the film Marla Singer questions his name saying he changes it for every meeting he goes to.

At this point the plot of the film hasn't fully blossomed and we are just learning about the characters in more depth. The cue is missed because it's hard to focus attention on something as small as that while everything else is going on in the film.

When the narrator first meets Tyler, one of the first things he says to him is that they have the exact same briefcase. Tyler goes onto explain how to make explosives out of household items.

This cue, which basically gives away the movie, is overlooked for a few reasons. First, the cue is too small to notice. At this time you don't know much about Tyler and about the explosives. The briefcase being the same simply seems like a coincidence.

The confirmation bias makes any possible thoughts of Tyler and the narrator being the same person disappear. At this time in the film, the two seem like two completely different people (McMillan & White, 1993).

In this scene we are caught up with the introduction of Tyler and trying to piece together what Tyler has to do with the plot. Too much information is going on at once which means our attention is only held to certain things in the scene, the cue not being one of them. Perception is what makes this occur (Coon, 2000).

An ongoing cue throughout the film is Tyler speaking for the narrator and the narrator saying and thinking things that Tyler would do and say. Almost an hour into the film we know about what Fight Club is, who we think the narrator is, who we think Tyler is and we know who Marla Singer is. Tyler goes onto to tell a story to the narrator about why Marla ended up in their house. The narrator says "I already knew the story before he told it to me" (Fincher, 1999). The narrator also mentions that Tyler's words are coming out of his mouth.

At this point, Tyler and the narrator seem like different people. The confirmation bias makes us miss these cues because there is no reason not to the think they are different people (McMillan & White, 1993).

Perception also plays a role in this due to the complexity of the characters and now the added complexity of the thickening plot. Too much is going on in these scenes to gear our attention to the cue.

The final big cue in the film occurs only a few minutes before the plot twist is exposed. The narrator is searching all over the country for Tyler to find out what he is up to. Everywhere the narrator went he could tell there was a Fight Club around the corner. Every time he passed a bar he could tell that Tyler had been there. The narrator says "Am I asleep? Had I slept? Is Tyler my bad dream or am I Tyler's." The narrator also says "Everywhere I went I felt I had already been there. It was like following an invisible man" (Fincher, 1999).

These quotes give away the plot twist that Tyler and the narrator are the same person. However, while watching the movie and trying to figure this out, it is next to impossible due to perception, belief perseverance and also counterfactual thinking.

Everything going on in the film at this point is way too complex to pick up the cue given out in this scene. Added to that is throughout the film it is believed that Tyler and the narrator are two separate people.

Counterfactual thinking comes into play once the plot is finally confirmed. We know that Tyler and the narrator are the same person, but we tend to still believe that they are really two separate people (Landman & Manis, 1992).

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

The results obtained in this study help prove what causes the missing of cues in films. The most important part of the results are the second and third data sets because they contain every important clue. These clues were gathered after seeing the film one time so they were easier to pick up on and list them. With the third data set, reasons for missing were applied to the cues.

In a future study of this topic, more research would be conducted. The use of more than one subject would add to the proof. Also the use of a professional Psychologist would help provide more stable evidence. Although the current data do a fairly good job of proving the theory, using only one person as a subject may leave the data to be biased.

There is more than one possible reason why cues in films are overlooked, but only one reason stood out during this study with this particular film. Through the research and the physical study of the film Fight Club, the researcher was able to back up the conclusion that these cues are overlooked due to the psychological phenomenon perception, mainly its first stage attention.

For the results of the study, multiple psychological terms were discussed. Although all the terms can be fit in to the reasoning for missing cues, one fits in the best, perception.

Although belief perseverance and confirmation bias can explain why a cue is missed, the researcher came to the conclusion that they aren't the reason why cues are missed. These are just psychological occurrences that can be applied to missing something but are not the cause. These do not fit in because these phenomena don't begin to take place until after a theory is already formed. Theoretically, if a theory is formed then the cues were not overlooked, however, these two terms do rely on mislead theories but in order to get these theories, there has to be a reason why the right theory wasn't gathered in the first place. This is where perception comes in to play.

The researcher had also thought cues were missed due to the cues being too small to notice. After watching the film multiple times, the researcher noticed that the cues weren't too small to notice, it was just the fact that too much was going in the film and in the viewers head to see the cue.

The first stage of perception, attention causes cues to be overlooked in films. With the viewer preoccupied with the film's plot, setting, character development, and the notion of what is going to happen in the end, cues pass by the viewer unnoticed.

Through other studies and research, there could possibly be some kind of discovery to solve this problem. If people were trained in an in depth manner to know exactly what to look for on screen and what to concentrate on, their perception will cease to mislead them. With the proper training it could be possible for anyone to be able to pick up all the cues through a film and figure out the ending before the film has gotten there, but why would you want to do this? Half of the fun of such films is trying to figure out the ending and being surprised when it hits. Sometimes people do feel they know the ending of a film but it's extremely rare to feel positive you know it. Not being absolutely positive leaves the viewer with a chance for at least some excitement during the ending.

Looking back at a film with a surprise ending after the initial viewing and pondering why you missed what now seems to be so obvious, keep perception's first stage, attention, in mind.

REFERENCES

Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (1996). Film art, Anintroduction. McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Carroll, R.(2002). Confirmation Bias. The skeptic's dictionary. Retrieved March 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.skepdic.com/confirmbias.html.

Coon, D. (2000). Essentials of psychology. California: Wadsworth.

Fincher, D. (Director). (1999). Fight Club [Film]. 20th Century Fox.

Landman, J. & Manis, J. (1992, November). What might have been: Counterfactual thought concerning personal decisions. British Journal of Psychology, 473.

Leibowitz, H. (1965). Visual perception. New York: The Macmillan Company.

McMillan, J. & White, R. (1993, July). Auditors' belief revisions and the evidence search: The effect of hypothesis frame, confirmation bias, and professional skepticism. Accounting Review, 443.

Senor, T. (1992). Two-factor theories, meaning holism, and intentionalistic psychology: A reply to Fodor. Philosophical Psychology, 133.

Williams, C., Lees-Haley, P., & Brown, R. (1993). Human response to traumatic events: An integration of counterfactual thinking, hindsight bias, and attribution theory. Retrieved March 10, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ictm.com/articles/ICTM143.html

Appendix I

CLUE

TIME

ENDING?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix II

 

CLUE

TIME

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix III

 

 

CLUE

 

TIME

REASON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents