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Thursday, November 19, 2009


Watching the same movie

The other day, I had a most intriguing experience.

My husband and I were hanging around the house discussing our musical tastes. He's a fan of movie music, a genre I've never been that keen on, but he was playing me some of his favourite clips and talking about how and why he liked them, and, as John Williams was on the program and Williams pastiches themes from a lot of classical composers, we had some fun for a while playing spot-the-influence. Well, I won a point for spotting Stravinsky, which made me feel very good about myself (and never mind it was a piece of Stravinsky I knew from Fantasia), and in my little flush of triumph I found my brain attuning itself more than usual to the themes and movements of music - probably in the hopes of spotting something else and getting another little ego-boost.

In this cheerful mood, my husband decided to show me one of his favourite sequences in a movie: the airport chase sequence in Casino Royale. Now, this is a movie that we both like, and I had assumed it was for similar reasons: the acting is good, the characterisation is decent, the timing is precise and expert. But, taking down the DVD, my husband explained that he really liked how the music sucks you in and builds over the course of the scene, and how everything cuts around it.

To me, this was something of a new thought: when I watch a movie, I barely notice the soundtrack unless someone's singing. I pick it up subliminally, but there have been plenty of occasions where my husband has said something along the lines of, 'See, there's that leitmotif again?' and I've responded, 'Huh? There was music?' But the conversation had done something to my consciousness, rearranging it along more musical lines, and I was interested in trying to see what my husband had been talking about all these years, so I settled down to watch the scene, saying to my brain: 'Okay. For the next quarter hour, you're Gareth.'

And you know what? It was a completely different movie. I was watching a movie I'd never seen before.

The music flexed and swelled and drove down its own path; the faces of the actors blurred into a general swirl of movement that accompanied the music like a conductor's baton. Things I'd never noticed took centre stage; things that had previously been the focus of my attention disappeared to make room for them. After ten minutes, I turned to my husband and said in astonishment, 'You watch movies like you're at a concert, don't you?'

And suddenly a lot of our differences in taste, which we'd been rubbing along with amiably for years, made perfect, absolute sense.

There are movies he loves that bore me - but they have good scores. There are movies I love that he can't be having with - they're all talk. We've sat through each others' favourites many a time, but I suddenly realised something: we weren't watching the same films at all.

For me, language is crucial. I watch for dialogue, and for the performances that make the dialogue real and imply further dialogue taking place in the characters' heads. I've been known to rewind so I can hear that sentence again and remember precisely how it balanced, to watch this scene against that one in random order so I can check the consonances of statement and speech between the two. Rhythm and harmony and echo and flow: these parts of my brain are filled up with words, and it leaves very little room for the music. Sometimes my husband's tried to show me a particular piece of music and the conversation has gone thus:

G: Okay, it's coming up now...
K: ... Sorry, I missed it. I was listening to the dialogue. Can we try again?
G: Sure. Here we go.
K: ... Sorry, I got distracted by the dialogue again. Another go?
G: Really? Okay... Get it that time?
K: Um - almost. One more time?

When there's speech, I almost literally can't hear music. Almost all the music on my iPod is songs of one kind or another: instrumental music is something I can very seldom sit still for as anything more than background. I need lyrics to anchor my attention in place. Once there are lyrics the accompaniment and harmonies snap into focus, but without them, my brain starts looking around for the words and stops paying attention to the notes.

It turns out that not everybody is like this. My husband's iPod is full of movie and classical music; with the exception of Melody Gardot - just about the only artist we love equally - almost the only music with lyrics he owns is hip-hop, a form where words have taken over to the point where music voluntarily takes a back seat.

So when we watch a form that combines words and music, my verbal brain and his musical one screen for totally different experiences. It's rather astonishing to discover we've been living in different worlds all along, but it explains an awful lot. I'd known in theory that different brains prioritise different things, of course, but this was the first time I'd come close to experiencing what it was like to have a different brain.

And it turns out everyone's like that. Just this weekend I was staying with friends, and one of them - my oldest friend, who I've known for over twenty years - mentioned the movie Stranger Than Fiction. I hadn't seen it, so she described her favourite scene, in which the hero enters a bathroom and we see things from his perspective. Being an orderly-minded man, he sees things in terms of grids: neat, straight lines along the tiles, little percentages indicating how full each of the soap dispensers was, a flashing light over the one broken tile. This, she said, rearranging her chopsticks to make them pleasingly parallel on the plate, was exactly how she saw the world: in terms of lines.

This, again, was a startling thought. This friend has long been dear to me and I'd say I know her pretty well by now, but I wouldn't have believed she saw the world that way; I wouldn't have believed anyone saw the world that way. It struck me forcibly that we have distinctive ways of looking at things. How did I see the world, I wondered? Two things came to the forefront: straight or crooked lines don't bother me, but aesthetically unpleasing proportions do - for instance, when we moved into our new house, I called in a builder the next morning to get rid of the built-in wardrobe in the bedroom because it completely ruined the proportions of an otherwise charming Edwardian space.

