In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast And Slow Daniel Kahneman explains our current understanding of cognitive processes by invoking two metaphorical systems, System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is a fast, intuitive jump-to-conclusions system which assumes truth, and is predisposed to make connections, ascribe agency and so forth. It is a low cost thing is System 1 and it is running all the time.
System 2 is an effortful system, exerting the kind of deliberate, analytical thinking that is required when impressions, inclinations and feelings alone won’t do. It is the process from which we get beliefs, attitudes and intentions. It costs though, metabolically, so it is really only called on when required. And in Kahneman’s terminology it is “lazy” which, I think is a way of saying it acts until the exact moment it doesn’t need to anymore, then it stops.
As with everything in adaptive evolution the workings of cognition are shown not to be the noble striving towards an ideal of efficiency. They are the results of an “Ah fuck it, that’ll do” default.
If a genuine, actual God exists and this is his creation then he is my kind of guy. Botched jobs that will barely do, walked away from; and paths of least resistance all the way.
System 2 is not called upon that often because the broadly understandable, associative worldview that System 1 cobbles together in its charming, scatty way is generally unharmful. System 1 is blind to subtle, biasing things like suggestion and priming effects because, mostly, it doesn’t need to be aware of them.
If nothing else at least this provides Derren Brown with a way of making a living.
When System 1 does come across something obviously contextually unfamiliar it nudges System 2 for validation. There is an identifiable shift up from the one system to the other. This loss of cognitive ease is simple to observe. Kahneman uses the sentence:
“When something cement does not fit into the current context of activated ideas the system detects an abnormality, as you just experienced.”
The converse also holds true. If something doesn’t seem anomalous then System 1 blunders blithely on. Kahneman demonstrates this by asking a simple-to-answer question:
“How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark?”
The answer is so easy that the majority of people don’t spot what is fundamentally wrong with the question. System 1, not detecting an associative disruption, has given the answer. System 2 is still tucked up in bed with a cup of hot chocolate and a Sudoku book.
Kahneman’s book is excellent, and there is a lot more too it than my piffling simplifications suggest. We are not quite as spiffing as we fancy ourselves to be and, as the book goes on to explain, we consistently make bad statistical choices because of the way we’ve developed.
There are economic ramifications I am given to understand.
A Nobel Prize got awarded they say.
I enjoyed the book greatly. It taught me a lot of new stuff as well as reinforcing a lot of previously ill-informed notions I had about why we think the way we think, and why, unless challenged, we believe the things we believe. It is all rooted in the physical, experiential, verifiable world too.
For the most part, I came to understand, when I am watching films I am running System 1. There are bright lights flashing on the screen.
Thing follows thing follows thing follows thing. It is rare that my cognitive ease is unsettled to the point that I think “Hang on a minute, though…” and when it does this is usually the result of a purposeful action on the part of the film makers.
Some film makers are good at exploiting a sense of unease by subtly altering what you expect to see. You can see it in the way John Carpenter has things happening in the corners of the widescreen frame in Halloween for instance. Or Philip Kaufman’s ruthless exploitation of the tilted topography of San Francisco to fill the backgrounds of his Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers with visual non sequiturs.
Others are less good. Ed Wood’s reputation as the cinema’s worst director is well founded. The clumsiness of Plan 9 From Outer Space, its lurches between night time and daylight, its mismatching of stock footage, its swooping tonal changes all make it quite difficult to watch. System 2 is getting constant digs in the ribs from System 1. That all costs you. The raising of your blood pressure and the dilation of your pupils has to be fuelled by something.
People have different thresholds.
I wasn’t irked particularly when the Raiders franchise “nuked the fridge” in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Many people were.
Similarly I did not have a problem in this year’s The Dark Knight Rises when the Gotham City Police Department emerge from their prolonged entombment, fit, healthy, muscular of arm and shiny of buttons to fight Bane and his forces.
“That could never happen,” was the complaint, as though there was no precedent in magical realist literature, fantasy films or comic book writing. It is, at the very worst, para-consistent with what has gone before rather than outright inconsistent. And not even that I think.
It’s a thrilling sequence in a film that is one of the least compromised blockbusters I’ve ever seen.
2012 has been a year notable for films that have come freighted with heavy expectations but which nonetheless have not disappointed.
I adored the colour-saturated Magnificent Seven-for-nerds that was The Avengers. It was so much nimbler than I thought it could possibly be. Similarly I was agog at Prometheus. I think time will be as kind to that film as it has been to Blade Runner, which was also not well understood on its initial release.
The Amazing Spider-man was not to my taste. The revision of the Peter Parker character into a cool, sulky pseudo-outsider made the story considerably less interesting to me, but it is, I now realise, a film that is not intended for me any more than the Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Sex And The City films are. It has its own audience, and that’s good.
