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Gob-Smacked By Some Lines

Seductive details or artistic mastery?

'The Wind Rises.' All images © 2013 Nibariki - GNDHDDTK

After an intense three months of cognitive research, my brain needed a break. So I decided to chill out with a repeat viewing of favorite films.

Re-watching good films is a win-win situation for me: I figure I’ll either be rewarded by the hit of pleasure I had when I first saw the film, or be rewarded with the thrill of noticing something new.

At my third viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), I looked forward to seeing something new about aspects of the story that still eluded me. For example, were there specific transformational moments in Jiro’s character development? Is Jiro merely responding to events, or does he show self-awareness and growth?

From a cognitive perspective, what the viewer understands as a filmic “story” is the result of an interaction between what one views in the film, and what one expects to see. Much of this expectation is based on the viewer’s memory of similar types of events, genres, and films. We structure these prior experiences as story schema, or mental models. Along with these story schemata, what we take away from the film is also based on our goals, cultural background, context of viewing, and expertise.

In short, we mentally construct the story in real-time (at upwards of 24 fps), making inferences and filling-in details, attending to the visual and audio tracks in the film, and looking for and at information that confirms or contradicts our schemata.

Schema theory and cognitive science have had a tremendous impact on film and media studies over the past 30 years. First proposed by David Bordwell in the 1980s, and further developed by Noel Carroll, Gregory Currie, and others, the “cognitive turn” was a paradigm shift away from Freudian/Lacanian, auteur-driven, socio-political views of production that dominated literary and performing studies.

In fact, it was my recent participation at two conferences devoted to cognition and film (The Society of Cinema and Media Studies), and cognition and the humanities (Cognitive Futures in the Humanities) that prompted me to watch some animations.

But, I seem to bring my cognitive-oriented mind into whatever I do. So, I was well aware that my schemata for watching The Wind Rises included the story schema I previously constructed, as well as my goal to look out for Jiri’s transformation. It also included a model or mental image of Miyazaki’s visual style and how he paced and sequenced scenes. I remembered his signature linear style of outlining characters and major props, distinguishing them from his tonal blurring of contours in the setting and landscapes. I noticed this in many anime-inspired feature animations, including Studio Ghibli’s final film that I have yet to see, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There. Actually, this technique reminded me of Heinrich Wölfflin’s (1915) influential analysis of how the linear style of the Renaissance was differentiated from the later painterly style of the Baroque.

Bringing all these schemata and a large cappuccino to the computer, I clicked “play.” The scene of Jiri’s dream as he flies his plane over his village proceeded as I remembered. Miyazaki’s delicate line outlined Jiri’s plane (as expected), tonal contours of forests blurred in the background (as expected), a river meandered under the speeding plane (as expected), and a river current turned into (totally unexpected) dark and light lines. Not only didn’t I remember this from the previous viewing, but it contradicted the neat model I constructed of Miyazaki’s linear vs. painterly style. And it pulled me out of my goal of focusing attention to the story.

Getting gob-smacked by some lines is not a cognitive term. The correct term for this kind of distraction is “seductive details.” In educational and cognitive psychology research on educational multimedia, “seductive details” are interesting but useless bits that divert the learner’s attention away from the real point of the text (or multimedia and film). Cognitive experiments prove this by demonstrating that these learners recall fewer main points of the lesson than those not distracted. From this point of view, my story-constructing ability was blind-sided by the abstract lines.

Was this a distraction or a salient feature? It depends on your attitude regarding story vs. style. Many critics and industry pundits have an almost educational-psychology approach to audio-visual style: the main function of images, sound, temporal duration and pacing, is to “tell” the story.

Yes, the visual, audio, and temporal elements have to serve the story; without them, you cannot have a cinematic story. But these details serve aesthetic needs apart from their story function. How the images, sound, pacing and sequencing are handled – individually and together – is a major source of the audience’s feelings about the total viewing experience.

Miyazaki’s lines led me away from the story to focus my attention on his visual style, wondering why the lines was there and why now in the film. Apart from depicting water current, maybe the dream sequence was becoming too routinized. Could Miyazaki have placed this unexpected detail as a cognitive spotlight, re-directing the eye to the screen and cuing me to pay attention to something – visual or not – that may happen? (Indeed, the plane begins to fly over the village, depicting people and leading into Jiri’s encounter with his muse, the Italian plane designer). 

Certainly what one takes away from a film should be more than a recall of story events.  There was something delightful about being pulled out of the narrative and thrust into the visual artistry, contemplating zigzagging lines, and then being gently dropped back into the story once again. There was something awe-inspiring in being captivated by the director’s mastery at seducing my mind.

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