Broken Flowers (2005) and Ambiguity: The Need for Active Viewers
Ambiguity in cinema results in different reactions depending on active or passive viewers. Passive viewers who prefer information clearly stated through dialogue and visuals hate ambiguity, whereas active viewers thrive on ambiguity, implementing their own interpretations on a film. Broken Flowers is one example, telling Don’s story of introspection as an aging bachelor, who is sent a letter revealing he has an adult son from an anonymous ex-girlfriend. Micheal W. Phillips notes Broken Flowers is “about questions, not easy answers, and its refusal to provide them might frustrate some viewers unaccustomed to Jarmusch’s elliptical style” . Broken Flowers leaves viewers with more questions than answers due to an ambiguous narrative that only active viewers will be able to decipher.
Ambiguous films require viewers to be active in understanding their content. Passive viewers will overlook a character’s expressions if, for example, a scene is edited between characters within a couple of seconds. This does not matter for active viewers, as they know any observations will be significant. Active viewers that observe a character’s expressions with a deep sense of focus will make ambiguous films work, as opposed to passive viewers who only acknowledge what is on the surface.
After Don reads the letter informing him about his son, he is persuaded to visit numerous ex-girlfriends. Don talks to himself before visiting Laura, the first ex-girlfriend. “Look for clues”, he repeats. Don’s repetition of “look for clues” motivates viewers to place themselves in Don’s position, to become inquisitive of any clues. Don asks Laura if she owns a typewriter, which was used to type the letter. Don focuses on Laura’s reaction, seeking any expression which may indicate she wrote the letter. Viewers, like Don, have to pay close attention to Laura’s reaction in solving the mystery. Viewers focusing on characters’ expressions is repeated in Don’s awkward reunion with Dora, the second ex-girlfriend. Dora is standoffish and uncomfortable with Don, meaning active viewers could read Dora’s expressions as secretive. However, it could be the passing of time that has made Dora regret the part of her past in which Don is included. Passive viewers might see Broken Flowers as an emotive drama, yet active viewers can form possible interpretations of the narrative’s mystery.
Use of Dialogue
Dialogue within any film is important to represent a character’s personality. Yet dialogue also contains indications which solve mysteries within ambiguous films. Passive viewers will simply take dialogue for granted, accepting everything a character said without any underlying meaning. Active viewers are able to detect underlying meanings, as they hold cryptic clues in solving a narrative’s mystery. This is another method which reflects the impact of ambiguous films depending on active or passive viewers.
“It’s very strange, you showing up like this”. Dora’s use of language during Don’s visit comes across as an emotive drama, yet active viewers can interpret Dora’s use of language differently. Since Don is searching for the mysterious ex-girlfriend, active viewers could assume Dora is defensive, as she might feel her secret (if any) will be unraveled. Yet there could be other reasons unrelated to Don’s search. Interpretations of Dora manifest during a dinner conversation between herself, her husband and Don. The topic of children turns awkward as Dora’s husband states she never wanted children with him. Active viewers could interpret Dora not wanting children with her husband due to conceiving Don’s lovechild. Whether this interpretation is right or wrong, it makes Broken Flowers a fulfilling film which strives on ambiguity.
Symbolic clues in films need to be understood if any ambiguity will be resolved. Passive viewers may simply refuse to contemplate symbolism or will be unable to link symbolism towards the narrative. Active viewers are able to relate symbolism towards the narrative through interpretations. Whether these interpretations are right or wrong, active viewers at least have the ability to make ambiguous films work. Without the ability to form interpretations, the impact of ambiguous films will be minimal at best.
There are various pink items throughout Broken Flowers, alluding to Don’s search for the mysterious ex-girlfriend. Broken Flowers‘ opening scene shows a pink envelope being delivered to Don’s letterbox. The pink envelope has great importance to the narrative, becoming Don’s catalyst for solving the mystery. Whether it is Laura’s nightgown, Dora’s business card or Penny’s typewriter (strongly hinting she is the mysterious ex-girlfriend), pink always engages Don’s mind which should also make viewers active. After Don’s search, he meets a young traveler (credited as The Kid) who he suspects could be his son. Don notices a pink ribbon on The Kid’s bag after The Kid states his mother placed it there, which should spark interpretations. The pink ribbon’s connection to recurring symbolism in Broken Flowers makes viewers continuously active, which is vital in engaging its content.
Broken Flowers’ narrative remains unresolved, adding to its ambiguity. Passive viewers will feel underwhelmed and possibly annoyed by the narrative’s lack of clarity. However, active viewers will strive on their general interpretations of Broken Flowers‘ narrative. This contrast between active and passive viewers emphasises the need for active viewers to enjoy ambiguous films, or else a narrative’s meaning will be unfulfilled.
Broken Flowers‘ final scene is Don trying to bond with The Kid. After Don states he knows (at least in his opinion) that The Kid is his son, the latter is scared off and runs away as Don vainly attempts to catch up. Don is left standing alone in the street when he stares at a car passenger glaring back at him, hinting he may be Don’s son. These two moments leave Don in a confused state of mind. The ambiguity of the final scene is left for viewers to interpret, as Don has not resolved the identities of his mystery ex-girlfriend or son. Active viewers have to determine if The Kid really is Don’s son, is it the car passenger or are they both red herrings? Without forming these interpretations, Broken Flowers will remain ambiguous instead of meaningful.
Broken Flowers and its ambiguous narrative needs active viewers, or else it will suffer. Through various visual clues and specific pieces of dialogue, Broken Flowers offers active viewers a narrative where all interpretations are open in solving the mystery surrounding Don’s ex-girlfriend and son. It is highly important for all viewers to be active whilst watching Broken Flowers, as any interpretations will give the film poignancy, a poignancy nonexistent with passive viewers.
Phillips., M.W. 2005. Broken Flowers. Goatdog.com. [Online][Available From] – http://www.goatdog.com/moviePage.php?movieID=784
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