SSC: mind games

I’m not an expert on ‘mind game’ films.  Most of the time, I watch movies to wind down or relax (or procrastinate) and that usually involves an easy to follow, feel-good story.  So although I don’t watch many of this genre myself, what I am interested in is how they can truly mess with your mind – specifically television series, considering that they are much longer than a two hour film, the effects of the ‘mind-fuck’ can last much longer and have a greater effect.  Elsaesser and Hagener discuss that films don’t disappear right after you watch them. They “continue to live in us and can haunt and influence us in much the same manner as past memories or actual experiences”(Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, pg 151).  They stick with you for a while – sometimes just an hour or sometimes for your whole life.  One T.V series that came to mind while we were discussing this in class is the 2012 anime Shinsekai Yori or ‘From The New World‘.  I don’t make a point to watch films or series that will mentally confuse the heck out of me but sometimes you stumble across one without knowing what’s in store.  And this was one that certainly messed with my mind and still has has a small lingering effect on my brain to this day.

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The story is set a thousand years from now, where people have developed telekinesis and similar powers that once caused war and havoc, until the small population who are left create a peaceful society.  However what seems like a utopia actually turns out to be more borderline dystopia.  The plot follows a group of kids who face various coming-of-age trials but also start to question how their society came to be the way it is.  And this is where the mind-fuck happens.

What puts From The New World officially on the ‘mind game’ list is that the story is super complicated and there are a lot of mysteries to be solved that cause the characters to question their reality, have different levels of paranoia and survive though traumatic experiences (that I as an audience member also found quite traumatic).  The plot is linear in the way it is told and it’s not particularly hard to follow, however it’s the concepts the story deals with and how the characters deal with knowledge and lack of knowledge that makes it such a mind game.

Right from the start, a student from the kids’ class struggles with her powers and suddenly disappears and is never seen from again.  This already had me questioning what sort of messed up things were happening behind the scenes of this world – but it got so much worse.  To summarise the biggest ‘mindfuck’ moments, the kids find a database of info about their society’s bloody past and are confused, disturbed and horrified by what they hear, which the audience also feels after being empathetically aligned with these characters for a few episodes.  They get captured by monsters, have their powers sealed away, become involved in the monster’s war, yet somehow manage to get out of it all – and eerily enough, don’t ever discuss what happened.  A couple of years later, one of the 5 main characters seems to know things that the others don’t, warns them about punishment for what happened in the past and drops out of school.  They try to find out what’s going on, but it’s almost like some higher force is trying to make it like he never existed – with every authoritative figure they have being forbidden from telling any truth.  They are hunted down and almost killed by mysterious creatures that eradicate troublesome kids (finally an answer to what happened in the first episode).  What got to me the most, is that this boy is sent to live in isolation so he won’t hurt anyone with his powers, but was really being set up to be killed by this creature, and his friends efforts to find him were in vain as his uncontrollable power causes his death.

This is all only halfway into the series and it just gets worse with their memory of their now-deceased friend being erased and what happens after they try to remember him.  There is politics, uprising and betrayal with monsters who are equally as intelligent as humans but are treated like slaves, and it becomes a struggle to attain cultural freedom and equality.  The characters keep suffering and being put through trials until only two of them are left alive.  I was watching intensely to try and understand what on earth was going on, I felt confused, disturbed and found myself crying all the time because the events happening on screen were so upsetting.  Yet the point is that the series was doing something right if it was making me feel this way and I was still watching it – it was successfully playing with my mind, and I wanted answers.  (Although I do get really involved in series I watch, and am known to be emotionally on par with the characters so it may have affected me more than it would others).

I watched all 25 episodes over two days – the second half marathoned  with my friend.  When it was over, we just looked at each other and had nothing to say because we were both speechless by what we had witnessed.  Thankfully, there was a happy end and the narrative was relatively closed off.  It wasn’t on the same level as the mind game films that leave you completely bamboozled and questioning reality as you know it – however I’d still claim it to be part of this genre due to how it affected my friend and I as we were watching it.  Also because I was a mess for about a week afterwards.  To quote myself from three years ago ‘this anime destroyed me’, and I haven’t gone near a single ‘mind-fuck’ series since.

