Do movies shape the way we imagine things or vice versa?
June 10, 2009 3:56 PM   Subscribe

Do movies shape the way we imagine things or vice versa? I notice that when I dream/daydream/concept that I often think very cinematically (meaning imagining things staged/put together/"filmed" even in a motion picture narrative style). What I wonder is if one type of visual conception is a result of the other.

I notice that when I dream/daydream/concept that I often think very cinematically (meaning imagining things staged/put together/"filmed" even in a motion picture narrative style). What I wonder is if one type of visual conception is a result of the other.

For instance, are the more cinematic conventions of imagination simply the way we as people imagine things and of course filmmakers eventually found ways to express that kind of imagination with technology OR are we so surrounded by ideas expressed in that visual fashion that we adopt them in to the way we conceive things and that informs the way we imagine and dream.

Also, I've often wondered after seeing pieces of ancient artwork if the flat-plane 2d style was also a product of the way we imagined and visualized the world around us or just technical limitations of the time. Did the advent of proscenium space thinking force a reconception of space for people in their own thoughts?

Sorry to go all late night dorm-room bongsmoke on you guys, but I've wondered this for a really long time and would love to get some different viewpoints from the hive on this.
posted by Senor Cardgage to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I would say they definitely influence how we imagine things, seeing as how older folks tend to have dreams in black and white, like the television they grew up with (not the best source I know, but it's only nine in the morning here....).
posted by smoke at 4:07 PM on June 10, 2009

since some subset of "we" are the people actually making the movies, the answer to your question is "both." also, in case you don't know already, the animating principle behind the surrealism art movement was to bring the dreamworld and imagination into art.
posted by rhizome at 4:27 PM on June 10, 2009

Fascinating question: and one that could be answered experimentally by showing movies to people who live in a culture without them. I'd bet it's been tried, and some googling will eventually yield an answer.

My guess is that the film conventions that have endured have done so because they connect with pre-existing mental structures. For instance, think about the cut. On the face of it, it seems artificial, because real vision is relatively continuous. If you see someone looking out a window, you can't instantly switch to seeing what he's looking at from his point of view.

However, that device matches narrative techniques that predate the cinema by thousands of years: "He looked out the window. Outside, a girl was sitting on the grass, playing with a puppy..."

Same thing with voice overs. In real life, there aren't disembodied voices, but they have always existed in stories: "Mark waited for the doctor. He tapped his feet. 'How long am I going to have to sit here?' he thought."
posted by grumblebee at 4:39 PM on June 10, 2009

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago - it comes up a lot in my life.

I am only 33, but grew up in the US with almost no pop culture visual/video references at all. No movies, no TV, very little radio. Of course, I would see things at school or on TV when staying with friends, but I cannot remember having seen more than three or four movies and maybe twice as many TV shows as a child. I joke that I have more in common with 90 year olds than with peers.

In any case, three weeks ago I was reading a dramatic scene set in Alexandria (Hypatia's death) and noticed my mind's eye is starting to shift its focus. As a kid, I would have read the same thing and thought of wide, open scenes. Almost all of my childhood memories of narratives are broad - as if I were standing right there watching it. Straightforward.

But over the past ten to fifteen years, as I am exposed to (and sometimes delighted by) modern cinematography (which to me is a kind of hard choppy edginess), this is changing. So instead of taking in the whole scene, I was flashing from bloody roof tiles held in a worker's hand to a shot of a body being dragged away seen through the wheel of her chariot, etc. NONE of my childhood memories of things I read are like that.

It is a little weird. I would conjure up the same details, but the presentation is so different. My imagination isn't changing that much, but the way I use it seems to be.
posted by Tchad at 5:06 PM on June 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I recall reading something that compared the story telling of Dickens to cinematic story telling--that the techniques he used on the page were quite similar to those used in movies. (Can't recall source). Of course, that beggars the question: "Do novels shape the way we see things or vice versa?"
posted by largecorp at 7:17 PM on June 10, 2009

Your question is "Do movies shape the way we imagine things or vice versa? " and you use the word "imagine." But besides reflecting the way we imagine things, I think movies reflect the process in which we actually experience events - more than the way we imagine them. For instance, a movie might cut from an omniprescient point of view (kind of broad and god-like) to one persons point of view to another person's point of view all within a minute. I think this reflects how we often experience events - we can see it from a broader, more analytical god-like view, we can see it from our own personal point of view, and often we can also simultaneously "get" or feel someone else's point of view - all at the same time. In this respect, I think it is our own process of experiencing life that shapes the way movies are made.
posted by gt2 at 9:34 PM on June 10, 2009

This is one of my favorite quotes about photography and I think it kind of relates to your question. From Susan Sontag's On Photography:
Few people in this society share the primitive dread of cameras that comes from thinking of the photograph as a material part of themselves. The true modern primitivism is not to regard the image as a real thing; photographic images are hardly that real. Instead, reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras. It is common now for people to insist about their experience of a violent event in which they were caught up -- a plane crash, a shoot-out, a terrorist bombing -- that ‘it seemed like a movie.’ This is said, other descriptions seeming insufficient, in order to explain how real it was. While many people in non-industrialized countries still feel apprehensive when being photographed, divining it to be some kind of trespass, an act of disrespect, a sublimated looting of the personality or the culture, people in industrialized countries seek to have their photographs taken -- feel that they are images, and are made real by photographs.
posted by bradbane at 12:29 AM on June 11, 2009

