Monday, April 15, 2013

Kuleshov Revisted: Emotional Reactions Across Time

Among aficionados of early silent films, Lev Kuleshov, the Soviet film director, is known for his use of editing to evoke different emotions. He took shots of an actor posing with a neutral expression and placed them after various scenes, such as one of a bowl of soup, a child's coffin, or a seductively dressed woman. Depending on the preceding shot, the actor's "neutral" expression seemed to change—from one of hunger to sadness and then to lust (see YouTube video).

Facial expressions offer potent displays of emotions, though the "Kuleshov effect" shows that expressions can be ambiguous and thus depend upon the context or situation. Following a close-up shot of a person crying a zoom out could show a funeral scene, though it could just as likely reveal a wedding procession. Even in the same setting, identical expressions may be perceived differently. Check out the clever drawing by psychologist Roger Shepard which shows a perceptual illusion--the two monsters are physically the same size though in the context of the tunnel, linear perspective makes our brains interpret the background monster to appear much larger than the one in the foreground. There is also an emotional illusion as the facial expressions are identical, yet the monster in the foreground appears scared, whereas the one in the background appears angry. 

In a recent set of psychological experiments, Diane Marian and I played on a kind of Kuleshov effect by presenting short film clips of facial expressions that changed over a few seconds. Let's say you are at a gathering and you look up from a conversation and see an unfamiliar face turn and smile at you. Your emotions would be buoyed. Now consider that expression in reverse—you look up and see someone smiling at you, but then the person turns and the expression fades to a blank stare. In our experiment, we showed a variety of short clips in which expressions moved from neutral to happy, happy to neutral, neutral to angry, and angry to neutral. A neutral face that had just been smiling at you actually looks rather grumpy (see video).

Conversely, when an angry face moves to a neutral expression, the person at the end appears to have a rather pleasant disposition.

These effects have the appearance of a perceptual illusion as the very same "blank" expression actually looks different (grumpy or pleasant) depending on whether it started as a happy or angry expression. In fact, we never interpret facial expressions as static, momentary images. In everyday experiences, facial expressions move within a rich contextual environment as they track and signal social interchanges. Of course, movies play on a character's facial expressions as the plot thickens. Jack Nicholson's evolution into madness in The Shining comes immediately to mind. These influences reinforce the idea that much of our emotional involvement at the movies is an unfolding or dynamic experience that occurs as much in the brain as on the screen.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Miyazaki Magic: From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara)

Those familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's animated films, such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and Kiki's Delivery Service, will be prepared for the U.S. release of From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara). The movie was directed by his son, Gorō Miyazaki, and co-scripted by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa. It is set in Yokohama 1963 and tells the story of the burgeoning relationship between Umi and Shun as they try to prevent the demolition of a dilapidated clubhouse (called the "Latin Quarter") next door to Umi's high school. The story is wonderfully engaging and the visuals stunning. The characters are depicted with typical "anime" features (big eyes, flat shading), though the background scenery is vivid with extraordinary detail or at times with a painterly, watercolor style.

For those not familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, he is often compared to Walt Disney, as his full-length animations have been cherished by generations of children in Asia. A relative from Japan once told me that her kids watched their VHS recording of My Neighbor Totoro so often that the tape wore out from use. Indeed, even before last month's U.S. release of From Up on Poppy Hill, the movie had already grossed $60 million. What is special about movies by Miyazaki is that one can find playful stories aimed primarily toward young children, such as Totoro and Kiki, as well as darker tales, such as Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which are directed more toward older children (of course all of these are suitable for adults!). If one looks beyond to other animations from Studio Ghibli--the production company co-founded by Miyazaki and Isao Takahata--one can find Grave of the Fireflies by Takahata, a tale of two children trying to survive in Japan during World War II. This adult-oriented story is so heart-wrenching that I would have difficulty watching it again. The broad use of animation to describe a manifold of thoughts and emotions likely comes from the cultural foundation of manga, the comic books of Japan, which span the market from children's stories to adult pornography.

Although comparisons between Miyazaki and Disney are valid, what is apparent while watching a Miyazaki movie is how much our sense of storytelling is culturally based. For one, a Miyazaki movie typically involves a young girl as the main character who must confront a coming-of-age situation, which is true for Umi in Poppy Hill. For Umi, however, the relationship with Shun becomes quite complicated to the point where in the middle of the story Shun comments, "It's like a cheap melodrama"! The heroines in these movies are refreshing, especially compared to the "princesses" in Disney movies; yet, of course Miyazaki's characters are themselves grounded in their own cultural myths of gender and youth.

More interesting to me, from a cultural standpoint, is the lack of a true villain in a Miyazaki movie. In Western philosophy, we are ingrained with a sense of polarity—there's good and evil, right and wrong. We expect to have a defined bad guy that the hero must overcome and defeat. Eastern philosophies tend to acknowledge that goodness or badness often depends upon the context or situation. Psychologist Kaiping Peng has considered how such cultural influences play our thoughts and feelings. Early on, I had problems with Miyazaki movies as there wasn't a defined "bad guy." In fact, sometimes a character that started out seeming to be the evil archenemy suddenly works to assist the hero. In these movies, such as in Poppy Hill, there are of course questions and confrontations that must be addressed and resolved, yet the success of these stories is not the overthrow or defeat of some evil villain. In these movies we don't even need a final chase scene. My point: for a charming and engaging movie that is universally appealing, go see From Up on Poppy Hill