“Journeys of Imagination: Embodied Metaphors of Cinematic Absorption”
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This paper connects the narrative trope of the traveling body to cinema and specifically Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). The traveling body refers to the ways in which subjective inner worlds of characters are represented by reference to sensorimotor content – bodily orientation and engagement with space – such that the body becomes the anchoring feature of simulated engagement. By applying embodiment simulation theory (ES) to a climactic sequence in the film, I argue that spectatorial engagement with represented inner worlds depends largely on the feeling of “being-in-the-fiction,” cued by the film’s tracing of sensory-motor activity of moving to-and-fro segmented spaces of a mind-concept.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 A recent spurt of scholarship on filmic embodiment seems to have given new life to a previously marginal school of thought in the moving image studies area. The notion that films embody spectators has an intuitive appeal; whenever we see a punch thrown or a body leap, we often react viscerally due to a reservoir of memories we have for the activities performed. Cognitive explorations of embodiment have made the effort to address the task, exploring the ways in which representations of motor activity in fictions stir bodily resonance in the spectator. In this paper, I propose an additional avenue for scholars interested in filmic embodiment that may be less immediately apparent – the use of body concepts to cinematically convey non-representational experiences. I wish to focus on just one example of this: the concept of the traveling body in an abstract inner world or state of mind.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 An inner world is what I would term a general category of a number of related states of mind as understood in story form: memories or recollections, dreams, make-believe or imagined worlds and other kinds of alternate realities devised by the subjective. I propose that cinematic conjurings of such worlds are often constructed by means of an experiential tracing of the body, deriving from past tendencies in storytelling and abstract thought. And due to this tracing these inner worlds become at least partly comprehensible in spite of being subjective and seemingly private affairs of characters.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Think, for instance, of a plainly conventional depiction of a character’s inner world – a thought bubble in a comic strip. It is so simple and completely untrue to actual nature of experience, and yet entirely comprehensible to the reader. But why? Our thoughts, dreams, imaginations, memories, and so forth, do not manifest to us in the form of a thought bubble. However, when thinking in terms of concepts, we can isolate a certain commonality between the thought bubble and most basic shared concept of what an inner world is generally understood to be. Inner worlds, states of mind, and related terms can be most fundamentally understood as those that are removed from “reality,” often internally. Here the concept of an “inner world” almost explains itself; if we think of our reality to be external of ourselves and our states of mind as internal, then we are bound to conceptualize various categories of subjective experience as the stuff of our heads. As if little containers, with their own sense of boundedness – an inside and outside – they are kept separate from reality. The thought bubble of a cartoon character is what reveals the contents of the head. Of course, we do not accept this convention as scientifically accurate, but it is plausible in the abstract.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The reason why the concept of an inner world as a container makes sense is not because it is intrinsically true, but because it is intuitively familiar in terms of the schema that is projected onto it. The concept is based on the container schema, which shapes the fundamental awareness of our bodies (Richardson and Spolsky 96). On the basis of this schema, we understand notions of “interior,” “exterior,” and “boundary.” Because the brain is commonly understood as the thinking mechanism, naturally the various states of mind must be understood to emerge from within it (Buckland 42). This insight is conceptualized to be true in the lay view of the world where the mind is separate from an external reality of things.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Of course, most useful examples of inner worlds in film are more complex than this. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) represents states of mind as fluid and ephemeral, but nevertheless as spaces that house bodies. In addition to the familiar sense of containment and boundedness that defines our understanding of inner worlds, the body is conceptualized as anchoring the “self” within and as motioning or traveling across the boundary of the space. Think, in the abstract, of an inner world as a container in which a body is positioned. The body has the apparent potentiality to engage with the space by means of sensory-motor orientation. But imagine now that the barriers of this container are either paper or fluid or anything breakable or soluble; the body can move across the boundary, presumably into another space.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 With this metaphor in mind, I wish to look at embodiment in its conceptual relationship with cinematic representations of inner worlds by focusing on a climactic dream sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the sequence, the body is the shaping feature of anchoring the spectator with these worlds such that references to bodily, or motor, function serve to cue resonant response in the viewer. These corporeal states are characterized by volitional, goal-oriented enactments of bodies that move across spatial boundaries. Current scholarship on embodied simulation (ES) and mirror neurons (mirror neuron system or MNS) states that observing volitional bodily enactments activates neural mechanisms that allow the observer to perform them in an off-line or a kind of “as-if” mode (Gallese and Guerra 193). This means that sensory-motor tracing has the capacity to embody the spectator by cueing bodily sensations, such as moving, lunging, grasping and punching, which are then understood and felt in the body. Such tracing situates the spectator in scenes by periodically conveying a sense of action as constitutive both of spatial orientation in inner worlds as well as the role of gesture in transitioning between different spatial states of mind. Inner worlds, in other words, can be understood by means of a traveling body that moves across boundaries.
