Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The educational power of film

A new journal article published this week in Psychological Science asks whether watching popular Hollywood films depicting historical events can enhance learning of historical facts. This is a question that has been asked many times in the past and educators often assume that there is a benefit to watching video reenactments, not least of all because they are entertaining. This study aimed to test whether there can be both benefits (when the hostorical informationd epicted in the film is accurate) and costs (when the details are inaccurate) to using historical films in a history lesson. They used selection of excerpts from well-known feature films including The Last Samurai (Ed Zwick, 2003), Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997) and Glory (Ed Zwick, 1989). They recorded better memory for historical facts when the students watched a film version but only when the film depicted the facts accurately. When the facts were inaccurate the false details in the film sometimes take precendence over the accurate details taught to the students using traditional means.

This is a very interesting study as it shows both the strengths of using films to teach history but also the weaknesses. Any educator considering using a feature film in their lessons should consider that the primary purpose of a feature film is to entertain, not be historically accurate. The most entertaining way of telling a story is rarely the most authentic. Film makers often distort the truth to increase drama and excitement. As outlined in the study below, educators should make their students aware of this so that they don't believe everything they see on the screen.

I personally learned this lesson the hard way by very confidentally answering "Ben Hur" to the question "Who helped Jesus with the cross?" in a Religious Education class. Damn artistic licence!

(*according to the New Testament the answer is Simon The Cyrene...... not Charlton Heston)

Using Popular Films to Enhance Classroom Learning: The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting

Butler, A. C., Zaromb, F. Z., Lyle, K.B. & Roediger, H. L. III (in press) Psychological Science

Popular history films sometimes contain major historical inaccuracies. Two experiments investigated how watching such films influences people's ability to remember associated texts. Subjects watched film clips and studied texts about various historical topics. Whereas the texts contained only correct information, the film clips contained both correct information (consistent with the text) and misinformation (contradicted by the text). Before watching each clip, subjects received a specific warning, a general warning, or no warning about the misinformation. One week later, they returned for a cued-recall test about the texts. Watching a film clip increased correct recall of consistent information relative to recall of the same information when subjects did not see the clip. However, when the information in the film contradicted the text, subjects often (falsely) recalled misinformation from the film. The specific warning substantially reduced this misinformation effect. Teachers should use popular history films with caution and should warn students about major inaccuracies in the films.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Antichrist and the anti-cut

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is an unsettling film for many reasons. It will be discussed in depth for its more obvious unsettling traits such as its intense graphic violence and self-mutilation and lack of a clear message especially with regard to gender relationships and the nature of evil. Some of these traits, such as the horror imagery, settings and plot-devices may seem unique within Trier’s work to date. However, there are other, more subtle methods used to unsettle the viewer which Trier has been refining since Dogme 95. I’m speaking, of course about his use of discontinuous editing.

Antichrist is a two-header centring around the grief of a married couple (Charlotte Gainsborough and Willem Dafoe) after the loss of their young son during the film’s prologue. The majority of the film depicts the two main actors whilst they try to come to terms with the loss and confront the wife’s fears about their holiday cottage in the woods, Eden. The film employs stunning high-speed black and white cinematography to add incredible beauty to some brutal scenes including the son’s fall to his death and the copulation of the couple during the prologue. These scenes are offset by, uncharacteristically glossy scenes of the couple interacting initially at home and then at the cottage. These scenes have a “Hollwood”-esque appearance: very beautifully lit, shallowly focussed with frequent focus-pulls into the shot, and shot from mostly stable camera positions. This is in stark contrast to the compositional style developed by Trier and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle over their last few films culminating in computer-controlled camera and lighting system (Automavision) employed by Trier in his last film, The Boss Of It All. In a previous blog post I discussed how this system randomly shifted the camera position, zoom and focus of the camera. This resulted in the focal object (e.g. a talking character) drifting out of shot or being framed in such an obtuse manner that the viewer had to struggle to fixate the region of interest such as the characters eyes or mouth. The unpredictable camera movements also force the viewer to actively pursue the focal object with their eyes rather than stablise their gaze (i.e. fixate) the object. Even before Automavision, Trier’s use of hand-held cameras and improvised staging and acting in earlier films (see Idioterne and Dancer in the Dark) meant that the viewer always had to be active in their viewing of his films. Unlike Hollywood films edited according to the Continuity Editing Style (see my thesis) which keep focal objects relatively stationary on the screen and always establish predictable screen locations or the modern Intensified Continuity style (see David Bordwell’s discussion ) which use rapidly edited close shots , Trier’s films make no concessions to the viewer’s attention, actively engaging them in the staging of a scene by forcing them to search the screen for the most relevant details. In Dancer In The Dark the hand-held camera roams around the main characters often failing to keep up with changes in action. Trier compensates by cutting to different takes of the same scene with a slightly different camera position on the same actors. This creates, what is traditionally referred to as a Jump Cut: a sudden displacement of an object or actor on the screen caused by a cut to a camera position less than 30 degrees away from the original position (for an in-depth discussion of perceptual reasons for Jump Cuts see Joseph Anderson’s The Reality of Illusion). Prior to the cut, the viewer is trying to compensate for the actor’s movement relative to the screen by pursuing the actor or saccading. A sudden unexpected Jump Cut then displaces the actor on the screen requiring the viewer to reorient to the new shot. The consequence is much more active eye movement behaviour than is usually required when viewing a film edited in the Continuity style. This level of active viewing is so alien to a cinema audience that the experience can be exhausting and unsettling. Such affective response is utilised by Trier to add to the overall experience of watching his films.

