“A teeter-totter between stability and collapse?”

Well, cognitive psychologists are it again. According to this article from the Times, they’re comparing the frequency of cuts in contemporary Hollywood films to the natural rhythms with which the human brain perceives visual stimuli. The article describes this latter phenomenon as follows:

Pink noise is a characteristic signal profile seated somewhere between random and rigid, and for utterly mysterious reasons, our world is ablush with it. Start with a picture of Penélope Cruz, say, or a flamingo on a lawn, and decompose the picture into a collection of sine waves of various humps, dives and frequencies. However distinctive the original images, if you look at the distribution of their underlying frequencies, said Jeremy M. Wolfe, a vision researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “they turn out to have a one over f characteristic to them.”

[…] Track the pulsings of a quasar, the beatings of a heart, the flow of the tides, the bunchings and thinnings of traffic, or the gyrations of the stock market, and the data points will graph out as pink noise. Much recent evidence from reaction-time experiments suggests that we think, focus and refocus our minds, all at the speed of pink.

Impressed as I am that researchers would think to investigate this in the first place, I gotta admit that I’m inclined to ask the following question in response: So what? Hasn’t film form always been thought to originate, at least partially, in the mind of the individual or individuals involved in the conception and planning of a film? I’m especially skeptical about the following claim:

Plot synopsis: Movies today are, on average, much pinker than the films of half a century ago. Their shot structure has greater coherence [my emphasis], a comparatively firmer grouping together of similarly sized units that ends up lending them a frequency distribution ever more in line with the lab results of human reaction and attention times. “Roughly since 1960,” Dr. Cutting said, “filmmakers have been converging on a pattern of shot length that forces the reorientation of attention in the same way we do it naturally.”

Who would call something like, say, “The Bourne Ultimatum” or “Quantum of Solace” more visually coherent than an older movie whose average shot length is 9+ seconds? If anything, the sense of disorientation that this style of découpage engenders is a reflection of modernity’s (or, rather, post-post-post-post-modernity’s) impact upon human perception and cognition, not the other way around. Of course, as Walter Benjamin argued in his writings on Soviet Montage and as Georg Simmel argued in his writings on the metropolis, the relationship between our immediate environment and our minds is nothing if not a two-way street, so who knows.

As Jean-Luc Godard once put it, “cinema today is better fitted than either philosophy or the novel to convey the basic data of consciousness.” The data in question, however, isn’t all that basic.


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2 Responses to ““A teeter-totter between stability and collapse?””

  1. Good ol Stu Blair Says:

    Hi dan. So I came across the paper for this study you’re discussing, and I think you might be misinterpreting what they mean by ‘their shot structure has greater coherence’. They weren’t making any statements about like the general visual cohesiveness of films today, but saying that over time films have adhered closer and closer to the 1/f “formula” for movie making.

    The formula basically seems to be that shot lengths start out long, when people have more attention span, and then get shorter as you build towards the climax. Old movies tend to have more of an even distribution of shot lengths, where super-formulaic modern movies usually adhere to the 1/f curve like its their job.

    Makes sense to me.. I often feel like I know exactly what’s gonna happen in modern action movies (in terms of the flow of action and excitement, not the actual plot, though that can be quite predictable too), but old movies make me feel kind of disoriented and randomly impatient.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Hey S2, thanks for readin’. I hope I don’t come off as being dismissive of cognitive science’s potential for helping to illuminate the ways in which we experience art, because I definitely think it’s good stuff. But since you’ve actually read the paper (whereas I clearly have not), I gotta ask: Do the researchers take into account the shift in perspective implied by a cut? Surely the brain responds differently to an edit that replaces a long shot (far away from the object or event of primary interest) with a close-up than it does to something like a jump cut (implying a leap in time without changing the camera’s position).

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