My father is a film historian. I emailed him this question. Here's his reply:

I've never come across any literature about the earliest audience reaction to cuts in movies. However, the basic grammar of movies that we now take for granted had to be learned by early audiences. We do know that the 1895 audience who saw the Lumiere film of a train arriving at a station ducked their heads because they thought the train was going to roll off the screen and crush them. The did not conceive the difference between two and three dimensional cinema.

The following references might throw some light on the subject you raise.

1. At the beginning of the 20th century Georges Melies, father of the 'trick film,' was shooting a parade when his camera jammed. By the time he managed to get the camera started up again the parade had passed on and a funeral procession had taken its place. Later that day when Melies developed and projected his movie he was astounded to see that a coach in the procession had turned into a hearse. That was in all probability the first reaction of anyone to a cut. Of course, he realized what had happened, and that put him on the path to making his famous series of trick films.

2. In her book, "When the Movies were Young," Linda Arvidson, the first wife of D.W.Griffith recounts the reaction of Griffith's bosses at the Biograph studios when he showed them a movie he had made in which a character was not just shown in long shot but depicted via several cuts showing parts of his/her body: face, hands, etc. The bosses asked Griffith what on earth he was doing. Griffith's told them that Dickens described his characters that way. The bosses were duly impressed and Griffith's film was released with all those cuts intact.

3. Griffith, by the way, claimed that he'd invented the close-up, which was quite untrue. Edwin S. Porter was using close-ups before Griffith had made his first film. We don't know the audience reactions to Porter's close-ups, such as the really striking one of a robber firing his guns at the audience that concludes "The Great Train Robbery" (1903). Porter also has a cutaway and parallel action in "The Great Train Robbery," but only the year before, when he made "The Life of an American Fireman," he had not yet grasped the idea of a follow-through shot -- something that would soon seem elementary in film-making.

4. The earliest audience reactions to sound movies were astonishment -- like that of Melies on seeing a coach turn into a hearse. I quote one of those reactions in my book "Birth of the Talkies."

5. Marshall McCluhan in "Understanding Media" describes the reactions of a group of African natives seeing their first movie. As the film showed horsemen galloping across the screen, the natives first looked to the right of the screen to see where the horsemen had gone and then ran behind the screen to see if they were there. The natives didn't grasp something that we now take for granted from our earliest years -- through seeing paintings and photographs, for example: i.e the use of a FRAME. Cave paintings did not have frames. Neither did Greek vase illustrations or Roman murals, or the Bayeux Tapestry (which, incidentally, is a kind of movie with a "soundtrack" above and below the action being depicted). The first person to come up
with the idea of a frame was doing something quite revolutionary!

Anyhow, by the time a modern child is two or three or four years of age he/she has acquired a basic understanding of film literacy, mainly through watching movie cartoons and comic books. He/she has painlessly absorbed various kinds of shots and angles and an understanding of such basic techniques as cutaways and parallel action. Later on, he/she comes to understand flashbacks and flashforwards, subjective use of the camera, and so on.
posted by grumblebee at 5:42 AM on June 11, 2009 [8 favorites]

Thanks for all the insight guys!
I wish I could have picked multiple "Best Answers"
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:20 AM on June 11, 2009

Great questions!

People used to be asked the question "do you dream in color or in black or white?" all the time. Now the question seems to make no sense whatsoever. Of course we dream in color! Clearly, technology of the time influenced either how that people dreamed or how they thought or remembered they dreamed. Here's a paper by Eric Schwitzgebel on the topic.

It might be worth poking through his blog [MeFi post]to see if you can find more examples of technological advances influencing reports of phenomenal thought. He's the guy who works on this topic. Here's a paper in which he questions whether things "look flat" (e.g. whether a penny viewed from an angle looks elliptical); he speculates that some people might say 'yes' because visual perception is analogized to projective media such as movies or pictures. (I've seen other philosophers make this claim as well; Quine has a little bit about it at the beginning of Word and Object.)

It would also be interesting to see whether the invention of perspective in drawing influences thought in any way. There's definitely work done in this area, but I'm not familiar with it. (I just found out that my great-uncle was apparently one of the first experimentalists in this tradition, so I'm eager to start learning about it!)

I thought that Tim Smith might have done some work on this subject, as he works at the intersection of film and cognitive science, but I can't find anything relevant. Looks like he mostly works on low-level perception and film, not thought and film. Gregory Currie would also be someone else to investigate.

Finally, you might want to check out the Bordwells' blog. I don't think they talk about cognitive science or the structure of thought at all, but they are probably the most knowledgeable people in the biz about the history of how cuts, fades, and other technological advances in film affected cinematic convention.
posted by painquale at 3:05 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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