Puzzles or Placation?: How We (Can) Watch Movies

In a recent post on his excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer responds to David Denby’s review of State of Play. In accord with Denby, Lehrer remarks:

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.

He then remarks that “the essential state of movie-watching”—which he also calls “the fundamental experience of watching a movie” and refers to as the reason “people go to the movie theater”—is a state of “total immersion.” The “puzzle film,” as we might call it, defies these practices.

In this post, I want to complicate the privileging of this one way of watching movies, which Lehrer also describes as “dissolv[ing] into the spectacle on the screen.” Are there other possibilities? What kinds of value do they have?

First, some of us will enjoy films like State and Play more than others. As an afterthought, Lehrer mentions the postmodern novel as in the family of the puzzle film; it’s worth noting that few critics question the “art” of the postmodern novel—they just reduce the problem to one of personal taste.

Not so with film, which has since its earliest days been kept to the wrong side of a false dichotomy involved “art” and “entertainment.” At a minimum, people ought to treat puzzle films at least like Seinfeld and Costanza treated homosexuality, with a committed not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that attitude.

Second, and more pertinent from a cognitive-science perspective though, even the most conventional narrative films necessarily engage us in puzzle-solving activity. Even setting aside the detective film, understanding any story requires a mix of attention, memory, and other forms of cognition to make sense at all.

Most narrative films make these tasks easier for us by adhering to a well-developed system of conventions, or by carefully taking into account our attentive or perceptual capabilities and limitations. But if they do so, it’s to satisfy an expectation, and to make money—not because there’s something more fundamental within the art itself of film about this approach.

To see how all this works, try this exercise (which my Intro to Film Studies class will also undertake in their first session on Monday): Choose a Hollywood film you haven’t seen, but that you can easily watch. Write down everything you know or expect about the film before you begin watching. What do your experiences of the genre, stars, country of origin, marketing, and other factors prepare you for? Next, watch the opening of that film and take careful note of everything you learn—from the music, the dialogue, the cinematography, the editing, and so on. It’s truly an overwhelming amount of information to list out, and you have to understand most of it to follow even the most basic of films.1

Finally, it’s worth noting that varied models of spectatorship go back a long way in film. Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961) not only forces the puzzle mode of spectatorial engagement, it avoids providing any solution—and even takes steps to ensure no cohesive solution can be found. The film, in other words, presents a kind of internal narrative contradiction not as complete as in surrealist films like Dali & Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), but at any rate well beyond Tarantino.

The kind of thinking has led to new theories of artistic practice outside the cinema, too. As the first commenter on Lehrer’s post notes, Bertolt Brecht (among other interwar German thinkings, including Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin) had the idea that to lose oneself in a dramatic work would interfere with one’s full understanding of the human situation in the work and in the world surrounding it. Empathy, in other words, breeds sheep. Need that be our only choice at the movies?

1Many books and journal articles have been dedicated to spelling out these complex interactions of world, film, and mind. These include David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema, and Edward Branigan’s Narrative Comprehension in Film (1992), and Carl Plantinga’s and Greg Smith’s anthology Passionate Views: Film Cognition and Emotion (1999).

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