7/11/11 9:39 PM
Why Difficult Movies Are More, Um, Difficult - NYTimes.com
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July 8, 2011
What You See Is What You Get
IN “The Invisible Gorilla,” a book about what we see and what we
we see (it came out in
paperback in June), two cognitive psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, describe
an experiment they performed with a chess grandmaster named Patrick Wolff. They briefly
showed him a diagram of a chess position from an “obscure master game,” gave him a set of
pieces and asked him to re-create the position on an empty board from memory. He did so
almost perfectly and then repeated his performance.
“By recognizing familiar patterns,” they wrote, “he stuffed not one but several pieces into each of
his memory slots.” Perhaps surprisingly, he couldn’t do the same with random arrangements on
the board: “His memory was no better than that of a beginner, because his chess expertise and
database of patterns were of little help.”
Recognizing patterns is part of the film critic’s tool kit along with a good pen to take notes in the
dark. You have to take in a lot of information when you watch a movie just once. The easy stuff is
usually the story (boy meets girl) and characters (Romeo and Juliet). The tricky part, when I get
to scribbling, is everything else, including how the boy and girl met and what happened next.
(That’s the plot.) Was the lighting soft or hard, the editing fast or slow, the camera shaky or
smooth, the acting broad or not? Also: Did they dance like Fred and Ginger, shoot like Angelina
and Brad? Was it a musical (but funny) or a comedy (with dancing)? Mostly, how does the
Moviegoers fed a strict Hollywood diet may find themselves squirming through, say, a film by the
Hungarian director Bela Tarr less because of the subtitles than because of the long takes during
which little is explained. The same may hold true for those who watch “The Tree of Life” and want
Terrence Malick to connect the dots overtly among his characters, the dinosaurs and the trippy
space images. Other moviegoers may just go with the flow. They, like critics — who ideally are