What You See Is What You Get Photofest In “A Clockwork Orange,” Malcolm McDowell's character was forced to watch

movies without blinking. By MANOHLA DARGIS Published: July 8, 2011 Linkedin Sign In to E-Mail Print Reprints Share

IN “The Invisible Gorilla,” a book about what we see and what we think we see (it came out in paperback in June), two cognitive psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, describe an experiment they performed with a chess grandmaster named Patrick Wolff. They briefly showed him a diagram of a chess position from an “obscure master game,” gave him a set of pieces and asked him to re-create the position on an empty board from memory. He did so almost perfectly and then repeated his performance. Enlarge This Image Berlin International Film Festival Perhaps it's a lack of pattern recognition, not taste, that makes some people frustrated with Bela Tarr movies like “Turin Horse.” Enlarge This Image Film still from Paramount Vantage; Analysis by Tim J. Smith Researchers used kinder methods to track where viewers' eyes settled during a scene from “There Will Be Blood.” Enlarge This Image Enlarge This Image

“By recognizing familiar patterns,” they wrote, “he stuffed not one but several pieces into each of his memory slots.” Perhaps surprisingly, he couldn’t do the same with random arrangements on the board: “His memory was no better than that of a beginner, because his chess expertise and database of patterns were of little help.” Recognizing patterns is part of the film critic’s tool kit along with a good pen to take notes in the dark. You have to take in a lot of information when you watch a movie just once. The easy stuff is usually the story (boy meets girl) and characters (Romeo and

Mr. in the theorist David Bordwell’s wonderful phrase. like critics — who ideally are open to different types of narratives. Bordwell has shifted gears somewhat. the editing fast or slow. In the years since. the dinosaurs and the trippy space images. time and space in a particular way so we could understand movies.Juliet).” The viewers who didn’t see the gorilla suit made an error in perception that psychologists call “inattentional blindness. The same may hold true for those who watch “The Tree of Life” and want Terrence Malick to connect the dots overtly among his characters. shoot like Angelina and Brad? Was it a musical (but funny) or a comedy (with dancing)? Mostly. is everything else. They. faced the camera and pounded her chest before exiting. sometimes difficult cinema in school. the films don’t conform to familiar type. Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2000) but not necessarily in ways that many moviegoers may immediately understand. People walk and talk in movies like Mr. having watched nonmainstream. the acting broad or not? Also: Did they dance like Fred and Ginger. As its title suggests. a film by the Hungarian director Bela Tarr less because of the subtitles than because of the long takes during which little is explained.” Professors Chabris and Simons write. “but in fact we are aware of only a small portion of our visual world at any moment. potentially . They then asked viewers silently to count the number of passes made by the players in white and ignore those made by the players in black. The experiment that gives “The Invisible Gorilla” its title reveals something about how much we see and don’t.” the landmark 1985 book he wrote with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson in which that phrase appears. say. became instrumental in introducing cognitive theory into cinema studies. fragments of reality. and he and another collaborator. and that’s all they saw.) Was the lighting soft or hard. a woman in a gorilla suit walked in. as laid out in “The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. this tour de force makes the case that classical Hollywood (1917-60) employed specific stylistic techniques (like point of view and “invisible” editing) and arranged narrative logic. is “an excessively obvious cinema. (That’s the plot. It’s impossible not to see value in work that examines how movies make sense to us: cognitive studies remind you that we actively make meaning of our visual world. at festivals.” As the professors write. for pleasure and for work — may have developed specific cognitive habits. More than a decade ago Professors Chabris and Simons made a short film in which players passed around basketballs. Other moviegoers may just go with the flow. including how the boy and girl met and what happened next. that we take in information. She was on the scene for nine whopping seconds but only about half the people watching the video saw the gorilla: they expected to see the players passing the ball. “When people devote their attention to a particular area or aspect of their visual world.” Obvious if complex. the camera shaky or smooth. when I get to scribbling. and process them to understand it — and the films — before us. Noel Carroll. even when those unexpected objects are salient. how does the narrative work? Moviegoers fed a strict Hollywood diet may find themselves squirming through. Classical Hollywood. “We think we should see anything in front of us. they tend not to notice unexpected objects. The tricky part. That sounds unremarkable except that about midway through.

