31 août 2011

Gorilla attention deficit 2 (Dargis)

Manohla Dargis picks up this book written by cognitive psychologists (The Invisible Gorilla) and emails David Bordwell about pattern recognition... all swell, and even a step up from Dan Kois' navel gazing journalism indeed. I can only praise a journalist background research and backing up evidences. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that inattentional blindness and retina tracking, alone, do not excuse why an audience rejects a certain film form, and calls it "boring". Sorry.

"Not everyone is open to abstract painting or Mr. Tarr’s long, beautiful films, but perhaps some of this resistance is fueled by cognitive habit rather than so-called taste."
Manohla Dargis (NYT, 8 July 2011)
The cultural barrier that alienates a certain mainstream audience from off-the-edge aesthetics (abstract painting) or paced cinematography (i.e. Tarr) is NOT due to any dysfunctional brains or eye-sight capabilities! (by the way, abstract art is 100 years old, and CCC is 40 years old... so it's about time that the mainstream zeitgeist feels more familiar with these aesthetics "ahead of there time"!!!) If you meant to give an intellectual counterpoint to Dan Kois' self-indulgence... I'm not sure that introducing the masses to the obscure science of "pattern recognition" will make this type of cinema any more appealing... Tarr Béla produces a minimalist and evident cinema, why unnecessarily complicate it with lab experiments that have nothing to do with it? You just make it sound MORE ELITIST than it actually is and contribute to reinforce the deceiving cliché of an "intellectual art". Dan Kois freed the lazy anti-intellectuals from guilt, and Manohla Dargis made art cinema sound like rocket science... The New York Times couldn't do a better teamwork effort to further put off its readers!
The fact that a formalist scholar like David Bordwell delves into cognitive science fits the level of discourse we expect from academic studies, and it's always possible to run over-complicated experiments on films (even if their primordial apprehension doesn't really require it), that's what film theory is about. But the public discourse we find in the mainstream press (which sole short term purpose is to indicate the weekly releases schedule) shouldn't scare away readers and spectators with superfluous jargon that kills the natural suspension of disbelief. Making a non-professional audience self-conscious about onscreen patterns is really the last thing we need to get immersed in a film that speaks for itself very well.
Educate the masses about film, stylistic evolution, geo-political culture that contribute to nurture the virgin viewing of a film. This will help yes.

Manhola Dargis: "Perhaps it's a lack of pattern recognition, not taste, that makes some people frustrated with Bela Tarr movies like “Turin Horse.” [..] 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 tricky part, when I get to scribbling, is everything else [..] Was the lighting soft or hard, the editing fast or slow, the camera shaky or smooth, the acting broad or not? [..]" 
First, if you write notes during the film, you are doing a bad job! You cannot be present to the film, if you constantly re-verbalize what you see and think of the puns for your next review. Just watch the film once from end to end, like everyone else in the regular audience. Then you can do whatever you want during subsequent viewings. Do filmmakers really have to put up with the distracted judgement of critics who are scribbling throughout the screening??? 


Critics and the regular audience do no watch, perceive, register, understand and verbalize their experience of a screening in a comparable way. Critics are professional (not necessarily paid) viewers, (ideally) educated and trained in many areas of film analysis that the average spectator are oblivious of. So when you talk about "pattern recognition" for the audience, it means the general "optical pattern" recognition common in all human beings, the basic built-in stuff that comes in with all our innate abilities (visual, auditory, memorial, cognitive). Everything that makes humans able to interpret visual signals.
The regular audience doesn't need to know how to decipher all surrealist symbols in Le Chien Andalou, to watch and enjoy the film, just like a critic-level training is not necessary to watch a Tarr film. Films are made to be absorbed at a very sensory level, most symbols effect the perception below consciousness (inducing a certain idea/impression to the viewer without leaving a definite message that can be verbalized on a conscious level). If symbols are too arcane and beg for an extra-diegetic culture to understand in-jokes and subtle references (and it often happens without compromising the general understanding of the film for the neophytes), then it plays out to a very specific niche audience, which is not the case of Tarr films. If his audience is small, it's not because the images themselves are harder to COMPREHEND, but because it requires the viewer to be patient and NOT LAZY.