At the recent Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images annual meeting in Copenhagen we were treated to an advanced screening of Antichrist and Q&A with Lars von Trier. I asked him how his discontinuous editing style had come about and whether he used it deliberately to unsettle his viewer. Trier enthusiastically described the way that he and his long-term editor Molly Marlene Stensgaard had experimented in the editing suite and devised a style of cut that, whilst violating classical editing conventions, they believed accurately portrayed the mood of a scene. I referred to this cut as a Jump Cut but Trier seemed uncomfortable with this name and possibly its negative connotations. Trier explained that he didn’t consider the cut to be discontinuous because he ensured that the audio track was continuous across the cut. The camera position would suddenly shift across the cut as if it had been moving smoothly around the principal object but a portion of the movement had been omitted by the edit. However, because the camera positions were actually filmed at different times the shots either side of the cut could depict a (somewhat) continuous action and the audio track could be stitched together to make it sound as if the scene were continuous. Trier stated that he thought the most important element for creating the illusion of continuity was the audio track. As long as the audio implied that the scene was continuous the audience would perceive the scene as continuous. A Jump Cut traditionally implies an omission of time. Trier’s cut overrules this implication by using continuous audio. Not perceptual time is omitted. As such we will refer to Trier’s type of cut as an Anti Cut.

The effect of an Anti Cut on the viewer is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance comes about when a person holds two (or more) conflicting concepts in their mind at the same time. The experience of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant. We endeavour to find order in our experiences and ideas and when conflicting concepts cannot be resolved we are uncertain how to act. If these concepts come from two different sensory modalities the brain tries to reconcile the two sources and come up with an amalgamation. A classic example of this is the Mc Gurk Effect (see video below). The McGurk effect is a demonstration of how we did not evolve to process our senses in isolation. When watching someone say a word our perception of the sounds they make is informed by both the audio and way their lips mouth the word. If these two sources are in conflict e.g. the mouth says “ba” but the audio track says “ga”, we perceive something in between, e.g. “da” . This demonstrates how sensory perception is multimodal and the brain will endeavour to resolve cognitive dissonance even if it means distorting reality and creating an illusory perception.

In the case of Trier’s Anti Cut it appears that the audio track takes precedence over the visuals to create the perception of temporal continuity. This may only be possible as long as the visuals do not conflict with the audio. If the cut involved a shift in camera position and a repetition of action we would expect the viewer to perceive the repetition irrespective of how temporally continuous the soundtrack is. However, Trier typically cuts in between actions when no visual events are occurring and, therefore cannot be used to perceive the omission of time. The sudden shift in camera position and changes in actor posture, position, lighting, etc all imply a temporal omission but it appears that these are overridden by the temporal continuity implied by the audio track. Scenes edited using Anti Cuts, such as the bedroom scenes in the first act of Antichrist or the scene in which Bjork’s character’s son receives a new bike in Dancer in the Dark, create a strange, almost abstract sense of time. Many aspects of the scene imply temporal continuity such as the continuous audio and the depicted events. However, the sudden shifts in camera position caused by the Anti Cut imply discontinuity. The resulting perception may be of general temporal continuity but with residual conflicting cues which, if reasoned about may confuse the viewer and undermine the general perception of continuity.

Trier’s last film, The Boss of it All contains many examples of such conflicting cues. In order to compensate for the frequent, inexplicable camera moves caused the computer controlled camera system (Automavision) Trier had to use frequent Anti Cuts to stitch together different takes. Often the lighting and sound balance would also change wildly across such cuts. Unlike in Antichrist when the audio was carefully controlled to imply temporal continuity, the sudden changes in The Boss of it All implied temporal discontinuity. The result was the perception of a scene as a construction, clearly stitched together from takes filmed at different times. The depicted actions implied temporal continuity and if the viewer chose to engage only with this dimension and ignore the other conflicting dimensions they could perceive scenes as temporally continuous but my feeling of watching the film was that such active reconstruction of the scene required much more effort than watching a film edited according to the Continuity Style or even some of Trier’s other films.

As always, Lars Von Trier is pushing the boundaries or editing in order to experiment with our perception of film. As a film viewer I adore Trier’s introspective experiments and as a scientist I would love to see empirical investigations of these issues. What is the relationship between the different sensory modalities in film and which modality takes precedence and leads to the resulting perception of continuity. In Chapter 5 of my thesis I laid out a theory about how continuity perception in film may operate and I went on to empirically investigate time perception across cuts. This investigation was purely in the visual dimension although I acknowledged how powerful the audio dimension appeared to be and how editors placed such emphasis on audio in the creation of continuity. Direct empirical investigation of the role of audio in continuity perception is required but for now we can occupy ourselves with marvelling the masterful way Trier manipulates our experience of time and space in order to create an unsettling viewing experience.