This Is Your Brain On Wes Anderson

I finally saw Moonrise Kingdom! Hitting the discount matinee at my local cinema I decided that, hell, even though I wasn't keen on watching a movie revolving around kids prancing around like little French New Wave adults (did this creep out anyone else?) I still think Wes Anderson is an interesting storyteller and I should give his film the respect is deserves by seeing it in a theater. So me and three other (old) people huddled together in a huge, chilly theater auditorium on a weird weathered day full of alternating wind and rain and sun and leaves sparkling in their autumn hues watching the summercamp tale of a stormy child love unfold before us! Wes Anderson, as the old man sitting in front of me declared after being previously unaware of the filmmaker, "knows how to make a movie!" And he really does. His patterns in editing, his symmetrical photographic shot composition, his music and sound design, his ability to be sharply off handed in hilarity- it's all there in a neat little J.D. Salinger/Truffaut package wrapped up for your viewing pleasure. Despite the fact that his style might be bordering on predictable seeing this film with fresh audience eyes made me respect what Anderson is doing so much more. And also made me interested in the idea of the creation of the auteur in general....Which is how I discovered the vast array of a branch of film studies called neurocinematics!

Apparently, there is a whole area of neuroscience that has been gaining momentum called neurocinematics that centers around how cinema effects the viewer on a deeper level, how our brains take in, process and act in the presence of a film...I like to think it is a movement from the 60s/70s focus of psychoanalysis of the mind to a focus on what creates that mind: the brain. Resources such as Projections: The Journal for the Movie and the Mind (and their parent Forum for Movies and the Mind) and The Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image seek to use our modern scientific capabilities to get deeper into movies, the emerging patterns of cinema and it's effects on the brain's of audiences, and vice versa. As Projections states in it's mission statement:

"[Projections] explores the way in which the mind experiences, understands, and interprets the audio-semantic and narrative structures of cinema and other visual media. Recognizing cinema as an art form, the journal aims to integrate established traditions of analyzing media aesthetics with current research into perception, cognition and emotion, according to frameworks supplied by psychology, psychoanalysis, and the cognitive and neurosciences."

The way I happened upon this discovery had to do with experiencing the patterns of Wes Anderson's films. In every one of his films he relies on a slow motion scene usually at a point of important character identification, his cuts are quick, sharp and deliberate, his shot composition is extremely composed with action in the middle and objects on the periphery with an impeccable mise-en-scene drawing you into the center of the frame with the actors, often a narrator leads you on your journey seeming to speak personally to you in the theater- all tropes that Moonrise Kingdom included and made me feel as if I was being lulled into Anderson's own little universe of narrative identification, a universe that my fellow audiences members were also immediately captivated by on this breezy Autumn day! Anderson's style, one he continues to improve & hone, is so distinct that each person I watched this film with laughed at the exact same moments, gasped at the same time, grumbled in the face of the villian in I hit the internet looking for information on patterns of audience reactions which is how I found an article titled Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film.

In this article (which you can get a pdf of if you search the title!) a bunch of folks- including scientists and film scholars- monitored the brain activity of film watchers, wondering if films control the way we as film viewers think, react and engage in similar ways. What they discovered was that filmmakers whose craft is incredibly detailed, whose manipulation of the viewer's senses through editing, sound, storytelling and general guidance, can cause the brain activity of people to react in nearly the exact same way! For example, those conducting the study screened Hitchcock to their subjects and, with the help of an fMRI (that actively scans and presents an imaging of the brain, detecting areas of activity from corresponding bloodflow) each person was drawn to the same areas of the screen at certain points, each person's brain triggered an emotional response at the same moment, each person recognized the faces of the characters at similar times. This calculated response was in direct contrast to a screening of Curb Your Enthusiasm, whose possible cinema vérité style and meandering action caused the test subject's minds to sort of wander as if watching an everyday scene, bumbling around along with the morose Larry...This is incredible! Especially when taking these findings a step further and applying this concept of, basically, the ability of film to "mind control" in the areas of advertising and propaganda: just how strong are our wills when confronted with the almighty filmic image? How susceptible is the collective sub-conscious to the director's cut? Are we being manipulated more than we know? (looks over shoulder!)

Paranoia aside, Wes Anderson is one of those directors whose characteristic style is so evident that one could probably see a still and identify his hand in it. His storylines (even if they are only speaking to a limited audience) are always consistent as we watch his hardworking-yet-privledged underdog making a heroic leap towards emotional happiness (another subject of interest in neurocinematics as displayed here, pondering the question if we root for the underdog as a means of soothing our own personal struggles?) through his specific, patterned artistic lens; a base of a distinct soundtrack feeling, an emotional slow motion portrait, quick witted/tongue biting/unexpectedly harsh humor, a thoughtful muted color palette, highly detailed & organized shots (favoring certain camera techniques too- like the overhead, 1st person in this montage! a shot that, once again, makes you see through the eyes of the characters, identifying with those on screen, forcing our brains to become one with the protagonist), the inclusion of a shot of a character underwater, oftentimes a narrator telling us a story (and which Anderson plays on in Moonrise through the campfire readings of the film's heroine), quick cuts to supplementary imagery (Anderson loves to showcase a good book cover or hand written letter!), the use of a play within the film to point out craft and distinguish a feeling of reality & unreality within the film etc. Anderson has found a set of patterns that I hope he continues to grow and explore as he becomes more and more well known and seeks to entertain a wider audience- and I stress entertain because it is an element of art that is often looked down upon nowadays for some reason (why can't more people enjoy the craft of someone considered an artist?)...

Anderson might one day join the ranks of his fellow mind-controlling Hollywood crossover auteurs (Scorsese, Kubrick & the like! Also, Coppola, a connection that Anderson already has in some sense.) as he molds the brains of audiences into his stories of bittersweet, scrappy heroes to the tunes of fitting lullabies, punk anthems, and country western croons creating a new American indie-school play aesthetic that he is most definitely the pioneer of. Wes Anderson might not be saying too much with the content of his films but there is a beauty, artistry and love in them- and the triumph of the outcast, however trite or first world problem centered- that the world does need... a sweet dream of winning against the odds and creating something outside of oneself for others to experience within themselves! The auteur as artistic hypnotist? Yes, as long as the intentions are as pure & pink-tinted as Wes Anderson's!



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.