So what a relief that The Dark Knight Rises, fourth in the queue, was a tour de force too. It was sensible of the studio to give Christopher Nolan a free rein with it as a hobbled compromise would have been too much to bear.
Still though it must have taken some balls for them to release, under the mantle of a summer blockbuster, the movie he presented them with. Nearly three hours long, furiously unconventional in its depiction of the passage of time and without its central character for huge stretches, this is a challenging piece of work.
What can we say about Batman?
He is an archetype of apparently limited flexibility. The only child of philanthropic billionaires he witnesses their murders as a young boy. In adulthood he is compelled to fight crime, seemingly as a result of this early trauma. He dresses as a bat. The reason he gives is that criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot.
His relations with the Gotham City Police Department are ambiguous but he has a mutually respectful friendship with the Chief of Police Jim Gordon.
Occasionally he has had a partner called Robin. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, later became the superhero Nightwing. The second Robin, Jason Todd, was murdered by The Joker. The third Robin, Tim Drake, grew up to be the superhero Red Robin and his replacement, Stephanie Brown, was killed in action almost immediately. The mantle is currently worn by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul from a storyline that I had previously thought was non-canonical. And if, when you hear the name Damien, your first thought is of The Omen rather than Only Fools And Horses then you are the sort of person that I would like to be.
Batman once had his back broken by the drug-engorged villain Bane, but he got better. Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend at the time had magic healingy-wealingy powers or something.
There is an ensemble of allies. There is a colourful spectrum of antagonists.
In his time Bruce has been killed. He has been imprisoned for murder. He has been sent back through time. He has been to the Moon, to distant galaxies, to Hell, and to Scotland.
DC, the company which publishes the Batman comics is astute about the character. He, at least in their main line of comics, is most generally played as the obverse of Superman. The dark night to Superman’s yellow sun. It is a very tidy conceit.
Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are both orphans, but they appear to have reacted differently to their situations. Superman’s affable, monogamous simplicity is a stark contrast to Batman’s glum, polymorphous complexity. A reason for the equivalence of their origins is simple artistic thrift. They both started out in their own comic books at about the same time (Batman in a 1939 detective comic, Superman in a 1938 action comic) with audiences that were separate and distinct. Fear of the loss of one’s parents must have been quite a thing to the kids growing up between world wars. An origin story is just an origin story. No wonder there were similarities.
You can read too much into the moral dualism the characters seem to present. Ooh darkness and light. Ooh the Manichaean struggle at the heart of all men.
Well, yes. But, more to the point, no. It’s just a fucking comic.
In the wake of Frank Miller’s transgressive 1986 comic series The Dark Kight Returns in which Bruce Wayne has succumbed to the ravages of age and Clark Kent has become the puppet of a right wing US President, there was a move towards seeing the expression of something political in comics. Perhaps something profound about twentieth century sexuality too.
Sadly though this doesn’t seem to have amounted to too much. There are now visionary comics writers who receive more attention than they otherwise might have done, but they are still the tiny exception.
Some of Miller’s subsequent work has been a bit thuggish and misogynistic, and The Dark Knight returns seems less and less important the further away we get from it. If Miller has left an enduring mark on Batman at all it is only that there are more stories about youth gangs now and fewer about Bat-Mite or Ace The Bat-Hound.
There have been sideways Batman stories too. There was a series of Elseworld graphic novels in which the Batman story was played out in the Victorian Era, or the Wild West, or against Dracula, or as if Bruce Wayne was Green Lantern. All jolly good but the point is that the parameters are very limited. There are few things of any philosophical worth you can get from Batman.
The point of it is how do you present what there is?
The Tim Burton movies were not that different from the two Joel Schumacher movies that followed. Both directors are more concerned with what happens of the surface of your retinas rather than anything a bit deeper into your head.
This isn’t so very bad in itself I suppose, but I prefer something a little less like a toddler tantrum in a migraine factory.
Christopher Nolan’s three Batmans are infinitely more measured. It would be a stretch to call them adult, but they do at least address the notion of change over time, both as growth and decay. They are also scrupulously directed and cast, and there is a perspicacity at work that you don’t always get in the genre.
There is no shortage of Joker stories in the gargantuan Batman oeuvre, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard his malignant nature more intelligently observed than when, in The Dark Knight, Michael Caine’s Alfred calmly intones, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
There is an uncommon weight of conviction in that.
Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand as examples of mainstream cinema that do not underestimate or patronise the audience. There’s a stateliness to them that Christopher Nolan can be proud of, and I am glad that I have lived to see blockbuster entertainment start to move away from the ubiquity of the “defy authority, destroy property, take peoples’ clothes off” paradigm.
