Why difficult movies are, um, difficult

July 31, 2011

By Manola Dargis of The New York Times

In The Invisible Gorilla, a book about what we see and what we think we see (it came out in paperback in June), two cognitive psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, describe an experiment they performed with a chess grandmaster named Patrick Wolff. They briefly showed him a diagram of a chess position from an “obscure master game,” gave him a set of pieces and asked him to re-create the position on an empty board from memory. He did so almost perfectly and then repeated his performance.

“By recognizing familiar patterns,” they wrote, “he stuffed not one but several pieces into each of his memory slots.” Perhaps surprisingly, he couldn’t do the same with random arrangements on the board: “His memory was no better than that of a beginner, because his chess expertise and database of patterns were of little help.”

Recognizing patterns is part of the film critic’s tool kit along with a good pen to take notes in the dark. You have to take in a lot of information when you watch a movie just once. The easy stuff is usually the story (boy meets girl) and characters (Romeo and Juliet). The tricky part, when I get to scribbling, is everything else, including how the boy and girl met and what happened next. (That’s the plot.) Was the lighting soft or hard, the editing fast or slow, the camera shaky or smooth, the acting broad or not? Also: Did they dance like Fred and Ginger, shoot like Angelina and Brad? Was it a musical (but funny) or a comedy (with dancing)? Mostly, how does the narrative work?

Moviegoers fed a strict Hollywood diet may find themselves squirming through, say, a film by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr less because of the subtitles than because of the long takes during which little is explained. The same may hold true for those who watch The Tree of Life and want Terrence Malick to connect the dots overtly among his characters, the dinosaurs and the trippy space images. Other moviegoers may just go with the flow. They, like critics — who ideally are open to different types of narratives, having watched nonmainstream, sometimes difficult cinema in school, at festivals, for pleasure and for work — may have developed specific cognitive habits.

People walk and talk in movies like Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) but not necessarily in ways that many moviegoers may immediately understand; the films don’t conform to familiar type. Classical Hollywood, in the theorist David Bordwell’s wonderful phrase, is “an excessively obvious cinema.” Obvious if complex, as laid out in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960, the landmark 1985 book he wrote with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson in which that phrase appears. As its title suggests, this tour de force makes the case that classical Hollywood (1917-60) employed specific stylistic techniques (like point of view and “invisible” editing) and arranged narrative logic, time and space in a particular way so we could understand movies.
In the years since, Bordwell has shifted gears somewhat, and he and another collaborator, Noel Carroll, became instrumental in introducing cognitive theory into cinema studies. It’s impossible not to see value in work that examines how movies make sense to us: cognitive studies remind you that we actively make meaning of our visual world, that we take in information, fragments of reality, and process them to understand it — and the films — before us.

The experiment that gives The Invisible Gorilla its title reveals something about how much we see and don’t. More than a decade ago Chabris and Simons made a short film in which players passed around basketballs. They then asked viewers silently to count the number of passes made by the players in white and ignore those made by the players in black.

That sounds unremarkable except that about midway through, a woman in a gorilla suit walked in, faced the camera and pounded her chest before exiting. She was on the scene for nine whopping seconds but only about half the people watching the video saw the gorilla: They expected to see the players passing the ball, and that’s all they saw.

“We think we should see anything in front of us,” Chabris and Simons write, “but in fact we are aware of only a small portion of our visual world at any moment.”

The viewers who didn’t see the gorilla suit made an error in perception that psychologists call “inattentional blindness.” As the professors write, “When people devote their attention to a particular area or aspect of their visual world, they tend not to notice unexpected objects, even when those unexpected objects are salient, potentially important and appear right where they are looking.” We are, they write, subject to all kinds of everyday illusions, including those produced by another phenomenon, “change blindness.” This is when you don’t notice obvious changes, like continuity flubs. Chabris and Simons even quote a script supervisor, who despite her profession doesn’t always notice such errors when she’s watching a film because “the more into the story I am, the less I notice things that are out of continuity.”

The stronger the pull a narrative has on us, the more we’re hooked. If we don’t notice some disruptions — like the crew member wearing shades on deck near Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie — it’s probably because we’re busy following the action or watching Depp’s face. (We’re hard-wired to respond to faces.)

Filmmakers use numerous strategies to keep us watching. As Bordwell recently wrote on his blog, davidbordwell.net, “perceptually, films are illusions, not reality; cognitively, they are not the blooming, buzzing confusion of life but rather simplified ensembles of elements, designed to be understood.” Both the real world and earlier movies we’ve seen teach us how to look at films: We look at movies and understand them through their norms.

Filmmakers employ an arsenal of narrative strategies to hook and keep your attention. In February a psychological researcher in Britain, Tim Smith, posted an experiment on Bordwell’s blog that illustrated how a filmmaker can focus your gaze. Using an eye-tracking technology to trace the movements of pupils (when they’re somewhat fixed or darting about), Smith was able to map what viewers looked at when they watched a somewhat static interlude from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007).

There Will Be Blood with gaze locations of 11 viewers from TheDIEMProject on Vimeo.

“Viewers think they are free to look where they want,” Smith writes, “but, due to the subtle influence of the director and actors, where they want to look is also where the director wants them to look.”
What happens, though, if a director doesn’t direct your gaze in familiar ways, shuns classic compositions on the one hand or fast cuts and close-ups on the other, plays with or disrupts narrative norms? What happens to even those enthusiastic moviegoers who — much like that chess master who was able to re-create chess pieces from memory because he recognized familiar patterns — know how Hollywood movies work? Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t, like the chess master who didn’t recognize random positions, have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies. When they watch them, they’re effectively (frustrated) beginners and don’t like that feeling.

I emailed Bordwell to ask what he thought about the idea that at least part of the difficulty some viewers have with some films may be a matter of habits of cognition and visual perception.

“Narrative is our ultimate top-down strategy in watching a movie,” he wrote back, “specifically, I think, classical narrative principles.”

The narrative keeps us watching, in other words. But, “when nothing is happening, or when the shot is distant or prolonged — we can’t so easily apply our narrative schemas,” he continued. “If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost. As you suggest, the viewer has to retune her perception.

“Once you do, if the filmmaker is skillful, all kinds of stuff open up. To me Bela Tarr movies have tremendous suspense! It’s like learning to enjoy brushwork in an abstract painting.”

Not everyone is open to abstract painting or Tarr’s long, beautiful films, but perhaps some of this resistance is fueled by cognitive habit rather than so-called taste. A friend who likes to show children avant-garde films at a cinematheque he helps run says that when he screens Bruce Baillie’s transporting short All My Life (1966), some of them stand up and sway along, some even clap. It’s a short film, just a three-minute pan of a flower-draped fence, and the children seem to bliss out on the images of the blooms and sky, and the purity of the Ella Fitzgerald song that gives the movie its title. (That is until another child mocks them.)

Bruce Baillie – All My Life from Andrew EW Neel on Vimeo.

The children who love the film may not understand it, but they embrace it. And if their eyes remain open, in time they may not just dance to unfamiliar films, but also find pleasure in unlocking their meanings.

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