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In the opening volume of À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust writes about the recollections of his youth by conceptualizing them in terms of bodily metaphors.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I would fall asleep again, and thereafter would reawaken for short snatches
only… Or else while sleeping I had drifted back to an earlier stage in my life,
now for ever outgrown, and had come under the thrall of one of my childish
terrors, such as that old terror of my great-uncle’s pulling my curls which was
effectually dispelled on the day – the dawn of a new era to me – when they were
finally cropped from my head… I would bury the whole of my head in the pillow
before returning to the world of dreams (4).
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Here motor content is evoked twice to convey a sense of immersion into an inner world of memories. The dreamer “drifts back” to an earlier stage of his life and later “returns” to the world of dreams. The phenomenon of recalling events is thus simultaneously a whole-of-body action, as well as a projection of a routine concept of moving to-and-fro onto the mind’s impressions of the past. Cognitive scientist Mark Turner may have been the first to refer to such parabolic projection in Proust’s work by means of the concept of the thinker as a mover and manipulator (otherwise termed THINKER IS A MOVER AND A MANIPULATOR) (44). Turner writes that a fictional work about a “journey of the soul” is often understood in terms of this projection, whereby an inner world is figuratively spatial and the body has the sensory-motor capacity to engage with its tactility. The projection works by mapping schemata related to the routine understanding of the body’s motor orientation with spaces, in order to layer meaning onto an otherwise non-representable phenomenon.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The effect on the reader can then be understood as a kind of feeling of the body, a sense of corporeal identity conveyed within the text for the benefit of the reader’s empathetic engagement. This feeling is not the manifestation of comprehending, reflecting upon and applying a meaning from one conceptual space to another, but rather a simulated experiencing of presence and gesture that is felt in the body. Scholarship on embodied simulation posits that actions, emotions and sensations are mapped on the neural sensory-motor representations of an observer or reader (Gallese and Guerra 184; Kuzmicova 25). Rather than an introspective process, embodied simulation is based on projecting internal non-linguistic representations derived from a reservoir of bodily impressions. Thus, while reading Proust one may feel a sense of drifting while conceptualizing the complex interweaving of his recollections. To borrow a term from French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, it is a kind of being-in-the-world, which is an understanding of the body as inseparable from the mind, and vice-versa (Merleau-Ponty 150; Thompson 410). The body is also shown to be inseparable from the mind within narrative spaces, and thus is a kind of “being-in-the-fiction” or “being-in-the-mind-within-fiction.”
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Such means of tracing motor content for the purpose of representing abstract innerworkings of the mind is a clever way of connecting the viewer’s reservoir of bodily schemata to conceptions that would be impossible to picture in and of themselves. Ellen Spolsky refers to this as transfiguration, a tracing of sense perception in order to convey various kinds of affect-driven notions that are otherwise non-representational (Spolsky 79; Wojciehowski and Gallese). Other examples of this may include depictions of ecstasies and apotheoses.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Stories then have the capacity to absorb in this manner by scattering references to the body (motor content) in various contexts. Marco Caracciolo writes that stories activate “experiential traces,” eliciting responses based on the participant’s innate understanding and recollection of bodily schemata (6). Alternatively, Anezka Kuzmicova terms this “spatial vividness,” referring to the capacity of stories to render bodily movement with various degrees of intensity (26). It is therefore possible to think that in films, such sensory-motor tracing activates the “as-if” properties of the mind that are inextricably tied to the body and its feeling, something that Jennifer Barker’s alternatively defines as the sensual dimension of the cinematic experience (3).