There are the real-life "patterns" that allow us to go about our everyday life without spending inordinate amount of time on every details we encounter; we ignore things that are identified as unimportant and/or invariable. The "narrative patterns" are something else, derived from the first set (optical patterns), but specific to the narrative medium and arranged in a superior degree of complexity (association of several/successive optical patterns). Some overlap, and the mirror neurons show that we react as if we did an action ourselves when we witness a fake reenactment on screen (through empathy, though it's another domain altogether...). But the editing tricks, the staging, the ellipsis, the subtitles, the split screen... are not innate instinct; we actively learnt to give sense to these abstract artifices. This second set of patterns are mostly processed unconsciously during the film, the average spectator doesn't stop to acknowledge every cuts, every space continuity, every time jump; and most importantly they would not be able to recall them or name them during or after the film, because it's become an intuitive language. We are conditioned to ignore it all. Just like we don't parse words into individual letters when we read a word, or dissociate words from their role in a complete sentence. We just read the content and forget we just deciphered a complex system of signs with painstaking grammatical rules.


Then there are critics. Critics have all that, are able to tell if that scene was cut up or shot in one plan-sequence, and their education also allows them to notice other patterns (secret patterns, technical patterns,  aesthetic patterns, structural patterns, overarching patterns, inter-textual patterns...) that are not necessary for the understanding of the immediate film experience, but will inform a more in-depth analysis of the film for critical appreciation purpose. Patterns that the average audience doesn't need, or wouldn't know what to do with, or don't care for. 
So you have to be very careful when you put pattern recognition for the public reception of a film on the same level as pattern recognition with a professional eye. Critics see more, it doesn't mean they will communicate everything they noticed in their review, but it informs the judgments they do write in for the readers (better than writing these summary judgments without being able to explain why, because they didn't seek for evidences to their claims!)
Anyway, the critical patterns necessary to evaluate the achievements of a film on various levels, are not the ones required to follow the story and the narrative cues. These, on the contrary, make themselves understood in the most evident and unnoticeable way, to the point of becoming an intuitive language. Not knowing the technical jargon and being unable to point at continuity errors is not an excuse to dislike challenging films. What is challenging is not the direct reading of the narrative, it's the apprehension of a radical artistic vision, after all the film has been successfully ingested. Detractors are not left behind because the film grammar was gibberish  but because the final content itself was perplexing.

Maybe we should distinguish the many forms of "understanding a film". From micro patterns to macro patterns:

  • Optical patterns allow people to SEE images
  • Narrative patterns allow spectators to MAKE SENSE of a narration
  • Critical patterns allow critics to ANALYSE film form

If an audience watches a film where the succession of images are incoherent (like some parts of experimental  cinema playing with non-narrative flicker effects), then we have a major language barrier, at the most basic optical level. If the point of the clip cited in the previous post was to incorporate a gorilla to the story, but most people miss it, then it would be a failure of the film narrative, a failure of basic perception of the raw content. That's the understanding of a film on a cognitive level (receiving images and sequences in the conscience). But like in mainstream fiction, our scientists call for an instant replay of the clip, to double-check about that infamous gorilla, and re-read the same scene with a newly acquired knowledge, and possibly alter our perception of the images and their meaning. This is the point of recalling an earlier part of the film, by self-quoting images of the film itself, further down the narrative line, to show overlooked characters and suspicious behaviours in a new light. 
Then, there is the perception of the organised content. The images and sequences are successfully perceived for one (by the eye), and also ordered meaningfully (by consciousness), a meaning intended by the filmmaker.
These constitute the immediate apprehension of a film, on an intuitive level. The audience doesn't need scientific education to go this far, because the art of dramatic art is to make itself understood, or else fail miserably. Again this is not the case with Tarr Béla films, their immediate understanding is in no way jeopardized by misunderstanding unknown narrative pattern that the everyday man could not figure out intuitively. If anything, intensified continuity poses bigger cognitive challenges if you were to blink during a fast edit sequence, you would MISS critical information that would, at least, confuse your reading of the following images for a while until you can fill the blanks again. 

"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.  [..] 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 Mr. Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) but not necessarily in ways that many moviegoers may immediately understand; the films don’t conform to familiar type. [..]
Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t [..] 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." 

