Thursday 30 June 2011

SCSMI conference 2011

Two weeks ago I attended the annual SCSMI (Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image) conference, which was held in Budapest this year. There have been some requests for a report and here, belatedly, are my thoughts.

This was my second SCSMI conference, and I had almost as much fun this time as last year in Roanoke, US. The reason it was more fun last year was that we all stayed in the same hotel and Roanoke is much smaller than Budapest so the communal feeling was much stronger, more like a fieldtrip than a conference. This time we were all scattered across the city, making it less intimate and cosy. But that's just the order of things. Let's focus on the papers and presentations instead. I will not dwell on all the things I went to, in some cases I have nothing in particular to say and in some cases I feel I don't know enough to engage critically, but here are the presentations I can and will say something about, presentations all of which I enjoyed. All of these ideas presented here are things I'm interested in and will come back to in later postings, and eventually in a book.

Stanley Kramer is not a filmmaker with a high standing these days, but one of his more tolerable films are The Defiant Ones (1958), a drama about racial intolerance. It is stiff and ponderous but it has one thing going for it that almost makes it great. The use of natural sound. The sounds of rain, wind, grass, mud, birds, insects, voices (and an annoying portable radio) gives the film a life and a richness which isn't in the story, the images or most of the direction. If ever the importance of sound in cinema needed to be proved, this would be a great film to start with. But the list of films to include would be a long one. Luis Rocha Antunes, in his presentation about "The Multisensory Film Experience", didn't mentioned The Defiant Ones, but he gave a lot of sound examples from other films to underline his argument that film is more than just a visual experience. He talked of many things that heightens our experience of a film besides what we see with our eyes but I felt that sound was his main point in this particular presentation, which was a good one. As you may recall from my report from last year's conference I then also applauded the many presentations that discussed sound and the importance of it.

Johannes Riis of University of Copenhagen gave a presentation on Mad Men, and the question of his talk was why we admire and look up to Don Draper even though he is not really a nice guy with his bullying, extramarital affairs and condescending attitude. Why is it that we can admire people on the screen (or in fiction in general) which we might not like at all in real life? This is a common question, that pops up now and then, sometimes with moral undertones ("these films are bad because they make us like bad people") but more often just out of curiosity. There's a lot to be said about this.

What I suggested as an explanation to audience appreciation of "bad" characters was two things. First that there might be other characters in the film that are even worse, and that their function is to say "yes, the main character is bad, but not as bad is this guy here." and so the issue becomes relative. Like the character Waingro in Heat (1995). Compared to him Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro's character) isn't so bad. Secondly, a way of making it easier for us to like characters is to not show the consequences of their actions. In Mad Men for example, if every scene of Don Draper behaving badly was followed by a scene when the person he had cheated on, or bullied, was shown quietly sobbing, or accusing Draper for behaving badly, then that might considerably lessen the warm feelings we might have for him. And in Heat; if after the opening sequence, when the security guards are shot by McCauley and his crew, we were shown a sequence of the guards grieving widows and children, then it would be tough to like them. Instead all victims are alone and without (acknowledged) friends or relatives, except the victims of Waingro's crimes.

But we needn't necessarily explain this phenomenon by narrative conventions. We like people in real life even though they might do bad things, it is just that they are not bad to us. Everybody have friends, liars, cheaters, embezzlers, perhaps even mass murderers, and if that is a possibility in real life then of course it can happen with fictional characters as well.

The University of Copenhagen is a major player in cognitive studies of the moving image, and besides Johannes Riis, Casper Tybjerg is another scholar from that school (Luis Rocha Antunes has been there too). Tybjerg's presentation was on the moral aspects of storytelling. He criticised an evolutionary psychology approach that reduces all character behaviour to the essential hunt for food and sex. Tybjerg suggested that one reason for storytelling is that it is a way to "teach" us humans about how to behave, that this is why the good guys win and the bad guys are punished, and that this is as old as storytelling itself. He quoted from William Flesch's book "Comeuppance" (a word which always makes me think of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Orson Welles's narration of it) to substantiate his theory. I suggested though that the audience sometimes prefer the bad characters (or the "immoral" ones), i.e. "rooting for the bad guy", and that what might for one spectator be seen as good behaviour might be seen as the opposite for another spectator. But the idea that storytelling, as part of human evolution, is involved with helping us understand the world and inspire us to behave ethically, is one that I subscribe to. (Here's a review of Flesch's book.)

The last Dane in this report is the man who started it all in Copenhagen, professor Torben Grodal. At the conference last year he spoke about violence and terror in Se7en (1995). Perhaps to compensate for the relentless gloom he this year spoke about comedies and laughter. He was arguing that laughter is related to anger and that it comes from playing, which most mammals do (and some non-mammals as well), as a safe way of doing things similar to what we do when we are angry or genuinely aggressive, such as when hunting. It was a lot more complex than that of course, but this'll do for now. Grodal also emphasised the social aspects of laughter, and suggested that this is a reason why comedies are more popular on a local market, whereas action films and melodramas have a more global reach.