SSC: Scary sounds

I’m bringing the topic back to video games to discuss this week’s topic of cinema as ear: acoustics and space.  You really can’t have a complete discussion on the art of atmosphere and surroundings  in visual entertainment media without bringing video games into the picture.

I mentioned in my previous post that I can’t watch horror films at all, so before I start this discussion and sound like a liar, I actually can play certain horror games.  It’s probably mostly because horror games are relatively new to me, so it’s not the same as that deep-rooted irrational fear of horror films that started in my childhood.  So despite the fact they’re the same genre, horror games and films are just not the same thing – however, they use sound in very similar ways.

From my experience, playing a game is not the same as watching a film in terms of immersion.  Although the job of the film maker is to make the audience feel like they are a part of the film’s world, it can never be quite as immersive as physically playing a character in a game and navigating your way around the landscape.  You’re not watching the events take place, you’re living them – however this is only when a game is actually done right.  It’s easy enough to detach yourself from both games and films, which is why sound and atmosphere is so important at drawing the audience in and keeping them there.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a 2010 indie survival-horror game that I would consider an ’embodied’ soundtrack experience.  The visuals of Amnesia honestly aren’t super amazing.  They’re certainly not bad, but it’s a lot of the same sort of imagery throughout the game and they’re not exactly cutting-edge graphics, yet it’s a terrifying game.  There is eerie silence followed by slow, subtle droning that repeats over and over until it drives you mad.  You can’t always see a monster at first, but you know it’s seen you and it’s coming when you hear the unsettling ringing crescendo.  Sometimes something as small as a sudden gust of wind flinging a door open can freak you out because it’s such a juxtaposition to the silence.  The miscellaneous sounds like rats squeaking or bugs crawling or chains rattling that remind you of the disgustingly creepy, old castle you’re trying to escape.  Not to mention the screams of tortured souls that emerge out of nowhere.  You occasionally get a slightly lighter mood of music that plays when a puzzle is solved correctly, but that all flies out the window and is replaced with ominous, echoing songs and nerve-wracking chase music.

Amnesia does such a good job of mesmerising its’ players, and it’s mostly thanks to the sound and the fact that it’s always disturbingly dark.  The darkness of the game makes the player subconsciously rely on their ears more than their eyes.  Even though they may be squinting at the screen trying to desperately see what’s in front of them because god-forbid they use their lamp and attract a monster, when one of our senses are blocked off, the others are heightened – and automatically sound becomes the number one fear factor.  The player feels the pitch blackness loom over them and hears the droning booming in their ears, reflecting their own heart beat which is probably beating slightly faster than normal considering the monster that’s around the corner.  The sound surrounds the player from all directions – and if they’re anything like me, they can feel it in the pit of their stomach.  It’s where I believe the fear is coming from.  Not from the story or the visuals, but from the soundtrack.

This is why sound is so important in video games.  An independently-made, low-budget game from 6 years ago that I have played and watched so many times, still gets my heart beating fast and my palms getting sweaty.  I’ve seen the visuals over and over, I know what the game holds in store, but the soundtrack still keeps me on edge.

Literally as I was watching the above video just now before putting it in this post, I heard a sudden noise come from my window and I actually jumped in my seat.  Given, it is night time and my house was silent, but it just emphasises the point that sound makes all the difference.

SSC: Body genres and rabbits.

I’ve always hated horror films.  And by ‘hated’ I really mean I have a legitimate fear of them.  It’s that awful gut-wrenching feeling in your stomach that makes you want to cry and throw up at the same time.  The horrible feeling that despite the fact you know it’s not real, you’re scared and nervous and you can’t shake the feeling.

