Hugo (2011) – Passionately Ambivalent

One of the most influential populist understandings of how humans think is derived from the model of the triune brain devised by the neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. According to MacLean, the human brain is the product of three evolutionary steps, each step not only marks a transition from one type of animal to another, it also heralds the acquisition of a new set of cognitive skills. The first part of the brain to develop was the reptilian complex (or ‘Lizard Brain’), which governs such behaviours as aggression, dominance and all of the ritualistic posturing that usually accompanies the desire to take and hold territory. Next to develop was the paleomammalian complex (or ‘Limbic Brain’), which controls basic emotions, motivations and the desire to reproduce and protect one’s young. Last to develop was the neomammallian complex, usually associated with the human cerebral neocortex, this part of the brain controls reasoning, language, strategic thoughts and all of the other cognitive skills we normally consider to be quintessentially human.

This model of human neurological development has proved so immensely influential that its three stages have now mostly entered common parlance. Indeed, when someone has a reaction they know to be irrational, they frequently chalk it up to the primitive harpings of their lizard brain, the part of their brain and personality that wants to fight or run away from any potential source of trouble. One explanation for this model’s continued success is that it taps into a popular understanding of how humans evolved and links it to what it feels like to be human. We have all seen the animations that depict human evolution as one long march out of the slime and into the light and so it is easy to picture our ancestors struggling with inferior neural circuitry until evolution kicked in and all of their experience points went into buying the ‘Limbic System’ trait. Lodged at the heart of the model of the triune brain is the decidedly Whiggish notion that the story of evolution is ultimately the story of progress and that the hardware we now have is a damn sight better than what our ancestors once used to apprehend the world. This Whiggish view of human evolutionary history is also buttressed by our collective experience of technological change. For example, most middle-class Westerners are now familiar with the experience of using a computer until it becomes so slow and clunky that they are forced to either invest in upgrades or buy something sleeker, faster and better adapted to the demands of today’s over-designed web pages. One might even go so far as to argue that the success of the model of the triune brain is due to the fact that it offers us a Just So Story that tells of How the Human Got its Brain.

One of the advantages of thinking about oneself in terms of different brains is that it allows us to distance ourselves from thoughts we deem unacceptable. When people act rashly and chalk it up to the intervention of their ‘Lizard Brain’, they are suggesting that the person who acted rashly was not the person they generally consider themselves to be. However, while the Lizard Brain is generally seen as being alien, it is not necessarily held in contempt or singled out as a source of toxic irrationality. Instead, people who talk about themselves in terms of the triune brain generally talk about the Lizard Brain in terms that are decidedly ambivalent. On the one hand, the Lizard Brain is the thing that makes us over-react when someone challenges our position in the group but, on the other hand, it is also the thing that allows us to react in an instant when a loved one is about to be run over by a car. Thus, the Lizard Brain is both an unpleasant anachronism that is surplus to requirements and a life saving set of cognitive skills that allows us to cut through the crap and act decisively when it really matters. These ambivalent attitudes to ‘old tech’ are also manifest in the arts.

The Whiggish approach to both human and technological evolution has its equivalent in the history of cinema. Just as the human brain moved through different stages before reaching full humanity, film is seen as the product of different artistic forms:

First, there was illustration and painting that allowed humans to develop compositional skills that enabled them to not only reproduce images of reality but also to convey moods and themes.

Second, there was photography that absorbed illustration’s compositional techniques and added new skills based upon both the immediacy of the photographic medium and the technological sophistication of the photographer’s tools when compared to those of painters and illustrators.

Third, early film absorbed the skills of photography and introduced a new set of technological hurdles involving the movement from capturing still images to capturing moving ones. This progression from depictions of single moments to depictions of expanses of time allowed early filmmakers to begin telling stories and so to begin drawing on the expertise of writers as well as visual artists.

Fourth, the medium of film continued to evolve over time adding first sound and then colour to its moving images. These basic technological advancements were joined by increasingly involved forms of cinematography as well as more and more refined form of storytelling and narrative control.

Fifth, the arrival of the digital era allowed filmmakers to escape the requirement that something be present in front of the camera in order to appear on film. Indeed, while practical effects and the cinematic techniques used to film these effects became more and more sophisticated as time went by, the director always found himself having to create things in the real world in order for them to appear in the world of his film. The development of computer graphics allowed the creation of remarkable images with no basis in reality, images that began as explosions but then became entire worlds and characters. Suddenly, the line between traditional live-action film and animation began to dissolve.

While there have been numerous attempts to find a sixth step in the evolution of the cinematic form, the current cutting edge is the introduction of techniques and technologies that allow films to acquire a third dimension whereby the screen appears to move back and forth to create both the illusion of depth and the illusion that figures on screen are somehow jutting out into the cinema auditorium.

Much like the primitive parts of the human brain, the cutting edge of cinematic technology enjoys something of an ambivalent reputation. Some see 3D as little more than a gimmick that distracts from the traditional cinematic techniques that have been honed and improved by generations of gifted filmmakers. Others, on the other hand, see 3D not only as a financial lifeline for an industry in terminal decline but also as enough of a reason to make and release a film. Who cares whether Transformers tells a story… the important thing is that it looks good and that the punters get their money’s worth when it comes to 3D. Unfortunately, while the question of 3D’s role in the future of cinema has produced a good deal of intelligent commentary, the commentators tend to split quite evenly into neophile and luddite camps. In other words, the debate is often framed as a zero-sum game in which 3D’s success can only come at the cost of traditional filmmaking while the failure of 3D can only spell doom for an existing business model based upon a set of creative industries that struggle to command the public’s attention in the way they once did.

Based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is an attempt to build a bridge between these two opposing cinematic camps. Filmed in 3D and packed full of cutting-edge CGI, Hugo is not only a film that looks towards the 21st Century, it is also a film that looks back to the dawn of the 20th Century by celebrating the life and works of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.

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