A film worth hollering about.

You know, I don’t mean to neglect this blog. Contrary to popular perception, college professors actually do more work during the summer than during the academic year: planning courses, researching, writing, etc. Multiple projects have reared their heads and, since they have deadlines and since blog entries do not … In any case, I have a few entries in the on-deck circle. Stay tuned..

Though my contributions are exceedingly small, I’m nevertheless quite pleased to be associated in even the smallest way with The Big Lebowski: I was recently interviewed by Duane Dudek, film critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, about the film’s status as a cult object. Duane, a very nice chap, talked with me for half an hour or so about the nature of cult films, and the specific appeal of The Big Lebowski.

Though only a sliver of this comment remains in the article, my own take on the cult appeal of TBL is that it is a surprisingly rich and dense text that rewards multiple viewings. Not only is the plot actually quite complex (it took me a couple viewings to sort it out, and at least one more to realize that it — like other Coen Brothers’ films The Man Who Wasn’t There, Blood Simple, and Miller’s Crossing — was a riff on film noir. Beyond the plotting, though, the film’s characters, situations, and gags are plentiful, multi-layered, visually inventive, and bizarre. As I am fond of saying, The Big Lebowski just keeps giving and giving and giving. Every time I see it, I find something I had missed, or something that may be read in another way. It is no wonder to me that hordes of beer-guzzling bowling enthusiasts recently descended on Milwaukee to celebrate this film. Few films merits such treatment. I suppose it’s up to me to start up the Big Trouble in Little China Fest… (I actually have an old essay about BTILC on that venerable site.)

Clearly, Shirley MacLaine is enamored of Jerry Lewis.

For some reason, another journal also saw fit to interview me recently. Leo Collis, a writer for Film International (full disclosure: I am a frequent contributor of book, DVD, and film reviews to this publication), recently chatted with me via Skype about my book Tashlinesque. Leo’s interview appears in a recent update to Film International‘s wide-ranging website. Forthcoming on that same site is his full review of my book, which I look forward to reading. (Also forthcoming in Film International is a review that I wrote of the semi-recent Blu-Ray release of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in case you’re curious.)

Finally, one of the chief reasons for my absence from this blog was that I was researching and writing a  paper, which I recently delivered at the annual conference of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image. Studying the workings of the brain and mind as a framework for understanding our grasp of movies — this is the mission of this organization, in a nutshell, and it is one that interests me greatly. I am no scientist or psychologist, but I do have a strong interest in cognition, evolutionary psychology, and the mental processes that underpin vision and narration. I’d only once dabbled in this area before, for the Visible Evidence conference in Istanbul in 2010; that was for a paper about using certain principles of cognitive science to explore the use of animation in documentary film. The paper I delivered about a week ago represented for me a more thorough exploration of the overlapping topics of cognition and cinema.

cool blue

My recent paper — which I hope to revise for publication — used a scene in Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Un Flic (French slang meaning “a cop”) as a way to ask questions about the specific visual-cognitive processes that we activate when we detect “fakery” in cinematic special effects. For multiple shots in the scene I analyzed, Melville uses, for budgetary reasons, a toy train set and a toy helicopter to stand in for a full-size train and a full-size helicopter. The fact that the vehicles are models is exceedingly obvious to any viewer; recognition takes less than half a second, I’d estimate.

Digging around in psychology literature about visual cognition was a new and rewarding kind of research for me; I’ve never drawn on scientific papers for any of my own writing. Combining it with my own knowledge of film history and cinematic narration was quite satisfying.

Ultimately, I argue in that paper that, in a typical viewing situation, the visual-cognitive information gleaned by our foveal system “agrees” with that gleaned by our parafoveal system; if there are disparities between these two information streams, we are cued to look for further disparities. Such disparities include but are not limited to the volume of light reflected by a small object (the toy train) when we are “told” that we are looking at a large object (a real train); the sudden movements that give away the lightweight nature of the toy helicopter, when we know that real helicopters move more subtly; the uniform leaning of a toy tree when we know that a real tree moves gently in a wind, not to mention the chaotic flutterings of its leaves. When the parafoveal and foveal systems do not agree, again, we are “primed” to find other flaws in the visual information. In this case, I argue, the principal flaw we find has to do with the film’s story information: we are effectively lied to. Not about the real world, but about the nature of the story world, or diegesis. Once we pick up on that “lie,” we use it to assess the trustworthiness of the storyteller/director. And, as I found, the general critical and popular discourse on Un Flic unfailingly mentions the obvious miniatures, with many commentators going so far as to say that those toy vehicles “take them out” of the film entirely, or, more severely, make them question or even dislike Melville as a filmmaker. (I used the user reviews of Un Flic on IMDB as a case study.)

I found the linkage between visual perception, narrative perception, and critical evaluation to be fascinating, and, as I say, I do hope to expand this paper and publish it. I got some excellent feedback at the conference, and need to incorporate those ideas into it. Your ideas are welcome, too.

Coming up soon(ish): a long essay about Neil Young’s misunderstood album Trans. That’s one of the things I like about blogging. I now have a forum to write about not only cognitive film studies, but oddball albums by rock titans. Quite exciting, this computer magic.

Eye see you.
I see. You?
I C U.
Aye. See you!


Posted on June 25, 2012, in Comedy, Film and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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