Ktismatics

7 March 2012

Show Don’t Tell?

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:44 am

A printed text can neither show nor tell.

An audiotape or radio program can tell, but it cannot show.

A photograph or painting can show, but it cannot tell.

A movie or TV show can do both.

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6 March 2012

Engaging with On-Screen Fictional Characters

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:15 am

I’ve been giving some thought as to whether engagement with fiction isn’t more easily triggered by movies and TV shows than by texts.

People are embodied: they confront the world from a particular physical locus within the world. Each of us sees the world literally from a particular point of view; i.e., from the vantage point afforded by our eyes, which swivel and focus on the world from atop a moving platform. So too with sound: we hear the world via the sounds that our ears pick up. Cameras and microphones provide a much closer simulation to the subjective experience of being-in-the-world than do written words describing sights and sounds.

Empathy, perspective-taking, simulation: these are some of the means by which humans understand one another’s points of view. Humans encounter other humans not as disembodied minds or emotions but through embodied physical encounters with other embodied beings more or less like themselves, through touching their bodies, looking at their faces, watching their actions, jointly participating with them in the world.

And through hearing what they have to say. The species continued to evolve genetically even after spoken/aural language began to emerge as a human capability, so the nearly irresistible aptitude for becoming adept users of the cultural artifact that is spoken language is built into the genes. Young children acquire language competence in the context of interpersonal encounters, specifically those types of encounters characterized by joint attention to and engagement with some aspect of the world. Being able to understand what someone else has to say requires the ability to infer the speaker’s intent to communicate, as well as the ability to adopt the speaker’s point of view. Language acquisition thus depends on an already-developed capacity for interpreting others’ facial expressions, gestures and intentions, as well as on the intrinsic motivation and capacity for imitating them. Empirical research demonstrates that these proto-linguistic human capabilities rely on innate neural capabilities that gradually become honed through repeated direct experiences with other language-users as together they explore the shared physical environment. This fine-tuning of a child’s innate ability to participate in a linguistic interpersonal environment develops instinctively, unconsciously, outside of self-awareness.  Again, the characters who walk and talk in the world projected onto the movie or television screen present a reasonable simulation of this real-world linguistic environment. So it seems likely that on-screen dialogue spontaneously triggers in the listener those same unconscious empathic and role-taking connections with the speakers that occur in real-world conversation.

Written language is a cultural artifact that appeared very late on the prehistorical scene — too recently to have affected the human genome. It’s not universal: many cultures never developed a written form of their language, even though people born and raised in those cultures possess the intellectual capabilities required for developing competence in reading and writing. Even in cultures with rich and deep textual traditions, kids always become quite fluent with spoken language before they acquire even the rudiments of written language. Reading and writing are skills more like riding a bike than like understanding spoken language. These skills are built on a scaffolding that’s innate, and once honed through repeated practice the skills become second nature. However, learning them in the first place demands conscious attention.

Back to fiction. On screen we watch people doing things in an environment, formulating and pursuing intentions in a world, scheming and fighting and fucking and talking with each other. Let’s presume that our engagement with fiction depends on triggering our abilities, genetically transmitted and honed through interpersonal experience, to empathize with and to simulate other people as they engage intentionally in the physical and interpersonal environment. The on-screen bodies and faces and actions and voices aren’t physically there in a material world you share with these characters, but you do watch them with your eyes and hear them with your ears. They are closer to embodied beings than are characters who appear in fictional texts, characters whose physical appearances are not seen but described, whose actions are not watched but recounted, whose dialogue is not heard but read.

Since texts did not comprise part of the evolutionary environment, and since the ability to read depends on conscious attention, it seems likely the reader’s engagement with fictional characters rendered in textual form is less instinctive than it is with characters in movies and TV shows. As a simulation, on-screen activity certainly lacks the physical tangibility of our real-life engagements with people in the world. Still, on-screen fiction offers a much closer approximation to material reality than does written fiction — a visual and aural simulation that is arguably more likely to trigger our unconscious visceral engagement with unreal other people in an unreal world.

10 February 2012

Evil Dead 2 by Raimi, 1987

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 1:39 pm

5 February 2012

Once Upon a Time in the West by Leone, 1968

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:55 am

24 October 2011

Last Year at Marienbad by Resnais, 1960

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:11 am

What is Alfred Hitchcock doing there, on the right, in the shadows, hovering a few inches above the floor?

