The Brain in Film

It’s true that movies—and all art—is about what the artist intends and what the mind interprets. But films about the mind—the tricks it plays, the depths it sinks to and the feats it’s capable of—are guides to the zeitgeist of their era, as well as a window into the future. For example, George Orwell’s book 1984 predicted fantastical concepts that are now commonplace (doublespeak=politics?). Similarly, in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report (based on the short story by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick), the focus on a new justice system in which prophets (“pre-cogs”) could predict when someone was thinking of committing a crime so that law enforcement could arrest them before the crime occurred, spoke to an existing fear that increasing technology would lead us to a police state with little free will. From Frankenstein in 1931 to Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945, films—even when they are based on books—bring to life our best and worst moments in the mind.
Here we take a look at a few recent films about the mind, and what they say about society today.

THE MATRIX (1999)

• The Wachowski brothers’ first Matrix (there were two less satisfying sequels) challenged reality and our place in it. Keanu Reeves, previously known for his roles in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the surfer cult hit Point Break, plays a computer programmer who is searching for answers to the meaning of life. He believes there is more than the world around him—and he’s right. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) offers him a chance to find the true reality—as opposed to a computer program run by aliens that has created a manufactured reality that almost everyone else experiences while their bodies remain captive for alien food. The Matrix is a movie about freeing one’s mind and using its power to do everything from bend a spoon to dodge bullets in slow motion (also a film-making feat). Although The Matrix itself drew inspiration from everything from the Bible to The Terminator, it set the standard for “mind over matter” films for years to come.

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999)

• This is a movie about getting into your head—literally. Through a hole in an old building, the strangest thing is discovered: a portal to actor John Malkovich’s brain. Did you ever want to be a movie star? Well, now you can. Did you ever want to be dumped at the New Jersey Turnpike after you were done? Well, you don’t have a choice. Scripted by Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich is a take on what it really means to see through someone else’s eyes and what it means to be an average person.
It also challenges the audience to consider what happens when you mess with the mind. For example, what if John Malkovich were to go through the portal and be in his own brain? He’d find a world where everyone looked like him (even women) and said the word Malkovich in different tones to mean different things. For Cameron Diaz’s character, it means a chance to consider her very sexuality, not just the power of celebrity. Being in a man’s brain, she suddenly finds women very appealing—and possibly always did.
Technology today would probably allow some experiences like those portrayed in Being John Malkovich. But the question is what are the ethical implications of controlling another’s mind? Should it be done at all?
As John Malkovich elegantly reminds a captor in the film: “It’s my head!”

A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)

• Imagine if the very source of your being was betraying you. Such is the problem of John Nash (Russell Crowe), the Nobel Prize winner who invented economic game theory. He sees incredible mathematical patterns, many of them real, some not. As he ages, the latter grow in number, leaving him paralyzed to stop his mind from possibly destroying his marriage and his career. The film shows us his college roommate, a young girl and a government agent who convinces Nash to help him crack codes using his unusual gift for numbers.
The twist is that Nash is schizophrenic, and some of the characters, like some of his theories, are not real—not reality, but real to Nash. The brilliance of Ron Howard’s film is that the director show us Nash’s “reality” and helps us understand that the schizophrenic doesn’t choose his reality—what they see is as real to them as what we experience in our own lives. “We’re not just seeing how his brain works on a mathematical level, but we’re also seeing his delusions and accepting them as real,” said Bob Strauss, former film critic for the Los Angeles Daily News. “I don’t think I walked away knowing anything about his medical condition but they showed a very tricky and difficult condition in a good narrative way.”
The movie brought this mind condition to the forefront of society, but the real John Nash, who has overcome his mental illness but says his son has inherited it, told New Scientist magazine in 2004: “There’s a lot of choice in this, I think. I know this is not the standard point of view. The standard doctrine is that we are supposed to be non-stigmatic in terms of these people: They are constitutionally, necessarily, schizophrenic. But I think there is an element of choice. A person doesn’t pass into insanity when their situations are good. If their personal life is successful, people don’t become insane. When they’re not so happy, when things aren’t so good, then they may become clinically depressed, and then maybe schizophrenic. Wealthy people are less likely to become schizophrenic than people who are not wealthy.”

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)

• One of the greatest aspects of the mind is its ability to remember. But what if your memory was your greatest source of pain? That’s the premise of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where the normally comedic Jim Carrey finds himself doing anything but laughing. Heartbroken, he decides to rid of himself of all memories of the girl he loved through a brain alteration—then midway through the operation suddenly realizes he doesn’t want to. His brain starts to fight back, showing him desperately holding on to memories from his past. The film, scripted by Charlie Kaufman, explores what we’d do if we only had the technology.
Although in 2004 it sounded absurd to erase memories, today, only six years later, scientists are doing similar experiments on rats. In an age where we can erase the appearance of aging or fat instantly with plastic surgery, can memory erasure be far behind?
Let Eternal Sunshine serve as a warning for us, so we should consider the memories we hated and whether we’d miss them when they’re gone—or if we really hated them so much in the first place.

