"Open the pod bay doors, HAL." - Dave Bowman, 2001: A Space Odyssey
I like to reference the visual arts, and in particular the medium of cinema, when talking about facets of cognition and perception that inform our view of the world. What better source springs to mind to relate to when discussing how reality is constructed by the brain, than examples of directorial vision that fabricate intoxicating worlds that captivate and inspire audiences. With this in mind I would like to offer a perspective on the influences of two of my personal favourite directors: Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick.
These two giants of contemporary cinema exhibit certain tropes that hint at a genius for constructing worlds on celluloid which leak (or even flood as of blood torrenting from an elevator) out into the actual world and permeate the consciousness of the viewer. Not to mention the cultural milieu in which we live…
Given my interests in how we view and construct our reality, how our perceptual apparatus, influenced by our cognitive capabilities creates and immerses us in the world around us, these auteurs stand out particularly. Their filmic motifs have had significant influence on how I think and view things.
First Scott. Perhaps it’s a common geographical ancestry (he’s from South Shields), but I feel an affinity towards Sir Ridley. I admire his stylistic approach to visual form (I hold up my hands – I am very much into visual aesthetic, possibly to the exclusion of substance), as well as his plain speaking (gruff?) exterior. His sublime vision has strongly influenced cinema, particularly in the science fiction and future-dystopian genre (Blade Runner of course).
Certainly in the earlier pictures (some of the later Hollywood offerings I feel Ridley has succumbed to CGI and to formulaic ways of doing things) there was a distinctive and affecting visual style. Blade Runner, Legend, The Duellists, Alien all stood out with a painterly form. His style exploited the pure enhanced power of the medium to manifest the richness of imagination, the afterglow as of a psychedelic trip, emphasising colours and sharpness of vision, enriching the external perceptual world beyond any mundaneity of actual content in scene. He showed that film could represent everyday reality (as well as realising far more fantastical worlds) as truly beautiful, with the camera a mode of enriching experience. This as opposed to merely facsimilising, representing or simply documenting what we ‘see’ as a matter of course. This resonates with me because I strive always to understand how we can optimise our perceptual faculties to interpret, project and render reality in as striking and aesthetic a way as possible. In Kantian terms we can bring richness to the world ‘out there’ by our imagination interacting with our sensory input. It is a two way process.
Kubrick, meanwhile, brings the intellect to full force in his composition of what is laid bare on screen. There is a meticulous, cognitive element to the whole perceived aesthetic. (Possibly to the detriment of emotional substance.) He was noted for his obsessive detail, his dictatorial style in crafting even the minutiae of every frame of every scene. Much has been written about the exacting process actors were put through with scores of takes for even the 'simplest' of scenes (eg. Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, or Shelley Duvall in The Shining). Conspiracy theories abound with respect to symbolism 'hidden' clearly in mundane background detail (see the film, Room 237, which is born of a fan's obsessive deconstruction of the 'meaning' of The Shining).
But this is where the mystique proliferates. For even the most ‘mundane’ of scenes might encompass a wealth of information, of totally controlled composition where nothing is left to chance. All elements of background as well as foreground were carefully placed, coordinated, calibrated. For he was seeking to control, influence, manipulate, stimulate the unconscious as much as focus in on the principal scene elements. All was suggestive. All was there to enable endless supposition after the fact about the meaning and significance of what had been viewed. The consummate magician, he went to great ends to set up a simple scene, in order to not necessarily misdirect as to embellish perceptions. He strove to completely dominate the perceptual experience and to masterfully immerse the viewer in HIS world, in order to effectively replace the viewer’s perspective with one he has engineered.
