Sunday, January 18, 2009

Films and Emotions

Why does one love a particular film? Is it because it is well-made, or because it is very creative, or is it because it appeals to some instinct or emotion? I posit that it is almost exclusively the latter. We love certain films because they move us.

Film-watching is an immersive experience. The audio-visual flood, the big hall, the darkness, the "vibes of others" all help to transport oneself to another reality. This transportation is primarily affective. Mainstream films use "formulas" - well known techniques - to manipulate the audience. Avant-garde films also use techniques, but they are creative: the techniques are new ones. This manipulation is admissible because the audience submits to being a willing participant in the phenomenon when the ticket is bought.

People go to horror movies to be scared. They go to romantic films to feel love. They watch war movies to feel threatened and exalted. They go to detective films to be surprised. They watch dramas to see people in various stages of un-armed conflict. And so on and so forth.

A cerebral and sensual pleasure, as opposed to an affective or emotional payoff, is the future of art, especially of films. As humanity evolves, it will evolve to the detriment of emotions and instincts. Emotions will lose their sway on the human mind. Human evolution throughout its history, has been led by the growth of its neo-cortex.

As media explodes in accessibility, and the audience grows in maturity, three things are happening:
  1. Formulas are no longer working as they used to. Emotional manipulation through a certain technique can only be successful so many times. Films have to be more and more creative, to move their audiences.

  2. Films, especially in the art circles at present, are no longer focused on moving the hearts or to create an emotional payoff. Art films are becoming more and more sincere. They are presenting exceptionally realistic scenarios, exquisitely rendered and realized, and present a slice of the human condition based on an understanding of deeper human impulses. A great film director has to understand a great deal of human nature as well. He/She cannot merely think in moral adages and can no longer have romantic views of humanity.

  3. In the mainstream, however, fantastical (e.g. the superhero genre, the science fiction genre, the "gizmo" genre) and tragic films are becoming more and more successful. It is becoming increasingly impossible to present an escapist, feel-good tale in the human realm. We are too astute to naively believe that an all-too human protagonist can save himself, or that a divine power will intervene to save us.

    People who nostalgically remember the emotional simplicity of the films of the past (e.g. of Bollywood in the 60s and 70s) fail to realize that a simplistic film released today will almost certainly flop. With maturity, our ability to be immersed in a fake scenario diminishes. We can no longer believe fairy tales. The tale has to be presented with much more attention to the causal relationships. Audiences are no longer willing to suspend disbelief to the same degree as they used to.
Does a film fail if it does not move oneself? Yes, if it seeks to move; and if the audience seeks to be moved.

Is it escapist to want to be moved by a film? I think that in a certain sense, it is. Intense affective experiences take us away from our daily life, even though they fail to change us in any fundamental way. After seeing the very moving film Grave of the Fireflies, one of my friends remarked that he had had a life-changing experience. I seriously doubt his statement. And if he had indeed been transformed, then it is much more likely that the film provided the grain of sand that tipped the scales, that it was the culminating moment of a long period of introspection or growth.

Emotions are a fundamental part of humanity. Without affective energy, people may complain of not "feeling alive" - perhaps not realizing that that "aliveness" is that of the inner self. I consider depression (i.e. lack of affective energy) to be the normal state of a human being in the modern world. The chasm between films (or any work of art, for that matter) which increasingly fail to provide an affective kick to us (because of our state of non-naivete), and our higher and higher levels of depression, may continue to increase.

On a lighter note, want a breathless exposition of existentialism?
Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

(From the film Naked by Mike Leigh, 1993)

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