CINEMA AND EMPATHY
What is the key element that makes us human? Many would argue that it is empathy. In the film Blade Runner, replicants (androids) were given a test to prove their validity as a human. When one replicant challenges the questions, he becomes irate and shoots the interviewer. Clearly, this is not the behavior of a human being, at least not a rational one. So what gives us the edge over a replicant?
David Dobbs in his essay, “A Revealing Reflection" argues that it our ability to experience empathy channeled through our neurons, that gives us relatability. After many years of research, neuroscientists have discovered that our empathy circuitry is located in the premator cortex in our brain. The cortex allows us to understand language, pain, and empathy. Dobbs suggests that everything we see someone else do, we experience ourselves doing it in our minds. Every time we talk, smile, laugh, play, our brains are triggering the premator cortex. As we learn more about this function in our brains, we begin to understand what drives our culture. We understand why yawns are contagious, and why we cry at The Elephant Man.
Frank Capra, director of the acclaimed film Casablanca, once said “Film is one of three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music.” While I agree with him for the most part, he’s forgetting fine arts. That being said, film can be seen as the ultimate art. It is a marriage of all the arts that came before it. Film is a successor to the theater, but more accessible to that masses for a couple reasons: preservation and price. Plays are temporary, and the experience is individual to time it’s performed, versus a movie, which can be preserved, with the advent of digital technology, possibly forever. A film at it’s most expensive could run you about 20 dollars a ticket for each person going to the theater vs. a play which can reach astronomical prices, especially on opening night. But alas, film and theater, truly are different experiences. So why do people go to the movies? Well, aside from a simple, and rather inexpensive means of entertainment, people watch movies for emotional engagement. People go to the movies because they want to experience a connection with the characters on screen.
Different people have different experiences watching films. Directors can spend their whole careers trying to give one truly honest moment; a moment that stays with the viewer for the rest of their lives. A moment that can last generations; from the opening lines of Citizen Kane to the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, audiences have been captivated by fictional characters and a created experience provided to them by filmmakers, regardless of how realistic the experience are. Film transports us from the tangible world to the fantastical, it is up for the audience to decide whether or not to accept it.
If the film captures us, we either feel for the main character, like Sophie in Sophie’s Choice or we are repulsed by a character actions like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. When we watch films, our mirror neurons are triggered and we experience the characters’ lives through relatability. We must see something of ourselves within a character. We might be completely repulsed by Alex’s home invasions and abuse of the homeless in the beginning of A Clockwork Orange, but when he is stripped of his status and being tortured by the police, who were once a part of his gang of droogs, we cant’ help but feel bad for him.
Sometimes the main character isn’t the one who we are supposed to be rooting for. In Blade Runner, Deckard (Harrison Ford) is relentlessly hunting down replicants in a way that is cold and methodical. When he guns down the snake charmer replicant in the middle of the street, most of us are angered and/or horrified by these actions. Innocence has been taken away from the audience. We see a helpless humanoid android gunned down, and we immediately feel bad for her. Which was exactly director Ridley Scott’s intention when adapting the film from the Philip K. Dick novel “Do AndroidsDream of Electric Sheep”. Feeding off of what Dobbs tells us about mirror neurons, in that scene we are both the gunman, and the woman being shot. We almost immediately become attached to the prey, but we are also the predator. We hold that gun in our minds. The experience can be too overwhelming for some people, which is why some people are unwilling to watch or incapable of enjoying movies with excessive violence.
Filmmakers have gone a long way with violence on screen. In early films, when people were shot, the fell down lifeless, but there was little or no blood oozing on the ground around them. As movies have progressed, the films have become bloodier and bloodier. While blood soaked violence, for the most part, is realistic, one might question the morality of it’s portrayal onscreen. What a viewer can take in, varies from person to person, and some people are simply desensitized to it.
Dobbs suggests that if one fails to empathize, then there must be damage to the premature cortex. If that is the case, then some would that people desensitized to violence due to excessive watching of violent movie might have damaged the premator cortex in some way. When soldiers come back from warzones, many experience PTSD. Since some are more susceptible to their brains playing tricks on them, it is possible that someone could relate a film experience to a real experience.
