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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

“And the madness of the crowd is an epileptic fit.”

Tom Waits, In the Colosseum

Lynch_mob2Like anyone who didn’t greet Cameron’s Avatar as The Second Coming, I received predictable responses to my review. Some brave souls were relieved to hear they were not alone in perceiving that the Emperor wore slinky glittery togs but was nevertheless drooling. The percentage of these was higher than I expected, which made me hopeful that humanity may achieve long-term survival without regressing to a resemblance of the Flintstone cartoons.

Some insisted that I didn’t get Avatar’s subtle environment- and native culture-friendly message because I’m a jaded cynic out of touch with cosmic harmonies. These are probably the same people who think that positive thinking cures cancer (addressed sharply – in both senses – by Barbara Ehrenreich in her recent book Bright-Sided). I’ll believe the authenticity of their starry-eyedness when they sell their iPods and SUVs and give the proceeds to the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few called Avatar traitorous liberal propaganda, demonstrating their terminal lack of grasp on concepts. But then, what can one expect of people who voluntarily called themselves teabaggers?

Several exhorted me to “lighten up, it’s only a movie, can’t you stop thinking and just have fun?” This demand is the traditional ploy when someone can’t marshal a real argument – which is one reason why it’s routinely used on inconveniently uppity Others (see Me Tarzan, You Ape for a longer explanation). Them I will leave to the tender ministrations of Moff’s Law, with the added footnote that it’s actually impossible to turn a brain off, short of irreversible coma or death.

Finally, which brings me to this article’s subject, the fanboys shrieked “Die, heretic scum!” Those were hilarious, particularly the ones that pointed out my total ignorance of biology and referred me to the Pandorapedia (no link to this, since I won’t promote brain softening). I was tempted to leave them to their wet fantasies in their parents’ basements. However, inchoate rage of the Incredible Hulk variety is becoming increasingly prevalent in this culture and it extends far beyond the multiplex. I’ve dubbed it the Waterworld Syndrome, because I first articulated it after watching that horrible mess – a movie only in name, but in fact a relentless audiovisual battering.

Hulk Smash LL

The unmistakable sign of a well-wrought book or film is that it puts us in a light trance, emphasis on “light”. We suspend disbelief, immerse ourselves in the universe unfolding before us. Yet we don’t become passive vessels. Large parts of our brain stay busy evaluating the originality and quality of the worldbuilding, the consistency of the plot, the authenticity of the dialogue and characters. If anything jolts us out of this trance, the work immediately becomes as enticing as a flaccid balloon.

Hollywood directors have decided they don’t want to work on any of these aspects. They go through perfunctory motions, relying on lazy shorthand and recycled clichés, while they put their real effort in milking profits from the lunch boxes and video games based on their movies. This is not surprising: many started and/or double as directors for television commercials. Straightforward product placement has become ever more prominent in movies, especially those aimed at younger viewers – which at this point means almost all of them. Focus groups that now routinely “pre-test” movies have removed any pretense that film making is the craft of illuminating narratives that must be told. It’s all about marketing the franchises.

But movies still need to achieve that trance, because viewers are not so zombified as to stop thinking altogether (see note about coma above). Also, directors want a movie to leave enough of an impression that people will buy the associated tchotchkes. So they resort to the Waterworld technique, which consists of arousing the fight-or-flight reflex by sensory overload. In short, they use assaultive special effects. Today’s blockbuster movies, numbingly sequelized, are members of the Doom or Wolfenstein gang, except that they enforce even more passivity than the minimal act of frantically pushing the buttons of an XBox.

The fight-or-flight reflex is an ancient survival mechanism we share with other organisms that have a complex nervous system. Once the reflex is triggered, adrenaline and cortisol spike, the heart rate goes up, the blood supply gets diverted from the viscera and brain to the muscles, glucose floods the body, thinking is suppressed and we tremble and sweat like a beaten horse. On the behavioral side, the result is anger and fear that bypass our cortex, eluding conscious control. This makes perfect sense as a prelude to action when the trigger is legitimate: if we spend too much time analyzing the possible outcomes of a tiger’s appearance, we may end up in its stomach.

