Movies As Detached Detail

Precious and An Education were the last two movies I saw on a big screen, and both seemed to me to support the idea that movies are basically believable detail intended to be processed in near mode, combined with an overall story arc intended to be processed in far mode.  Both movies get high marks for believable environment and actor micro-expression detail, and a lot of relatively realistic setting and character features.  But the overall story arcs are rather predictable and not especially believable – they affirm standard morals and myths of modern viewers.  While in real life believable near detail adds evidential support to related far claims, the “detached detail” of fiction breaks this connection.  As I said for science fiction:

Grand historical arcs must be described in the story, but since they are processed by readers mostly in far mode, readers are not very critical about how plausible are those arcs.  The near details of the lives of the major characters, in contrast, are processed more in near mode, so SF writers must make those seem more realistic.  (Of course we don’t process even these in as near a mode as details of our own lives now – it is still fiction after all.)  This all supports my detached detail warning: don’t assume that because the character lives described are compelling, the historical arcs are as plausible.

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  • Robert Koslover

    Wow. So that’s how a social scientist does a movie review. 🙂

  • Ryan

    So – would you recommed an Education? Did you like it?

  • richard silliker

    Does this mean that the films Contact, Independence Day and Signs are not documentaries? My gad, I can’t believe I was so stupid. After all was it not Senator Dole, when asked about the film Independence Day, said “we won didn’t we.”

  • Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The exact study of what you can get away with in fiction is highly interesting. As you know I’ve done some practical investigations lately, and TV Tropes of course has done more. I’m not quite sure it’s all down to Near/Far – or at least, saying “Near” for everything processed and “Far” for everything ignored is begging the question. You can show a character murdering or torturing, describing it in immediate narrative, and how the average reader reacts seems readily controllable by how the author presents other character’s reactions.

    It seems to me that the main lesson a cynic would draw is that what we may think is our “moral” sense is mostly a fitting-into-groups sense, and it takes its cues from group reactions.

    • Robin Hanson

      I’d love to hear some concrete examples of this sort of thing.

    • michael vassar

      I agree, think anti-moral movies like Pulp Fiction and really anything by Tarentino, Sin City, and Wild Things are fairly good examples but don’t have the time to give detail. Would be nice to involve Gary Drescher in this discussion.

  • mjgeddes

    But any narrative relies on near-mode details (there is no such thing as an abstrast far-mode narrative floating freely, because any narrative must be composed of details). Similarly, details are embedded in the narrative, and are only recognizable because of the narrative. Unless near-mode and far-mode claims can be fully detached from each other, Bayesian inference is in very serious trouble 😉