When Mel Gibson’s overly graphic film Passion of the Christ was released, many people found themselves physically repulsed, but spiritually moved by the physical trauma placed on the actor Jim Cavaziel, specifically during a scene where where his back was torn open by a “cat of nine tales”.
When Irreversible, a chilling revenge film by director Gaspar Noe, was released, many people reportedly fainted during the rape scene that took place in the film. It was because of this, the movie was challenge to possibly be pulled from the market, but the film was eventually permitted because it in no way glorified the 9 minutes of rape the audience had to endure.
For filmmakers and artists, there is always a question of limits. How for can you go? How far is acceptable? Some people think there are no limits, while others feel there are moral lines you don’t cross, like purposefully killing someone. In the 80s, there was a film series called Faces of Death, which tried to weave a narrative around found footage of real people getting killed.
Film, like any art, is always testing the boundaries, but it will, and always should be, held to utmost scrutiny, whenever the general consensus is taken too far. Many people experience films in different ways, for some, watching a film transports them into another world. While this is usually the director’s intent, some people may find themselves lost in the fictional world. After James Cameron’s sci-fi epic was release, there was a strange phenomena that happened with some viewers. They were experiencing symptoms of withdrawal. Yes, they had grown so attached to the fictional world of floating mountains, bio-luminescent forests, and ten foot tall, blue cat people; that when they took off their 3D glasses and left the theater, they were actually experiencing a form of depression. This, of course, might seem ridiculous to some people, but even something as artificial as CGI blue cat people, can elicit an emotional connection from someone (Hall).
Some people feel intense emotions while watching films, while others don’t feel much of anything. Sometimes the lost feeling is due to an emotional trauma, and sometimes the reason for a lack of connection is not as clear. Dobbs explains in his essay that there is research that speculates that inactive mirror-neurons may explain “deep troubles with language, learning, and empathy” in people with autism, but it also seems to suggest the mentality of a psychopath (Dobbs). A psychopath, by definition is a person who lacks empathy. They often emulate human emotion, but there is a hollowness inside. Because, but of this, some psychopaths have become violent, however, most don’t.
Acts of violence have often been attributed to be motivated by media, and while I doubt that movies can turn someone into a psychopathic and violent person, it can influence violent people to emulate what is one screen. When A Clockwork Orange was released, there was a wave of young hooligans who dressed up like Alex and the droogs portrayed in the film. This promptly caused Stanley Kubrick, the director, to removed the film. For a good amount of time afterwards,, finding a copy of the film was very difficult, leaving it only available underground for several years. The irony, of course is that the film itself is a criticism and a deconstruction of how viewers consume violence.
As entertainers and artists, filmmakers are given a tremendous task of trying to be entertaining, and at the same time morally responsible. Many filmmakers, such as Michael Bay and Paul W.S Anderson, don’t care about stimulating the minds of their viewers, instead, they want to entertain and make money, and not worry about any criticism. However, they are still responsible for the interpolation of their films. Filmmakers aim to engage an audience by making them laugh and cry. They can also motivate the viewers to make a difference in the world, or at least convey ideas that can cause the viewers to look at the world differently. After all, we aren’t replicants, and we should appreciate our ability to empathize when we engage in the films we watch. If we are creators using the medium of film, we must be aware of how mirror neurons could effect the audience, and know that movies are a medium that can either encourage societal progress or halt it.
Dobbs, David. “A Revealing Reflection”. Scientific American Mind. 17.2 (2006): 22-27. Web.
Hall, Katy. “Avatar-Induced Depression: Coping With The Intangibility of Pandora (VIDEO).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 18 Mar. 2010. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
“Irreversible.” Irreversible. British Board of Film Classification, n.d. Web. 04 Mar 2015.
Rocha-Rigo, Vanessa, Mirtez Periera, and Leticia Oliviera. “Decreased Premotor Cortex Volume in Victims of Urban Violence with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder” PLOS ONE:. N.p., Aug. 2012. Web. 04. Mar. 2015.