AVATAR (2009)

• Avatar tells the story of a physically challenged man who gets a second chance to be a soldier through his avatar—a computer’s representation of a person or his/her alter ago. (Ideas explored in films such as The Matrix and Surrogates, where humans live through their surrogate robots.)
Director James Cameron challenges what the cerebral future might hold, selling the (not new) idea that avatars are the true channels for another sort of being. In Avatar, watching the main character walking, it is believable. You seem to even feel it. “It’s a film of imagination,” movie reviewer Leonard Klady says. “It’s stunning to watch and takes you into a world that you haven’t been to before…. The avatar is clearly translated to the audience, where you understood cleanly how the character was able to achieve his physical accomplishments.”
Cameron also revitalized 3D technology. His special effects were mesmerizing for some, dizzying for others.

“A good portion of our vision works like it’s in a true 3D world even though it can be actually two-dimensional, like when you see a painting,” says Dr. Mike Lenhardt, a California-based optometrist. The difference between two eyes is somewhere between between 55 millimeters and 75 millimeters, he said, and that difference in perspective has your brain comparing, to get a depth judgment. “These 3D movies show two different images, and they often maximize the stereopsis to force the depth on people.”
But some can’t tolerate 3D. “Some people have problems with 3D because they have problems with polarized light, and a majority of 3D works through polarized light,” Lenhardt says. “It can also be because the brain sometimes suppresses images, and 3D might change the visual system enough to where it can’t; what it can’t ignore it can find bothersome.”


Movies on the Mind

Since the advent of film, movies have been fascinated with the mind, whether they’re featuring memory or madness, therapy or dreamland. Here are a few of our favorites:

Spellbound (1945) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck
In this psychological thriller, the head of a mental institution has amnesia and might have killed his predecessor.

Shock Corridor (1963) Written and directed by Samuel Fuller
A journalist commits himself to a mental asylum to uncover
a murder mystery—and win a Pulitzer prize.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966) Directed by François Truffaut, based on Ray Bradbury’s novel
Somewhere in the near future (now our past) of an anti-
intellectual America (our present?), a fireman starts to
question his existence.

The Trip (1967) Directed by Roger Corman, written by Jack Nicholson, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hoppper
After a divorce from his cheating wife, a man takes LSD and takes a “trip” around Hollywood.

A Clockwork Orange (1971) Directed by Stanley
Kubrick, based on Anthony Burgess’s novel
In another dystopian future, this time in Britain, a juvenile
delinquent undergoes an experimental treatment in prison.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Directed
by Miloš Forman, starring Jack Nicholson
To avoid serving time in prison, a criminal transfers to a
mental hospital, where he challenges authority and incites other patients.

High Anxiety (1977) Written by, directed by and
starring Mel Brooks
A spoof of and homage to psychodrama thrillers.

Altered States (1980) Written by Paddy Chayefsky,
starring William Hurt
A Harvard professor of abnormal psychology uses himself
as a guinea pig in sensory deprivation experiments and
“devolves” into earlier life forms.

The Shining (1980) Directed by Stanley Kubrik, starring Jack Nicholson, based on Stephen King’s novel
A haunted hotel threatens to claim the mind of its winter
caretaker, a writer, husband and father.

The Man with Two Brains (1983) Directed by Carl
Reiner, starring Steve Martin
A comedy about transplanting the brain of someone you
love into someone’s body you love.

Dreamscape (1984) Directed by Joseph Ruben, starring
Dennis Quaid and Christopher Plummer
Psychics are manipulated by government operatives to kill the
president by entering his brain.

Total Recall (1990) Starring Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, based on a story by Philip K. Dick
A construction worker turns out to be a secret agent from Mars whose memory has been wiped.

Memento (2000) Directed by Christopher Nolan
A nonlinear psychological thriller where a man who has short-term amnesia uses notes and tattoos to find his wife’s killer.

The Machinist (2004) Starring Christian Bale and Jennifer
Jason Leigh
An insomniac becomes paranoid and eventually uncovers his
own hidden past.

I Heart Huckabees (2004) Directed by David O. Russell
A philosophical comedy where a detective couple is hired to help someone solve his existential issues.

Paranormal Activity (2007) Written and directed by Oren Peli
A horror film about a couple haunted in their sleep.

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