A macguffin, in its definition as a plot device, is nothing in particular. It is a driving element of a plot insofar as it serves the function of legitimizing the ensuing action of the plot and creates a sense of urgency regarding those actions.
The coining of the term itself is often attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, who himself attributed the naming to screenwriter Angus Macphail. That the term is most frequently linked to the master of suspense is indicative of the macguffin’s quality as an at once ultimately unimportant object that drives the plot and crucial device in drawing in the attention of viewers.
Recent examples of such a plot device can be observed in films like Avatar (2009)—in the form of unobtanium, a self-consciously named manifestation. Ultimately the action sequences, emotional moments and character motivations are what command the viewers attention, as opposed to unobtanium itself, which is primarily discarded as the story unfolds. Still critics and film theorists argue that plot elements, such as that one, serve an indelible purpose of drawing the viewer in, no matter how purposeless they turn out to be.
One wonders why, in a well-written story, devices that are ultimately discarded with are acceptable. Why is it not weak that the contents of the briefcase Vincent and Jules seek and kill for in Pulp Fiction are never revealed? Can macguffin be used as a copout for lack of a better reason for action?
Yes and no. While certain examples of the macguffin in film seem particularly tacked-on, stating that this sort of plot device is meant solely to compensate for weak plots would be disingenuous, since, the macguffin when used effectively is an impetus for action. In this way, though both are equally interchangeable plot devices, it has the opposite effect of the deus ex machina. Rather than providing a quick resolution to conflict towards the end of a piece, macguffin instead constitutes for the viewer an initial drive and, thereby, a series of possibilities of outcomes, which transcend the importance of that initial drive.
The constitution, giving a context to the viewer as to what they believed the story will be about, is often essential for establishing the simulated reality they are about to engage with. In television, these concepts still apply, perhaps even more strictly. In essence, when screenwriters speak of a script ‘hitting all the right notes,’ they are saying that the proper framework has been given, on the part of the writer, so that the viewer can identify motivations and other forces within a story so as to, in a moment of their own inspiration as a subject, be in the position of accepting that world and sticking with it. The anticipation and imagination is evidently the product of the prior literary craftsmanship, but what is inescapable is the effect these plot devices have on simultaneously guiding the audience into a certain reality, then handing over the agency to allow those viewers to form opinions on what will happen next--to be analytical of the flow of the story in real time or, even, to be given the freedom of passive entertainment.
Critics of ideas about the importance of such devices in film will often respond with several criticisms. Some will posit that if one wants to find a supposed macguffin in a film, that one very well will find it or invent themselves, thus its less accurate to call it a plot device intentionally deployed by the writer for a certain effect. On the other hand, some will say that plot devices like macguffin, while not entirely pointless in so far as the effect they have in pulling in an audience, are much less important than the processes of editing, cinematography, sound design, which are elements of filmmaking which are effectively subliminal to audiences yet are arguably more crucial towards the process of making a story play out effectively than any given motivation.
To the latter point especially, here one is presented with a problem, or at least a binary struggle between writers and the technical masters behind cinema and TV. Arguably, the effects both of the deployment of fundamental features in screenwriting and editing/cinematography etc. both in fact serve similar purposes—creating an illusion of coherence, direction, and purpose through a certain manipulation. Both these sides, albeit through different means, are done in the service of presenting a story to a viewer, a story that still needs to blanks filled in, hence the manipulation.
Why do filmmakers believe so often that the audience needs to be manipulated? In short, one must hark back to that notion mentioned prior which is paramount to understand the art of using necessary tools in order to govern, paradoxically, what is bound to evoke a variety of different effects on audience members. While editing patterns and cinematographic practices are often heavily uniform, as are those deployed in ‘conventional screenwriting,’ they are done with the knowledge that there is a potential for complete free-play on the hand of the viewer and also the potential for the viewer to be confused or to simply reject the illusion they see, as just that, an illusion.
Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence malick, who in their recent films The Master (2012) and The Tree of Life (2011) intentionally throw out many of these devices to provide audiences with direct, clear context as to the reality and urgency in the films themselves, have been praised in many circles for speaking in a more purely abstract, cinematic light—effectively being praised for their difference in relation to more typical modes of storytelling. On the other side, many critics and audience members will cry that these films have no discernible story, or are needlessly opaque and therefore pretentious. Both directors failed to see large box-office returns for their recent films and indeed they may not be overly concerned with that, as both are noted auteurs. But it is still evident that when presented with films that dispense with clarity through devices or standard filmmaking patterns, that viewers can feel lost as to what they see and turn so far as to reject the possibility that the film has idiosyncratic beauty and can actually become so hostile as to demand money back, apparently being misled by seeing a film starring Brad Pitt minus a readily discernible storyline.
The Tree of Life, as a film, exemplifies a story certainly but one based more the process of the association on the viewers part with often confusing, yet compelling images. Conventional expectations of plot perhaps made this film particularly frustrating as it seemed the lack of direction in story was incongruous to lack of closure or even of initial purpose.
If one were to argue on the basis that conventional action films simply don’t stray from what is conventionally understood as plot, that conclusion would appear weak with the advent of epic-length action sequences. If many of the car chases in Nolan’s Batman films or The Avengers (2012) were viewed in isolation from the rest of the film, they may be entertaining in some fashion, but would hardly constitute a holistic story, or a movie. What is key to understanding, is that those extended action sequences most often are given once the context has already been established via expressed plot devices, or to set the tone for the arrival of those elements.
Abstract storytelling is so because of this extra-level of work on the part of audience. It instead provides less of a framework, then a certain lack of form which can, even more than boring audiences, provoke outrage, almost as if the format itself were an obscenity. Story, or the notion of features of a fiction hanging together and representing a certain reality is deeply important on a psychological, emotional level to many viewers. Plot devices, although the connotation of the term itself lends some to link it with cheapness, help guide a certain infinity of potential subjective responses to a more closed, identifiable sense of reality.