Interlacing magazine: “The mental film”

27 October 2018. Published by Benoît Labourdette.
Reading time: 14 min  

From the point of view of perception, a film is only an illusion formed by our brain from visual and auditory stimuli. Images seen can produce sounds and vice versa. Each person mentally constructs a different film from the same film seen. Thus I conceived a new public proposal, the “mental film”, a film that only exists in the viewer’s mind, a film that no longer has of external existence. Philosophical and physiological concepts and feedback.

The Interlacing magazine for its October 2018 issue entitled “Stories of self. I on screen”, asked me to write an article about the “mental film” experiments I have been conducting since 2016, following the conference « I didn’t know it, but I am my camera » that I gave on April 6, 2017 as part of the conference “Self-Tales. Tools and devices from the I to the screen”.

This conference and this issue of Entrelacs were edited by Claire Chatelet and Julie Savelli.

Read the article

Article “The Mental Film”

If we look at it from the point of view of perception, what is a film? What is the difference between a film seen and the perceived reality? Between a dream and a movie? Between a film and a live show? Between a movie and a concert? Between radio and cinema? Between a novel and a movie?

These questions may at first seem surprising and candid. But a film (through image and sound techniques) causes a set of visual and auditory stimuli with its device. These make our perception organs (eyes and ears) react, which produce electrical signals, then interpreted by our brain as moving images and sounds, which often tell us a story.

To illustrate this with a simple example, we know that on a movie, computer or television screen, there is no movement. It is only a series of still images, which follow one another at a certain frequency (usually 24, 25 or 30 frames per second). The movement we perceive, which seems quite natural to us, is in fact only an illusion that our brain reconstructs from this series of still images. Thus the film, as an animated object, does not exist outside us, it is literally and physiologically created by our brain.

In addition, recent studies in neuroscience show that watching a film or being told a film are two activities that involve roughly the same areas of the brain. Thus, from the point of view of perception, there is no fundamental difference between watching a film or being told about it. Just as when we do not know the difference between a lived memory or a memory reconstructed from what has been told to us.

Finally, the stimuli received by our eyes do not necessarily produce only images in our brain and the stimuli received by our ears do not only produce sounds. Alfred Hitchcock understood this well when, at the time of his first silent films, he made sounds in the spectator’s mind, by showing a bell that rang in close-up, or by filming, through a translucent floor, the steps of the neighbour above, to make us “hear” footsteps. When you experience it, it is indeed disturbing to *feel* sounds so much when you are faced with a silent image.

As a filmmaker, it seemed almost essential to me to explore cinema further on the perception side, by inventing a new device, which I named the mental film.

The real film is in our minds

For the past ten years, in the many filmmaking workshops I run, I have regularly offered participants, the day before for the next day, to make an individual film, shot in sequence, which consists of filming what they see through a window from home and telling, in voice-over and live on this image, a memory lived that is important to them. These films are screened collectively the day after their shooting, it is always a very strong cinema experience. The perceptions I relate here are mine and those of many other viewers. I have ordered and seen several hundred such films. What has always surprised me is how the words, the story told in voice-over, produced far more images in the audience than the image visually presented before our eyes. I understood through these films that the “technical” distinction between image and sound was not at all, in the viewer’s perception, as split as that. In these films, words make us see more images than the image in front of our eyes. I have experienced it many times in a sensitive way. Foreign cities, family homes, mountains, children’s games, airports and old cities... all these images appear in the frame of empty windows.

It is traditionally said that cinema is the art of showing. I would say that cinema is the art of creating images and sounds in the viewer’s mind. The two spaces (mental and physical) are probably much more different from each other than we would like to believe. In addition, you can see a film several times, each time seeing different things. This confirms the fact that the true film is located in the viewer’s mind much more than on the screen. Nor is it in the reel, the videotape or the hard disk, it is created by our mind. Also, a film is not the same for each viewer (just ask several people to tell the same film to realize it) and it can vary for the same person depending on the reception situations. A comedy, for example, does not have the same impact in a full room as it does alone in front of its screen, we will not laugh at the same times.

There is also the case of this film from the 1990s, “Shazaam”, which hundreds of people say they remember, but which cannot be found in the archives. Did it exist in reality? Certainly, but today there is no trace of it anywhere but in the minds of the spectators.