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 To once more return to the concept of the traveling body, we can see a comparable tracing effect in several songs by The Beatles. Consider segmented lyrics such as “When I’m in the middle of a dream / Stay in bed, float up stream” (from I’m Only Sleeping), “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream” (from Tomorrow Never Knows), and “Let me take you down / Cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields” (from Strawberry Fields Forever). Like the Proust example, motor content is fundamental to the representation of inner worlds. The first two segments convey the sensation of floating, which seems quite similar to Proust’s drifting – this time floating down or up stream, presumably on water. The third segment conveys a somewhat more willful impression of motor content. “Let me take you down” implies a gesture, perhaps with an outstretched hand, and an invitation to move down (possibly a Lewis Carroll-esque journey down the rabbit hole). Here, the narrator communicates a particularly strong sense of volition in terms of the gesture involved.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 This latter example of body action is categorically closer to an enactive, volitional conveyance of motor action that Kuzmicova stresses to be crucial for tangible embodiment than the first two segments (28). In other words, references to a body merely moving about is not necessarily going to have the same effect on a reader, listener or viewer as references to acts that grasp, punch, pull, push, stretch and so forth. A living body, in other words, is one that knows or decides where it is going; it is one whose movements are enacted in space towards other objects or bodies. The gesture of “let me take you down” then signals to the listener or reader, but “floating down stream” is perhaps less rooted in the body and more in the stream. Turner’s concept of thinker as a mover is thus complicated a bit once we consider the kind of cinematic body we look for that has the capacity to figuratively embody the spectator.
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The Traveling Body in Eternal Sunshine
I would like to look at a five-minute stretch of segmented memories at a climactic point in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Approximately 52 minutes into the film, Joel (Jim Carrey) is shown to be in a state of deep sleep, while Patrick (Elijah Wood) and Stan (Mark Ruffalo) erase his memories. Initially subsumed by his dreams, which run backwards in time, Joel begins to realize his predicament and attempts to escape back into reality, along with his mind’s manifestation of former girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet).
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Joel’s dreams are represented as evanescent spaces that are gradually reduced to a vanishing point of light within a prevailing darkness. What is interesting for the scholar of embodied cognition is the scattering of motor action on the part of Joel’s body that becomes the viewer’s sole anchoring component within otherwise unstable spaces. These gestures are represented as enactments towards objects and hypothetical exit points, including the vanishing point in the first segmented dream, Clementine’s body, the staircase and rooms in Joel’s house. Therefore, Joel’s represented experience with the dreams is largely organized around sensory-motor tracing of his body as it reacts to the goings-on around it. Let’s look closer.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Segment 1. Joel and Clementine are in bed, talking underneath a blanket (see Fig. 1). After a short while, Clementine disappears and the memory begins to disintegrate. An enveloping darkness dawns on Joel like an Irish shot, as a sole light source shifts away from his body. As this happens, Joel motions to scramble towards the light source in an attempt to capture it and regain his memory.
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Elaboration. In the dream, Joel’s and Clementine’s bodies are represented to be mostly still, unconcerned by the surrounding space outside of themselves. At the moment of the dream’s disintegration, we see a cut to Joel’s body moving towards a perceived goal, his fingers closed (see Fig. 2). As the light source shifts, Joel gestures and thrusts towards it. The transition from this segmented memory to the next is thus represented as a vanishing point for Joel to see and attempt to grasp. Even though Joel has no apparent control of the dream-erasing process, he demonstrates a volitional bodily goal that provides the scene’s most apparent instance of sensory-motor tracing.
Fig. 1 – Joel and Clementine under a blanket.
Fig. 2 – Joel gestures towards the vanishing light.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 The experience of the dream is therefore represented as an attitude towards a task by means of a motor goal, making Joel’s transition from the dream inseparable from the feeling of his body. Perception and action are blended into one, while the peri-personal content of the dream space (that is, the contents of the space adjacent to the character’s body), with its object of gestural attention, is made abstractly simple for the viewer to grasp (Noe 2) (Gallese and Guerra 186). In this respect, the otherwise evanescent quality of a decaying dream takes on a seeming texture.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Segment 2. Joel and Clementine lie on their backs atop a frozen lake. Once again the memory disintegrates, made apparent by a spotlight that drowns out the surrounding space. Suddenly, Clementine’s body is pulled away from Joel and into the darkness. After finding Clementine, Joel takes her by the hand and they run into an uncertain direction.
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Elaboration. In this segment, Joel’s surrounding space is obscured, with limited potentiality for action. When he finds Clementine, they run in search of a hypothetical object: an exit out of the dream. The motor act is therefore volitional, but not clearly goal-oriented due to their limited peri-personal awareness of the surrounding space. However their bodies anchor their transition to the next segment: first they run on the ice, then briefly through a movie-theater memory (a mini-segmented dream, where Joel’s head briefly flashes across the screen), and finally through New York’s Grand Central Station (the start of segment 3) (see Fig. 3 and 4). What occurs then is a continuous motion conveyed by two matches-on-action. The bodies figuratively run from one segmented dream to another. In spite of an uncertain texture of boundaries, the body’s travel is presented as continuous.
