Watching Movies

In his review of State of Play, David Denby laments the rise of incoherence as a filmmaking technique:

"State of Play," which was directed by Kevin Macdonald, is both overstuffed and inconclusive. As is the fashion now, the filmmakers develop the narrative in tiny fragments. Something is hinted at--a relationship, a motive, an event in the past--then the movie rushes ahead and produces another fragment filled with hints, and then another. The filmmakers send dozens of clues into the air at once, but they feel no obligation to resolve what they tell us. Recent movies like "Syriana," "Quantum of Solace," and "Duplicity" are scripted and edited as overly intricate puzzles, and I've heard many people complain that the struggle to understand the plot becomes the principal experience of watching such films.

I quite enjoyed a number of those movies (Quantum of Solace is the notable exception - it was confusion masquerading as complexity), but I do think Denby makes an excellent point. Ever since Pulp Fiction, and certainly since The Usual Suspects, there's been a segment of filmmakers that sees the movie as akin to a puzzle, an artistic form which should only make sense in the moments before the final credits start to roll. Instead of having our narrative understanding slowly build, these directors dole out comprehension in sudden spurts, when a crucial twist is suddenly revealed. The end result is that disbelief can't be suspended because we're too busy trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Of course, ambiguity and uncertainty can be a nifty trick, especially as a counter to all the predictable crap turned out by Hollywood. (I'm looking at you Matthew Mcconaughey.) But it's worth pointing out that such formal devices - e.g., the splicing of time, so that the end happens first - seem to contradict the essential state of movie-watching, which is total immersion in a flickering image. This, after all, is why people go to the movie theater: for release, for a 120 minutes of cognitive vacation.

Here's the requisite scientific reference, which comes from a study led by Rafael Malach. The experiment was simple: he showed subjects a vintage Clint Eastwood movie ("The Good, The Bad and the Ugly") and watched what happened to the cortex in a scanner. To make a long story short, he found that when adults were watching the film their brains showed a peculiar pattern of activity, which was virtually universal. (The title of the study is "Intersubject Synchronization of Cortical Activity During Natural Vision".) In particular, people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on. Here's the nut graf from the paper:

This strong intersubject correlation shows that, despite the completely free viewing of dynamical, complex scenes, individual brains "tick together" in synchronized spatiotemporal patterns when exposed to the same visual environment.

But it'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. (It carries a hefty computational burden.) Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing" - and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound - we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself in the movie:

Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom ''losing yourself in the act'' receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.

What does this have to do with tricky cinematic narratives? I'd argue that the constant confusion makes it harder for us to dissolve into the spectacle on screen. We're so busy trying to understand the plot that our prefrontal cortex can't turn off. To repeat: this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does go against the fundamental experience of watching a movie. It's a formal innovation that contradicts the essence of the form.* We can't afford to "lose ourselves" in the movie because we're already lost.

*In other words, it's not so different than the post-modern novel, which is constantly calling attention to the fact that it's only a text. Most novels, of course, try to make us forget that we're just reading letters on a page. They want us immersed in the prose, not contemplating the unreliability of the narrator.

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This calls to mind Bertold Brecht's approach to theatre. He proposed that people should be allowed to smoke in theatres, because that way they couldn't "lose themselves" in the drama, but instead always be conscious of the fact that they're watching a performance. He called it Verfremdungseffekt, or the "alienation effect", and wanted his audiences not to be swept away by empathy, but rather observe the characters' dilemmas from a distance and intellectually.

Try to imagine a purely linear form of the film "Memento". The intertwining of one half of the film going forward in time (the events before the plot) and the other going backwards in time (the actual plot of the film) puts the viewer in the same position as the main character who suffers from anterograde amnesia.

Two statements of scientists (from Wikipedia):

Caltech neuroscientist Christof Koch called Memento "the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media," while physician Esther M. Sternberg, Director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health identified the film as "close to a perfect exploration of the neurobiology of memory."

That would not be possible with a linear narrative.

It's about what the director wants to achieve with the style of his narration (if the director has an intention at all) and Christopher Nolan did an excellent job with his film.
And, as always, it's a matter of the correct and appropriate dose. If everyone uses this technique then it quickly loses it's power, of course.

I agree with the first two comments and would like to add that many filmmakers use nonlinear narratives in order to distinguish their work from the usual "Hollywood crap." If linear storytelling is seen as corrupt, trying to sell its audience fascistic master-narratives (and let's not blame filmmakers, this view has been around in the visual and literary arts for a while), then the only responsible thing to do is to refuse to drug the audience with a ready-made story. Who wants a passive audience nowadays?

It's an avant-garde position that is quickly becoming watered-down, so it'll be interesting to see where experimental artists go in the coming decades.

I've responded over at my blog. In brief, I aim to trouble the idea that the "fundamental" or "essential" way of watching movies is as simple or as fundamental as you say it is.

Some of the questions I try to address along the way: Do we always go for "total immersion" at the movies? (Who's that "we" in the first place?) Isn't understanding any narrative film a more complicated endeavor than it seems here? What kinds of examples can we find in film and other arts that provide alternative modes of spectatorship?

This applies to more than cinema. Think of how modern painting moved towards abstraction in the 20th century. Some wanted to get away from representation because when the brain recognizes the subject, it can short circuit the experience and move on. Oh, that's a portrait of King Henry the VII, next. With some level of confusion about what we are looking at, we hang around longer and engage on a deeper level. With pure abstraction we are left to ponder shapes, color, brush strokes, the flatness of the canvas. Some 60's and 70's minimalists took it to the extreme, with work that was supposed to be "about" the pure phenomena of experience. Lawrence Weshler captured the idea with the title of his book "Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees", which is portrait of the minimalist artist Robert Irwin. I think what these artists were trying to do was to engage our "sensorimotor processing" in a pure way (which is arguably impossible, but a pretty interesting experiment).