Clockwork CSudden loud noises, abrupt luminosity changes, rapid irregular motion and objects fast growing in your visual field are among the triggers of fight-or-flight. Sound familiar? 3-D effects that force us to constantly flinch away from looming fronds or asteroids; car chases at a speed that our eyes can barely track; explosions, in-your-face gunshots and loud percussive soundtracks that make us jump – these are the common, blunt weapons in today’s blockbuster movie arsenal, aimed to jangle and pummel our brain into reflex mode.

When fight-or-flight is triggered while someone is in a theater seat, the resulting anger and fear are not expended because there’s no action possible beyond chewing one’s popcorn faster. The stress hormones linger, and so do the emotions they arouse – displaced, unfocused, free-floating, ready for use by demagogues and charlatans. Objectively, it’s a terrific use of the misnamed reptile brain, much better than the subliminal messages they used to flash between frames in older movies. The behavioral conditioning is now integrated into the experience. And moviegoers, stunned into sullen docility, their brain chemistry cleverly subverted, increasingly expect visceral punches instead of stories, willingly collaborating in their own mental and emotional debasement.

People who crave such entertainment turn into mobs far more readily than those who demand less crude fare and will not abandon the prerogative of critical thought. The primitive worldview fostered by such abusive spectacle diverts people from trying to solve problems rationally, making it easier to belittle knowledge and expertise, cede rights and liberties and scapegoat marginalized groups and the unlucky – which by now include much of what was once the middle class.

Furious George J LeFrançoisIf you think this is hyperbole, consider that Antonin Scalia used the TV show 24 as an authority for legitimizing the use of torture. The excuse that mindless entertainment relieves pressure at times of individual and collective stress is dangerous. It’s crucial to act as full humans not when times are easy, but when times are hard; when circumstances are best served by reflection, not reflex.

Images: 1st, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, South Park; 2nd, Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk; 3rd, Stanley Kubrick, Clockwork Orange; 4th, John LeFrançois, Furious George.

Related articles:
Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas
The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

17 Responses to “Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain”

  1. Hazumu Osaragi says:

    I saw Independence Day when it came out. I felt it so bad that I wanted to return, sit up front, and heckle the screen ala MST3K. Soon after, someone from work who knew me as the in-house video producer, asked me if I liked it. He didn’t like my answer, telling me, “It’s about time Hollywood gave us one”, whatever that meant…

    I’d compare most movies to cake frosting — all fat and sugar, with no nutritive value whatsoever.

  2. Athena says:

    Hazumu, both your reaction to Independence Day and your movie comparison hit the nail squarely on the head. Movies are increasingly becoming as lousy as the popcorn that accompanies them. So lousy that they can cause instant coma!

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    “Movies are increasingly becoming as lousy as the popcorn that accompanies them. So lousy that they can cause instant coma!”

    That’s definitely the lamentable truth in so many instances, as is the fact that standards have inched so low regarding films and other areas. (And having seen Waterworld myself, I agree with the abovementioned assessment.) Thanks for sharing these incisive words.

  4. Athena says:

    Speaking of horrible messes, I just saw Terminator Salvation on DVD, and it’s a tie with Waterworld for worst SF film of all times. Talk of terminal contempt for the viewer! Zero plot, zero characters, zero interest. They didn’t even honor the premises of the franchise.

  5. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    I love it when you tell it like it is. I may not always agree when it’s something as subjective as what’s entertaining but I agree very strongly with this point: “I’ll believe the authenticity of their starry-eyedness when they sell their iPods and SUVs and give the proceeds to the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation.”