Fig. 3 and 4. Joel and Clementine first run across the lake, then across Grand Central.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Segments 3 and 4. Running across a large open space of Grand Central, Joel and Clementine once more seek out an uncertain exit, while surrounding objects and bodies of the dream disintegrate. They run across the space and down the stairs of the train station. This is followed by a match-on-action cut, as we see them descend the stairs of Joel’s house, taking them to another segmented space. After moving through several rooms, Joel and Clementine find themselves in the office of Dr. Mierzwiak.
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Elaboration. In these segments, the transition from one memory to the next is even more clearly conveyed by means of motor content. This time, surrounding spaces provide graphic transitions (staircases) and means of entry for the bodies (rooms and entrances). Therefore the journey from one segmented memory to the next is shown to be acquired by the body, which travels through openings and levels whenever they present themselves (see Fig. 5 and 6). This batch of memories, therefore, provides short-lived spatial environments through which Joel is able to direct his body.
Fig. 5 and 6. Joel and Clementine run down the stairs of the station and ultimately descend in his house.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 What we see in this sequence of segmented memories is what may seem at first like an unordered assembly of disconnected events. However upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that the body plays an anchoring role in traveling across the boundaries of these segments. When we see Joel crawl towards the spotlight, run across a series of segmented dreams, move his way through portals in space, we engage with his body’s motor intentionality as much as anything else within the scene. The sequence is comprised and ordered around the body, which may seem natural in passively watching the scene, but requires some reflection in hindsight. Why opt to represent these inner worlds in such fashion, rather than by mere decoration?
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 For one thing, the sequence’s overlapping senses of urgency and helplessness are motivated simultaneously by means of sensory-motor tracing. When Joel frantically gestures towards the shifting light, the viewer’s body absorbs his corporeal directedness and attitude on the basis of similar spatio-temporal experience. What ensues is a simulation of a “motion-towards” sensation and a resulting desire to gesture and grasp the vanishing object. Segment 2 activates a “motion-through” simulation by means of a match-on-action and later a graphic match of the staircase. Finally, the reliance on portals and openings appears to the simulation of a spatio-temporal understanding of the inside and the outside – the container schema – and related motion of “into” and “out of.”
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Hillary P. Danneberg writes that the pleasure of engaging with fiction “can be grasped by conceiving of it as a journey of exploration into a new world — a journey whose very attraction resides in the exhilaration of jumping across and transgressing ontological boundaries and mentally relocating oneself far away from one’s true spatiotemporal or ontological level” (21). The traveling body offers one example of such type of pleasure, whereby the function is not in baring its concepts to the viewer, but by tracing them for the purpose of activating capacity for simulation. Thus a “being-in-the-world” becomes a “being-in-the-fiction” – a mind and body conceptualized as mutually inclusive.
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This paper serves to introduce the notion of the traveling body and combine it with scholarship on embodied simulation. The Eternal Sunshine example is a start, but I believe there is more to do from here on in. One of the more obvious examples of the traveling body trope would be Inception (2010), and an even more challenging foray would be to analyze Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2011) where two warring bodies transition from opposite psychological states in a transfigurative representation of a mental struggle. I see the embodied simulation field to be an extremely powerful set of ideas to bring forth a new understanding of spectatorial engagement with complex, non-representational concepts and their realization in cinematic terms.
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. Vittorio Gallese has written several articles on embodied simulation (the embodied simulation theory) and storytelling, including one paper on film studies that is cited here. Although cognitive in scope, this scholarship is indebted to the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which has taken on a greater relevance in cognitive neuroscience since the discovery of mirror neurons.
. The notion of the peri-personal space is perhaps best understood as an attitude towards a potential motor task. When an object is observed in the visual field, one’s relationship to it changes depending on the distance. Potentiality for action, such as grasping the object, powerfully shapes perception of one’s visual field.
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Barker, Jennifer. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Print.
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Wojciehowski, Hannah Chapelle and Vittorio Gallese. “How Stories Make Us Feel: Toward an Embodied Narratology.” California Italian Studies 2. Web