A MacGuffin with bacon please

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 10th August 2010.

Remember Quentin Tarantino’s classic 1994 film, Pulp Fiction? Some of the many intertwining plot strands involved a mysterious briefcase, the contents of which were never revealed. As frustrating as that may be to die-hard fans, what was really important to the storytelling process was how the briefcase motivated the characters to pursue it, kill for it or protect it. The contents were irrelevant. Anything could’ve been in there. It doesn’t really matter. In filmmaking, that briefcase is known as a MacGuffin.

Defined as a plot device that catches the viewers’ attention, or drives the plot of a work of fiction, the term MacGuffin was possibly coined by Alfred Hitchcock, who first mentioned the screenwriting technique during a lecture in 1939. In fact, Hitchcock’s celebrated 1934 spy thriller, The 39 Steps, revolves around the search for a MacGuffin. In the final minutes of the movie, it is revealed that the MacGuffin is actually the top secret plans for a silent plane engine.

Sometimes the MacGuffin is not a thing, but a meaning. Orson Welles’ brilliant Citizen Kane, released in 1941, is acclaimed as one of the best motion pictures of all time. A critical depiction of the life and times of media magnate William Randolph Hurst, the film centres on the meaning of renamed lead character Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, “Rosebud”. With the storyline following a newsreel reporter desperately seeking to find the meaning of this word, the film climaxes with said reporter unable to solve the mystery, concluding that perhaps “Rosebud” represents something that Kane had once but lost, or could never attain. Before the credits roll, it is revealed to the audience that Rosebud is a childhood toy from Kane’s past: a sled. Citizen Kane is a truly great film, and proof that the smart use of a MacGuffin can weave a breathtaking tale, no matter what the MacGuffin ultimately ends up being.

MacGuffins are utilised regularly in modern cinema, especially in espionage thrillers. This year’s Knight and Day, starring Tom “Xenu” Cruise and Cameron Diaz, revolves around a never ending battery. Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), also starring Cruise, features the mysterious Rabbit’s Foot. John Frankenheimer’s action thriller, Ronin (1998), stars Robert DeNiro chasing after another enigmatic suitcase. All are perfectly good MacGuffins.

Even last year’s mega money maker, Avatar, featured a MacGuffin. Strip away the motion capture technology and immersive 3D layering and what do you have left? You have mercenaries killing smurfs to get something and the blue natives fighting the invading forces to protect the very same something. What is that something? It’s the rather obviously named Unobtainium. Talk about a MacGuffin with cheese.

So keep an eye out for MacGuffins in your favourite movies and television shows. They are everywhere and you are bound to recognise them easily now. Remember, it is not important what the MacGuffin is, but how it catches the audience’s attention. Perhaps the MacGuffin phenomenon is even creeping into real life? Tony Abbott’s boat people MacGuffin anyone?


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