When they watch them.” This is when you don’t notice obvious changes.net.” Dr. Using an eye-tracking technology to trace the movements of pupils (when they’re somewhat fixed or darting about). As you suggest.” The narrative keeps us watching. they write. shuns classic compositions on the one hand or fast cuts and close-ups on the other. your perception is just lost. they are not the blooming. I e-mailed Mr.“when nothing is happening. have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies. who despite her profession doesn’t always notice such errors when she’s watching a film because “the more into the story I am.” We are. (We’re hard-wired to respond to faces. Bordwell to ask what he thought about the idea that at least part of the difficulty some viewers have with some films may be a matter of habits of cognition and visual perception. the less I notice things that are out of continuity. I think. posted an experiment on Mr. Smith writes. Depp’s face. though. “specifically. Smith was able to map what viewers looked at when they watched a somewhat static interlude from Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” (2007). “but.” What happens. Dr. including those produced by another phenomenon. But.” he continued. where they want to look is also where the director wants them to look. Bordwell’s blog that illustrated how a filmmaker can focus your gaze. If we don’t notice some disruptions — like the crew member wearing shades on deck near Johnny Depp in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — it’s probably because we’re busy following the action or watching Mr. Professors Chabris and Simons even quote a script supervisor. Filmmakers employ an arsenal of narrative strategies to hook and keep your attention. the viewer has to retune her perception. subject to all kinds of everyday illusions. plays with or disrupts narrative norms? What happens to even those enthusiastic moviegoers who — much like that chess master who was able to re-create chess pieces from memory because he recognized familiar patterns — know how Hollywood movies work? Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t. Tim Smith. or when the shot is distant or prolonged — we can’t so easily apply our narrative schemas.important and appear right where they are looking. “change blindness. Bordwell recently wrote on his blog. davidbordwell. “Viewers think they are free to look where they want. designed to be understood. in other words. “perceptually. In February a psychological researcher in Britain. like continuity flubs. like the chess master who didn’t recognize random positions. “Narrative is our ultimate top-down strategy in watching a movie. films are illusions. not reality. As Mr. buzzing confusion of life but rather simplified ensembles of elements. due to the subtle influence of the director and actors. classical narrative principles. if a director doesn’t direct your gaze in familiar ways. . “If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit. they’re effectively (frustrated) beginners and don’t like that feeling. the more we’re hooked.) Filmmakers use numerous strategies to keep us watching. cognitively.” he wrote back.” Both the real world and earlier movies we’ve seen teach us how to look at films: we look at movies and understand them through their norms.” The stronger the pull a narrative has on us.

“Once you do. but also find pleasure in unlocking their meanings.) The children who love the film may not understand it. but they embrace it. (That is until another child mocks them. beautiful films. . all kinds of stuff open up. some of them stand up and sway along. It’s a short film. some even clap. just a three-minute pan of a flower-draped fence. Tarr’s long. 2011. if the filmmaker is skillful. A version of this article appeared in print on July 10. and the children seem to bliss out on the images of the blooms and sky. in time they may not just dance to unfamiliar films. and the purity of the Ella Fitzgerald song that gives the movie its title. A friend who likes to show children avant-garde films at a cinematheque he helps run says that when he screens Bruce Baillie’s transporting short “All My Life” (1966).” Not everyone is open to abstract painting or Mr. And if their eyes remain open. on page AR13 of the New York edition with the headline: What You See Is What You Get. To me Bela Tarr movies have tremendous suspense! It’s like learning to enjoy brushwork in an abstract painting. but perhaps some of this resistance is fueled by cognitive habit rather than so-called taste.

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