The Macguffin Project

We would like to invite you to participate in an online group project investigating the MacGuffin – a cinematic plot device in the form of an object, used to drive forward the plot and motivations of the characters in a film, an object of desire or conquest usually; a bag of money, a diamond, a suitcase carrying glowing contents, a necklace, a nuclear weapon, etc.

monolith - 2001: A Space Odyssey

Around the object hangs a cloud of mystery; it carries an aura. It is ambiguous in nature. It can inspire love, desire, illusion, terror. However while it creates a whole host of actions and reactions within the film, the object itself is usually not on screen for very long, it enters and disappears whenever it pleases and in itself has no inherent value, other than that which the characters project onto it.

What is it about the MacGuffin? Not only does it cause mystery in the film, but outside of the cinema, the MacGuffin finds itself in the centre of huge debates about its true and hidden meanings!

This online project has been set up to look into and gather these interpretations of and psychological projections onto some of the more enigmatic MacGuffins, for example – the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and the blue box in Mulholland Dr. by David Lynch. Please respond or add your own examples to the ones we have here, share your personal interpretations or others you’ve found elsewhere via the comment box or if you’re a member of Practice Development use the New Post function.

The idea is to gather as many as possible and then come together as a group at some point in the near future to workshop the material. One idea we would like to pursue, is finding a way to categorise the projections and interpretations into an encyclopaedia of sorts, with the focus being less on the object and instead looking for patterns of interpretation, desire and psychologies that MacGuffins inspire!



Cool Men and the Second Sex (2003, New York:Columbia University Press)
By Susan Fraiman

I have argued that Tarantino’s method of administering repeated adrenaline shots may, like the Fort!/Da! game, address certain male needs. Yet the rush of feeling the shots produce also goes against the grain of manliness; culturally speaking, jolted nerves, along with penetrable cavities and dripping orifices belong to women. And although (or because) this film primarily addresses sensation-seeking men, it pays homage to the cultural norm through the scene that inspired my trope, in which the body jump-started by adrenaline is not actually male but female. Meanwhile, the masculine counterpart to this oozing, punctured feminine is represented by the much-discussed briefcase that Jules and Vincent kill for. My own answer to the cult question, “What’s inside the briefcase?” is interiority – that is, defended, mystified, male interiority. Much valued, much vaunted, and never finally shown, this radiant, indefinable softness is lost within a hard, exterior shell. Even Jules, who wants to lose the baggage of a barricaded self, walks out of the movie clutching it still.

2001 Prehistoric Monolith

(reposted from:

2001; or,
How One Film-Reviews
With a Hammer

by Donald MacGregor

The opening of 2001:A Space Odyssey depicts the sun rising above a crescent Earth while the introduction to Richard Strauss’ tone-poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), plays. This music is meant to represent the wise man, Zarathustra, as he descends from a mountain to preach his gospel to the people. Only in this case, it is Stanley Kubrick coming to preach his gospel.

Friederick Nietzsche’s book, Also Sprach Zarathustra, upon which the Strauss tone-poem is based, presents the idea that mankind will one day be surpassed by the übermensch, or the superman. This theme can also be found in Kubrick’s films: Dr. Strangelove (1963), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and especially 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968), which is the subject of this paper.

the space fetus from 2001

The Nietzschean idea seems to have its origin in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Nietzsche saw life as “a struggle for existence in which the fittest survive, strength is the only virtue, and weakness the only fault.”[1] According to Nietzsche, the evolution of man will travel through three stages: primitive man (ape), modern man, and ultimately, superman. Of this, Nietzsche wrote “what is the ape to man? A laughingstock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be to the superman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment.”[2] Man is just a bridge between ape and superman, but for the superman to be, man must use his will to make it happen, “a will to procreate or a drive to an end, to something higher and farther.”[3]

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Parallel Universes in Mulholland Drive, by David Lynch

The theory that “Mulholland Drive” is a composition of dreams and fantasies has been the dominant one in the press lately. It’s thoroughly Lynchian, and it does makes a modicum of sense. But to me, there’s something about that hypothesis that feels too easy, too incomplete. Here’s my theory:

The blue box is the portal between two parallel universes – a motif not without precedent in Lynch’s oeuvre (remember the evil Agent Cooper in “Twin Peaks”?). Although the box represents the only direct access to each universe, each character retains vestigial memories of their parallel universe counterpart. Betty and Rita, for instance, fall into such an easy, trusting friendship since they are each subconsciously familiar with Diane and Camilla’s relationship. Rita recalls the name “Diane Selwyn.” Adam even seems to recognize Betty at the audition.

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