Thursday, January 14, 2010

Avatar's Success Explained by Science!

Despite my earlier snarky comment, I do recommend you see Avatar, if you are one of the two or three who haven't already seen it -- though only if you see it in 3D. Seeing Avatar in 2D would be a waste of time, money, and probably brain cells (because I am pretty sure you leave the theater more stupid than you go in).

Well, Jonah Lehrer, the nice young man pictured here, has an interesting piece in Wired that suggests an explanation for the success of this movie. In fact, it potentially explains a much wider phenomenon. Ever since the premier of Star Wars in 1976, I think I've noticed a dieing out of thought-provoking, intellectually interesting movies, and a growing abundance of stupifying gobs of eyeball candy like Avatar. I can remember the day when they could make a quiet, didactic think-piece like Twelve Angry Men and actually make money. It's hard to imagine anyone doing that today.

Lehrer's explanation is suggested by an experiment by a series of experiments. The first one:
The experiment was simple: they 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, the scientists 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.
Across the audience, these regions of the brain "clicked together" in scenes that triggered them. What about the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with logical analysis? Well, that's just it: there was no clicking together there.
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 while wearing 3-D glasses - 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.
The idea is that movies, especially the eye-popping kind enabled by new technologies really do rot your brain. This could explain the progressive stupefaction of film that we see today.

Or, the process could be even broader than that, something that is built into cultures of certain sorts. Arguably, what I see happening to movies has happened before, long before moving pictures were invented:
The games of the circus and the amphitheater absorbed the interest and coarsened the taste of the public, and drama died in the arena, another martyr to Roman holidays.Through emphasis on acting and scenery rather than on plot or thought, the drama gradually yielded the stage to mimes and pantomimes.
Source: Will Durant, Ceasar and Christ, Volume 3 of the Story of Civilization.


Skip said...

Hi Prof. Hunt - No offense, but this blog post sounds a lot like a grumpy old duff simply saying "I don't like this new-fangled stuff - things were better in my day".

Firstly, while I can't find an exact figure, Roger Ebert says this about Twelve Angry Men: "It got ecstatic reviews and a spread in Life magazine, but was a disappointment at the box office." Spectacle has always been big business. Witness Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, etc. In addition Disney films were big box office back then as were musicals like South Pacific and The King and I. I think you need something more than Twelve Angry Men to support the idea that movies, itself a vague and nebulous concept here, were somehow more intelligent in some ill-defined past than they are today. And don't forget, your paragon of quality cinema was remade in 1997. Sure, you don't find think-pieces at the IMAX but that doesn't mean that quieter films don't get made. Witness films such as Tideland, The Lost World, Tape, Waking Life, and Coffee and Cigarettes. How about movies like Inland Empire and Spider? Let's add Errol Morris documentaries. There is a lot of challenging cinema to be had but you can't simply go to your local mall theatre and find all of it.

The concept of "making money" on a film has also changed a lot in the past 50+ years. In 1957, a film basically earned money by selling tickets whereas today there are many subsidiary markets such as DVDs, cable TV, and the like. With so many distribution paths today, I'd say that there are many more quiet think-pieces to be had now, it's just that you may not find them all at a mall's multiplex. Cinemas are no longer the sole place to see a movie.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating. In all fairness perhaps people are already stupified by the obsessive "right vs left", "climate vs no-climate change" etc. that their brains need to go on vacation in the theatre.

One can perhaps also apply the analasys of the cortical areas to what happened in the brain when they heard an Obama campaign speech? or a Dick Cheney murmuring?

Lester Hunt said...

Palmer, Actually I am a grumpy old duff who thinks that things were (in some ways) better in his day, but I try to not talk that way in public because it's a cliche. I also avoided making snarky comments about my late mother in law, tho' we never did get along.

I was excited to hear about the 1997 remake of 12 Angry, but I see it was made for TV. As Marshall McLuhan claimed many times, that is a relevantly different medium. (Sadly, it seems never to have been released on VHS or DVD. Damn. The cast is fantastic too!) I wonder if these think-pieces have all be shunted off to TV. That would be consistent with the thesis of my post.

The example of Twelve Angry Men, as I'm sure you know, was meant to be illustrative and not probative. Believe it or not, though, I think Ben Hur actually makes my point. If you compare it to Avatar, it's like night and day. I'll try to write a post about that.

Skip said...

OK, I stand corrected on your grumpy old duff status.

You wrote: "I wonder if these think-pieces have all be shunted off to TV. That would be consistent with the thesis of my post."

I gave examples: "Witness films such as Tideland, The Lost World, Tape, Waking Life, and Coffee and Cigarettes. How about movies like Inland Empire and Spider? Let's add Errol Morris documentaries."

None of these "think-pieces" were made for TV and most are contemporary films. Or are you saying that these films don't qualify as "think-pieces"?

I get that Twelve Angry Men was meant to be illustrative, but you seem intent on relegating Avatar to a probative state and ignoring the non-Avatars out there today. You have cherry-picked Cameron's film for use as a stand-in for all of cinema today and intimate that it is interchangeable with every other film out there and that is simply not the case. Contrasting Ben Hur and Avatar to illustrate a stupefaction pattern in thousands of films? With a sample size that small you can demonstrate pretty much whatever you want.

To be honest, I have not seen Avatar so it could very well be the dumbest movie ever made. And there are certainly aspects of current films that annoy the crap out of me, e.g. - the incredible number of cuts in many films. Some movies don't seem to have a shot that lasts for more than a second. But I do know that not every film is edited that way and that there are plenty of "think-pieces" made yet today.

Have a good weekend.

Anonymous said...

Consider the fact that before the 20th century most people were entertained by reading novels. The early 20th century cinema was a unique experience and people were entertained by Charlie Chaplin screen novelties. Not until the "talkies" of the early 30's did movies become a serious vehicle for introspection. But consider the Wizard of Oz and all of its cinematic effects and you can see how the American mind is always drawn to fantasy, especially during the Great Depression, WWII etc. It may be a commentary on these times that Avatar is such a draw.

Colin McGinn has an interesting book "How Movies Are Made" which discusses the cognitive aspect of movie watching and our willful suspension of reality when we watch movies.