Neuroscience and the experience of "losing yourself" in a film

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From Wired, the more interesting part:

Consider this study, led by Uri Hasson and Rafael Malach at Hebrew University. The experiment was simple: they showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie (“The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”) and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. The scientists found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal.

[I]t’s also worth pointing out which brain areas didn’t “tick together” in the movie theater. The most notable of these “non-synchronous” regions is the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with logic, deliberative analysis, and self-awareness. Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we’re engaged in intense “sensorimotor processing” – and nothing is more intense for the senses than a big moving image and Dolby surround sound – we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such “inactivation” allows us to lose ourself in the movie.
I've often wondered about how some people find it easy to get right into the movies, and some are more inclined to keep a distance from what happens on screen. To extrapolate on the article's highlights, then, it might be reasonable to suspect that those lacking in experiential awareness (i.e. in their bodily sensation, either due to habitual experience suppression or inability to do so in the first place) would have a harder time "getting into" the movie going experience, and continue to engage in prefrontal cortex activity, which puts a bit of a psychological distance between the self and the screen.

It makes sense given that emotional arousal (which includes bodily experience), one that is triggered by a particular aspect of the film that taps into a self-relevant subconscious / unsymbolized / unarticulated experience, can also override the prefrontal cortex activity. In other words, if you're the kind of person who finds experiential awareness challenging, you might still be able to immerse yourself in the film viewing process if there are aspects of the film that really speak to your deep-down emotional experience.

In summary, breaking news: if you're not getting the most out of your film going experience, it's either you, or the film.


TIFF 2015 Reviews: Son of Saul and Beasts of No Nation, the heavy weights

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Géza Röhrig in Saul Fia (Son of Saul)
Saul Fia  (Son of Saul, Nemes)

Briefly, the film focuses on a group of prisoners tasked with the horrifying job of herding people to their death and cleaning up the aftermath (adding insult to injury is the fact that they themselves are waiting to be on the chopping block, and they knew it). Amongst these so-called Sonderkommando is Saul, who functions as well as anyone could under the circumstances. During one of his work shifts, he discovers a boy's body who may or may not be his son (he's convinced, but his fellow mates aren't so sure). He then sets out to acquire a rabbi who's willing to help him properly bury the boy in the Jewish tradition. The rest of his Sonderkommando mates have their own agenda, and the film goes on to pitch the need of one (Saul's humanity) against the need of many (liberation, knowledge be photographed to the world, etc.).

There's much to be admired about the craftsmanship of László Nemes' holocaust film. It recalls at its best the restrained and claustrophobic feel of Robert Bresson's A man escaped. For a subject as exhaustively done in films as this one, it's to Nemes' credit that he's able to deliver something a little different. The decision to go right into what gives the holocaust its name could have turned out quite exploitative, but his camera takes care to focus on our protagonist's shell-shocked but determined face rather than lingering on the mass of bodies strewn about. Wisely, the external horror lurks within frame, but just right on the periphery, so we can fill in the blanks with what it must have been, somewhat assured by the composed man-on-a-mission's presence.

The theme of the film's critique, if one can call it that, can be summed up in a line spoken a couple of times by one of Saul's fellow Sonderkommando: "You sacrifice our future to bury the dead" (or was it "You let down the living for the dead?"). It's literally true in the film, as his mission bears an immediate cost to the greater cause. Yet, the film seems to champion our protagonist's self-motivated actions: there implies the risk of losing our self and the spiritual growth of humanity if we were to simply dispose of our dark past. In trying to hang on to tradition, preserving the last shred of humanity in a very inhumane place, Saul's seemingly futile effort gets a living witness. One can only hope the future remembers what it has seen.

Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation
Beasts of No Nation (Fukunaga)

Like Son of Saul, child soldier is not exactly what one would willingly pick to sit down to view on, say, a Friday night. Unlike Son of Saul, however, the subject doesn't get much treatment of any kind in the mainstream cinemascape, so it arrives freshly picked for its viewers.

Fukunaga does a lot of good things with the film: it's horrifying without exploitative, meditative without abandoning narrative, and it imbues humanity in its characters without turning a blind eye to the evil of their actions. He spends enough time with our child soldier pre-war to ensure the viewer knows what light is like for him before darkness envelops. The performances are natural and haunting, particularly Abraham Attah in the main role of Agu. The music knows when to leave and enter the screen. The cinematography is beautiful, if not a little overly so. Unfortunately, the film falls short of greatness when it draws from the vocabulary of previously celebrated films in the war genre, namely The Thin Red Line.