I think there is an interesting line of inquiry in how different areas in the brain are engaged or short circuited by various artistic strategies in works of art. If the prefrontal cortex is inhibited by intense sensorimotor processing, perhaps intense prefrontal cortex activity inhibits our ability to process sensory data?

Similarly, our modes of experience effect what we process and do not process. Walking through the Met, you may read all the labels and wall text, and what you read may skew your perception from what you would "see" if you had not read the text. It also may excuse your brain from the task of actually processing the work in front of you.

fascinating work again Jonah...
i am thinking this through, writing it through as well in regard to your post on empathy and a talk I just heard on the liberal subject by prof. Jill Stauffer at Jay's College... i think there is something to fracture as it is staged in post-modern film theory that may (positively and productively) problematize Adam Smith's mirrored Other. would be very interested to hear what you think on that.

full details at


I think the "puzzle movie" is just going to evolve into its own genre, that's all. It's stylish right now, but it'll settle down to just another tool in the filmakers' toolboxes.

Another example of a film that has to be told this way because of the nature of the subject is the little indie Primer.

What I find interesting in this discussion is that it seems to be talking about how we resolve a couple of basic âopposing predispositionsâ in the brain.

On the one hand, our brains like fluency and easy processing (lots of good work by Winkielman and Cacioppo on this). On the other hand, we have curiosity, we like puzzles, and we are attracted to novelty. Both predispositions have evolutionary survival value, but neither would be of much value without the other to counterbalance it.

Sometimes purveyors of stimuli (like movies, but also less exalted literary forms like TV shows and advertising) try to play to one predisposition, sometimes to the other.

People are very good at noticing when a piece of entertainment is TOO complex (like the movies referenced) or TOO fluent (like the 'Hollywood crap') ... it's like an alarm going off.

There's a very interesting (!) theory of what makes things interesting ... attributed to Berlyne originally, called the âarousal jagâ model. In effect, it says we humans find stories interesting if they provide a sequence of arousal/tension/puzzling build-ups (appealing to curiosity), each followed by a resolution of the build-up in some satisfying way (appealing to fluency).

The art of moving-making probably comes in the number, frequency, magnitude, and duration of these arousal jags. These 'tools' to modulate the experience are probably similar to what creates appeal for any work of art or communication that unfolds over time, like the experience of music.

One way to tell how well its working is to follow the example of Malach et al and measure inter-subject correlations of responsiveness ... if everybody in the audience is peaking at the same time, you've reached them.

One of the ways people are different is in the relative strength of these predispositions toward simplicity and curiosity. So it is not surprising that one person's fascinating puzzle is another person's chaotic mess. Thank goodness, otherwise what would critics do for a living.

I haven't seen the American version of State of Play, largely because the UK original was a six-hour miniseries of gorgeous complexity that paid off in full by the end. How could two hours compare without either simplifying the story to dullness or losing the thread of the plot?

As for narrative tricks, they were fresh when Pulp Fiction emerged and diced the five act dramatic structure into confetti, but I've long since become tired of flashbacks, flashforwards, and all the rest unless they serve a vital purpose in telling the story.

Obviously Malach's work tells us something about watching a "straightforward" linear movie, but it's hard (for me anyway) to jump to a conclusion that other ways of storytelling are therefore suspect. Additional research might, for example, show that there's another set of "shared experiences" that arise when watching a less linear film.

Personally, I enjoy both types. I liken the more complex films to mystery and suspense novels - another genre that some people like and some find highly annoying.

Finally, I think there's a lot to be said for the quality of the film. If a particular film or sequence reads as "too complex" maybe that's not because it's complex, per se, but because the filmmaker didn't take enough care. For example, in some of the Bourne films the fight scenes were less compelling, imho, than they could have been, because they were so fractured. The director clearly wanted us to experience the fight as chaotically as presumably Jason was, but it didn't work as well from a storytelling standpoint. (In fact, I think it was a dumb decision, based on the character - Bourne is so skilled that time stands still for him in a fight - harder to make compelling for the filmmaker, but more true to the character.)

I'm not sure that I buy the innovation as "against the essential form" of film. The only evidence cited in this posting is the shared brain states of people watching a film with a linear narrative. It strikes me as a bit unfair to describe those states as essential just because they appeared across a wide spectrum of viewers, because those viewers were all watching a particular kind of film.

I guess Wittgenstein knew what he was doing when, after a tortuous day of logic and linguistic analysis, he fled to the movie theater. He insisted on watching American westerns or other simply plotted flicks, and he sat in the very front row, center seat. He was by his own account desperate for absorption. I think Tony Gilroy writes to keep people awake at the movies, almost as if we walked through the rest of our day absorbed in something mind-numbing already.

Does the prefrontal cortex light up more when watching a foreign film?

By istakirish (not verified) on 12 May 2009 #permalink

The most compelling experiences I've had watching movies is when a puzzle brings me into the movie, so I haven't lost myself and I haven't lost the narrative but instead the narrative is pointing out to me how I work.

The idea of mystery as being the key to drama seems to be the most important driving factor in film and television today. J.J. Abrams has made this the central feature of his tv shows, which i like very much, and the new Star Trek film. He has said that the mystery is what keeps character and plot interesting. He has done a fine job, but in everything from Greek Drama, through Romeo and Juliet and Citizen Cane, all the plot and conclusion are given at the beginning. Of course these represent the best. I think complexity is lost in the search for mystery. Character traits, and relationships are hidden for suspense, and never fully revealed.

Matching Wofies!

That's America

In big numbers,that is..

..I Watched them Move.. long enough :)