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from errol morris

ERROL MORRIS: Why do 40 or 50 years have to go by before a country can even look at its past?

ROBERT-JAN VAN PELT: Only the third generation can do it. Children can’t look at their parents’ generation because they’re too angry. They’re too much involved. That’s why I believe that grandparents are essential in the raising of children. It’s the closing of accounts. And then when you get to 75 years, it becomes extremely confusing because memory becomes hopelessly intertwined with history. It is no longer possible to separate the two. [38]

Excerpt from Errol Morris’ excellent essay Bamboozling Ourselves

“Perhaps more than any other artifact, the photograph has engaged our thoughts about time and eternity. I say “perhaps,” because the history of photography spans less than 200 years. How many of us have been “immortalized” in a newspaper, a book or a painting vs. how many of us have appeared in a photograph [32]? The Mayas linked their culture to the movements of celestial objects. The ebb and flow of kingdoms and civilizations in the periodicities of the moon, the sun and the planets. In the glyphs that adorn their temples they recorded coronations, birth, deaths. Likewise, the photograph records part of our history. And expresses some of our ideas about time. The idea that we can make the past present.”

Excerpt from Errol Morris’ essayWhose Father Was He?

“DAN LEVIN: The interesting thing about continuity errors is they reflect the understanding that filmmakers have had for a long time about perception. Psychologists have only recently caught up to them. Filmmakers have had to do what our perceptual systems do – put together different views into a coherent understanding of a scene as a whole. And in learning how to do that in the early 20th century, they discovered that continuity errors often don’t get noticed. And so they realized: we’re not keeping track of all this visual detail in our head. So [Dan] Simons and I started off with that observation and just did some experiments. Went from there, upping the ante.

ERROL MORRIS: Was there one particularly continuity error that caught your attention?

DAN LEVIN: The old Kuleshov and Pudovkin experiments. For example, the creative geography experiment where they took different shots of different locations in Moscow, and cut them together so they look like a coherent whole because the event was coherent. There must have been a lot of discontinuities in lighting and background between the shots, and people didn’t notice. Kuleshov noted in his writings, pretty explicitly, that you can get away with continuity errors. And then there’s their informal experiment with the different body parts of actors and actresses. He’d show the hands of one actress and the feet or other body parts of different actresses and put them together. And people thought it was one person. The idea was there must have been a lot of differences that went unnoticed. And given that Kuleshov had noted them, we were aware filmmakers had known about this kind of thing. And then when we moved on from simple failures to detect continuity errors in things that you weren’t necessarily looking at in a scene, like the change is someone’s scarf. We had read some developmental research suggesting that you could get away with a lot more than that. You could substitute one thing for another, even if a person’s looking right at it. And we did the experiment and found out that you could substitute one actor for another in a movie and people wouldn’t notice.

We heard about this film – “That Obscure Object of Desire” – where Buñuel switched out the actresses playing the main role. And I went and read a bunch of his biographies, and in a couple places he claimed that audience members failed to notice. We would show it to people and, sure enough, they would fail to notice that Conchita is played by two actresses.

And the cool thing – he starts off with Conchita being played by one actress, and then there’s a scene with neither actress in it, then there’s Conchita played by the other actress. And throughout the film he gradually pulls them closer and closer together, until right across cuts he’s substituting one actress for another.

…DAN LEVIN: …We’ve done research on the relationship between people’s beliefs about what they think they can see and what they actually can see. There are accidents called tractor-trailer under-rides. A semitrailer jackknifes across a highway. The trailer goes into a skid and then the trailer part of the semi runs across lanes of oncoming traffic. Cars will come down the highway and just run right into the trailer part of the semi. And people are killed. Later investigation often reveals no skid marks, no signs of evasive driving. The driver just totally ran right in to this barrier in the middle of the highway. Really grisly accidents, too, because they often involve, as you can imagine, the height of a tractor-trailer hitting someone at neck level. Death by decapitation followed by inevitable litigation that often rests on arguments about who should have seen what. There are these ad hoc assumptions about what must have been visible to a normal driver. And jurors have to make use of their lay understanding of what kinds of things are consistently visible, and they assume that pretty much everything is, unless you’re drunk or asleep. But if you really understand that our awareness of the visual world is selective, and it’s contingent on the kind of things we expect, the kinds of things that we know about, then you might better understand that someone could have run into this thing and not have been asleep. It is just unexpected stimulus. Most of the expected information is there. The line on the road is there – that hasn’t changed – but the unexpected information doesn’t automatically enter our awareness. We’ve done experiments where people are watching a video and you just shut the video off for two thirds of a second, and then you start it again. If people aren’t expecting it, a good percent of the time they won’t notice that either. You just turn the thing blank. So, the idea is that our awareness of visual information is heavily contingent on the kinds of things we know to look for. And if something isn’t in that category, and we’re not trying to find it, it’s possible that we won’t be aware of it, even if it takes up a huge percentage of our visual field.”

Excerpts from Errol Morris’ essay “Play It Again, Sam

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