Interview: Michele Guerra

Michele Guerra

Michele Guerra is Assistant Professor of Cinema at the University of Parma (Italy), where he conducts research alongside Vittorio Gallese. He is the author of “Il meccanismo indifferente. La concezione della Storia nel cinema di Stanley Kubrick” (Roma, 2007) and “Gli ultimi fuochi. Cinema italiano e mondo contadino dal fascismo agli anni Settanta” (Roma, 2010), and the co-editor of “Sequenze. Quaderni di cinema 1949-1951” (2009) and “Le immagini tradotte. Usi Passaggi Trasformazioni” (2011, with a Preface by Linda Hutcheon). Now Guerra is at work on a project on cognitive neuroscience and film experience, using the concept of “embodied simulation,” (ES) whereby the observed and felt state of another is embodied–or mirrored– by one’s own cognitive system. This developing research marks a novel, cross-disciplinary approach to film analysis and film theory. Guerra also participated in the Mellon Summer Workshop 2011 at the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University on “Cognitive Science and Neuroscience for the Humanities”.

NH: Your work draws parallels not only between the body of the viewer and that of the viewed subject, but also the body of the filmmaker, so I imagine that everyone in the cinematic transaction might be interested. Why do you think casual viewers of films are interested in your work, and for what reasons are filmmakers, or actors, interested? Are there aspects of the work that speak to the creative process as well as the viewing process?

MG: We know that the power of cinema lays in its ability to reproduce something very similar to the real. When we are at the movies we face people who look like those we run into in our everyday life, we see places that look like those we inhabit or pass through daily, and we have the impression to be part of what we see, to be present to a fictitious world. Nonetheless, this basic form of realism – that is mere inferring something about it, cannot satisfy the viewer: film experience is a multimodal experience. To grasp characters’ actions, intentions, and feelings, the viewer has to share something more. He/she has to move inside the story with them, has to share such actions, intentions, and feelings, eventually to “resonate” with them, in order to be fully part of the story and to comprehend it.

Film style basically pursues and provides this impression, by promoting a motor approach to the story and by reinforcing the viewer’s virtual agency. The acting brain, as the discoverers of mirror neurons taught us, is above all a brain that understands. Though we are seat and still in the dark, we move inside the story: the camera is able to make us walk, run, jump, turn, sometimes even fly. Without this low level of resonance, it would be impossible to get the higher cognitive levels of film comprehension. To borrow Vittorio Gallese’s expression, I would say that we should implement the classical Theory of Mind with another one more focused on the Feeling of the Body. Roughly speaking, this is also, nowadays, the relation between cognitive film studies and neuro-cognitive film studies.

An approach to film studies based on ES (embodied simulation) aims to focus on the motor components of film experience. The motor programs elicited by the movies are rather neglected within film theory, and when they are taken into consideration, they are often not supported by neuroscientific data. However, there is a tradition of film physiology that, at the beginning of the 21st century, focused on these aspects. Think of Edouard Toulouse, a French physician who, in 1920, wrote that the perception of the movement on the screen triggers the correspondent movement in the viewer, foreseeing, to some extent, the action of mirror neurons. We find very similar statements in Eisenstein, related both to film acting and film style. In short, film style and techniques play the main role in making the viewer able to interact with the movie.

Finally, who cares about a research like that? And why? Talking with casual moviegoers I have always found great interest in reflecting on their responses to moving images, and huge curiosity in discovering that their film experience would rely on pre-cognitive mechanisms rooted in their brain-body system. Filmmakers and actors are much more interested in this research than the majority of film scholars, who are often skeptical about this branch of studies. Some years ago James Cameron used fMRI to evaluate the impact of Avatar’s trailers on the viewers, while Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Burns admitted in an interview their interest in making a movie on mirror neurons. Gilles Deleuze’s prophecy comes to mind: “I don’t believe that linguistics and psychoanalysis offer a great deal to the cinema. On the contrary, the biology of the brain does.”

NH: If the mind is a body moving through space, are you investigating aspects of filmmaking having to do with different types of camera motion, editing rhythms, field of view, not to mention music? In other words, will the research program of ES take us to all corners of cinema, beyond the study of emotional response to persons onscreen?

MG: Our main goal is to demonstrate how cinema can contact the viewer at the embodied level. On the one hand, the movie can exert a very strong control on the viewer’s gaze behavior, kinesthetic sensations, emotions; on the other it can leave the viewer free of wandering across the shots, by weakening the embodied potentiality of film style and enhancing subjective feelings – some would describe it as the main difference between commercial and non-commercial cinema…

Motor responses play a key-role in the very first phase of our film comprehension, and film style and editing basically aim to guide and orient these responses, helping us in building and reinforcing our cinematic spatial cognition. The field is really large, and neuroscientific studies of film are in their first infancy. Nonetheless, I think this is the only way to say something new on the nature of the moving images, which nowadays are very relevant even – or mainly – outside the movie theater. Obviously, what film scholars would need are neuroscientists curious about these topics, and perhaps convinced that the study of our aesthetic experience might contribute to their own research. A few years ago, the American phenomenologist Don Ihde wrote a short book entitled Embodied Technics, in which he argues that our contemporary technologies embody–or in some cases re-embody– our fleshly experience in new ways, in interactive ways. I consider the ES theory a good stepping-stone to start a study of the embodied relationship with technologies and then with styles that are obviously related to those technologies.

NH: I read in an interview that you once studied and wrote about Stanley Kubrick. I imagine one could spend a lifetime studying Kubrick with ES experiments; from your perspective, since you’ve been doing ES work, do you have any hunches as to what some of the distinct qualities are that make his films so unique in tone?

