Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thirteen (2003 - dir. Catherine Hardwicke)

This will be a really brief treatment of what, for me, being the parent of an adolescent daughter, is a very hard film to watch. Sure...some of the performances are sub-par; but, the pain that is the theme of the film goes right to the heart of a major element of human experience that has been illuminated by evolutionary paychology.

The central reference here is work by Draper & Harpending, focusing on the variability in reproductive behavior engaged in by women/adolescent females as a consequence of the parental care they were exposed to in their "life histories." In the absence of a competent adult male in the development of a female (whether biological father or not), it is more probable that an adolescent female will experience "early menarche, first sexual intercourse, first pregnancy, and shorter duration of first marriage". Additionally, parental separation during adolescence was "the strongest predictor of number of sex partners." Pay attention here. It's not just the social behavior of female adolescents that is affected by the father-absent is the physiological behavior as well - early menarch. The body is "saying", "best prepare for sexual activity early." Why?

The answer appears to be that the lack of male parental provisioning signaled by the absence of a stable male father figure (not necessarily the biological father), gives the developing female information about what resources she can expect from adults. In the absence of such a figure, selection would have favored earlier puberty (and the attendant sexual behavior) such that these resources could be more likely obtained by a sexual partner in the absence of the male parent.

In this brutally honest film, you will be hard-pressed to find a stable father figure (but, an abundance of ineffectual mother figures). This is an almost hermetically sealed female world. Here and there, you can hear pleas for an adult male to make his presence known and to devote some attention to these people. But, the biological father is cluelessly attached to his work and the mother's boyfriend is irreversibly damaged by addiction. Everywhere you look, all you see is damaged women....and the children that are left behind to look for some certainty....somewhere.

From 1976 until 1980, I worked with "emotionally disturbed" adolescent girls about this age. The screaming, the crying, the smashed self-worth.....the cutting. Evolutionary psychology has, at long last, given me some ability to understand that which I once lost sleep over.

Thirteen - Trailer

Friday, August 21, 2009

Carnal Knowledge (1971 - dir. Mike Nichols)

I remember an old episode of All in the Family where Edith and Archie have just returned from the movies and Archie is enraged, chastising Edith for taking him to that particular movie. Edith replies, "I'm sorry, Archie. I thought it was a religious picture...Cardinal Knowledge." This Mike Nichols masterpiece is definitely not a religious picture, although it is a profoundly human one.

Nichols' career has been extraordinary. His first four films were, in order, Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch-22, and Carnal Knowledge. Not bad. While he continues to be a fine director, he hasn't seemed to have re-captured the magic of these four films. Carnal Knowledge is uncompromising in it's brutal depiction of human sexuality and how sex differences in sexual psychology often create abusive divides between men and women. The genius of the film, in my opinion, is that the characters portrayed never descend into outright abuse (criminally defined). However, the sexual strategies depicted by Nichols' characters are experienced as abusive by the viewer as both male and female perspectives are powerfully represented in the narrative.

Sexual Strategies Theory in evolutionary psychology has allowed psychologists to understand major sex differences in human mating behavior that are cross-culturally universal. Over the past decade or two, these differences, and the evolutionary psychological work supporting them, have been widely researched and published - probably best presented in The Evolution of Desire by David Buss of The University of Texas. Research projects centered on the evolutionary psychology of human mating are far too numerous to elaborate here. However, the core of this work is artfully on display in this film. Male sexual psychology tends to be centered on sexual physicality and uncommitted sex while female desires place a higher premium on committed relationships with a partner that is likely to be able to assist in child-rearing. Of course, this is a broad generalization and there are plenty of good reasons for there to be exceptions to this general template (most of the best research on the nature of these exceptions is from evolutionary psychology). However, this foundational difference is surprisingly robust as a description of human sexual conflict.

The story follows the lives and "loves" of Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), two college buddies. Jonathan is the quintessential aggressive lothario while Sandy claims to only be interested in a woman's intelligence and personality. What follows is the playing out of the lives of these two men, and the women in their lives, over a number of years. And what we see is just about as honest a portrayal of sexual conflict as you will ever see in cinema. Both Jonathan and Sandy, in their different ways, desire the comforts of uncommitted sex while their female counterparts, especially as realized by Bobbie (Ann-Margret), desire the commitment of a long-term relationship while, at the same time, realizing that they must not be too open about this desire. This sets up what are, perhaps, some of the most well-written scenes (by the cartoonist, Jules Feiffer) ever filmed dealing with the excruciating sexual politics of male/female relationships.

Now, affection is contempt. Everything is upside down...

The Slide Show

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dead (1987 - dir. John Huston)

Romantic single film can capture every aspect of this profound human experience. However, I'll attempt to give just a little insight into this most complex of subjects, using as a cinematic template, John Huston's final film, The Dead, elegantly adapted from James Joyce's majestic short story of the same name from his Dubliners collection. Being male, I'll focus this post on the masculine orientation to the problem and do my best to approach the feminine down the line. That should be interesting....