Nice of you to try and find a reason why people don't like to watch challenging films (and find them boring)... but it's a bit of a cop out to blame it on a hypothetical "pattern recognition"! 
I know the only difference you can see between Hollywood obviousness and Tarr Béla is excessive slowness and long takes... but even if this was the case (which is far too superficial to count as an argument),  the heavy editing of Hollywood is still the MOST ARTIFICIAL narrative rendering of reality (compared to scarce edits and factual representation of CCC such as Tarr Béla), and I'm talking strictly about the narrative structure. Despite the fact that the "Hollywood norm" has been conditioned and digested to the point of becoming universally comprehensible, it will always be more artificial than real life, by design. However intuitive, the Hollywood narrative conventions are still conventions themselves. And when a film cuts less, there are less conventions and more raw content within the frame. Tarr makes use of conventional editing too, sometimes, but compared to a Hollywood movie, what detractors have a problem with is not the excess of complicated narrative twists, new unknown conventions, or misunderstood editing patterns... on the contrary, what baffles them is the lack of signposts, railtracks, by-the-number formula, walkthrough, cues, which bring them closer to a naked reality outside of the fiction world, where there are no contrived narration pre-arranged by a demiurge. A reality that we live in everyday. A reality that we are all perfectly capable to perceive, apprehend, interpret and make sense of, without resorting to complicated pattern recognition bullshit. A "slow film" is de facto LESS ARTIFICIALLY CONSTRUCTED, LESS COMPLICATED to perceive. Making sense of a long take, even if there is not much going on, DOES NOT REQUIRE ANY SUPERPOWERS. Don't make a rejection of the aesthetic and content, an issue about the grammar of cinema, its cognitive perception. If anything, you need to un-learn your bad habits, to de-condition yourself from formulaic narration, standard formats, signposted tracks, and Pavlovian responses... to lose your automatic reflexes to stereotypical patterns.

What bored spectators cannot make sense of is not the form, which is rather simple, and in fact, intentionally simplified, minimalist (by definition!). Don't blame it on pattern recognition deficiency if patterns plays a much smaller role!

We could discuss whether CCC develops unique narrative patterns that a mainstream audience would be incapable to make sense of (purely on an editing level), which I doubt. But even if we discover some exceptions, this would be a very technical distinction, one for professionals to notice. We're talking about technical issues such as pauses timing, sequences alternation, rhythmic patterns, macro structures, soundscape, composition... abstract stuff from the very fabric of the work, nothing an average spectator would be conscious of during a normal viewing. Such hypothetical off-the-chart pattern would not constitute, if it existed in CCC, a language barrier that would make it impossible to get into the film without prior training.
Sorry, this hypothesis is bullshit. Especially when it is a clever cover up to excuse bad taste, narrow-mindedness, laziness, boredom and fatalism in self-indulgent spectators and reviewers alike!!!

Dargis: "The stronger the pull a narrative has on us, the more we’re hooked. [..]"
...if what you're looking for in a film is STORY. Which is, if the most widespread, one of many possible usage for cinema. The mainstream audience might believe it is the ONLY way to make movies... but a film critic ought to know better (scientific footage, raw documentation, structural films, surrealism, experimental cinema, and in this case... minimalism). You gotta stop expecting every film made on the festival circuit to offer a self-contained walkthrough for puerile spectators who need their hand held till the end of the tunnel. Come on, grow up! Be open minded and welcome films that not only do not "pull you into" through cunning tricks, and count on your genuine curiosity to remain seated till the end, without constantly comforting your need for distraction, begging you to stay and alleviating your fear of being bored for more than a minute...

Dargis: "We're hard-wired to respond to faces"
I believe men are hard-wired to respond to boobies, ask the publicists.

Source: The Invisible Gorilla (Chabris/Simons)
 What You See Is What You Get (Manohla Dargis; NYT; 8 July 2011)
Good and good for you (David Bordwell; 10 July 2011) 


2 commentaires:

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hidden ass cam / making off (RearViewGirls; 17 Feb 2011)

Boobs cam (Bon à tirer, Warner Bros; 13 April 2011)

What girls look at? (Cosmo For Guys; 14 Sept 2011)

When science tells us everything about what the brains thinks... or does it?

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Bordwell and New York Times critic Manohla Dargis trotted out the work of a psychological researcher to show, in Bordwell’s words, “how a director can subtly guide our attention without cutting, camera movement, or auditory underlining.”
Can these critics hear themselves? Imagine someone who has never seen a movie by Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Apitchatpong Weerasethakul reading that cognitive theory is the key to unlocking its seemingly unyielding surface. Faced with that, who wouldn’t mutter, “Screw it” and head for the multiplex?"
The problem with Film Criticism (Charles Taylor; Dissent magazine; Fall 2011)