David’s recent post about How We Watch Movies got me thinking about this issue. I decided to post some of my thoughts on this topic. The first time I watch a movie, I simply go with the flow and try to experience whatever it is that the filmmaker presents to me on the screen. I find that if I enter into an analytical mode in which I am thinking about the movie while I watch it, I am not able to fully “experience” the movie. Once the movie is over, I reflect back on what I have seen. This includes thinking about what the “experience” I have had “means” to me in various larger contexts, and also thinking about technical issues about how the filmmaker went about creating the film in such a manner that it caused me to have these specific experiences. If I am sufficiently engaged by a really good movie, I like to go back and give it additional viewings, watching it now from the perspective of a more in depth analytical mode.
There are three levels of analysis that I find useful to employ when watching or thinking about a film in analytical mode: micro, at the level of individual images; macro at the level of the individual scenes; and holistic at the level of the entire film. I will discuss these three levels of analysis separately.
Micro-analysis at the level of images
This level of analysis fascinates me at a technical level. My professional background is as a scientist doing research on the topic of visual perception. Much of my professional thinking on the topic of perception of images was highly influenced by the perceptual psychologist James Gibson (a psychologist whose ideas almost no one, including many of his so-called disciples, understands correctly). I took a sabbatical leave from my professorial position back in 1991 during which time I did nothing except read and study Gibson’s original papers and think about his ideas. Gibson makes a distinction between “direct perception”, which he argues is how we perceive the world when operating in our natural (“ecological”) environments, and “indirect perception” which we employ in certain artificial environments such as when watching a movie. In direct perception, we see the world veridically, as it really is. For example, if we perceive a tree in the forest, that is because there really is a tree in the forest present that is causing the percept. Watching a movie is quite different. If we had truly had direct perception of movie, we would describe our perceptions something along these lines:
“I see a flash of light reflecting from a screen. The flash lasts for only a fraction of a second. The light in the flash is not uniform in either brightness or color. Some regions of the screen are very bright, others are very dark, with various shades in between. Similarly the screen is not all one color, some regions are saturated red, others are pale green, etc. When that flash is over it is replaced for a very short period (a fraction of a second) by a blank screen. Then a new image is flashed briefly on the screen, etc, etc, etc.”
However, that description is not at all what we actually report seeing while watching a movie. The actual description of the person watching the movie will more likely be something along the lines, “I see a forest full of trees.” This perceptual experience created by the film is an illusion. (indirect perception). What is really out there in the world (reflections of light flashed on a screen) is different from what is perceived (a forest of trees, or whatever).
The explanation for how film images produce these illusory experiences comes from understanding the evolution of perception. Over evolutionary time, biological eyeballs were stimulated by light entering the eye and forming images on the back of the eye. That light entering the eye was not uniform, but varied across space and over time. As biological brains evolved over millions and millions of years, certain knowledge about the relationships between patterns of stimulation of the eye and properties of the external world got built into neural circuits. For example, whenever the light entering the eye has certain particular spatial-temporal properties, that means you are looking at a forest of trees. In the natural (ecological) environment in which evolution took place, that particular pattern of light stimulation entering the eye would never occur except when one was in a physical environment with a forest of trees present.
So the “trick” of film making is to flash images of light into the eye whose basic spatial and temporal properties are similar to those that would have entered the eye if the individual viewer had been in a physical environment that the film maker wants to cause the viewer to experience.
Spatial temporal patterns of light entering the eye over evolutionary time have come to be associated with emotions and feelings as well as with knowledge of physical objects (e.g., “This pattern of stimulation signals danger. Get your heart pumping fast so you can be ready to run for your life.” Or, “This pattern of stimulation means I may have an opportunity for sex. Get the hormones flowing so I am prepared to act when the time comes”, etc., etc). Great filmmakers know how to put together a series of images to be flashed momentarily on the screen to evoke the full range of human perceptions and associated emotions that we are biologically equipped to react to in actual physical environments, as well as unique perceptions and associated emotions that no actual physical environment could ever elicit.
Macro-analysis at the level of individual scenes
Lets jump up a level of analysis now and consider the individual scenes shown in a movie. (There are of course intermediate levels of analysis, that fall between images and scenes, but I am trying to simplify here to keep this posting from becoming a tome!) A primary question that interests me is how a filmmaker strings together individual scenes in such a way that the viewer experiences continuity. Think back to an epic film you watched some time in the past that depicts events that occur over many years. When you think back to try to remember what that film was about, you probably have a memory that appears to be a continuous narrative: the hero was a young boy; he grew to be a young man; he performed one or more heroic deeds; and then died tragically, etc. If you had actually seen all of that play out, you would have been sitting in the theater for years. So what did you actually see that caused your brain to form this memory of a continuous narrative?