I remember attending a conference of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society in Alburquerque, New Mexico (I think it was in 1992). During dinner before the keynote talk (I was privileged to hear the late evolutionary biologist William Hamilton deliver that year's address), I was engaged in a conversation with another legendary biologist, George Williams, and Patty Gowaty, a biologist now at UCLA. I apologize for all the name dropping but, the point is, during the conversation with Williams and Gowaty, I remember mentioning that a strong case could be made for the possibility that male "romantic" love was a consequence of self-deception on the part of the male. The idea is that multiple matings increase the reproductive fitness of human males relative to human females. Consequently, it would seem possible that expressions of exclusionary feelings of romantic love by a male directed towards a female would likely be deceptive expressions designed to win the woman over by feigning long-term commitment. However, as Robert Trivers (another monster evolutionary biologist) has pointed out, the most successful acts of deception are those that are performed by those individuals that actually believe their deceptions (self-deceivers). Therefore, deceptive male expressions of long-term romantic "love" may be more effective if males actually believe their own deceptions, i.e., are self-deceived. I remember Gowaty vigorously disagreeing with me about this. But, I particularly remember Williams agreeing with me and feeling all puffed up about one of the giants in 20th century evolutionary biology putting his imprimatur on one of my ideas.

So......The Dead. After a holiday party in Dublin, full of marvelous slice-of-life moments, songs, toasts, dance, a man (Gabriel) and his wife (Gretta) prepare to take a horse-drawn taxi back to their residence. Suddenly, an Irish tenor begins to sing a song ("The Lass of Aughrim") at the top of the stairs and Gretta, who is preparing to go out into the cold, is transfixed. Later, Gabriel is confronted by Gretta's memories of a love in her life that, he realizes, is stronger and more powerful than he is capable of. He realizes that his "love" for his wife pales in comparison to the "true" love described to him by his wife.....the love of Michael Furey, years and years ago, the source of her transfixed reverie. Michael sang her that very song, alone in the bitter Irish winter, causing his death. Gabriel is decimated - overwhelmed by the realization that all is vanity and, in the end, the Irish snow covers both the living...and the dead.

Expressions of romantic love are mercurial things for human males. I'm reminded of another film, Woody Allen's A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) where the Tony Roberts character describes marriage as "the death of hope." Do men really mean what they are saying when they say, "I love you"? they know for sure? Gabriel comes to the realization that his love for his wife was not the best "offer" she has received...Michael Furey, in his absence, still claims that honor. And, in fact, maybe Gabriel doesn't really love her at all. Maybe, he has deceived her, and himself. Maybe, the only way to approach Michael Furey's degree of certainty is to be in the grave...with him.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Walkabout (1971 - dir. Nicolas Roeg)

I saw Walkabout at a small theater in Bozeman, Montana when it was first released. I can still remember walking out of the theater in a daze and not exactly knowing why. I can also remember, over the next several months, having fantasies of getting "back to nature" and wondering why it would be so terrible if people lived their lives naked and happy in the wilderness. Hey...I was young and filled with the naive idealism that seems to go with that territory, especially in the early seventies.

In retrospect, I think I now know the explanation for that nostalgic feeling of lost innocence I experienced. This is where the evolutionary psychological perspective comes in...the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). This has been a widely misunderstood concept in evolutionary psychology and is frequently interpreted to indicate a specific time and place in human prehistory, usually the Pleistocene epoch. It is mistakenly assumed that humans are generally/vaguely adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle characteristic of this period. However, the EEA concept is intended to describe those specific, particular selection pressures that were responsible for the evolution of specific adaptations in a species, not simply a geological epoch.

What I think I was experiencing after watching Walkabout was some sort of nostalgic resonance with human prehistory. No, not the childish back-to-nature stuff, but a deeper connection to specific aspects of less complicated strategies of life. Roeg's masterpiece is not simply an indictment of modern technological life. It is a brilliant dissection of how modern life reflects the pre-modern. While all the characters share the same EEA, they are separated by thousands of years of cultural evolution that makes effective communication next to impossible. While they all share the same basic human nature, they cannot express this fact to one another. As Roger Ebert has said in his review of the film, it is a story of how people have lost the ability to communicate with one another. They need food and drink, shelter, they feel sexually attracted, they laugh, they love to play, they share in innumerable psychological adaptations. However, over the eons, they have become completely isolated in their different symbol systems. In the end, heartbreaking.

In contrast, Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance" or, my favorite translation, "a way of life that calls for another way of living"), is a much more conventional expression of the decadence of modern, technological society. While powerful, this expressionistic documentary does not engage the profound themes found in Walkabout and, consequently, it's didacticism (as James Joyce explained) makes it a lesser work of art.

A poorly narrated the film.