And if you know what movie that came from then you are my kind of people.
Anyway, when I sat down to write I hadn’t intended to talk about any of that puffin-guff, but it wasn’t possible to get to Scooby-Doo Meets Batman without the set-up. Because Scooby-Doo Meets Batman is a complicated prospect. It is not a film to be watched lightly.
It’s not even a film at all if we’re going to apply rigorous taxonomy here. It’s two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies: The Caped Crusader Caper (1972) and The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair (also 1972).
Purists need not worry. This is classic era Scooby-Doo. Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy are all present and correct. It is free from the contaminating paw marks of Scrappy-Doo and Scooby-Dum. There is even the classic misspelling of Casey Kasem’s name on the credits.
It is proper.
In addition the same tight team of thirteen writers (only thirteen!) worked on both episodes so the narrative consistency is high.
Second half first. The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair is the less confrontational of the two episodes. It is logically robust. The clues are all there from the start. When (SPOILER ALERT!) Mrs. Baker is revealed to be the counterfeiter and we learn that her disappearing house actually turns upside down as camouflage, and that’s why everything was stuck down, we slap our heads in exasperation at our own nincompoopery. It is like Poe’s purloined letter or Chesterton’s postman. It was right in front of us. How could we not see it?
System 1 thinking, Daniel Kahneman would tell us.
If The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair has a problem it is that the antagonistic matched binary systems of Batman and Robin/The Joker and Penguin feel ancillary to the story.
My suspicion is that they were added late as an understandable commercial reaction to the success of the first story, The Caped Crusader Caper, because that is where the art lies in this endeavour.
Its story starts quite simply with the Mystery Machine gang meeting Batman and Robin in a forest. The dynamic duo are in pursuit of The Joker and The Penguin who have kidnapped an inventor called Professor Flakey. Scooby and his pals have already been terrorised by a dryad and Batman quickly works out that this fits exactly with The Joker’s modus operandi. Dressing up as a dryad.
They go to the dryad place… Cave. It’s a cave I think.
There follows some hurly and some burly, a lot of it quite hard to follow. It’s a good job those thirteen writers were on hand or the whole thing could have got out of control quite quickly. It all leads to a climactic scene at the Gotham Rubber Factory where Professor Flakey’s secret invention is revealed to be a flying suit.
Well, he says it’s a flying suit. Fans of The League Of Gentlemen will recognise it as part of Daddy’s Medusa machine. (The safe word is Juliet Bravo.)
It is here though that the story becomes an art-terrorism affront to meta-fiction because the rubber factory, in addition to its primary function of being a place to hide mysterious inventions, also makes big novelty balloons for parades.
It makes five of them to be exact. Big balloons of Father Christmas, Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear, Batman and Robin. And that’s when my highly revved System 2, which had been running like a cooling fan on an over clocked computer for a while, started frantically looking round for some sort of System 3 thinking, just to deal with the complete defiance of narrative congruence.
Father Christmas isn’t real. I know this. He sort of is compared to Scooby-Doo, but for the most part in our reality Santa and Scooby have equivalent degrees of fictiveness. However, in Scoob’s world Santa is fictional (presumably) whilst Scooby is real. And in Scooby’s world Batman and Robin are also real, but in addition to being real in that world they also share the fictional (balloon identity) status of Santa, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear.
Small wonder that nine short years later Jean Baudrillard was driven to write Simulacra and Simulation.
I quite like the feeling of apprehension that this brought about in me. There is something dismayingly true in The Caped Crusader Caper about how we interact with fictional constructs which themselves interact with fictional constructs. For something made in 1972 it seems to me to reflect clearly the very contemporary concerns of the deconcretisation of the world and the dissolution of what used to be quite sturdy boundaries.
It was well worth the three quid I paid for the DVD.
Not quite, but almost entirely unrelatedly I was playing Monopoly by myself on my iPad recently. I do this because I am very important and clever and sexy. I was the car and my computerised opponent was the top hat, effete fool that it is.
At one point the top hat landed on the same property I was on and I felt a little warmth and camaraderie. That’s nice for everyone, I thought. On the same square at last. They can have a bit of a chat.
Then I realised that that was silly, because cars and hats can’t talk. Then I remembered that they weren’t even a real car and a real hat. They’re just little metal representations of a car and a hat.
Then I remembered that they are in fact computer renderings of metal models of a pretend car and a pretend hat and that’s the world now. We used to hit actual things with other actual things and now we don’t.
It is an interesting time to be alert.
CLICK HERE FOR “Sketches of Scoob”: Batman
(Oh. And it’s Noah, not Moses.)