MG: My interest in Stanley Kubrick’s cinema is mainly due to his extraordinary attention to film technologies. He started as a photographer and in many interviews he said that he was very interesting in understanding the “nature” of his camera – i.e. its functioning – in order to take good pictures. Kubrick never separated the story from the technique through which he had to narrate such a story. Every movie is, to some extent, a test on the potentiality of film style and technology: think of Paths of Glory, with its Max Ophüls-like camera movements in the chateau scenes, the documentary-like scenes in the trenches, with the camera that follows the characters in those absurd hallways (and the hallway will become a classical figure in Kubrick’s style), and the geometrical scene during the soldiers’ trial. Or think of the audiovisual symphony of 2001, or the use of hand-camera and wide-angle lens in A Clockwork Orange, the zoom and the lighting in Barry Lyndon (with the super-fast 50mm lenses originally produced by Zeiss for NASA), the steadicam in The Shining, or the tracking shots and the handheld camera that characterize respectively the two different parts of Full Metal Jacket.

I am pretty sure that there is no filmmaker more aware than Kubrick that to narrate the story of our being-in-the-world, you have firstly to find a way to give shape to our being-in-the-cinema. Kubrick’s movies are loved both by film critics and the audience because he is able to make us perfectly interact with them; the audience simply enjoys such interaction, the critics enjoy it too and appreciate how it has been reached. We have not worked on Kubrick yet, but when I had to choose a picture for a post on the motor approach to film style published on the website of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, I chose without hesitation little Danny Torrance on his tricycle in the hallways of the Overlook Hotel.

NH: As I’m sure you’re aware, there are those who come across this work, or who may read this, and raise protest to the supposed goal of this research, to reveal why we love films, what empathy is in the brain– the ultimate, deep questions. And sometimes these skeptics then raise questions about the worth of it all– whether the work will get us anywhere. Do you come across such skeptics? What is your response, and what really is the ambition of what you’re hoping this work will reveal?

MG: Of course I have come across neuro-skeptics many times. To me neuro-skepticism has to be considered as a precious antidote against what I would describe like “magic neuroscience”. Neuro-skepticism is the natural reaction to the dangers of reductionism and to the idea that cognitive neuroscience would oversimplify the complexity of experience. There are books written by neuropsychologists in which we notice skepticism about the possibility for neuroscience to have a real impact on economics, law, ethics and morality, or even aesthetics (see Carlo Umiltà and Paolo Legrenzi’s Neuromania).

Though we have many excellent works by several distinguished neuroscientists who have demonstrated how neuroscientific insights can corroborate and in some cases revolutionize positions in those fields of research, I obviously respect a skepticism based on a deep knowledge of the brain-body system and related literature. Cognitive neuroscience is a young branch of research and we cannot expect a wide sharing when it crosses fields of study that have a longer and more complex tradition. In the humanities every approach – semiotic, psychoanalytic, structuralist, postmodern, etc. – is subjected to skepticism. What is harder to be accepted is a skepticism just based on prejudice, or on some newspapers’ headlines that trivialize serious research. The fear of reductionism, as well as the fear of a confrontation with science are not only unfounded, but also signs of cultural restriction.

Obviously we need to develop a critical neuroscience, i.e. – according to Shaun Gallagher – a cognitive neuroscience that is non-reifying and non-reductionist. Neuroscientists I work with, or I talk to are not “neuromaniacs”, they are perfectly aware of the limits of their research and they are much more prudent of their colleagues within the humanities in applying their methods to other disciplines. We live in a cultural phase in which the crisis of the so-called “Grand Theory” within the humanities and the rising of a new form of humanism within other domains like biology or physics is challenging our thought. If one is really interested in the human being – like the term “humanities” suggests – or if he/she is really interested in what makes us human – and the arts are of course a crucial component – we cannot pretend that research focused on our being-in-the-world are, to say, out of our reach.

You mentioned empathy: is it possible to study empathy – a relevant matter in film studies – without referring to cognitive neuroscience, and more specifically to ES? Obviously we have to keep our identity, we do not have to become neuroscientists. Our goal is to integrate our theories and our research with data suitable to improve our knowledge. We do not have to say something about memory, physiology of vision, motor behavior, gaze behavior per se, but we have to wonder how cinema plays with these aspects of our understanding and how eventually it shapes them. And yet, neuroscience implies a totally different approach. We are not used to experiments that take a lot of time, and to progress step by step answering apparently small questions in comparison to the great queries of our traditional way of speculating. Nonetheless, it is blatantly clear the relevance of cognitive neuroscience for psychology, cognitive science, phenomenology, and even aesthetics.

My reply to skeptics could be this: try to interrogate the movie without recurring to theoretical paradigms elaborated elsewhere. Try to understand at which level it contacts you. Try to deal with it concretely. You will get back to your mind, and then to your brain-body system. Sure, in such a survey you will also find your biography, your education, your own memories, the cultural environment that shapes your thought, and you will appropriate the movie through all these aspects, and nonetheless the movie and its author were not originally interested in such appropriation, they did not work on your cultural specificity, they primarily work on a primordial contact shaped by perception and non-propositional formats of comprehension. Aesthetic experiences are to be considered like complete forms of gradual construction of the self. I agree with Mark Johnson that we need to concentrate on the bodily depths of human meaning-making, always groping toward the sense of our identity, a sense that cannot be conceived of outside the multilayered dimensions of embodiment.

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Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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