The intuition of the film as a mental object

Let’s go back to the initial question: what is a film? It is therefore a perception, subjective and reconstructed by the brain, in front of a screen that offers us images and sounds. But what is the difference with live performance? In the case of live performance, we are not facing a screen but human beings, and we do not feel the same kind of things. Thus, even if perceptions may sometimes be similar, the essential difference in the protocol of artistic representation does not put our cognitive and sensitive apparatus in the same provisions. It seems that we do not mobilize the same regions of our cerebral cortex in front of an inanimate screen as in front of the living. Fortunately!

On the strength of these reflections, nourished by my experience, during a round table I led in November 2016 on the theme of voice-over, as part of the Festival du film Autobiographique d’Olonne sur mer, I suddenly had the intuition to try an experiment, in order to corroborate my questions. While the speakers were talking, I flipped through the festival catalogue, I found a text presenting a film. I then unexpectedly proposed to the spectators, quite surprised, to make a film together, now, immediately, all together, without there being anything on the screen. This film was recorded, it’s here:

I explained to the audience that I was going to make the voice-over for this upcoming film, that it would have a title at the beginning and a generic at the end (called by the voice-over). They should close their eyes. I will describe the first image of the film, and then they should let this image change, according to the images suggested by the voice. Then, after the closing credits, everyone should reopen their eyes, and share orally with others the film, singular, that they would have seen.

“Saint Malo”, my first mental film

Whether there is a “real” movie on the screen or not, each viewer creates his own movie anyway. I wanted to experience this in a concrete way. “Saint Malo” is the title of the first mental film, mentioned above, that I proposed in a cinema. I described to the audience the first image of the film. It was going to be a fixed map of the city of Saint Malo. For those who knew, they had to remember a place in this city and for others to imagine it. Then I asked the audience to close their eyes, to see in them this first image, to let it transform as they listened to the words. In this cinema, in front of a screen, they were in the position to receive a film. And I read this text, very slowly, leaving silence between each sentence, between each word:

Saint Malo
We are witnessing the departure of the three masts from the port of Saint Malo, for a six to seven month campaign off the coast of Canada. The different tasks are shown: boat maintenance, mast climbing for sail handling. Preparation of lines and bait. The return of the dories loaded with fish. The transfer of the fish to the schooner. The cutting and salting. Storms. Icebergs. It’s freezing cold. Test the sailors. The presence of a hospital ship allows them to benefit from care and to receive mail and comfort from a chaplain.
A collective film, Olonne sur mer, 2016.

Finally, I suggested to those who wanted to tell the microphone about the film they had just seen, that their minds had created. Extracts from oral reactions:

  • I didn’t see the movie, and I can tell you that I really made a movie.
    Behind my closed eyes, I saw an alternate montage: I saw Saint Malo, the boats, Saint Malo, the boats... permanently.
  • I, having worked in the fishing industry, stayed in the fishing industry, more of a technical approach, I saw it as a report.
  • I sailed a lot in Saint Malo, and the film made me a kind of freeze frame. I stopped at the lighthouse and wondered if it was there when these boats were leaving.
  • For me the voice-over was the voice of a dried cod anchored to Saint Malo.
  • Exercises like this make us better understood. There, it was a voice-over that evoked images, but the voice-over can be something else.
  • It connected me totally to the port.
  • It made me aware of the strength of his own experience, because in fact in Saint Malo I have a childhood photo on the beach with the barrels behind, because in Saint Malo there is protection with blackened wood, and in fact I was trying to escape from that image to go on the boats.
  • In cinema, an image evokes something other than what we see on the screen, and that’s what we’re going to look for.

Spectators actually describe images they have seen in their minds, and indicate that films with images are also used to discover images other than those we see. So it was indeed a film experience that was lived, because it was proposed as such. If I had said I was just telling a story, the power of visual evocation might not have been so strong. Finally, the ritual of the room, the big screen set up in the dark, I have remobilized it here by the word. By my words, I invited the spectators to install a large screen in their minds, then to turn off the light. Basically, at the cognitive level, it is the same to imagine it or to live it. Having received these spectators’ feedback, I then named this experience, the mind film, because the spectators’ experience confirmed to me that this film really existed, even if it had no existence as a material object.

Also, we perceive a film as a film, even when we don’t watch it in a movie theater. It’s because there’s a protocol, title at the beginning, generic at the end, that puts us in the position of a film viewer. This is the “reading contract”, well explained by semiology (Roger Odin).