    Personally, Avatar actually could indeed be the second coming but I’ll never watch it. I have a moral objection to a movie that cost $500 million or more to make when some of the very indigenous sorts of cultures it glorifies suffer, starve and die on THIS planet, while we shell out money to sit in movie theaters and make demi-gods of fair to middlin’ Hollywood directors.

    Oh, and you are FAR from alone in panning this film. I’ve seen a lot of pushback against it on teh interwebs. Of course, astonishing, mostly from non-whites.


  6. Athena says:

    Yes, the movie is a feel-good painless guilt sop. We are moved by the plight of the Na’vi, so we’re good guys — then we do nothing, but we do feel virtuous since our heart (or at least our glands) are in the right place.

    I know I’m far from alone in panning this travesty passing as “progressive”. But when I saw the 82% approval rating on the Tomatometer, I wondered about the mental and emotional age of the reviewers. I could barely stay inside my skin while I was watching it, which I had to do to write these opinions. I still resent the three hours of my life it wasted, and I’m glad I paid the bottom matinee price ($5) to see it.

  7. Emily says:

    Psst…it’s ANTONIN Scalia

  8. Athena says:

    You’re right! Error fixed.

  9. Zach Marx says:

    Hm. So, if I’m reading this correctly, and also the comments you made on that other guy’s blog post where he was going on about low and high art, then I think that I have to disagree with some of your conclusion, or at least attempt to complicate it somewhat. (I apologize for being vague, but it’s been a long day and I don’t remember how I surfed here.)

    It seems like you’re saying that watching violent (where ‘violent’ means ‘fight or flight triggering’) movies and playing violent video-games changes us for the worse: make us more likely to act as mobs, less rational, more violent, etc.

    I am not certain that this is always the case. I think that films, books and movies can trigger that surge of adrenaline and swell of uncontrollable emotion in more ways than just through loud noises and cheap tricks–some of my favorite moments in some of my favorite films give me the same family of feeling I get when I pull off a head-shot in an FPS, or when a really cool explosion happens in a movie. I’m talking about films like Blade Runner, Naked Lunch and Stalker here, as well as The Prestige. I’m not a biologist, so if I’m wrong, please correct me, but I think that at that moment where you realize, intellectually, that a character is about to double-cross another character, or that some emotional event of incredible magnitude is about to occur, that can trigger this kind of fight-or-flight response.

    Further, I don’t experience video-gamers to be, on the average, duller or more boorish or more violent. I would classify myself as an adrenaline junkie, but I read Nietzsche for fun and have, at the ripe old age of 24, with many an adventure into foreign lands and states of consciousness, never gotten into a fight in my life.

    There is an artistry in well choreographed and executed sensory overload that one can appreciate on an intellectual as well as emotional level. I haven’t seen Avatar yet–it didn’t seem that interesting, and got bad reviews from my friends. But, pacing aside, I love Big Trouble in Little China unreservedly, and things like Warren Ellis’ recent cartoon, GI JOE: RESOLUTE, in which a creator I know can deliver quality material delivered ninjas fighting gunmen and Cobra Commander screaming about having ALL THE MONEY and ALL THE POWER are hilarious fun: they aren’t made of high quality materials, so to speak, but the things that are there have been polished to a very high intensity. They were written with a sledgehammer, but not without finesse, if that makes any sense. I think Orwell called it ‘good bad art’ when he was defending Kipling. Anyway.

    I revel in the sensory overload, but I never deactivate my critical functions. I realize, or at least hope, that this separates me from the mass culture you’re decrying above, but is there actually a biological mechanism through which enjoying adrenaline-inducing hobbies makes me dumber and more violent? Can you point to evidence of this? It seems to run counter to my experience.