It is often quite surprising to go back and watch the same movie that created this continuous narrative, but watching it now in “analytical mode” rather than in “experiential mode”. In many cases the scenes are not even laid out in chronological order (flashbacks, flash forwards, etc), and even in cases where they are, there are large gaps and discontinuities from scene to scene. This jumping around in time and space from scene to scene is usually relatively transparent while one is watching the movie in experiential mode, and only becomes apparent when one makes a point to specifically look for each change in scene.
The explanation for why throwing together a sequence of individual scenes can produce an experience (and subsequent memory) of a continuous narrative is related to how our minds construct memories. All of us carry around with us a “life narrative”: “I was a nice little boy who always loved my mother, then I grew up into a nice adult, later I got married and had nice children of my own, etc.” The individual events that went into producing this narrative were not consistent like this at all. They were all over the place, and someone else seeing the same individual events playing out might have formed a completely different narrative: “That little brat was always in trouble, and now his children take after him, etc.” It is obvious that our memories are not verbatim recollections of all of the actual events that we experienced during life! Instead, they are a VERY SELECTIVE memory of a few specific events that tie in with a psychologically consistent life narrative we have constructed to give meaning to our lives.
A good director knows how to exploit these facts about the way narrative memories are constructed. The director has a narrative in mind, and simply strings together a small number of scenes that are consistent with this narrative. Since our minds are working all the time (subconsciously) to try to construct consistent narratives based on what we have experienced, when a string of scenes consistent with a particular narrative are viewed, that narrative is constructed effortlessly. It does not particularly matter that there are gaps (in space and time) between the scenes, or even if the scenes are shown out of order (within limits of course). The mind as it operates in the real world has a difficult task. It must pick and choose those individual events that are consistent with the narrative being constructed and ignore everything else. A good director simply makes it easy for this psychological process to work. By having all/most of the scenes in a film consistent with a particular narrative, the psychological process does not have to do all of the work usually required to discard all events/scenes inconsistent with the narrative being constructed.
Poor directors do not understand how this psychological process of narrative construction works. Nothing is more boring than a film made by a director who tries to fill in all of the gaps with details, going on and on and on, when a few select scenes in the hands of a good director would have sufficed. If we humans want to sift through (hours, days, months, years, or even decades) of boring, mostly meaningless, scenes/events to select just a few special ones to construct a meaningful narrative, we can simply go live our lives. We go to a movie to have the opportunity to experience a meaningful narrative that is constructed effortlessly and efficiently. Good filmmakers know how to use the language of film, stringing together sentences constructed from individual scenes, to produce these meaningful narratives.
Holistic Analysis at the Level of an Entire Film
When I think analytically about an entire film, I try to figure out what narratives the filmmaker was trying to convey to me. One major tool I use when doing this level of analysis is to consider why the particular scenes shown in the film were chosen, and why all of the (huge) number of other potential scenes that might have been shown were omitted. My experience has been that when watching a Hollywood blockbuster, this analysis is usually pretty straightforward, boring, and unworthy of expending any effort on. Blockbuster movies are made based on formulas that have been market-tested based on the audience that is being targeted (e.g. — include at least one car-chase scene, and at least one long chase scene on foot of the hero scaling stairs and obstacles while being pursued by the bad-guys, etc.) Similarly, movies made by mediocre directors/producers often do not warrant doing this kind of analysis. The scenes may have been thrown together haphazardly without much thought put into it. However, when watching a film by a master filmmaker, every scene is there for a purpose. Just as a master writer chooses every word that goes into every sentence with care, a master filmmaker chooses every scene that goes into constructing the film with care.
As I wrap this up, I want to turn my attention for just a few more sentences to the topic that initially launched this series of postings – What is the narrative theme of the film Babel? I realize that anyone who watches any film has the “right” to come to any interpretation or belief they care to adopt regarding the meaning of the film. It is ludicrous to argue with anyone that their individual interpretation is “wrong” — your personal interpretation belongs to you, and you are the supreme court when it comes to deciding what you believe.
However, there is a related question that is more objective, and open for argument and evidence. That question is: Are all of the scenes in the film consistent with your interpretation? I have proposed an interpretation of Babel based on the hypothesis that a primary narrative theme in the film has to do with evils of incest. I delineated in my original commentary on Babel some of the elements of individual scenes that are consistent with this interpretation. What I would ask of others who have different interpretations of the movie is to provide an alternative explanation of why the specific scenes I reference in my commentary were put into the film. Here are four possibilities that come to mind: 1) It was a Hollywood blockbuster, and themes of incest “sell” to the target audience, whether or not they have anything to do with the narrative theme of the film. 2) It was a film made by mediocre filmmakers, and the scenes were chosen in a haphazard or random manner. It just happened by chance that there were so many (direct and indirect) references and allusions to incest depicted in the scenes included in the film. 3) I (Ron) have read the language of film composed by this group of filmmakers correctly, and thus my interpretation of the film is a valid one. 4) There is some other good explanation of why these particular scenes were chosen by the filmmakers for inclusion in this film. I invite anyone with arguments along those lines to spell those out.