Plenty of words are written about what people think of movies but less attention is devoted to how we actually see them.
With the help of cognitive scientist Tim Smith at Birbeck College in London, his eye movement (‘gaze behaviour’) was recorded and the dissected (UK viewers can watch the episode on BBC iPlayer by clicking here – the piece starts around 23:06)
Smith has previously written a guest blog for David Bordwell’s site which accompanied videos showing computers tracking an audience’s eye movement as they watched There Will Be Blood (2007) – a good film for this kind of study with its interesting visual style and editing rhythms.
The article is a fascinating example of science being used to explain how we process art and covered such topics as why we don’t always notice continuity errors, how a viewers gaze can be directed and the importance of motion contrast.
Audience behaviour whilst watching a movie is a key part of how we first process a film.
Yet most reviews don’t actually tell you about the circumstances in which they were first seen.
On the one hand, why should they?
I don’t particularly want to read about the sandwich Peter Bradshaw had before he saw a film at a Soho screening room as that probably has little bearing on the film.
Yet, if critics are honest they are probably influenced by things they never write about.
For example, I once witnessed the late Alexander Walker (film critic for the London Evening Standard) get angry at a PR person right before a screening of Moonlight Mile (“If there’s no press notes, there’s no review!”).
Are you telling me that for at least the first ten minutes of that film, his overall judgement wasn’t affected by this outburst?
The default justification given for a critical verdict on a film is that it is a ‘matter of opinion’, but there are deeper factors that contribute to that opinion in the first place.
The following areas are worth considering:
In 1943, George Orwell wrote about the “drug-like pleasures of cinema and radio” in a book review for The Listener.
In 1968 audiences used the star-gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a backdrop to taking LSD (which someone even did for real back in 2010).
In 2010 people were reportedly depressed that they had to return to the real world after seeing Avatar.
Compared to painting and theatre, cinema is still a relatively new art form but its unique blend of quasi-religious ritual (the act of watching a film in a darkened room) and the intensity of the very best works do indeed make it drug-like.
The story involves a highly addictive psychoactive drug that causes “a dreamy state of intoxication and bizarre hallucinations”.
Sounds an awful lot like cinema itself.
Maybe further ‘clinical trials’ like the ones run by Tim Smith are needed.