More than that, what I see can be best expressed by the phrase Could you grow a plant here? I clock natural light and start to stress out if I'm away from it for too long. I clock the colour green, I remarked, looking at the dinner table and noticing that I'd chosen the green glass rather than one of the blue ones - in fact, now I thought about it I'd actually picked a glass slightly further away from me because of its colour. In streets with no plants in sight, I start to stress out again; it was the main reason I felt I had to move out of Stratford at no small upheaval and expense. Almost every room in my house has plants in it; my front window is dominated by an enormous weeping fig two feet taller than me, and while it's not the most efficient use of space I'd be unhappy without it. My friend sees the world filtered through a grid; I seem to live in a perpetual forest that either is or isn't up to snuff. (You can see evidence of this in Bareback/Benighted: the designers for the US edition decorated the opening pages with tree silhouettes, and going through the proofs I had to agree they'd picked up on something. Trees loom from every corner of the book once you start looking.)

What do you see the world through? What movies are you watching?

I am like that with green too, it is a very apt description. People visiting me comment on the abundance of plants which there aren't always space for.

However: I don't like watching movies (or tv) particularly much and I never have. I was 7 when I told my teacher that they ruined my vision of the world, I wanted to keep my own pictures. I don't remember saying that but he had written it down and told me about it years later. I agree with my 7yo self.

I think going through why this is is going to be a massive comment but it is certainly an idea for a blog post of my own - a good comeback, really.
(Second try - not sure what I did wrong the first time.)

That was fascinating, Kit!

My particular lens is color and color harmony. When I see an item that contains multiple colors, I will often comment, "those colors don't *want* to be together!", meaning they look like they got roped into it against their will. Their friends are somewhere else. I like colors to look like they like being with each other because I strongly value interpersonal harmony, but in a heterogeneous environment. If it's "harmony" that's really conformity and everyone's the same, I run screaming in the opposite direction. I have to have variety.
My movie filters must include identification with the characters. I have trouble watching scenes where characters are humiliated; I empathize with them too much, and sometimes have to fast-forward. I have less trouble with older movies. The acting is slightly more stylized and it gives me just enough distance.

I also tend to pay less attention to music without lyrics... except for film scores. The action or dialogue accompanying the music becomes the lyrics. When I hear the music without the film it brings to mind the feelings inspired by the scenes it was paired with.
Scene: kitchen. Sound effects: radio is playing music.

Him: That band's new CD is much quieter and more serene than their previous work, don't you think? And the last singer could have used more variation in tone and tempo to make the song more interesting.

Me: Huh? ...I don't know, I was reading. But now that you've got my attention, that's a clever lyric she's singing.

Yes, I notice the words first. And printed words take precedence over spoken words.

And I'm with you, too, about the natural light.
i don't care about color or proportion so much, but give me natural light and an orderly environment.

Word: celeat. The exact greenish hue of your favorite glass, perhaps?
Lemme guess: the piece you identified as taking from Rite of Spring was Star Wars Episode IV, the scene where R2-D2 is captured by Jawas?
I'm not sure where in Star Wars it came - like I said, I really don't notice music very much when a movie's playing; I could just about tell you what plays over the credit sequence but that's pretty much it - but that was the movie so you're probably right. I'll certainly take your word over mine!

And yes, it was Rite of Spring. My parents took me to see Fantasia in the cinema several times when I was a little girl, so I've always been fond of it. (Even if I did hide under the chair for Night On A Bare Mountain.)
I'm a verbal rather than a visual thinker, and as a writer I "hear" my stories more than I "see" them. As a result my first drafts are long on conversation and introspection, with a bare minimum of scene-setting to tell the reader where the characters are doing their talking and thinking. And it's hard work for me to edit the setting in, because I see the people just fine, but I don't notice what sort of lamp is on the side table or what kind of trees grow in the forest--in my imagination OR in my real surroundings.

I once got in a debate over whether the American or British cover of a particular book was more attractive. I liked the American one and said the British looked cluttered, the person I was arguing with was amazed and said the exact opposite was the case. She was a graphic designer and outlined everything that seemed cluttered to her about the American cover--too many images, too many fonts, etc. I explained that the British cover had an undifferentiated group of people, which to me looked cluttered because I couldn't figure out where I was supposed to focus, while the American one clearly drew my eye to an image of the protagonist. We then realized that what we'd assumed was an argument over British vs. American aesthetics was actually a difference in visual processing that probably had little or nothing to do with nationality.