    Also, can’t experiencing fight-or-flight reactions frequently help us to reason through them? It seems that even twitch games require us to reason tactics and strategies, observe and plan, while we’re trying to chainsaw each other in half. Certainly, something like Battlezone II, where as a player you are simultaneously planning and directing an entire war effort and fighting for your life, would seem to exercise the capacity for crisis reasoning rather than dull it. I know that at the times in my life where crises have occurred (car accidents, kitchen fires and the like) I have been one of the most clear-headed and rational people present, despite my panic/shock, because I was able to push through it to find appropriate, rational actions.

    This got a bit longer than I meant it to, and is probably less organized than it could be. I’m procrastinating. I look forward to learning from your response.

  10. Athena says:

    That’s certainly a long but interesting rumination, Zach! I’m flattered that my essay resulted in such a thoughtful reply. It’s also well timed, because I’ll soon be posting an entry about how I classify art, which is not high versus low.

    I think I may not have expressed my thoughts entirely clearly in the paragraph you discuss. For one, I obviously don’t think that every single person will turn into a mindless killing machine the moment s/he sees a film that engages the fight-or-flight response. That would be patently silly. At the same time, people’s memory is notoriously unreliable, particularly what they recall after a shock that engaged the reflex.

    Please understand, I have nothing against gaming. I myself have played just about every quest/adventure game that was available in UNIX or Mac. The old TADS/Inform text-only adventures, Nethack, all the Mysts, Zork Nemesis (but not the other members of that family), Gabriel Knight, Syberia, Eschalon are among my favorites. But I don’t play arcade or most puzzle games because they make me jittery and irritable — which is the fight-or-flight reaction when it has nowhere to go, so to speak. Incidentally, I don’t think that books can trigger this reflex. Reading is never visceral enough to do so. In our cultural context, the reaction comes from films, video games or music. In other cultures, it comes from living in a war zone or under occupation (whether by foreign troops or a native military or religious dictatorship).

    The emotions evoked by this reflex bypass the cerebral cortex. When we are in their grip, we don’t think about what we do. We think about it after the fact, and explain/justify our thoughts and actions accordingly. And constant triggering of the reflex does change brain wiring. You must have heard of the outcome of quasi-regular triggering of the response: PTSD doesn’t just happen to soldiers who were caught in a bomb explosion. If you’re intellectually engaged in a film or game and making educated guesses about the characters’ motivations and deeds, you are de facto not experiencing fight-or-flight. Ditto for acting in a crisis: you force yourself past the panic and into thinking appropriately, as you so well put it. And you can strategize even in a twitch game because it’s not a one-time experience: you’ll live to replay it.

    My point was that people who crave this kind of entertainment are likely to eventually crave the same return (and act so as to get it) in other compartments of their lives. As I kept saying on that other blog, it’s biology; it has nothing to do with cultural value judgments. Your statement that most game players are in essence mild cubicleers is only partly true. I have rarely encountered people who are more hair-trigger verbally aggressive than titular couch potatoes. Just look at the flame wars on the Net and the unthinking rah-rah libertarianism from people who are ostensibly educated and smart.

    This reply is not necessarily well-organized, I just riffed on your points. But we may have more discussions either in this section or after I post my low-versus-high art article. In the meantime, you can see my objections to Avatar (which are far more numerous than just triggering the reflex) here: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas.

  11. Jacob says:

    It’s true that action movies and TV shows can, and have been used to inculcate fascist tendencies, but I find that’s less in the action itself than it is in the moral context in which it occurs. We ultimately take our cues from the protagonist, their circumstances and the decisions they make– especially when they’re being shot at. Do they keep their sense of humor, are they ethical, resourceful, etc. Do they embody qualities we’d want to emulate in times of crisis? The way a movie leaves you in the end has as much to do with how the characters developed and the story is resolved, as it does with the onslaught of raw sound and image.

    If all action movies did was stir up adrenaline and cortisol with no catharsis then no one would ever go to them. What’s truly insidious is the form that catharsis takes.

    I think what a good, not merely well-executed, action movie teaches us is the opposite of what you’re saying. That violence and chaos doesn’t have to reduce us to gibbering mass of fear and hate, that we can maintain poise and -yes- even critical thought with our emotions running in high-gear.

