Saturday, 23 February 2008

Empathy and films

This week my colleague Gloria gave a fine, detailed research presentation on empathy which took as its point of departure the thought that one should not construe it as way of delivering knowledge of the content of others’ mental states but rather as responsible for incorporating others' first person perspectives into one’s own understanding. She then considered three routes (based on perception, imitation and imagination) to this. (I’ll think a little more about the idea before commenting on it here.)

A day later I watched No Country for Old Men. It was, predictably, very good. Lovely cinematography; good dialogue - such as the meditative discussion of a strained analogy from the Sheriff which finishes with the line:

“Point bein’, even in the contest between man and steer the issue is not certain”

- and an engaging plot. Of course, like any decent film, no such check list gives much of an impression of what it was like. It was in Emilio Estevez’ character from Repo Man Otto’s phrase ‘intense’.

Despite emerging from it to the usual post film pint and a pleasant debriefing conversation with friends it took a long while to recover from the experience. Strange that I watch films in the full knowledge that they are fiction, aware in this case that I’d last seen Kelly Macdonald in a poor Richard Curtis vehicle, and yet cannot disengage from an immediate emotional response. (A moment in which the psychopath Anton Chigurh emerges from a house and inspects his feet for blood thus telling us what has just happened was particularly striking.) If this is a kind of empathy, why is it not undermined by the knowledge that there isn’t another point of view or even a subject at hand?