Alfred Hitchcock popularized (but did not invent) the term "MacGuffin" to describe a spy flick's motivating object. (1) And in almost every discussion, including his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, he talked about it in informational terms: "In the writings of Rudyard Kipling, any spy story written around that kind of period or atmosphere concerned the stealing, always, of the plans of the fort. ... Stealing, quote, 'the papers,' unquote."
Who uses paper anymore? The migration of data from print to magnetic storage to digital encoding opened up a whole new range of MacGuffins for filmmakers to exploit, but along the way it also endangered the existence of the MacGuffin itself.
The video series below tries to address data-storage MacGuffins (2) in four different incarnations. In its larval stage -- microfilm -- the iMacGuffin carries information that's important, but we seldom know what it is. Operatives of the 1950s were always after tiny spools of film hidden in shoe soles, in false-bottomed attachés, in shaving cream. And on the microfilm ... what? It's classified, it's top secret, what else is there to know? Hitchcock would say, and did say, "It doesn't matter," but this approach also reflects the authoritarian attitude of the '50s: If your government said it was bad, it was bad.
After Watergate, the paranoid '70s were concerned with overhearing and comprehending, so the audiotape became a spool of raw intrigue. When sound is committed to tape, we grow more intimate with it -- it's murmurs and screams captured for our listening pleasure, over and over again. But can we believe what we hear, and are we really hearing what we think? (3)
The floppy disk and the CD and the DVD-ROM are the coolest things ever, until you've migrated the same information across a dozen of them, at which point they become landfill or drink coasters. Mission: Impossible went high-end in 1996 by packing a list of all the world's spies onto one Zip disk, with no way of knowing the magnetic format was doomed. Fourteen years later, optical data discs are such a commonplace in our homes and offices, how could the one up there on the screen be special? When a trope is satirized by the Coen Brothers, who turned a pathetic spy's CD-ROM into a punchline anti-MacGuffin, its shelf life is nearing the end.
The flash drive, memory stick, whatever you want to call it, makes information pocket-sized. The wee thing represents the powerful modern ease of data transfer, devaluing electronic "secrets" as plot motivators the same way printed newspapers are devalued as informational carriers. It's practically a sideline whenever it appears on the screen, cropping up like a footnote to the main action. Everybody in the audience has one on their keychain, so hammering home its role as an informational lockbox is a non-starter. Sounds like a metaphor for Hollywood, embracing the latest digital technology without realizing that its own business cycle (creation, exhibition, in-home sale) would be disrupted by the movies' new high-tech format (bootleg DVDs, workprint leaks, BitTorrents).
I'm sad to see the suspense/action genre drift away from MacGuffins (4), digital or otherwise, but it's time. The secrets that spies and grifters once plumbed for can no longer be sealed in an envelope. They're dispersed and existential, like Jason Bourne's identity and memory, for instance -- he's not seeking blueprints or software or a network virus, but the subtracted qualities that will make him a whole person. As filmgoers gain better infotech and our computing moves to a distributed "cloud" model, the motivations for onscreen espionage will have to shift into a new realm of ether. Maybe Inception points the way ...
(1) Isaac Niemand's outstanding video "MacGuffin By Hitchcock," with animation by JealousGUY, spells out this concept for newbies way better than I could in any medium.
(2) These are all media for transferring data, not components of a computer per se. There's a separate piece to be written on the way action movies and TV fetishized the microchip for a time, valuing the means to process information over the information that gets processed. That's what IBM did too, and it allowed Microsoft to grow brobdingnagian.
(3) You should've overheard my internal monologue as I debated whether to include photography, cinema's other great recorded-media touchstone, in this overview. I soon decided that art form is so much its own beast that the way we convey it from one user to the next -- David Hemmings teasing Vanessa Redgrave with a film canister in Blow-Up, for example -- is all but irrelevant. In the case of photography, the image matters, but the frame doesn't.
(4) Worth noting, perhaps, that the spelling of "MacGuffin" that has passed into the culture is not the one Hitchcock laid out for Truffaut. He spells it with an E instead of an I.
Update: Find below the entire video essay in one big viewable chunk.