16 October 2011

Breaking Bad by Gilligan, 2011

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:32 pm

11 October 2011

Night and the City by Dassin, 1950

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 3:28 pm

6 October 2011

Melancholia by von Trier, 2011

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:46 am

26 September 2011

Moneyball in 5 Seconds

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 7:41 am

Buy low, sell high.

14 August 2011

The Wrestler by Aronofsky, 2008

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:57 am

Cassidy the stripper stands up and straddles Randy the Ram, gazing soulfully at the scar.
CASSIDY: “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that
brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we were healed.”

RANDY: What’s that?

CASSIDY: It’s from “Passion of the Christ”. You never seen it?

Randy shrugs no.

CASSIDY: Dude, you gotta. It’s amazing. It’s, like, so inspiring. They throw everything at Him. Whips,
arrows, rocks… Just beat the living fuck out of Him for the whole two hours. And He just takes it.

RANDY : Huh. I’ll have to check it out.

CASSIDY (lightly tracing a finger along Randy’s bicep scar): The sacrificial Ram…

3 July 2011

The Illusionist by Burger, 2006

Filed under: Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:01 am

By coincidence, Anne brought this DVD home from the library the day after I experienced the optical illusion I described in my last post. She thought she had reserved the 2010 animated feature by Chomet, but this earlier film with the same title was delivered instead. It’s a pretty good movie, but it could have been a better one. The issue that was set up by the story, but that the writer-director failed to explore adequately, was this:

The unbridgeable gap between upper and lower classes, and between ruler and ruled, is grounded in illusion. What is the most effective strategy for bridging the illusory gap? Should the reality behind the illusion be revealed, as well as the techniques used by  those in power to conceal that reality? Or should an even more powerful illusion be constructed so as to overwhelm the original illusion?

8 June 2011

The Bad and the Beautiful by Minnelli, 1952

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:41 pm

7 June 2011

Raging Bull by Scorsese, 1980

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:19 am

29 May 2011

Singin’ Again

Filed under: Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:30 pm

This afternoon as I was finishing up my run I saw that a canopy had been set up in the high school parking lot. Under the canopy were a large cooler, a folding table with a variety of snacks arrayed on it, and a guy sitting in a lawn chair. He greeted me as I approached, and I asked him what was up. A feature film is being shot in the school, he told me, and this is the refreshment area. You know Malcolm McDowell? He’s in it, the refreshment guy informed me. I nodded and told him that coincidentally I had just been humming “Singin’ in the Rain” to myself while running. He paused a second, then he smiled. That’s perverse, he said. I thanked him and walked the rest of the way home.

Apparently the distributor has disabled the embedding string for the relevant scene in Clockwork Orange, so here’s the link.  The new movie they’re shooting here is called Mind’s Eyehere’s the website.

UPDATE: After showering and dressing and writing this post I strolled back to the high school. The front door was unlocked so I went in. I watched a scene being filmed: a young woman, presumably playing a teacher, walks down the stairs carrying a cup of coffee, a boom mic following her progress down near her feet. I passed through one of the corridors, along which had been posted at fairly wide intervals sheets of paper announcing “Mind’s Eye Film Set.” I walk past the costume and make-up room, occupied by a couple of crew members. As I entered the orchestra room I passed a guy who said “Woo, that was refreshing. How ya doing?” Fine, I replied. I looked around a bit more, then left. No sign of Malcolm McDowell. Maybe I’ll stop by again tomorrow.

30 MAY UPDATE: Unfortunately the first person I encountered at the high school this morning was someone I know: the film teacher. In addition to wrangling extras and running errands for the pros, this teacher is apparently also in charge of keeping the set closed while Malcolm is in the building. Because he knew me, he knew I wasn’t someone on the crew he hadn’t met yet — which gave him the opportunity to wield his authoritah. Today is McDowell’s last day on the set, but the shoot continues all month, so maybe I’ll try again later in the week. In my admittedly limited experience, however, watching a film being shot is really boring. A star sighting might be more fun, even if that star has faded and the film is in all likelihood destined for direct-to-DVD.

LATER THAT DAY… Again I chatted with the snack wrangler, who informed me that Malcolm McDowell had wrapped his scenes. I was told that Mr. McD was very gracious and signed autographs before leaving town. Arriving later this week is Dean Cane, who apparently played Superman on a TV series late last century. I never saw that show and know nothing else of Mr. Cane.

28 May 2011

Singin’ in the Rain by Kelly & Donen, 1952

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:44 pm

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