The Evolving Human and Dream-like, Screen-based Media
Starrs, D. Bruno (2008) The Evolving Human and Dream-like, Screen-based Media. artciencia.com, IV(9).
With rare exceptions, film theorists have traditionally focussed on culturally symbolic criticism in a persistent denial of the biological function and benefit of film-going. There has been a recent reversal of this trend, however, with the development of a cognitive theory of film, which Nicolas Tredell describes as an approach whereby "A film can be regarded as a simulation of a (possible) real-life situation that engages the viewer’s intellect, emotions and body, and that involves a complex negotiation between fiction and reality" (2002: 259). One aspect of this attempt to include science in the understanding of film has been neoteric work by William Evans on the evolutionary aspects of film-going. He argues that "humans have evolved to prefer television and film to print media [… because] it seems real to us [and because] humans are hardwired to attend and respond to visual stimuli, especially when visual stimuli include other people [...] engaging in salient behaviour" (2005: 200-201). But this elegantly simple explanation of the evolutionary significance of film and other screen-based media needs further elaboration. Firstly, Evans fails to consider the evolutionary benefits that accrue from Revonsuo's 2005 theory of the threat rehearsal function of film-going, in that films are like dreams. Secondly, in emphasizing the reality of the screen's moving image, he neglects to consider why humans attend to unrealistic film such as animations, which I argue are even more dream-like than non-animated films, using the example of Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). Thirdly, he omits consideration of the evolutionary function of a film auteur who is assigned the virtual status of tribal elder. Hence I make a tendentious claim regarding the evolutionary benefit of film-goers assigning the status of 'auteur' to an individual writer/director, despite the well known collaborative nature of film-making, and (dare I say) the out-of-fashion Barthesian notion of the death of the author. Regarding Disney once again, one notes the absence of certain genres of cinema in his otherwise heterogeneous body of work: he has never made a war film or action movie. Such exclusions, only apparent when the huge oeuvre he has helmed are considered as a single text emanating from an individual author, generate an understanding of the Disney worldview, in which family values are prioritised and prompts attitudes toward this auteurial individual akin to meaning-seeking villagers genuflecting to a wise tribal elder as he offers advice for survival of the species in the evolutionary struggle for survival of the fittest. In addressing these three omissions, my paper aims to gain credibility for a more comprehensive evolutionary theory of film.
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