Why is it that the best movie of 2015 isn't in the running for best picture?
Posted Jan 15, 2016
Happy New Year
Oscar time is on us again. (1) There is one movie which I (and critic Mark Kermode who knows a lot more about films than me) thinks should have been in the running for best picture. It’s already won a Golden Globe has been nominated for Best Animated Picture and Best Screenplay. Not best picture (alas) but more on this below. Why should a behavioural scientist care? Here’s why:
Noam Chomsky famously remarked that “It is quite possible--overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology”. What can be said of novels can be said of movies—which is one of our culture’s primary modes of story-telling. Story-telling is partly about telling humans what it means to be human and this can of course be done well, or badly. I explored this before (in relation to horror stories) recently. But it’s true in general, and it’s why critics like Kermode (famous for his rants) are quite right to get steamed up about movies. (2) They help tell the story of us, and this can be done well or badly, responsibly or irresponsibly.
I would disagree with Chomsky only a little bit—I would say that art and science can inform one another about human nature. Art that flies free of empirical grounding teaches about nothing except the human imagination (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And science that insists on fitting human nature to a restricted Procrustean bed will neither explain nor satisfy. It’s safe to say that there is no danger at the moment of scientific psychology replacing art in terms of human understanding. But what can be said about art that is scientifically informed?
It’s been a great year for movies that interest psychologists. There have been explicitly psychological semi documentary films like The Stanford Prison Experiment. There have been films that explore deep themes of what it means to be human—such as Ex Machina. There have been films that explore the difference between psychopathy and psychosis—like Legend. There have been anthropologically informed films like Mad Max: Fury Road. There have been films that make me wonder whether coming down out of the trees six million years ago was worth bothering with at all (like Entourage). But, balancing out that corporate insult to human nature that is Entourage, there has been Inside Out.
A quick recap—Inside Out is an animated feature that takes us inside the head of pre-teen girl called Riley whose emotions (anger, fear, disgust, sadness and joy) are personified by anthropomorphic characters. Anger is perpetually steaming brick-shaped bright red shouter; Fear is a quivering purple neuron; Disgust is anthropomorphised piece of broccoli*; Sadness is a little blue teardrop and Joy is a polyanna-ish yellow star lady. These emotions live in a sort of Enterprise-like bridge-of-operations in Riley’s head and vie for control of her as she negotiates a number of emotionally demanding situations. It’s funny, poignant, and technically brilliant, with enough subversive wit to engage the adults who take their kids along to see it. Plenty of people have praised the film, not just because it’s entertainment, but because it’s actually helped in enabling teens to communicate and understand themselves. (3) Given all this, why have some critics taken against it so very badly?
Yes—some serious minded film critics (like Richard Brody of the New Yorker, 4) and philosophers (like Peacock & Jackson of Vox, 5) do not like Inside Out and have gone to some trouble to say why. Go and have a read of their pieces—they are linked here. I’ll wait….
So—did you find it surprising to find that an animated kids movie has made some people so cross that they have gone to the trouble to write lengthy pieces on what’s wrong with it? Or did you just scroll down? If so the TL ; DR is that Brody thinks that Inside Out would be bad for children, and that they should instead watch the incredibly long and religious dollop of fatuity that is Tree of Life; (6) while Peacock & Jackson get Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrong, and try to insist that reason, not emotion is ultimately in the driving seat of human behaviour. (7)
But, actually, I’m not surprised. Those critics are right to be angry. Not because Inside Out is a bad film—on the contrary—it fully deserved to be the first animated best picture—and that’s in a year with a very strong field. No, the people in question are right to feel that their picture of human nature is threatened by the movie. Very broadly—Brody is working with an old theological conception of an immaterial soul being involved in an eternal tussle with animal instincts, while the philosophers—for similar reasons--are wedded to the idea that ultimately it’s reason that’s in charge.
They are both wrong. Inside Out is not a documentary—but it does draw on a tradition that has for at least 144 years threatened the cozy pictures of human nature offered by both theology and philosophy.
Why so exact? 1872 is the year that Darwin wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and since that time some people—people who don’t think humans are animals—have been very cross. (8)
Since that time we have been gradually understanding the human mind as the product of a huge set of problem-solving engines, some of which hardly even know of one another's existence—acting on the famous espionage “need to know” principle. As Marvin Minsky put it, our minds are composed of hundreds of tiny robots often trying to trick one another. Those poor benighted commentators that think that it’s possible to do psychology in ignorance of Darwin are simply highlighting the fact that they are hopelessly out of touch with the requirement that science fits together (9).
