The Pit of Naturalism.

Life It seems that one of the new fields of interest in film studies in relation to neuroscience, or at least that’s what I discovered tonight during a lecture at John Moores University given by Dr. Murray Smith from the University of Kent called 'The Pit of Naturalism' (quoted from philosopher Raymond Tallis). The traditional view is that science and humanities can’t mix, yet Dr. Smith carefully explained that this isn’t and can’t be the case, and that ‘neuroaesthetics’ or the study of human reaction to art can reveal all kinds of interesting things about how that art is created.

The main example Dr. Smith presented was from a study in which a group of subjects (predictably university students) were presented with clips from four different film and television programmes (a tv Hitchcock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Good The Bad and The Ugly and a random shot taken from a camcorder) and their retinal and neural responses were recorded. The received wisdom on this is that each individual has their own mix of experiences and prejudices and so should react to each clip in vastly different ways.

What they found instead was that there was a group response. Though there were a myriad results at the opening of the clip, as the subject continued watching, their responses began to mirror and in the main were eventually almost exactly the same. We were presented with the graph from the Hitchcock piece and you could see how the suspense maestro was able to connect with his audience and control their levels of anxiety and tension.

This offers a potentially explosive new way of exploring the whole business of film making and issues related to identification with characters, the filmmaker’s shot selection and why some films impress more than others. Needless to say I was fascinated, but what surprised me more was that I could actually follow what was intellectually a very complex discussion considering very specific examples of high end brain science. Once again, I was confounding my usual default expectation of who I am, that I’m generally an desperately unclever person.

What was perhaps more energizing was that when Dr. Smith brought in some of the tentpole names from film studies,Eisenstein, Barthe and Bordwell, I not only knew who he was talking about but also their notions in relation to film editing and genre. During the discussion afterwards, I found myself anticipating what he and the other students were about to say, the issues they were bringing in. Reading and study from eighteen months ago crashed back into my brain, concepts I haven’t thought about in ages.

After I completed my MA course, it was very difficult for me to simply sit down and watch a film and turn off the analysis; I’d be so busy investigating how the narrative structure was constructed or whether the lead character was conforming to the Oedipal trajectory, that frankly I wouldn’t enjoy it. You might have noticed yourself that the number of reviews being posted to this blog dropped to zero and that was largely to do with not watching many films. It’s about that time I discovered classical music and the two events aren’t unconnected.

Only lately have I begun to reconnect with film and to remember all of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place, which is something indefinable and has nothing to do with deciding the extent to which it was subverting genre expectations (or whatever). I’m consistently reading those old Movie magazines again and as I’ve discovered tonight, the knowledge is all still there, but I’m now able to only bring it out if I really need to; much of the time it can take a back seat to simply enjoying a film for the spectacle that it is.

Sometimes, having this little knowledge can make a film far more interesting than it actually is. Recently I saw the rubbish Lindsey Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me. It’s a ghastly brew of so-called torture porn and sub-Hitchcockian noodling and watching Lohan pole-dancing after years of seeing her in kids and teen films is extremely uncomfortable. It’s entirely preposterous but gloriously good fun and well worth seeing just so that you can finally say that you’ve seen everything.

But, and I’m about to spoil things so look away now if you haven’t seen the film, once I realised that it was about twin sisters and that essentially a different character picks up the story at the beginning of the second act, I began to question whether the film has twin protagonists or whether it has an extended prologue and the plot only really begins when the second sister wakes up in the hospital, she being the main protagonist, the writers skilfully conferring the sympathies of the audience on this brand new character relatively late into the film.

The point is I could enjoy the film on both of these levels, with abject horror and admiration. I’ve been feeling increasingly content lately; some of this has to do with getting some more exercise; some to do with receiving good feedback on my writing; some to do with knowing that not everything does last forever and though I don’t have anything different lined up right now I know it won’t be too long now until I’m on to the next thing. And I’m sure that a large percentage of it is because, finally, I’m loving film again. Completely, totally and unconditionally.

I wonder what the neuroaesthetists would make of that.

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