Reggio, from Koyaanisqatsi (Music - "Pruit Igoe", composed by Philip Glass)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Annie Hall (1977 - dir. Woody Allen)

It's difficult for me to express how much I love this movie. While I haven't kept count, I'm sure I've watched it more than any other film in my life. It just seems so true. While Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors are arguably better films...I still return to Annie Hall. So, what does evolutionary psychology offer us in attempting to understand the preciousness of these films? Leaving aside the question of why people find certain things humorous (something I may pick up on in a future post), I think that Annie Hall (and the other films) are exemplary in their portrayal of how so much of life rides (frequently unconsciously) on the psychology of mating and reproductive fitness. I know, I know....that sounds so reductionist and utterly unfunny. But, let me explain...

If gravity didn't exist, falling on a banana peel would be utterly unfunny. Gravity is the ultimate explanation for the phenomenon...the proximate explanation being the person who falls and how this strikes us as funny. These are two very different, yet, related, perspectives. When the ultimate is made explicit, as if it was a proximate description, the result is often humorous. Evolutionary psychological explanations of human behavior are usually of the ultimate variety (sometimes called "distal"). Consequently, they often sound alien and somewhat removed from our experience. But, that is the way they are by nature. The genius of these films is that (knowingly or not) they "ride" on these ways of knowing and, sometimes, even derive humor from making this explicit. Allen's films are "about" intersexual relationships (almost without exception) and, therefore, are "about" reproductive fitness, in the ultimate sense.

Two cases in point:

We need the eggs (Annie Hall)

We need some sperm (Hannah and Her Sisters)

Allen's genius at "riffing" on these basic themes is extraordinary. However, if human psychology wasn't as fixated as it is on "needing the eggs" or "needing the sperm"....well....the humor would be as superfluous as legs on a snake.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pay It Forward (2000 - dir. Mimi Leder)

It is not a requirement that movies reviewed on this blog be terribly good ones...only that they illustrate, or are somehow reflective of, evolutionary psychological science. This is an excellent example. Aesthetically, this is one pretty bad movie...

Pay It Forward is as close to a perfect cinematic expression of indirect reciprocity as can be imagined. Briefly, evolutionary research in human altruism identifies kin altruism (altruism among genetically related others), direct reciprocal altruism (altruism among non-relatives of the "tit-for-tat" variety), and indirect reciprocal altruism (altruism among non-relatives but not in the strict "I wash your back, you wash mine" variety). Cognitive adaptations for indirect reciprocal altruistic behavior can evolve if such behaviors enhance the reputation/status of the altruist such that they are held in high esteem by other group members, thus, increasing one's "reputation" through intragroup communication (i.e., gossip). This is why anonymous altruistic acts are relatively rare in human social behavior as non-anonymous acts function as signals that communicate "I am a nice altruistic person and worthy of your solicitous treatment." The observation of such acts can spark a context of "competitive altruism" whereby people that observe these acts of kindness (altruism) will be more likely to engage in them as well. This has been called "upstream reciprocity" in a brilliant recent paper by Nowak and Sigmund (2005) in the journal Nature entitled Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity .

The diagrams in the Nowak & Sigmund paper are eerily similar to the circle and line drawings by the character played by Haley Joel Osment at about the 30 second mark of the film's trailer:

Some of you might be reminded of a recent Liberty Mutual ad that covers the same territory:

It has often been said that it is impossible to account for moral cognition, emotion, intuition, etc. and that, consequently, we must look to religion or some other supernatural source of such sympathies. Evolutionary psychological research is putting the lie to this unfounded assertion and it is wonderfully reflected in this film.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dangerous Liaisons (1988 - dir. Stephen Frears)

Eighteen years ago, I published some research on the evolutionary psychology of intersexual and intrasexual mating deception. At the time, I remember not being able to get this film out of my head. Based on the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons is a near perfect expression of the deceptive tactics engaged in by men and women in their romantic machinations. While there are themes in this film that go beyond deception, this seems to me to be the thread that weaves the narrative together.

Male intersexual deception appears to center on presenting oneself as more in love with/enamored by the woman in question than one actually is, as well as deceptively higher in status. Female intersexual deception is, relative to males, more focused on physical appearance enhancement. It is important to understand that these reflect relative comparisons and not absolute expectations.

This behavior can be seen in full display in Dangerous Liaisons. It is a remarkable, beautifully scripted film and I would love to hear any of your thoughts about it.

Inventing Yourself

Away we go...

What I'm interested in doing here is hosting discussions, reviews, etc. of films from the perspective offered by evolutionary theory. While there has been some treatment of other forms of artistic expression from this perspective (literary arts, visual arts, etc.), there has been very little regarding the cinema. The focus here is not so much on cinematic technique (although this might be interesting); it is more concerned with the narrative content of films and how this might be related to the evolutionary psychology of human cognition.