We live the entirety of our lives entombed in our skulls. Isolated from the world by a few inches of bone, we never experience what it is like to not be in our bodies and nor do we experience what it is like to be someone else. Not even for a second. Tragically detached from the world, we are forever looking out and speculating as to what it might be like out there, what might be happening inside other people’s heads. Of course, evolution has equipped us to make these inferential leaps and studies suggest that within minutes of birth, babies have already acquired a preference for looking at human faces. As a species of pattern-matchers, we seek out our fellow humans and we try to guess what it is that they are feeling. We read emotions on faces and infer the emotional states that might be causing them. As our understanding of both human psychology and ourselves expand, we build complex models that help us to make sense of other people by projecting our own emotions onto the facial expressions we see around us. We assume that other people are like us because the alternative is unbearable. It is one thing to be entombed in our heads, but it is quite another to be completely alone.
Our skill at pattern recognition is such that all too often we generate false positives. We look at the weather and random happenstance and we infer a form of human agency that eventually becomes belief in a supreme divine intelligence. We look at images beamed from the surface of Mars and we see faces in the rubble. We look at animals and we think we recognise human emotions. We project because that is what we do. We project because we cannot stand the idea that we are the only people feeling what it is that we feel. We do not want to be alone in our experiences.
Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette is a documentary film that explores this desire to project ourselves out onto the world in order to make sense of it and concludes that these acts of projection say more about the person doing the projecting than the thing being projected upon.
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In “Big Red Son”, his essay on the porn equivalent of the Oscars, David Foster Wallace writes about a morally up-standing police detective who is drawn to pornography’s capacity for capturing moments of pure humanity. This is an intriguing idea and it is certainly one that I agree with. Most performances are based upon a degree of artifice : Someone pretending to be someone they or not or behaving in a way that they would not normally behave. The people who appear in adult films usually buy into this notion of performance. The men adopt a worldly misogyny while the women appear to revel in their transgressions of good taste and traditional gender roles. What Foster Wallace refers to as the “Fuck me, I’m a nasty girl” persona. However, because pornography is quite cheaply made and ultimately reliant upon the inviolability of certain basic biological rhythms, the performers sometimes forget the persona they are supposed to be inhabiting. Sometimes these slippages reveal genuine attraction and sexual excitement, but other times there are flashes of irritation, disgust, boredom, amusement or fear. These outpourings of human emotion are made al the more real by the grotesque theatricality of pornography and all the more pleasurable because of their illicit nature. They are supposed to be having passionate sex, we are supposed to be getting off on watching them, and yet we see the actress’s irritation at her male colleague. Score.
I remember when, after a number of years of failing eye-sight, I first got glasses and a world of detailed facial expression suddenly opened up to me. I remember standing in Liverpool Street station and marvelling at the way in which emotions played across people’s faces. How a friendly smile would die on someone’s lips the second the other person looked away or how a momentary flash of irritation would prompt a hard glare at a fried, a glare that would instantly disappear the second the friend turned to ask a question or make a remark. Humans are creatures with rich emotional lives. Lives they try to keep hidden from those around them, and yet those lives are betrayed broadcast to al who care to look by the infinite expressiveness of the human face.
José Luis Guerín’s In The City of Sylvia (2007) is a film that is all about those fleeting moments of humanity. It even invites us to place these little moments in a wider context, but by doing so it raises the difficulties inherent in trying to work out what other people are thinking.
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