In a cinematic frame of mind

The 1966 film ‘Blow-Up’ is based on the life of a fashion photographer who sees the world through his camera viewfinder.

'Blow up' (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Blow up'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The third annual Cinema and Brain Week kicks off tomorrow at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and, over the course of six days, will explore cerebral aspects addressed by a number of movies. The program’s subtitle reads: “Lectures and Films – Imagination and Reality in Brain Research.”
The event, which is co-sponsored by the Cinematheque and the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) of the Hebrew University, features a definitively thought-provoking and wide-ranging roster of lectures and presentations, followed by screenings of films relevant to the subject matter.
The festival organizers have brought in a heavyweight team of mavens for the occasion, such as Prof. Adi Mizrahi, who will open the program with a talk entitled “On Motherhood and the Dynamic Brain.” It will address the topic of the brain functioning flexibility experienced by women in the wake of their first pregnancy and birth. The slot will conclude with a screening of the moving 2007 Israeli drama Noodle.
Sunday’s program features Dr. Ami Tzitri’s examination of the topic of addiction. As the talk’s title – “Addiction is not always about narcotics and alcohol” – suggests, and as Tzitri will demonstrate, many of us have little habits that become mainstays in our daily lives. One such quirk is a propensity to double check that we have locked our car. Tzitri’s lecture will be followed by the 2000 drama Requiem for a Dream, which portrays some highly troubling consequences of drug abuse and other unhealthy habits.
Cinema and Brain Week ends on Thursday with a screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 masterpiece Blow-Up, starring David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Birkin. The film is set in London of the Swinging Sixties, with its concomitant sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll scene in full glory. It is based on the fast-lane lifestyle of a fashion photographer, who generally sees the world through his camera viewfinder, and who is eventually brought down to earth by a hazy discovery before his grasp on reality is once again ruffled.
The screening comprises the second part of the Senses and Perception, Brain and Reality slot. The preceding thematic talk will be given by Prof. Shaul Hochstein, professor of neurobiology at ELSC. It will focus on the question of whether the data received by the senses represent a true reflection of objective reality, and how we can be sure that such a reality actually exists rather than being just a figment of our imagination.
“My field is visual perception and trying to understand what happens in the brain when we look out at the world,” explains Hochstein, adding that he will reference Antonioni’s work. “The eye looks like a camera – it’s got a lens and a diaphragm and an image in the back. But if the visual system were a camera taking a picture, we would need another eye to look at that picture.
Just having a camera doesn’t work. That’s not what vision is about.”
There is, it seems, some cerebral input to providing us with our view of our surroundings.
“Vision is building a representation of the world, and it takes numerous steps in the brain to do that,” Hochstein continues. “Ultimately, the representation has to be such that it allows us to act in the world and to respond to what’s happening.”
According to Hochstein, there is far more that goes into our perception of reality than mere optical mechanics.
Our view of the world is tempered by a whole host of mitigating factors.
“We have all things that are introduced by the brain into this representation. It’s not just a matter of outside in, but rather we add into it our imagination, our expectations and our prior knowledge. Without that, we couldn’t build the representation,” he says.
The bottom line is that reality is a subjective matter.
“What we end up with is something that is a mixture between ourselves and the world, and we are never quite sure what is exactly ourselves and what is quite exactly the world. That applies to any age and any situation,” he says.
That understanding, says Hochstein, is fundamental to the way that scientists go about their business and has kept philosophers gainfully occupied over the centuries.
“Scientists depend on their perception of the world in order to measure what’s happening in the world,” he says. “There is the philosophical question that philosophers have always asked: ‘How do we know there really is a world?’ It begins with Plato and the cave [the Greek philosopher’s allegory about people’s perception of a secondhand reflection of reality as actual reality] but we, too, see a reflection of reality on the retina of our eye. We don’t really see reality as it is.”
The question then arises whether there is an actual objective and absolute reality.
“We don’t know that,” Hochstein notes. “It’s all a matter of perception. [Sixteenth-century French philosopher René] Descartes asked these questions and said something like ‘Well, since I doubt that reality really exists, therefore my doubt is my thinking, I think therefore I am,’ and everything comes out of that.”
Blow-Up has many philosophical and perceptual twists and turns, in addition to the insouciant energies and colors of London of that high-energy era.
“The photographer in the movie looks at the world through his camera, and what he doesn’t see through his camera is not real,” suggests Hochstein. “There is a point in the movie when he forgets his camera in the car and he sees something, and he doesn’t have any witnesses with him.”
The photographer does have a significantly enlarged photograph of the troubling item in question, but the image has – quite literally – been blown up out of all proportion.
Evidently, one can take one’s perception of reality just so far.
This year’s brain-focused package features a new element in the form of a talk and movie material aimed at children and youth. Tuesday’s “The Human Brain” lecture by Dr. Inbal Goshen will examine the human brain in contrast with thinking capacities in the animal kingdom.
The talk will be followed by a number of animated Pixar shorts. • For more information about Cinema and Brain Week: 565- 4356 and