This raises some questions for me. If laughter is a social function, on what level? Social in the sense that it binds two individuals together, or a whole group, by laughing a the "other", somebody else, or another group? Or is it social in the sense that it is a way for humans, all humans, to socialise together, like when we meet strangers we might use laughter as a way of bonding, not at the expense of somebody else but for everybody's benefit? I might for example, to break the ice, make a joke about myself. I would suggest that both uses of laughter are at play, and this might help explain why, contrary to what Grodal seemed to suggest, some comedies are in fact very much popular on a global scale, such as the slapstick humour of Chaplin and Keaton, whereas some other form of humour works only on a local market. The same is true for melodramas I would argue, and possibly action films as well.

One of the bigger stars within the field of cognitive studies is Tim Smith, presently at Birkbeck, University of London (He also also blogs (infrequently) at His speciality is tracking eye-movements of spectators, but in his presentation he focused on memory, on what we remember after having seen a scene or a whole film, and why it is that we remember that which we remember. He suggested that we remember the logical continuity of the story and specific plot points, and that verbal details were more important to us than visuals. He highlighted our preference for words by noting the fact that we usually watch the mouth of the person speaking, even though it doesn't make it easier to understand what the person is saying, we might as well look at the eyes (or feet for that matter) since we hear the words, we don't see them, unless we're lip-readers. (I have sometimes consciously tried to look at other parts of the face when somebody is speaking but it is harder than it sounds. The speaker's eyes are fairly easy to focus on though, if you're close to them. But sooner or later the gaze turns towards the mouth again.)

One comment I made is that we often remember things that were not actually in the film, i.e. we don't remember them at all but have made them up. My own favourite example is a scene from Thunderball (1965) that I had very strong memories of, I can even "see" it in my head, still today. Only there is no such scene in the actual film. And neither is it in Ian Fleming's novel the film is based on. My surprise when I re-watched it a couple of years ago and found out that the scene wasn't there hasn't settled yet. To this Smith said that we include scenes in our memory that wasn't there in the film because these imaginary scenes help to make logical continuity. But this was not the case with my scene. It was a whole murder sequence, which didn't have anything to do with the continuity of the film. No, in my case, and most likely in others as well, there's something else going on. The scene/sequence might for example be a composite of several scenes and images, possibly from different films, that have been created by our ever so self-sufficient brains. Or I might have dreamt it, and then in my brain the memory of the dream has merged with the memory of the real.

Another star in these circles is professor James Cutting from Cornell University. His presentations are always immensely enjoyable because he is such a natural speaker and entertainer. His thing is collecting data, data consisting of things like average shot lengths, number of shots, number of sequences, changes of luminance, movement in shots, number of cuts, and so on, in Hollywood films made from 1935 and onwards. He then present this figures to others to do with it what they see fit. There are a lot of things you can do with this figures. One thing is to compare different genres, different filmmakers and different eras. Another is to track changes over time. Another is to analyse the structures of films, and see the striking similarities between wildly different films, and ponder upon how much is intentionally done and how much is unconsciously. The mere avalanche of numbers and figures can feel a bit over-whelming, but if you dig in to them there's no telling what you will find. (The reason why Cutting and his colleagues and students begin with the year 1935 is that before this there were too much inconsistency and randomness. The language of film was still evolving so much that it is difficult to get a handle on it, but from approximately 1935 things began to settle down. This makes for an interesting nuance to the widely held idea that classical storytelling was pretty much established in 1917.)

The presentation I regarded as the best from last year was by Robert Blanchet, and this year he was at it again, but now together with a colleague from Norway, Margarethe Bruun Vaage. Their presentation was about the difference in engaging with TV-series as opposed to engaging with films, more specifically the fictional characters. In short what they argued were that due to the long-time exposure to the characters in TV-series we come to regard them, in a way, as friends, and we are hence reluctant to leave them. Blanchet and Bruun Vaage were drawing from media studies, psychology and economics in a very rich and fruitful way. A concept they used, that comes from social psychology, was the "familiarity principle", which is also called the "mere exposure effect" which means that the more familiar something is, or becomes, the more likely is it that we like it. It is true for a lot of things in life, and they argued that this too is a factor in explaining audience engagement with TV-series as being different from films, at least on part of the characters. The familiarity principle works in films as well though, with actors, filmmakers, genres or film series such as the James Bond films.

I can only vouch for the friendship aspect myself. After I had seen the last episode of The West Wing (1999-2006) I felt abandoned and sadden, the sense of loss was palpable after having spent several years with this characters, in a way akin to a feeling of saying goodbye to friends or colleagues. But the familiarity principle is more problematic. It doesn't help explain how we engage with the first episodes of the first season, it only helps to explains why we continue to watch in the fifth season even though we might not think it is as good as it once was. Also, it would seem to suggest that we would like any TV-series were we exposed to it long enough but I'm not so sure about that.

