Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Link City

A couple of satisfying films for this evening.

First, Capote, which I shan't say much about. The reason for this is that I was most impressed by several aspects of it which went completely against my expectations, and to say what they were would perhaps spoil its impact. Of course it's an impressive performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffmann though I think that he was even more powerful in a far darker film, Happiness. Not to play down the performance but with such an eccentric character a moving performance seems almost inevitable.

I tend to find, subconsciously or not, strong themes run through consecutive films that I watch and books that I read. One of the main themes in Capote is also examined in 'Through a Glass, Darkly', Bergman's portrayal of a woman and her brother, husband and father as she descends into a nether world created by the same mental illness which killed her mother. It's a character study of all four players and their ways of dealing with the situation. The brother, finding growing into his own new body and mind difficult, attempts to be the crutch for his older sister and is battered and scarred in the process. The husband, with complete commitment to his distant wife, struggles to know how to deal with her withdrawal from reality, and the father, filled with such guilt and self obsession retreats from the situation to face his own demons. It's the theme of the father which also runs through Capote, who, in writing about real human beings, becomes too obsessed with his own genius to notice his grotesque lack of humanity.

For anyone else who's a Max Von Sydow fan, I would advise seeing Intacto. It's a strange Spanish film about people who can take other's luck with a touch or a photo and has some beautiful scenes.

Anyway, neither of them are what one might call fun films but both are interesting and given a couple of quiet hours in which you may wish to ponder the darker sides of the conscious and subconscious, these may fit the bill.

Talking of subconscious, I was asked to write about another book which I read while away on the China jolly. This was Blink, essentially a pop psychology book, with little structure and a theme which digresses throughout. That said, it's an absolutely fascinating series of anecdotes about intuition, the subconscious and the prejudices and power which comes from these workings of the mind.

It doesn't go into the neurophysiology at all which many such books do. We know most about the human mind through studying patients who have damage to various parts of the brain. One of the most famous examples being Phinneus Gage and his rather unfortunate meeting with a long metal pole. Patients who've had Broca's or Wernicke's regions damaged, through stroke, accident or surgery offer a wealth of information about how we perceive and produce speech. Patients with commisurotomy (cutting the central commisure which joins the two halves of the brain) or even hemispherectomy (removing half of the brain) produce astounding and illuminating effects, telling us much about the dependence and independence of the two halves.
I'm clearly not an expert on this subject but I've always found reading about it fascinating. (This is a superb book for anyone who wants a simple grounding in neuroanatomy).

Anyway, Blink doesn't talk about this at all. It gives a series of anecdotes, starting with the story of a sculpture (A statue of a Kouros) bought after extensive research by an American museum. With great expense, the most modern scientific techniques and experts studied the sculpture in miniscule detail to prove that it was a genuine sculpture from ancient Greece. However, at the unveiling, gasps from experts who hadn't been blinded by the detail immediately claimed that it was a fake. None could say why they knew, it just felt wrong. They all had a punch of intuition immediately which through their unconscious database of fake and real sculptures they'd seen over the years told them the truth.

The book talks about many aspects of intuition (though it purposefully doesn't use this word) including a research team who can tell with astounding accuracy whether a couple will get divorced in the future, just by analysing a few minutes of speech. Another professor has studied the expressions of the human face in such detail that he can immediately tell, from a video of someone speaking, the micro-tells which give away their true meanings. He mentions seeing Clinton's microsecond flinch of an expression that says, I'm a bad boy and I want to be caught with my hand in the cookie jar. Not only has he analysed each individual muscle movement of the face but he can perform any one of them individually, in pairs, in triplets and up to any five individual muscle movements simultaneously with control. He has catalogued the thousands of combinations and worked out how they link in with the thoughts going on in the brain to stimulate such a facial response.

The book deals in detail with the subconscious reaction and prejudice to advertising as well as racial prejudice, including giving a fascinating and supposedly shocking online test which shows just how influenced we all are by the media portrayal of race, be it in movies, news, music or books (I say supposedly because having just tried it, I was determined to have little to no preference to black Americans over white Americans. Blink would perhaps have me believe that I'm currently not being indoctrinated with racially slurred images, I'm intrigued). It also talks about split second decisions made by the police in highly charged situations and some of the measures that are being put in place to counter some of the accidents that have occurred in the past.

Anyway, those are a few of the things that it talks about in great detail. I really recommend having a read of this book which is nothing if not jam packed full of fascinating stories of the pros and cons of having a subconscious.


Next week I'm off to a University in Nanchang, Jiangxi province. The physics department hasn't got many people who've studied field theory or string theory so I'm going to give a completely pedagogical talk, something that I'm really looking forward to...this is going to be AdS/CFT for optics specialists.


Shelley said...

I too loved Capote and Happiness. I am somewhat less enthused about PSH's next movie, Mission Impossible III, thought.

A quick question--how do you circumvent China's block on blogger? My parents in China say Blogger is unavailable to them. I'd love to know your secret, but don't email it. :)

Unknown said...

Yes, and indeed yes, or indeed no. Blogspot is blocked, blogger is not. Answers not on a postcard.

Wrapped up in books said...

I completely agree with your comments on 'Capote'. What an unexpectedly fantastic film!


Unknown said...

Hi P,

Look forward to discussing with you offline to avoid potential spoilers,

J x

Benjamin said...

I keep hearing good stuff about Capote. Intacto looks intriguuing too. I like a fantastic plot with psychological relevance.

'Left Brain, Right Brain : Perspectives From Cognitive Neuroscience' appeals to me more than 'Blink' somehow.

Interesting post x