The film is narrated, almost like a good yarn, by Agu, via voice-over. He's given mature, adult-like reflections and internal dialogue as he walks us along the horror he witnesses and engages in.  Never mind that it makes the film feel unnatural (a shame, given its naturalistic context), the voice over soothingly frames the story, thereby softening the blows and inadvertently distancing its viewer even as it attempts to shed light into the internal world of Agu. For such an important, relatively rare (cinematically speaking) fictional account of very real horrors, such stylistic choice seems at best redundant, and at worst, offensive. In the final confession frame, Agu is given a line that blatantly, and unnecessarily, tips off the film's moral hand. It makes the film seem a little disrespectful of its own gravity.

It's uncertain how far Beasts could've reached if it hasn't tried to simply preach to the converted. As it is, it may contend with being admired for efforts taken, rather than gripped by the depth it could've gone.


TIFF 2015 reviews: Dheepan, exorcising the psychological wound

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Let me tell you about the surface narrative of the film for a bit. Then, I'll tell you about the other story I got out of Dheepan.

This Palm D'or winner from Jacques Audiard is constructed with a clear, traditional three parts arc. In the beginning, we see a Tamil Tiger soldier seeking escape from death and destruction in his home land. That journey begins with a necessary lie: he arrives in France with a family not his own, cobbled together from the ruins of survivors, the witnesses of human destruction. They begin their new life in what seems to be a project housing in the middle of Nowhere, France. In the second arc, our protagonist and his faux family try to figure out their new place in the current world, and we get the usual immigrant fish-out-of-water dramedy. For a while, they could pretend it's like "a movie" (as the wife character says), watching but not really being a part of it. It doesn't last, of course, as violence is embedded within their new life as well, always threatening to surface. The drama of three strangers trying to survive together unfolds as expected, and the third act deals with the inevitable disintegration of this fragile tapestry.

There's a richness to the number of possible stories here: the immigrant experience, survivors of wars, senseless violence and destruction in modern life. All of them, however, leave a bit to be desired. Each seems a little less interesting as a film on its own, without elements of other stories. As such, any interpretation relying on these separate stories may leave you wondering, "what's the big deal?" Where's the "truth", so to speak, to this exercise?

Perhaps, the truth is painted on the elephant in the film, figuratively and literally speaking.

On two separate occasions, the head of a speckled elephant appears, demarcating the middle arc from the first and the third one. Any time an animal is used in the film, it's a cued entry into the spiritual / psychological world. Without fail, as in A Prophet (Audiard's previous film that I've seen), here lies what I believe to be the experiential truth. Forget the other stories; let's retrace our step.

Dheepan, one must remember, is a false name. He carries with him the trauma of the burned dead, into what is essentially a No Man's Land (at one point he declares a No Fire Zone in the film), or as it is called in the film, Le Pre (the Field). This Field, nondescript and full of lost souls, is a false world. Here, he exists without living (the film made a point of him having no sense of humour), a purgatory of sort. From a psychological point of view, trauma survivors live in a sort of limbo state of experience. The past haunts the present; every day life is a little removed, a little surreal, and always threatened by the possibility of being subsumed by what the survivors carry with them. One can also map this holding place onto the adjustment period for new immigrants, wherein the displaced people haven't quite yet found their true "present," holding onto the home land in their memory while waiting for admission into their new cultural home.

Emotion-Focused Therapy theory postulates that to have a healthy psyche again, to be able to live fully in the present experience, one needs to "correct" the maladaptive emotional experience as it is being experienced. The correction begins with the allowance for the painful, emotional experience to come alive in the present. Out of it rise the unspoken human needs and desires unmet. The correction completes with an integrated experience of the self, and a new narrative emerges from the crumbled haunts of the past.

Dheepan's pain of having lost loved ones is allowed to come alive in his new family and the new, yet familiar place of violence and disconnection. This kind of pain is a lonely one: he screams, sings, and loses control on his own at first. It is only when the circumstances present an opportunity for him to act out what he probably wishes to have done or admonishes himself for not having done, that his spirit/psyche rises to the occasion (literally up the stairs), and the need to reconnect to humanity is met. Only then, the angels sing, signalling the leaving of this limbo phase, and the arrival of a new beginning.

As it exists on this plane, the film is a beautifully realized and constructed story. Sometimes, it helps to dig a little deeper when struggling with "is this it?" coming out of a film. It may or may not place the film in a different context that's perhaps more rewarding for the viewer. There just has to be enough in the experience itself to warrant the exploration, and the elephant does it for Dheepan.



Recently Seen (out of *****)

  • One night in Miami (King, 2020) ***
  • Mank (Fincher, 2020) ***1/2
  • Coming 2 America (Brewer, 2021) **1/2
  • Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Wolfe, 2020) ***1/2
  • I care a lot (Blakeson, 2020) **

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