It seems amazing now but back in the 1960s the almost utterly vacuous claim that “everything is cultural” was so widespread and unexamined that it was seriously contended that emotions, expressions, and basic human needs varied randomly and capriciously from place to place. You still hear echoes of this nonsense in some places with some folk desperately trying to maintain that emotions like love were invented wholesale in the last few hundred years (C.S. Lewis, of all people, made this bizarre claim), but fortunately, this sort of thing is dying out. (10)
However, back in the 1960s it was a surprise (to many) to learn what Paul Ekman, following a hint made by Darwin in his 1872 book, discovered on made first contact with a bunch of Papua New Guinean tribes-folk who hadn’t seen a person with a white face before. He showed them a range of human expressions and asked them to indicate which face would be the one they would expect on finding a snake in their bedroll, discovering that their child had died, or learning that someone loved them back. (11)
Were the Papua New Guineans like us or very alien? Try the following story (12) on for size:
A later anthropologist (Wulf Schiefenhövel) visited the same group. They had never seen an aeroplane before and were fascinated by it. Could they have a go in it? “Of course!” said Schiefenhövel (although probably with a German accent). After due deliberation, a couple of tribal elders were selected to take a flight in this magical device. The anthropologist noted (anthropologists do a lot of this) that the elders carefully selected some stones from the perimeter of the village to take on their voyage. Once in the air he asked if these stones were sacred in some way? Perhaps they linked the elders to the soil of their birthplace? Or perhaps they were returning these stones to their supposed heavenly origins? Not a bit of it, said the elders, as they heaved them over the side as the aeroplane passed over a nearby rival village…they were just an opportunity.
So—these stone-age folk might look and sound different but their emotions tick just like ours. And, they identified all the same emotions from faces that any other human would. And, none of this surprised Ekman because he was working with a Darwinian view—namely that things like emotions evolved to serve fitness ends and would not therefore just vary capriciously from place to place. Subsequently there has been some variation found in which emotions it is considered polite to publicly express. And, some scholars contend that the emotion of contempt is a singular one, rather than a blend of hatred and disgust—but these can be considered footnotes to Ekman’s work-- not challenges to the central scheme which is unashamedly a functionalist one.
Inside Out also tells a functionalist story—explaining not the mechanistic how of emotions but the evolutionary why. And, as the great therapist Victor Frankl said (echoing Nietsche) being able to understand the why allows us to bear the how. (13) This is one of the reasons that Inside Out is such a great film and why so many have reported it as not just being entertaining, but as being of practical value in helping young people communicate. For a fantasy film, it’s rooted in reality.
Roll on Oscar night.
*(Which is poisonous to humans, of course. Why else would it taste like that?)
1) Oscar Nominations
2) Mark Kermode reviews Entourage
4) Richard Brody in the New Yorker
5) Antonia Peacock & Jackson Kernion in Vox
6) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H1WYej8hP4 Kermode reviews of Tree of Life. This is the movie to show kids? Give me strength. Here’s my counter-review of Brody “Joyless, psychologically ill-informed and pretentious, in effect Richard Brody's article is a feature length training manual for seeing life like a New Yorker article, an imprint machine for creating its own consumers "
7) Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
8) Darwin, C. (1872/1965). The expression of the emotions in man and animals (Vol. 526). University of Chicago press.
9) Richard Carrier recently said something particularly daft along these lines available here
Damion Reinhardt has taken the silliness apart here
Of the many many things wrong with Carrier's view is that he doesn't understand that adding "why" questions adds value to the "how" ones. And one, suspects (from Carrier's CV) that this is not simple ignorance or stupidity on his part (although it could be). It's more likely that he see's Darwinian evolution as a rival to his Christian teleology.
10) Quoted in Evans, D. (2002). Emotion: The science of sentiment. Oxford University Press.
Other instances of the idea that emotion and its expression is something that humans just make up as they go along can be found in (e.g.)
LaBarre, W. (1947). The cultural basis of emotions and gestures. Journal of Personality, 16(1), 49-68
Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (1999). The origins of sex differences in human behavior: Evolved dispositions versus social roles. American Psychologist, 54(6), 408.
11) Ekman, P. (1972) Universals and culutral differences in facial expressions of emotion. In J. Cole Nebraska Symposium on Emotion.
Ekman, p. (1973). Cross-cultural studies of emotion. In Darwin and facial expression: A century of research
Ekman, P. (2006). Darwin and facial expression: A century of research in review. Ishk.
12) Thanks to Frans de Waal for the story.
13) Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oq5v3UER5qk Marvin Minsky interviewed by Ken Campbell