Everyone reacts physically and mentally different to films, especially when it comes to body genres (horror, pornography and melodrama).  I don’t know if anyone else ever feels or felt the same way I do, but horror films really get to me.  I was always a total pansy as a child and every time my mother said ‘bedtime!’ I would get that slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Bed meant darkness, and sleep meant nightmares.  This feeling stayed with me even when I got older, but it was limited to a particular medium – horror films.  I never watched many as a teen, mainly because the first few I watched gave me that sick feeling and caused me to have nightmares for literal months.  Afterwards, just thinking about horror films in general was enough to give me that sick feeling, and only after studying films at university has it started to lessen a little.

The point of this background info is that it comes down to how we mentally place ourselves inside a film (usually by feeling empathy for a character), therefore react a certain way in response to what we see happening.  It is all relevant to this week’s topic of skin and touch in cinema.  However, this isn’t even at the point where I can discuss how horror forces you to cognitively and physiologically respond to fiction as if we can feel it ourself.  I’m physically reacting before I even watch the film.  This is how deeply body genres can affect people – and as much as it’s obviously not fun for me, I do find it super interesting and truly impressive that cinema can have such an impact.

I’m going to use a very recent example to further discuss this.  I’ve sworn off horror movies for life (clearly) so it’s not about a horror film, but rather a 1978 children’s film called Watership Down (based on the well-known book).  A quick disclaimer: I don’t believe the film was created purely for children, as the book was actually made for an adult audience, however being animated, a lot of people mistook it for a children’s film and still refer to it as so, therefore that’s the label I’m sticking with.

I saw a few tumblr posts about the film airing on Easter Sunday and parents complaining so I decided to watch it for myself a few days ago.  It follows the story of a group of rabbits that flee their home in hope to find a safer place to live – however it is not all fun and adventure.  The whole film has this overlying feel of dread and doom, you constantly feel like something bad is going to happen, then suddenly there’s all this violence and gore.  Bunnies – a seemingly happy and harmless species – are turning on each other and fighting to the death.  You get a few happy, calm moments during the film but it always goes right back to being a straight-up thriller (except the rush of adrenaline you usually get from a thriller film is replaced with bewildered thoughts of ‘man, this is messed up’).  At all times someone is being chased, someone is going to die or someone has a premonition that something evil is coming.  Now it may seem ridiculous that I am talking about an animated ‘children’s film’ here, but this is honestly how I felt whilst watching it.  As a 20-year old, I found the movie horribly eerie and disconcerting.  The creepy, dark, old animation style mixed with the dramatic orchestrated music are definitely a big part of the whole experience and part of the reason I find this film so uncomfortable to watch.  It obviously wasn’t at the level of horror-movie-sickness, however this is where the plot thickens.

My grandmother used to record  television shows on video tape for me and my brother, and I have this distinct memory of one show in particular I was terrified of and refused to watch each time it came up.  It had rabbits and other animals in it.  That’s all I could remember.   A quarter of the way into watching Watership Down, something felt so familiar to me, but I knew I had never seen the film so I did some research.  Lo and behold, there was a TV-series based on the same book, made 20 years after the film – which was the same show I was terrified of as a child.  The TV show was no where near as dark and gruesome as the film, however if it was based on the same book, it’s no wonder I was afraid of it.  It most likely contained that same sense of dread and doom that the film contained.  Thrillers may not be explicitly discussed as a ‘body genre’ like horror or melodrama, but I believe in some ways it definitely is.  Not only do they keep you on the edge of your seat, but they can cause a panic in your stomach, a nervousness that doesn’t go away until the problem is solved or the time is up.  Watership Down may be tame, but for a child (or an adult who is a total wuss – aka, myself) it can elicit those physical reactions.

Despite that I find Watership Down interesting to discuss, I wouldn’t actually recommend people watch the film, as it’s not particularly interesting, the voice acting is oddly quiet and there is hardly any exposition at the start to give you a sense of the characters and setting (it begins with a fable, then is straight in with a premonition of death).  Above is an example of the film’s darker moments.  All I have left to say is that I am extremely happy I didn’t watch the film as a child, because if the much tamer television show affected me like it did, I don’t know how I’d have survived the film.