And when I'm watching a movie, I'm only consciously watching the people--and I focus on one or two people at a time. My much more visual husband and I have discovered we even watch sports differently. In a sport like football or baseball where the location and possession of the ball is the critical factor, that's what I'm watching: the ball, who has it, and what they're doing with it. He's watching everyone on the field and analyzing how they set up and shift around. Even when he explains what he sees, I have trouble shifting my brain to perceive it his way.
I am intensely visual, and a compulsive reader - to the extent that someone wearing a shirt with a slogan might as well be marching around, shouting it at the top of their lungs. There's no way I can overlook it, and while I may choose not to react, I can't really ignore such things, either.

When I was younger, I could actually 'tune' my vision, so that I regarded the same scene in terms of shapes/proportions, colors, or movements. Maybe I still can; it's been years since I've really tried it.

I'm also very much of the 'listen to the lyrics' approach to music. Basically, if there are words present, I will focus on them. I can hear and analyze the musical elements, but only after I've done with the words - that usually takes repeated listenings.
How do you deal with vocal polyphony?
Um - explain to me what that is and I'll be able to tell you. Examples preferred. Sounds like an interesting question. :-)
Vocal polyphony: several voices singing different things at the same time, such as in a madrigal. (In Western music they generally harmonize with each other, but may or may not all be singing the same words at the same time.)

I seem to be word-focused in that I can't let something be "background" if it has words I can understand. My "commute music" is all instrumental or else in languages I don't speak. I can't hold a conversation in a room with the TV going without exerting real effort to tune out the TV's "conversation". I'm also a compulsive reader of T-shirts, cereal boxes and the like; I can't *not* read them.

OTOH, I'm able to consciously re-focus to some extent and look at the visual environment when I'm working on a graphic design project.
Ah, thanks.

I'm not bad at keeping track of vocal polyphony. I tend to follow one thread then another until I've got the measure of it, zapping around fairly fast. But basically, it's like trying to listen to several conversations at once, which I can do reasonably well. If I like the piece I may listen to it several times until I feel I've completely got it, which is also something I do when I read or hear a sentence I particularly like.

I think most people automatically read slogans and cereal boxes, largely because we've been trained from younger and more rigorously to read than almost anything else: reading is pretty much our culture's speciality. After all this dinning, our brains tend to translate the shapes into words automatically: if you're literate it's hard not to read a word you're looking at, as in that experiment where you look at the word 'blue' in green letters and have to say what colour the word is - people tend to say what they read rather than what they see. On the whole we tend to see a word's meaning before we've had time to see anything else.

(Assuming, as I said, that we're literate, because not everyone can read and in this culture that's a serious problem for them.)
I tend to be influenced by the spaces people are in in movies. I'm a shocking slob in real life, but I love looking at clean, open, well-defined spaces.

I was just watching the movie Twilight--no, not the vampire thing, the 1999 movie starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman. It's about a washed-up former private eye (Newman) who finds himself investigating an old murder.

Pretty much all the spaces are ill-defined, and most characters are shown not far from a wall or other backdrop, which contributes to the sense one has of characters being backed into a corner or up against the wall, or whatever metaphor you like. The exception is a young private detective, a secondary character who, both actually and in terms of the space he occupies, seems always to have a lot of room to move around in.

I mentioned on Slacktivist that one of the reasons I enjoy the movie Christmas in Connecticut is that I enjoy looking at the interior of the Connecticut farmhouse in which much of the action takes place. (Although, at the time the movie was made, anything with that many windows must have been impossible to heat comfortably.)
Wow, I have to say I'm surprised by what people are saying about music. I find the presence of comprehensible lyrics an annoyance, unless they're going to be the main point of the thing (a comedic song e.g.). But I'm really not a music person at all; I don't really ever go out searching for new music; if I have a copy of something, chances are, I heard it a bunch already and thought, "Huh, that's pretty good" - meaning, it's nearly all video game music. I guess to some extent I tend to think of music *as* soundtrack - not that I could necessarily come up with something that a given piece "would be the soundtrack to", but I do tend to think of music in terms of soundtrack-type qualities - such-and-such is heroic music, such-and-such is opening-game music, etc.
@ Kit - "...reading is pretty much our culture's speciality."

My wife, who teaches freshman English at the local community college, complains with some frequency that her students - the American-born ones, at any rate - mostly don't read. She thinks it's a large influence on the truly deplorably quality of (most of) their writing.

I'm not sure that actually runs counter to your point - there's a large difference between "knows how to read" and what I would consider "literate" - but I also wonder if your impression isn't a bit skewed by local exposure. People who like to read tend to hang out with other people who like to read, after all.
When I say 'read', I mean the basic physical skill of deciphering letters, which is all that's involved when reading a cereal packet.

The fact that a culture specialises in something doesn't mean that every single member can do it, or that every member who can does it for fun as well as for duty. I'm sure Genghis Khan's horde had a few lads who weren't that mad about horses.
Granted. I still find it funny (as an occasional unpaid assistant) that the vast majority of spelling and grammar errors come from the native speakers, though. The students for whom English is a second language are far better at it (or else they're essentially incomprehensible, so I suppose there's a degree of selection bias there).
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