I have reproduced here the text of the film Saint Malo, so the article you are reading actually contains this film. It is not a scenario, it is the film, which can therefore be reproduced by a simple reading, each time being different, like any film. This is not without evoking the very first films in the history of cinema, of which there was only one original (we could not yet make copies), which were therefore shot several times so that there could be several copies. The most famous example being “The great train robbery” (Edwin Stanton Porter and Wallace McCutcheon, United States, 1903), of which we have several versions left, but there have been many.

Cinema, psychoanalysis and God

Cinema was born at about the same time as psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century. The spectator’s posture in the dark room is that of the awakened dream. One of the main driving forces of analytical cure is the transfer, i.e. the projection on another character’s therapist, in order to revisit and reinvest past events in a different way. That is, re-experiencing the “film” of your life in a new way. There are profound links between the discovery of the existence of the unconscious, that is, what is hidden within us to better guide us, and the discovery of a technology of mechanical recording of images and sound, the Cinématographe, which seems to give new life to what has disappeared. In my opinion, these links deserve to be worked on and questioned, in order to deepen their potential and thus to explore the critical tools, which are more and more necessary, I believe, as images become more and more omnipresent.

Moreover, one of the great supports for the legitimization of the existence of God, in the context of the construction of monotheistic religious organization systems of Western culture, is the Holy Shroud of Turin. It is a sheet, wrapped on Christ at his death, which would have made his photography, produces the trace and generated his image by imprint at the moment of his death, proof of his resurrection, therefore of the existence of God. First picture in History, origin of Time (we count time from that moment on), and first mystification by images, of course. Indeed, this linen was dated to the Middle Ages by the carbon-14 technique. Man in front of an image is therefore also, because of the history of the West, man in front of the existence of God. What has structured our current world is, as in psychoanalysis, the projection that was made on this image, much more than its reality (since it is not real, even if some are still trying to prove its reality, with forceful theories including the hypothesis of a neutron bombardment due to a powerful earthquake in Jerusalem that occurred at the moment of Christ’s death...).

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A digital God

Digital technology is an increasingly important part of the material of our lives. Indeed, a large part of human exchanges now take place through digital technologies, including this article you are reading. Digital is often experienced, and is sold by capitalism as a magical phenomenon. The expression cloud computing, literally “computing within the clouds” is a good example. Thus, the image and its current main medium, digital, lead to a magic thought of the world, a simulacrum, which I think it is essential to question. A healthy distance from the world and its representations is built through singular, offbeat, playful, collective, embodied and lived thought experiences. The function of art, like that of science, when placed at the service of progress and not at the service of the reproduction of the social order, is to set our systems of representation in motion.

Thus, proposing to spectators to watch, in concrete terms, a film that does not have the technical existence of a film but which will nevertheless be one, really, in their minds and memories, is the method, playful, of a singular experience, a sharing of subjectivities and support to support the critical spirit that we need today, in the era of a massive return of religion and magic, through digital technologies.

Pedagogical workshop “Creating images with sounds”

In parallel to the experience of the mental film “Saint Malo”, I proposed with the ACRIF (Association des Cinémas de Recherche d’Île-de-France) a three-session workshop for high school students called “Créer des images avec des sons”, of which here is the introductory text:

To propose practical exercises of sound creation, in class, on cinematographic images, to explore the territory of perception, of the functioning of the brain: how do sounds create mental images? How do the images that our brain sees actually construct themselves by the conjunction of what our eyes and ears transmit to us according to their cognitive processing modes?

To become aware, through experience, experimentation, of the fact that what we see and hear is fundamentally the object of mental constructions rather than perceptions that we wrongly believe to be objective. Thus, to approach in depth, through physiological, creative and playful ways, the powers of mental manipulation that audiovisual objects allow.

In this context, the last exercise consisted in having students create, in front of their class, short mental films. It was a very concentrated, very strong film session, in the dark for two hours. The ritual of the cinema was fully effective.

“Espiguette Beach”, my second mental film

As part of the study day entitled “Self-Reports. Tool and devices of the I on the screen”, organized by Claire Chatelet and Julie Savelli (University of Montpellier 3) in April 2017, of which this publication is the emanation, I proposed, within a presentation that I had entitled “I didn’t know it, but I am my camera”, a new experience of mental film. The film is available here:

Two nuances compared to the first experiences: on the one hand the film is an improvisation, I recount a childhood memory lived in a place near Montpellier (where the study day was held) and on the other hand the spectators’ feedback was written and not oral. I told the audience that I would show them my latest film, and that I would create it at the same time. I indicated that the first image of the film was going to be a huge beach of fine sand, empty, with large dunes. The beach of Espiguette. I also gave the information that it seems that the film “Lawrence of Arabia” (David Lean, United States, 1962) was shot partly on this beach. A beach representing the arid desert.... Then I asked people to close their eyes.

