Cognizing the film about film

Friday, 15 January 2010 — 10:35am | Film, Literary theory, Literature, Science

There is a lot of rubbish being written about Avatar, and I freely admit to letting my own contribution stew in my draft box while I correct its pungent odour with the appropriate spice. But for the time being, I want to draw attention to one particular response to the film. Jonah Lehrer writes about the neuroscientific basis for cinematic immersion, and concludes:

What these experiments reveal is the essential mental process of movie-watching. (Other research has also emphasized the ability of stories to blur the difference between fiction and reality.) This doesn’t mean that every movie needs to be an action packed spectacle, just as Greenberg was wrong to suggest that every painting should imitate Pollock. But I think it helps reveal why Avatar is such a success. At its core, movies are about dissolution: we forget about ourselves and become one with the giant projected characters on the screen. In other words, they become our temporary avatars, so that we’re inseparable from their story. (This is one of the reasons why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.)

When I think of films that act as “a metaphor for the act of movie-watching”, the director that instantly comes to mind is Alfred Hitchcock. And it so happens that the Hitchcock film most commonly read in this way also has a protagonist laid up in a wheelchair.

Psychoanalytic criticism has long thrived as a route into Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not least because he was familiar with psychoanalysis and popularized it in his 1945 film Spellbound, but also because his characters were marked with disorders, obsessions, and pathological instabilities of personal identity. You can see it in his choice of literary adaptations, chiefly Rebecca, where the second Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) is consumed by the lingering household presence of the first; and in later films like Vertigo, where Madeleine (Kim Novak) “becomes” her suicidal great-grandmother through gazing at a painting in the museum (or so it would seem). It is Rear Window, however, that openly sets up its hero, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) as a passive voyeur behind a fourth wall that encloses an exterior apartment complex, where he sees fragments of his own life and relationship reflected back at him.

None of these interpretations are terribly hard to arrive at by yourself, but if you really want to get fancy, step back one level further and look for films where people watch Hitchcock. (We’re all familiar with the typical shot of a character sitting in a cinema, backlit by the beams of the projector, but pay attention to their faces and how they react to the film embedded en abyme.) The most recent example off the top of my head is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, where Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) gazes at Joan Fontaine in Suspicion as if looking into a mirror.

Of more interest from a sci-fi perspective—which will hopefully lead us back to Avatar—is how Terry Gilliam cues the final act of Twelve Monkeys with a scene from Vertigo, right when Madeleine Stowe takes after Kim Novak in turning her character blonde. A decade and a half after its release, Twelve Monkeys holds up today as one of the finest original pieces of sci-fi cinema (with all respect to its inspiration, La jetée), and it seems oddly prescient today in the face of James Cameron’s more conventional showpiece about a guy dumped into a tank to infiltrate and warn a society in which he is ultimately subsumed.

How, then, does Avatar differ from all these films? If the dissolution of identity is so key to its appeal, as Lehrer suggests, then why is it such an anomalous mainstream success?

The easy answer is that the kind of cortical stimulation Lehrer talks about comes equally from the overwhelming visuals of Cameron’s film, especially if you experience it in 3D. But that dodges the very questions of story and theme that Lehrer wants to raise. The thematic answer, as I see it, is that Avatar plays it safe: completely unlike the films of Hitchcock, Lee, and Gilliam, it never dares to convey the madness of a dissolved identity or bother its audience to consider the schizophrenia of immersing itself in film. On Pandora, a world where USB ponytails plug into any living thing, bodily escape is free of risk. The film doesn’t spit us out and force us to look at ourselves; it does the opposite instead, encouraging us to enjoy what Lehrer calls “a pretty nice cognitive vacation.”

What interests me about Lehrer’s article, though, is not his assessment of Avatar as a film but his neurological approach. I have long wondered about the attraction, almost the fashionability if you will, of cognitive science in the criticism of the arts. In literature, materialist explanations based on quantifiable observations about how audiences react to what they read were the natural-born children of evolutionary psychology and reader-response theory. (For a better look at this, read the OnFiction blog.) But I expect that cinema is where cognitive science will pervade scholarship in the twenty-first century as psychoanalysis did in the twentieth.

