🎬 #54 Emotional Models in Cinema.
This week I had the pleasure of seeing Darren Aronofsky be interviewed at the BFI and go to a special screening of a William Friedkin film, and in attendance were the musicians who scored the film. Both evenings were courtesy of my friend Pete, but embarrassingly I asked him who scored the film, while suggesting it was Tangerine Dream, only to find out that it was Wang Chung only to realise that two members of the band were sitting right in front of us ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. My mental model of the film’s sound was wrong and mixed two 80’s groups up.
I’m a bit obsessed with the idea of mental models at the minute and I was thinking how they pretty much govern everything that we experience. Then I started to see that cinematic storytelling operates on mental models - or rather ‘emotional models.’
If a mental model can be defined as something like this:
an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about their own acts and their consequences.
Then storytelling is a kind of prism of emotional models. We feel a certain way about a character because of their actions and what they say about them. But these are only powerful because as an audience we come with preloaded software about how to perceive the world around us - mental models. They allow us to become immersed in a character and story. For example: we have a mental model that dark alleyways are scary because they’re dark and we were warned by older people not to go down them when we were younger - because bad things might happen there, in the dark. So when we see a film and there’s a scene where a woman walks down one at night and she looks over her shoulder as she goes, only to see someone following her - we expect bad things to happen.
Our mental model of how the world worlds lets us engage with our emotional model of what that means for the character in the film. And so the result is we feel anxious and scared for her safety. But if it turns out to be her friend just playing a joke on her, we’re relieved and the film has [in this basic example] subverted out expectations based on our mental model. So it’s easy to see how filmmakers can use these models, both emotional and mental to short cut the storytelling process, to either surprise us or quickly establish something about a character - e.g. villains tend to wear black [model: black reminds us of death / darkness].
But what’s really interesting is that film’s obviously rely on these emotional / mental models but they also create them - e.g. some people don’t like swimming in the ocean because of Jaws. We know cops slide across car bonnets, or when the camera moves away from someone in a big dolly shot while they’re screaming, this means ‘it’s really dramatic.’
It’s a circle of influence, creating, reenforcing and relying on the model. I’m going to take a few moments from two films this week and talk about how they use emotional models to tell their story. And also hopefully show that sometimes it’s good to abandon the models we have in our mind, and explore beyond and get some new ones in there.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.
1985 Dir William Friedkin
Like I mentioned in the intro I rewatched Friedkin’s film this week and saw it for the first time on the big screen. It’s an incredibly wild film - as soon as Wang Chung’s [I’m sorry guys] score starts we’re hit with a lot of frenetic imagery - women in elaborate face paint which is kind of the ‘sexy’ version of the demon image in Friedkin’s Exorcist, and shots of LA’s blood red sunset to name a few. It’s an unsettling, disorienting intro, kind of like a mad dream and the film more or less continues like this.
But to get to the emotional / mental model - there are a few things to focus on. Willem Dafoe’s villain for one - Eric Masters [what a name]. His car of choice is the 1984 Ferrari 308 GTS. And not just any old red one - a black one. And what do our mental models say about villains and black? In fact the majority of his outfits are at least partly black. Going back to the car, [and this is reading too much into it] but a big mental model audiences would have had at the time was Magnum Pi. And in the final two seasons he drove this exact Ferrari. So taking such an iconic hero’s car and making it black is a subversion of expectations. Painting Magnum’s Ferrari black and putting a villain behind the wheel is breaking a mental model for effect - the hero drives the Ferrari.
William Peterson’s ‘Richard Chance’ [incredible name yet again] and his secret service partner Jim Hart - played by Michael Greene, fit another mental model / emotional model that we have. The older man [he even utters the words ‘Im too old for this shit’ made famous by Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon released two years later]. leading the way for the younger. This is the emotional model of ‘the mentor.’ This shortcuts the need to build up their partnership - its clears from just a few exchanges, because of our prior knowledge of partnerships like this from our real lives and from literature/film/tv - everything that feeds these models that are in our heads. In a way these models translate to screen as tropes, archetypes, ‘cliche.’ But they are much deeper because they are distillations of the behaviours, relationships, observations of everyone in the audience, as if the screen has captured the vapour coming from our lives and all these ‘things’ that add up to emotion reach their dew point on the silver screen, turning visible.
William Peterson’s character will stop at nothing to capture Masters, he says as much in the second act, but another great scene shows us how Friedkin uses our emotional model to show rather than tell. There’a dramatic moment when he chooses to drive into oncoming traffic in a car chase. This plays on lots of models we have. Traffic signs are literally visual models telling us to all behave the same so we don’t die, but here, Chance disregards it, he risks his and his partner’s lives. The visual of him disregarding the model of societal rules around driving, by literally driving against the current, tells us everything we need to know the character. He’ll stop at noting to get his man.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hrs 56 mins of my precious life watching this? William Friedkin’s LA is a hell of a place to witness, with an insane car chase that feels like a west coast brother to his most famous one in The French Connection.
*Not currently available on any ‘above board’ streaming platforms.
Fact: You might recognise Jane Leaves, one of the dancers in the film - she’s most famous for playing Daphne in Frasier.
Bonus: Robert Downey Jr’s Father plays the Police Chief.
FILM TWO: THE FOUNTAIN
2006 Dir Darren Aronofsky
This is a big film. As Aronofsky said in his interview - ‘my producer read the new version of the script and said, oh you’ve taken an epic and turned into a love poem about death.’ It’s an ambitious film that really goes for it all guns blazing and it has a special relationship with emotional models.
The film is split into three narratives that intertwine. One past, one present and one at some unknown point in time - it shows a space traveller so we’ll assume future [I just succumbed to a mental model]. But the overarching emotional model that stitches these together is ‘love.' A relationship between husband and dying wife is powerful because we all understand the emotional model - losing someone you love is brutally hard. Made even more difficult because Hugh Jackman’s Tomas is a neurosurgeon desperately trying to find a cure for his wife’s brain tumour and for death in general. He believes death is just another disease that can be cured. So yes it’s a simple model - the image of a couple losing each other and of a Dr losing a patient.
The key thread of ‘a search’ is also represented in other emotional / mental models in the other chapters of the film. The idea of a quest is one of our biggest models. The idea that once we find something we’ll be accomplished. This is used to powerful effect in the Fountain - the quest model tells us the stakes of a Spanish conquistador [another version of Tomas] and of the space traveller [yet another Tomas].
But it’s rapped up in another model, the model of a story within a story. Rachel Weisz’s Isabel is writing a story which reflects elements of the other chapters, she’s using the model of the ‘explorer’ to tell the story of her husband in the AD 1300 sequence. And like Aronofsky, she’s using these emotional models we all our conditioned to understand to help tell her own story and lend it even more power.
Emotional models in film are a bit like emojis - I know that’s a mad simplification. But they are representations, signifying shortcuts that distill to us what this filmic image is about and what this visual language translates to emotionally. The Fountain packs in a hell of a lot of emotion into its relatively short runtime.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hrs 37 mins of my precious life watching this? Aronofsky’s emotional epic takes us on a unique journey into love, life and loss.
*Available for free to Disney + subscribers and for a small fee on Apple TV.
Fact: Aronofsky originally envisioned it at twice the cost, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the lead roles. To reduce the budget he utilised macro photography to stand in for CGI.
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