One presentation I was particularly tickled by was professor John Bateman's, especially when he talked about the need for new approaches to genre studies. As I find most of traditional genre studies deeply flawed this is something I will be coming back to in later postings, but what Bateman and his colleagues want to argue is that we need to acknowledge that discourses and genres are much more fluent and dynamic than we give them credit for. (The focus of the presentation though was on the beginnings of films, in particular so called "puzzle films".)

And that concludes my summary. As I said I went to more presentations, for example professor Carl Plantinga's on folk psychology and Monika Suckfüll's on audience participation, but although I enjoyed them I don't have anything in particular to add. I do have a lot to add though to the presentation given by professor Murray Smith of University of Kent, but so much that I will have to save it for another blog post.

My own presentation was about storytelling and prejudices (prejudices scholars and critics have when approaching films). I will eventually explaining my theories and ideas on storytelling in writing but that too will have to wait. The prejudice part might be summed up in this quote from V.F. Perkins: "Our viewpoint is not given solely by the image because what we see is so much a question of what we're looking for." (From "Film as Film").

I'll keep you dangling until August because I'm giving myself a blog vacation now. In July you'll have to settle for some clips and quotes.

Sunday 12 June 2011

RIP Gunnar Fischer

Gunnar Fischer was undoubtedly one of the greatest of Swedish cinematographers and possibly in the world. But now, almost 101 years old, he has joined Bergman on the other side. He and Bergman were a team during the 1950s, and some years before, and you can easily divide Bergman's career into the Fischer phase and the Sven Nykvist phase which followed. Nykvist nowadays gets all the attention, but Fischer was important, if not instrumental, for making Bergman's films come alive, and to make Bergman a visual artist as well as a literary artist. Secrets of Women (Kvinnors väntan 1952), Summer With Monika (Sommaren med Monika 1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende 1955), The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957), Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället 1957) and The Magician (Ansiktet 1958) are some example of their impressive standard. They're all different, but at the same time the same, consistency mixed with experiments. Personally though my favourite is Summer Interlude (Sommarlek 1951), which has extraordinary passages of luminous out-door photography, as well as complex interior scenes with mirrors within mirrors.

And Fischer also worked with Carl Th. Dreyer on the one film Dreyer shot in Sweden, Två människor (1945) and on Arne Sucksdorff's fiction film Pojken i trädet (1961). And he worked with Hasse Ekman on several films, most impressively on Egen ingång (1956), which I write about in my thesis. Ekman and Bergman were competitors in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and one thing they competed about was who could do the longest take. Ekman and Fischer won, with a sequence-shot in We Three Debutantes (Vi tre debutera 1953), which also has beautiful, poetic cinematography of Stockholm in the sun-drenched morning mist.

I once interviewed Gunnar Fischer's son Jens Fischer, also a cinematographer and a great guy. My thoughts are now with him and his family. I didn't get to meet Gunnar up close and personal, but I've heard him speak, telling amazing anecdotes. That great shot in The Seventh Seal where the man dies, kicking and screaming on the road, and then suddenly becomes embalmed in sunlight, that was Fischer's idea, insisting that he keep the camera rolling, when Bergman wanted to wrap things up. It's clear that Fischer had a great eye for light and lighting.

Here are some clips:

Something more cheerful:

And an old trailer for Summer Interlude, with some misspelled names:

Sunday 5 June 2011

Steve McQueen

A friend once said that all men go through a Steve McQueen-phase. If it is just a phase, then that phase has been going on for quite some time for me, and I see no end yet. Even though he may have been a hard and perhaps unpleasant man in private, on screen he was fantastic, steely magnetism. His characters, to a large part consisting of self-sufficient loners who are not afraid of sacrificing themselves in a brutal and decaying world, appeals to me, some kind of romantic vision of how one should live. There was a time when I wished I was like that, and in a way I needed McQueen, as somebody to seek comfort and guidance from when the going got tough. Not anymore, but the romantic idea of that kind of life lingers on, and some quotes from his films have got a life of their own in my subconscious. There is some philosophy of life there, and it is fitting that he did his best work under the direction of Sam Peckinpah (two films from 1972, Junior Bonner and The Getaway) and Don Siegel (ten years earlier in Hell Is For Heroes).

His first real film was the very good boxing biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956, Robert Wise), where he uncredited plays a knife-wielding hooligan. But it was 1960, when he made The Magnificent Seven, that he became really big and it lasted for 20 years until he died of cancer, only 50 years old. The Magnificent Seven was also the first time he worked with director John Sturges and other films he was great in include The Great Escape (1963, also by Sturges), The Sand Pebbles (1965, Robert Wise again) and Bullitt (1968, Peter Yates), and somewhat different in The Reivers (1966, Mark Rydell), a comedy based on William Faulkner's last novel (Roger Ebert wrote at the time that the adaptation felt closer to Mark Twain).

But even if I do not have the same need for McQueen anymore, every now and then I get the urge to see some of his films. Just to see him act. Or perhaps not act, but be. Here is a clip from Le Mans (1971), a great film, and this is one of those quotes I mentioned above:

Philosophy on film can take many different forms.

Slightly amended 2013-12-09