Monday, January 04, 2010

Mad science: Lost in Pandora.

Over at the Frontal Cortex, there's an interesting, if kind of disturbing, assessment of Avatar as an example of the fully realized potential of the medium of film.

From the mind of Jonah Lehrer:

The modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued that art should be evaluated on its adherence to the "specificity of the medium". Painting, for instance, is defined by its abstract flatness, which meant that artists should no longer try to pretend that what they convey is real. While centuries of "realist" artists tried to escape the flatness with elaborate technical tricks, Greenberg argued that the flatness wasn't an obstacle or hurdle: it was merely an essential element of painting. This led Greenberg to become an advocate for people like Jackson Pollock, who celebrated the 2-D un-reality of their art form.

The point, though, is that every art is defined by its medium. The reason I've referenced Greenberg in the context of Avatar - and please pardon the pretentiousness of the above paragraph - is that I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

Lehrer then goes on to discuss a neuroscience experiement that suggests movie audiences react to film, from a neuro-biological perspective, in surprisingly standardized ways. According to the work of Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach, the brains of film-goers "'tick together' in synchronized spatiotemporal patterns when exposed to the same visual environment." Their research indicates that that, across individuals, the visual cortex, fusiform gyrus (the area responsible for face, color, word, number, and category recognition), and areas related to touch activated. It was also notable what areas didn't activate: "Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom 'losing yourself in the act' receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings." In short, we divert processing power from critical, self-evaluative functions to sensory processing functions.

I should note here that the flick used in the study was the spaghetti western classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

That's all Kool and the Gang, but why would this mean the flick with the giant Native American Smurf cats is the ultimate expression of film? Lehrer explains:

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.) And for a mind that's so relentlessly self-aware, I'd argue that 100 minutes of self-forgetting (as indicated by a quieting of the prefrontal cortex) is a pretty nice cognitive vacation. And Avatar, through a variety of technical mechanisms - from the astonishing special effects to the straightforward story to the use of 3-D imagery - manages to induce those "synchronized spatiotemporal patterns" to an unprecedented degree. That is what the movies are all about, and that is what Avatar delivers.

I'm all aboard Lehrer's neuro-just-so explanation of Avatar's unique power. I haven't seen it, but the fact that nearly everybody praises the film in terms of its uniquely immersive qualities seems to jibe with the lick Lehrer's putting down. What's my problem then? Well, my problems are legion and it would take another blog to answer that question - but focusing on this particular issue, I have a problem with Lehrer's claim that "at its core, movies are about dissolution." And not just because the sentence suffers from pronoun troubles.

The problem with Hasson and Malach's study, as well as with Lehrer's overreaching application of their results, is that it is dishonest about what constitutes our understanding of the word "movie." Both the original study and Lehrer selected specific kinds of films: narrative films in recognizable genres, heavy on plot. This isn't meant to be dismissive of these flicks, even Lehrer claims it is case with Avatar: "I was lost in Pandora, transfixed by a perfectly predictable melodrama." But there are plenty of movies out there that break that mold. Even if we don't evoke the complete abstract works of most extreme film experimentalists, we can wonder about the lab results that Palindromes - a flick that regularly swaps in and out actors to play a single lead character - would have had on the viewer activation patterns. What about the ol' reliable French New Wave, with its constant, intentional breaking of film's magic immersive spell? Is Masculine, Feminine: In 15 Acts really a less artistically achieved film than Avatar because it refuses to let you get lost in it?

On a related note, the ability to "get lost in a film" would seem to me to considerably more than a function of the medium's formal elements. I recall, from my youth, a Washington Post film review - name long forgotten - reviewing the rap-centric Spinal Tapish satire CB4. The review used the phrase "like taking the SATs in Martian." The barrier to entry was not, one assumes, Tamra Davis's experimental filmmaking techniques. Davis's work is fine example of clear storytelling. Rather, it is a purely social thing: Without access to the semantic level of the film, which required a slightly more than passing acquiantance with rap music, the formal level failed to produce phenom - presumably because it failed to produce the activation pattern - that both the researchers and Lehrer suggest is inherint to powerful films. One could argue, as I will for the sake of argument, that the the "dissolution" of film is an individual phenomenon. That Avatar is a brilliant film for Lehrer and, presumably, there was some "perfect viewer" that got CB4's brilliance. (His name was Justin Goslin. He thought that movie was the funniest shit he'd ever seen, man.) But then shouldn't we, by extension, assume that films like Derek Jarman's Blue and Warhol's Empire have perfect viewers too? In which case we lose the argument that the formal elements of the films in question are responsible for the effect reported. Empire lacks story elements and editing. Blue is a steady field of the titular color with dialogue over it. Admittedly, these are extreme cases, but I feel we're justified in interrogating Lehrer in this way because he's not just making an aesthetic judgment regarding Avatar, but claiming that there's a element of scientific fact at the core of his judgment. To like Avatar is one thing. To make a claim for the neuro-reality of the film experience and then gloss it with value judgment is another.

I get where Lehrer's going with this, but the "film as cognitive vacation" thing rubs me the wrong way. Not because films that serve that function are inferior or shouldn't be enjoyed, but rather because it suggests that films should never aspire to be anything other than, literally, mass delivered sedatives for our critical faculties. Like the tired notion that comics are inherently "childish" by viture of the features of their medium, Lehrer's definition of film, and his expectation of the pleasures film can provide us, assumes a certain level of mindlessness. Indeed, it makes it the medium's highest virtue. Why straightjacket film that way?

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