Friday, March 09, 2007

Deja Vu And Cinema

So many interesting things to talk about, but some people have already beaten me to the punch.

This article on why we experience suspense time and time again when watching a film caught my eye (from David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson). I was intrigued by it due to two recent films, Inland Empire by David Lynch, and Zodiac by David Fincher (the Dark Davids?) and also by an article in the New York Times magazine Play last Sunday.

The Bordwell article states that we experience suspense in the first place due to a number of factors including our ability to imagine (we can see what the future might hold), our empathy for the characters on screen (emotion tied to imagination), and the modular nature of our neurological systems (great for dealing with unexpected events on the savannah). However, and this is where I think the article is wrong, they state that they think that we experience suspense when rewatching a film because we 'throw away' our expectations and engage our sense anew.

This is where I bring in the article from last Sunday, "How to grow a super athlete" by Daniel Coyle. The premise of the article is that by extreme repetition, the neurons in your brain become extremely myelinated (wrapped in protective coatings of fat layers) so that the neurons become insulated and can fire with greater bandwidth and precision (all the better to swing that backstroke harder, faster, and with extreme precision). Therefore, the nervous systems adapts to performing the same task better, faster, and with a greater degree of accuracy than ever before (in this case the article is discussing why there are so many Russian tennis stars - many of them coming from a single training facility in Moscow). Memory formation, that's what I'm talking about. But I'm going to suggest that emotional memory formation, with respect to suspense in film, is actually one of the key factors in our experiencing the suspense when watching a film. Not only can we imagine and empathize with who's on screen, but our memory has conditioned us, like Pavlov's dogs, to emotionally react.

Back to the two movies in question. Lynch is a masterful artist, but he's beyond masterful when it comes to playing with our emotions. The craft in each scene in Inland Empire is phenomenal, and the way that you are toyed with like a cat playing with a dead mouse is almost more frightening than the movie itself. You are the puppet and he is the puppet master.

Onto Zodiac. This is a very different movie. It's almost sedate, stylized, but very subdued, especially when compared to Fincher's other movies. When I watched this film, I didn't feel a lot of emotion. I felt detached, almost as if I was watching a documentary, and not a film. I'm not sure if that was what Fincher was going for or not. It is an extreme contrast with both Lynch's film, and with the multitude of Law & Order and CSI clones that are abundantly found on your nearest television.

And here is where I suggest that filmmakers rely upon a formula, perhaps subconsciously, to play on people's emotions (as do advertisers, so watch out). Lynch plays with you almost to the exclusion of a story, plot, or anything seemingly to do with reality, whereas Fincher's film is almost a complete contrast to the audience's expectations of today's thrillers, and is almost a throwback to a more serene time (both chronologically and stylistically). Both of them, however, rely upon expectations. The expectations of the audience based on what they have experienced, both in past films and in real life, conditioned to these expectations by a nervous system better evolved to deal with sudden predatory attacks than with 'cinema'.

I haven't even touched on the use of sound and music in the manipulation of emotions, but I want to focus on one thing, and that is how sound and music are a trigger, especially in film, to set loose the emotional imaginings of the audience. Turn the sound off of any movie, say 'The Silence of the Lambs' and watch it. Do you react to it the same way you did when you first watched it? Now rewatch it and turn the sound on. Notice anything different?

Conditioned response.

I would like to know what someone, perhaps raised in a non-western culture, who's never experienced film or television at all, felt when they watched these movies. Would they feel the same as someone who grew up with television and film or not? Would their reactions coincide with ours, or would they be so completely oblivious to the manipulations that it wouldn't impact them at all?

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