  12. Athena says:

    Very true. And you may have noticed that I don’t say that action movies do this because they focus on action. Instead, I say that the culprits are movies that count on F/X and clichés to trigger the reflex, regardless of what type they are. Enough assaultive sensory input and you go into fight-or-flight no matter what. Thoughtful filming does not arouse the response — by definition.

  13. Ender says:

    “As I kept saying on that other blog, it’s biology; it has nothing to do with cultural value judgments.”

    Great blog, and interesting post. You make this point in the OP, but you don’t give any justification or links. What studies show that films can stimulate the fight or flight reflex enough to change a person, or what other evidence are you drawing this conclusion? How much film do you have to watch to experience this effect? Would it be ameliorated by watching slow contemplative films?
    In your schema where would films by Beat Takeshi fall? They’re slow, meditative pieces interspersed with ultra-fast brutal violence. Would one counteract the other or is there some sort of critical-mass the violence and speed has to reach before you start degenerating?

  14. Ender says:

    p.s. sorry – a machine gun patter of questions there. The first one is the only important one – what’s the evidence for your biological claim, the others are just running with the concept and exploring it.

  15. Athena says:

    The evidence for the fight-or-flight part has been accumulating since the mid-fifties and is conclusive. The list of individual studies would be too long to list. Also not controversial is the conclusion that our brains are plastic and that reinforced synapses/neural pathways get stronger, initiating positive feedback loops (this is the way we acquire skills and habits). The part that is still being debated is how much such exposures change our brain wiring and whether there is a cause-and-effect correlation with other behavior.

    Bundling all that, it’s obvious that one film or one video game won’t make a huge difference. But when you’re exposed to a constant barrage of video games and video games disguised as films or TV shows, as we are today, our brains can and do get rewired. To give an overlapping but distinct example, it’s becoming obvious (and backed up by multiple studies) that internet surfing changes the way we think/feel, react and act.

    That does not mean that gory spectacles are the only (proximal or distal) reason for violence, or that everyone’s reactions will be identical. But bear in mind that this method is routinely used by armies and secret services to desensitize their operatives and bypass their rational/emotional decision filters. I haven’t seen any Beat Takeshi films, so I cannot answer that question.

    Finally, if you’re interested, I wrote a coda to the cultural portion of this equation: The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

  16. Ender says:

    Thanks for the reply, the link got buried in my favourites so I didn’t come back until I was cleaning them up today.

    I wasn’t questioning whether films or games can stimulate our flight or fight reflex, which is fairly testable by just one person, but whether there’s any evidence that it causes any long term changes. The bit you describe with “The part that is still being debated is how much such exposures change our brain wiring and whether there is a cause-and-effect correlation with other behavior”

    “it’s obvious that one film or one video game won’t make a huge difference”


    “But when you’re exposed to a constant barrage of video games and video games disguised as films or TV shows, as we are today, our brains can and do get rewired.”

    This I’m not so sure about. I’ll withhold judgement until I come accross some evidence that this rewiring affects people’s behavior.

    “That does not mean that gory spectacles are the only (proximal or distal) reason for violence, or that everyone’s reactions will be identical

    It doesn’t mean that gory spectacles are a reason for violence at all. Just that they potentially could be a reason.

    Thanks for the link I think I read that last time I was here, but I can’t remember much about it, I’ll wander over and have a look.

  17. Athena says:

    Rewiring (that is, strengthening or weakening of specific synapses, which in turn alter the configuration of brain domains/compartments) affects people’s behavior by definition. Everything that affects the brain alters behavior, even diet — let alone drugs (which is one reason that people invariably say that “they don’t feel like themselves” when they take them) and such addictive products as video games, from Snood to World of Warcraft. I don’t have the time and stamina to quote studies; if you’re interested I’m sure you can find them on your own.