Thursday, November 29, 2012

Visualizing the Mind in Three Cartoons

It’s time for a visit home, by which I mean it’s time to get back to serious business, blogging about animation.

I want to return to territory I poked into in Toccata Redux: Visualizing Mental Objects, where I looked at some imagery in Toccata and Fugue in D Minor from Fantasia and from Ratatouille. The imagery had to do with visualizing mental processes. I want to add a third film into that mix, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence.

There’s a sense in which all of Fantasia is about visualizing the mind, for that’s the frame premise: The boyz (and girrls) in the orchestra are going to play some music while you construct visual images to go along. Except that Uncle Walt’s going to help you by putting the imagery up there on the screen. But that frame is only really active for the first episode, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and that because the imagery is strange, semi-abstract and so resists being identified is this or that specific thing or action.

And so we see things like this:


flying discs

Since they don’t look much like 3D objects in a 3D world it’s easy enough to take them as mental objects, things of the mind, not of an external world, if only by default.

And then we have Pixar’s Ratatouille, where we see odors being visualized, for example:

Rat 26 Remy's mind

If you look closely at the middle you can see a smiling rat. The swirls around him represent the odors he’s sensing.

In the film, of course, you don’t have to look closely at all. The rat’s more or less stationary in the middle and the odors swirl around him. And we know they’re odors because the rat, Remy, tells us so in voice-over. It’s the copresence of Remy’s image with the abstract odor imagery the forces/enables us to read the abstract imagery as mental objects.

Further, Remy’s brother, Emile, isn’t so sophisticated in such matters and thus, when Pixar images his odor sensations, they’re not so flamboyant:

Rat 27 Emile's mind

Thus, while the odor imagery is abstract and bears no relationship to the actual odors—which we, the audience cannot smell, but only imagine—it is possible to make meaningful distinctions using such imagery.

Now let’s look at a very different film, Mamorou Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. It’s a dystopian science fiction film set in a noir mise en scène of the kind Ridley Scott invented for Blade Runner. At the very opening of the film we read this on the screen:
In a future time, when most human thought has been accelerated by artificial intelligence and external memory can be shared on a universal matrix, Batou, an agent fo the elite Section 9 Security Force and a being so artificially modified as to be essentially cyborg, is assigned, along with his mostly human partner, Togusa, to investigate a series of gruesome murders.
This is Batou as he appears early in the film, in a scene that’s run before the main title sequence:

GITS2 Innocence enter, Batou

Except for his eyes, which lack pupils, he appears to be an ordinary human being. Those blank eyes are a constant reminder that he’s not an ordinary/normal human being. He’s something different, something strange.

Because the film’s premise is that everyone is cyberized to some extent, at least enough so they can jack into the web, it becomes easy and natural to visualize mental stuff. Thus, earlier in that opening scene we saw a segment filled with imagery like this:

GiTS2 Innocence 1 data

Such imagery is usually accompanied by radio chatter on the sound track and it occurs throughout the film and represents, we can only assume, mental stuff, on the web or wherever. Whether it’s generated by humans, computers, or both, we cannot say. After all, the film’s premise is that the difference between the two is somewhere between problematic and none. It’s just mental stuff.

Shortly after the previous shot we see this:

GiTS2 Innocence 2 super

We’re inside an automobile looking out—notice the hand and steering wheel at the right. At the bottom center we see the cyber chatter that had filled the screen only moments before. It doesn’t appear to be a heads-up display on the windshield, but it might be the “mind” of someone sitting in the car or it might just be an artifact of the transition from one shot to another. It doesn’t really matter much, though, because here and there in the film the distinction between film and mind gets lost, though it is then recovered.

So, the film opens on a crime scene. Batou is there to investigate. He walks into a dark ally, and the camera assumes his point of view. Thus:

GiTS2 Innocence 3 capture 1

GiTS2 Innocence 4 capture 2

Batou sees something in the ally and his cyber brain highlights it. What we see on the screen is thus the imposition of the visual mind on the world, or, if you will, the impress of the world on the visual mind. I would only add that that’s not at all a bad way of presenting how the visual mind actually works. It doesn’t passively register the world, but ‘reaches out’ and ‘grabs’ it.

Now let’s skip ahead to a different scene. Batou has gone into a bodega buy some dog food. He detects a robbery in progress and moves to foil it:

GiTS2 Innocence 5 store 1

Once again we’re in Batou’s head—that is, the camera has assumed a subjective point of view centered in Batou—and we see that Batou’s latched on to a man with a gun. A moment later the camera shifts out of Batou’s mind to present us with this:

GiTS2 Innocence 6 store 2

Batou’s shoved a gun in the man’s face and seems ready to pull the trigger. And then PRESTO CHANGO! what’s this:

GiTS2 Innocence 7 store 3

What it is is that one of Batou’s colleagues is jacking into his mind/brain through standard portals at the back of the neck. Everyone’s got them.

We subsequently learn that the whole robbery scene, which we saw with our very own eyes, sometimes through Batou’s eyes, sometimes not, that whole scene was faked. The Bad Buys had hacked into Batou’s cyber brain and almost succeeded in destroying his reputation, if not his cyber body and mind.

And we, the viewers, were caught in the deception. How could we not have been? We were given no way to know what was going on. Needless to say, this is not the last time Oshii pulls this stunt on us, not by a long shot.

As I’ve said, the premise of the film is that we’re in a world where the distinction between human and machine is all but gone. Just about all adults are cyberized to some extent, and some, like Batou, quite extensive.

And then there’s Motoko Kusanagi, aka the Major. She was the protagonist in the original Ghost in the Shell, where she was also Batou’s boss. At the end of the film her body’s destroyed and she takes her mind into the web where she remains at the beginning of this film. But Batou is haunted by her memory and she does contact him, through the web. She has no body, though she assumes one at the end of the film. She’s just an animating presence in the web and an important presence in this film.

And the film’s method mirrors or embodies its premise. Just as it depicts a world where the distinction between human and machine is somewhere between problematic and gone, so the visual distinction between mental imagery and real imagery is all but gone. Figuring out where and what you are has become an interesting trick.

We’re not in Disney’s Kansas anymore, nor even Los Angeles. This is a different world. Japan. The Future. And strange.

No comments:

Post a Comment