That speaks to me at many levels. Most notably though, in terms of how one may go about crafting complete and transformational experiences for self or others, to instigate a carefully created perspective in order to allow one to fully embrace that and see differently. Essentially to understand and master one’s own view of the world by delving into the cognitive machinery underlying, to tinker, to optimise, to have ‘fullest’ control as possible over the perception generated as a consequence. 2001: A Space Odyssey still holds up for its meticulousness in detail, it's profound themes of cognitive and technological evolution. But generally because it was a bloody good rendition of what space flight may well be like without the bells and whistles (and sound in a vacuum), and the representation of worlds in our solar system even before we 'got' there (being released a full year ahead of actual Apollo 11 touch down in the lunar surface for instance).
When all is said and done, we can take lessons from the likes of these artists among others and seek to engineer the narrative and experience of the world that suits our own individual temperament. We can realise how much craft and skill is involved in just seeing, and being in the world, and we can seek to direct our own quality of that experience. By learning from others. This comes down to composition of scene as much as goal and vision underlying what we want to achieve from that scene. We can reorganise, we can have purpose to change around elements of the scene to have unconscious impact, to embellish the overall effect. This can help change the ‘habit’ of perception.
Our eyes rove about the environment, sampling information in staccato-like fashion, driven by top-down attention (expectation, intention) as much as elements in the scene itself. Our very beliefs and expectations will inform what is processed, and how that information is woven into the internal model of the outside world. This doesn't have to be done 'blindly'. With a directorial vision of our own, we can begin to craft the detail, to select the information relevant to that vision. We can render the scene through the lens we choose to view through. To light the set and consequently edit the footage. The story is our's to tell. Unless of course one is happy to sit back, switch off the lights, grab the popcorn, and revel in the stories that someone else wants to tell. Each to their own...
That’s my personal perspective anyway – and it’s no coincidence that I seek the intellectually driven/visual stylistic or cognitively-domineering examples I have chosen rather than more emotionally driven examples. That is not to say there is not a purposefully crafted emotional component to the films of these directors, but rather that I seek inspiration from the visual aesthetic and stylistical composition of the movies they have made. Perhaps in future I will give a further take on the how we may craft our own emotionally driven narrative, with reference to appropriate cinematic examples of style and mise-en-scene.
As a postscript, one of the latter films in Kubrick's canon that failed to come to the screen whilst he was alive was in fact taken up by a collaborator of his and given a take unique to that particular director's style. And presumably a very different, and more emotional tenor as is the signature of that filmaker. I am referring of course to one Steven Spielberg in his rendition of AI: Artificial Intelligence. One can only speculate how much different this would have been in Kubrick's hands, perhaps building on themes given genesis to in 2001. Notably, where machine intelligence may evolve in the sphere of inter-human social interaction, from cold and inhuman beginnings to something more calculating and meta human perhaps (here I speculate and extrapolate wildly!). Instead the resultant movie is very Spielbergian, focusing on family, childhood wonder and in my own humble opinion overly saccharine and hard to swallow (I came very close to walking out of this film as it really exasperated me - and I am normally a huge fan of Spielberg...).
And how is this relevant to adventure you might ask? I digress into areas that inform my take on visual perception and styles of cognition. Yet this is tied to my view of the world both aesthetically and in terms of the action-possibilities to explore further and construct my own model of what is 'out there'. Adventure for me is about painting the world in it's richest and most stimulating form. The natural canvas is just that - nature. And wilderness represents this canvas of nature at it's grandest scale. As the director of my own experience I can seek to construct my artwork within the studio, through illusion and technical proficiency to create a world within constraints. Or, budgetary limitations aside, I can seek to make the movie out on location, showcasing the natural environment in all it's glory, and indeed weaving it into the narrative as a crucial character in itself. This requires vision, imagination, and impetus to get out there and boldly tackle the challenge of shooting 'in the wild'. But the dividends will be prominent onscreen! This leads into further posts on how our visual perceptual system encompasses processing streams for dealing with action-relevant information as key to building representations of the world out there. And of course a further digression on the vagaries of film making (and photography) on location in the inspirational wilds of the UK!
"Viddy well little brother, Viddy well" - Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange
" I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this..." - Mark Watney, The Martian
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.