In the history of thought, there is a substantial continuity between the two. Maps of brain activity now occupy the place of psychoanalytic concepts like transference, repression, or the gaze, but the premise of psychological criticism remains unchanged. And while neuroscientists will be quick to remind me that their quantifiable, testable claims are a far cry from all that Oedipal fluff, it is not at all clear to me that the epistemological status of criticism—the task of applying the theory to our understanding of how film works—is made to be any different. The question of whether cinema produces certain audience reactions would appear to have more validity, but how it does so is the same framing question as before, and for reader-response theory that may always be out of reach. This does not mean cognitivist claims are invalid, only too reductionistic to be complete.

Last June, the film scholar David Bordwell wrote a stupendous review of the cognitive turn in film studies: what it is, where it comes from, and where people are taking it. I would not hesitate to call it essential reading for anyone interested in science and arts criticism. On psychoanalysis, Bordwell writes:

[Cognitive film studies] is naturalistic. The explanations it mounts try to fit in with current understanding of human capacities as analyzed by the social sciences. That entails that psychoanalysis, another mentalistic theory of human action, has not on the whole proven a source of reliable explanations. Some cognitively inclined researchers would add that psychoanalytic inquiry has been fruitful for pointing to areas of behavior that answer to naturalistic investigation.

Lehrer’s piece on Avatar fits squarely in the cognitivist mould. But the tradition of psychoanalytic criticism is not to be ignored; to do so would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In order to appraise Lehrer’s informal hypothesis—that Avatar draws its power from being a film about the experience of watching film—any experimental study of whether this is the case must account for the other films that are said to function in the same way. An explanatory account of cinema should ideally tell us about what led us to arrive at interpretive accounts.

Lastly, should cognitive studies produce a limited theory of film, as I suspect it must, we should remain open to the possibility that material disciplines apart from studies of the mind will clue us in to the structure and interpretation of fiction. Neuropsychology’s centrality as the site of consilience is something of a fashion, and one that we owe to the place of evolutionary ideas in the popular consciousness, over and above the public awareness of other sciences. I look forward to seeing whatever comes next.

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4 responses to “Cognizing the film about film”

  1. I think you disregard the “cortical stimulation” aspect of the film to quickly. This is not a film that relays itself better if seen in 3D. Watching it without 3D is akin to watching a movie with the sound turned off. The medium is not the message so much as it is a essential vehicle for the message. Part of the reason that the dissonance between the viewer and the film is lessened is because the viewer physically can’t pull away. Their body is committing to the story in a way that does not allow them to reject the voyeurism. It’s almost as if Cameron has bought Clockwork Orange-style headgear for the audience and is forcing them to invest in his film.

    Friday, 15 January 2010 at 6:04pm

  2. Further and more thematically, Cameron’s rejection of the madness of dissolved identity is the most troubling aspect of the film. The fact that Jake is basically able to absorb himself into the life of Pandora offers the character opportunities that the audience is not given. Where at the end of the movie Jake is able to — spoilers — live the rest of his life as a bad-ass alpha Navi, the audience is forcibly ripped from the womb of the movie and rejected back into their own shitty lives. (I also realize I am mostly ignoring a specifically cognitive take on the film, which was the point of your post. Sorry.)

    Friday, 15 January 2010 at 6:12pm

  3. I think it would be interesting to see it in 2D and compare. More than any other film before it, you find shots that draw attention to 3D depth perception in a way that is immersive rather than gratuitous. Not even the scenic ones, necessarily: the ones I think of right away are the spaceship interior when Jake is pulled out of cryo, and, curiously enough, the video logs where he’s staring us in the face.

    I do think the pure sensory stimulation of the film is fascinating in its own right, but I also believe that effect is extractable from the screenplay and the plot. Certainly Cameron’s achieving something special here in showing us a fantasy world as opposed to, say, a historical one, but I wonder how audiences would react if a film like this went sour on the idea of bodily relocation, like how Dorothy ended up back in the Kansas black-and-white.

    Friday, 15 January 2010 at 6:29pm

  4. On further reflection, your point about the viewer being unable to pull away is very sound, and it draws attention to something that I haven’t seen anyone talk about at length: the fact that all of this is mediated by 3D glasses. When you put on the stereoscopic glasses, you mark a separation between the world inside the film and world outside of it – a separation that normally doesn’t exist (not on that scale, anyway) in your typical experience in the cinema, and certainly not when, say, you’re peeking at the HDTV in the living room from the kitchen to check out what’s playing in the background.

    The way we experience film in the cinema has always led towards that separation, but it’s only now that we see it seriously enforced – particularly as Avatar is 3D through and through, as opposed to the brief enhanced IMAX sequences of Superman Returns or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

    Friday, 15 January 2010 at 6:36pm

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