Here is the text of the film:

Espiguette Beach

A film by Benoît Labourdette.

Today is the night. I’m 45 years old. I’m going on a beach pilgrimage with my girlfriend to Espiguette Beach. There’s a fisherman with a big fishing rod. We’re talking to him. And in twenty minutes the mist falls. The mist is excessively thick. Even at a distance of fifty centimetres we can’t see anyone. A few lights. A few flashlights. There are four of us on this huge beach. And I think back to what I experienced when I was a child.

Suddenly it’s the bright sunshine. I’m six years old. With my father, my mother-in-law. We arrive on the beach, it’s hot. Walking with my little feet on the burning sand is unbearable. I hate the contact with sand. There’s a crazy world out there.

There are two areas in this range. The normal area and then the nudist area.

Nudist area. I’m modest. I hate to see all these people naked. Even the guy who passes by to sell “scrunchies”, “scrunchies”. “Scrunchy is here!!!” He’s naked, you can see his sex. I see the sex of my father, my mother-in-law, my family. I don’t understand. I feel bad.

Back to 45 years old. We’re leaving this misty beach.

A film by Benoît Labourdette, 2017.

The sheets of paper that the spectators gave me at the end were largely folded, like intimate words. Here are the contents of some of them:

  • I breathe
    The mist
    I’m suffocating
    Reaches out to me
    I will
    Coaches him.
  • The grains of sand in the omelette. The grains of sand under the teeth.
  • We’re all looking for
    an immense calm
    in the middle of the
    torments of time.
  • I see a movie in slow motion, almost like a slideshow of photos.
    I see, for the 45-year-old part, an evanescent film, fog, a loss of orientation.
    I see, for the youth part, family photos, old Super 8 videos. I see the album cover of Of monsters and Men.
    I see a light film, which flies away, over which we have no control.
  • A discomfort that settles in becomes pervasive. Something dreamlike at first, enveloping, which transforms into a very concrete, unpleasant feeling - like images - memories that reappear - obscene.
  • The mist represents the trauma? Not wanting to see nudity. At 45, the sun comes out of the mist, accepting to see or being able to see from now on.
  • I don’t know how to remember. Things don’t go well.
  • Moving forward in the fog, at night, with a woman you love, on a beach you have in destabilizing memory, doesn’t that make no sense? Calm, slow, it rested me.

I also took care to reproduce the text for this film. Thus, this film can be reproduced in other circumstances. All you have to do is read it aloud to someone who is asked to close their eyes and imagine a film in their head.

Here are some photographs of these words, which are a trace of this version of the film “Espiguette Beach”:
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Summary of issue 15 of the Interlacing magazine


The I(U) on the screen

Summary of the issue:

  • Claire Chatelet and Julie Savelli: Introduction “Stories of self. The I (U) on the screen”.
  • Amanda Robles: “Le Journal ouvert (interview with Alain Cavalier)”.
  • Part One: Creative Behaviours and I (U)
    • Guillaume Bourgois: “Plural like the universe: Pessoa, Oliveira”
    • Laurent Roth and Michèle Valentin: “The game of the Masked I in Laurent Roth’s films”
    • Juliette Goursat: “Within reach: autobiographical film and ancient wisdom”
    • Julie Savelli: “A room of your own (interview with Dominique Cabrera).”
    • Pierre Arbus: “- Veo... - ¿Qué ves?” : A breach towards the Other scene (around La Morte rouge, film by Victor Erice, 2006).
    • Catherine Guéneau and Gérard Leblanc: “Stories from us”
  • Part Two: Connected Stories: Tools and Techniques of Self
    • Bidhan Jacobs: “Self-Techniques and Digital Technologies”
    • Claire Chatelet: “From pocket films to contributing web platforms: the digital (re)mediations of the self-reporting”
    • Marida Di Crosta: “Sharing Immediacy. The Web Film-Journal, the ultimate form of Jonas Mekas’ fragmented and recursive self-writing?”
    • Benoît Labourdette: “The mental film”
  • Reading notes
    • Yoann Hervey: “Put in me. Autobiography and documentary film”.
    • Gérard Leblanc: “Victor Erice’s Cinema”