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Empathic Camera

Although it’s a more conventional method of naming this otogenic/subjective camera thing, “empathy” is a term that’s deadlocked in controversy.  Wikipedia reveals about a dozen slightly/widely varied interpretive definitions from cognitive slants to affective and the terminally-inarticulate.  I’m drawn to the empathic camera shortcut by the generally more-communicative impression that it pertains to something vaguely familiar, when introduced into conversation, without the need to dive into the etymology of “ontogenic”.  The problem with “subjective camera” (the term most frequently used) is that it’s even more vague and misleading than “empathic camera”.

Lick a postage stamp and stick it to your forehead, right between your brows.  Rather than a simple postage stamp, it’s a NewAge, high-tech, HiDef, wireless movie camera that records visual imagery largely as you see, although not exactly.  It doesn’t blink, it’s field of view, automatic aperture, sensitivity and frame rate make it functionally different from the way your eyes work…and it doesn’t move (as your eyes do when you roll them in their sockets and otherwise use them to express an emotional state to the rest of world), and it’s fitted with a microphone.  It’s also visible as it sits there on your forehead like a third eye — which might incline other people to keep their distance.

I mean that calling that device a “subjective camera” starts off on the wrong foot in several superficial ways, but far more importantly, the term fails to communicate the fact that your subjective experience is not well communicated to another person who is using your “subjective camera” to monitor your experience.  It’s a small, wireless objective camera that happens to be stuck to your forehead.  If you shield your eyes from the sun, it records the movement of your hand and a change in ambient lighting, but your cramped calf, the toe you stubbed on the doorstop, while walking out of the movie theater into bright afternoon sunlight…can only be pieced together inferrentially by the observer with the aid of sound cues and an acute empathic understanding of your subjective experience.  The observer’s empathic facility complements the shortcoming of your forehead camera, in order to make sense of your experience.

Mirror neurons deserve a great deal more attention and study than I’ve devoted to them since yesterday.  It does appear, however, that a plethora of fun associations have been tied to the idea that motor neurons in the brains of monkeys are enervated by the actions of proximal others.   Now, I’m still intrigued by the right/left brain hayride we entered upon 40 years ago, so far be it from me to go all hard-science-skeptical on the mirror neuron enthusiasm, but the most attractive fragment of information I’ve noticed thus far is that they’re located in the motor (rather than sensory) cortex of experimental subjects, which implies to me that the domain of ACTION is the understated key that lies beneath the fascinating extrapolations drawn by folks who believe (as I do) that empathy is hardwired deep into the human organism.

Before I get lost in an irrelevant monologue about going through the motions and the explosively fascinating universe of neat ideas that the mirror neuron conversation initiates…back to the camera-thing:

That forehead camera, no matter how sophisticated the integration of its parts, falls far short of reproducing and recording the entirety of your subjective experience; and therefore makes demands upon the experiential vocabulary of the person who is trying to see your world through your “eye”.  Likewise, the army of NASA analysts struggle to interpret the vision of Mars provided by a Rover, and the camera’s view is not nearly so much subjective as empathic, because the integrative functionaries that read the monitor interpret findings and make decisions about the next move the Rover makes based on an empathic grasp of what’s around the corner (from several million miles away).

The audience in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake were  lured to the film on the falsely advertized premise that THEY would be Phillip Marlow for a couple of hours.  What they weren’t told was that the fascinating inner dialogue between Chandler and Marlowe would be entirely inaudible to them; that Marlowe’s thought processing was confined to another medium (another channel of telemetry) that in 1947 could only be accessed by reading the book.  I know how NASA scientists feel by virtue of their body language, and not from the neologistic doubletalk with which they communicate with one another. 

The 1932 and 1941 movie versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde were serious uphill slogs for me, for several reasons that needn’t be hammered mercilessly here, beyond saying that they weren’t much fun.  I’m hoping that Altered States will be a more enjoyable treatment of exacly the same idea, substituting primitive impulse and proto-human mentality for “EVIL”.  I remember Altered States fondly, but that was also true of St. Elsewhere, Hill St. Blues, Highlander and Kojak…  Some old and influential stuff that delighted me once upon a time has absolutely not held up beneath the weight of comparison with many more recent offerings to which it gave rise.

So the postage stamp camera (in my mind) remains “ontogenic” because the willingness of the audience/observer to empathize is practically non-negotiable.  The facility of the ontogenic camera to tell an engaging story cannot depend upon the talent and life-experience of the viewer to fill in the blanks left vacant by the failure of the filmmaker to provide them.  The challenge (for example) lies in filming Chris Lavery’s interacton with Marlowe in a way that leaves their interpersonal dialogue intact, but simultaneously layers in (like commentary tracks don’t yet quite manage to do) Marlowe’s internal evaluation of the tanned, brawny, skirt-chasing weasel whose snowballing indignation eventually surprises even Marlowe, when Lavery spits near his own feet, on his own rug and stands confrontationally before Marlow, “like watching the veneer peel off and leave a tough kid in an alley.  Or like hearing an apparently refined woman start expressing herself in four-letter words.”  

Chandler invested in Marlowe’s inner monologue a self-reflexive view of Marlowe’s vision of the outside world that simultaneously contrasted with and greatly sharpened the reader’s perception of the scene, gradually revealing the inner-speaker as an aspect of the reader’s experience, different from cursory expectations of Marlowe.  That’s empathic storytelling.  Getting that degree of communicative complexity from a camera won’t be easy, and the devices I’ve seen used in 1932, 1941, 1947 and here&there since then provide no reason for optimism anytime soon.  Dark Passage should arrive tomorrow.  Who knows?

28 Apr 09 - Posted by | Uncategorized |


  1. Although this post is as difficult to read as most everything I try to say, I really like its quixotic attempt to summarize most of the stuff I thought (and still think) about the use of POV in cinema. Hollywood doesn’t get POV, and very rarely attempts to tell stories from the viewer’s literal perspective. Ironically, the industry hypes 3D intermittently, and yet ignores the visceral, autonomic reality imparted to the viewer by increasingly-available, evolving technology.
    Robert Montgomery’s effort was handicapped by the enormous 1947 movie camera, among other things. The very wide range of POV visual storytelling possibilities remain persistently unexplored, indefinite and remarkably-difficult to talk about without sounding like a blithering, fixated idiot.
    So it goes.

    Comment by Scott Ellington | 15 Apr 13 | Reply

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  6. […] Empathic Camera […]

    Pingback by My Oldest Posts « Scott Ellington's Blog | 10 Aug 14 | Reply

  7. […] Empathic Camera […]

    Pingback by √ MY OLDEST POSTS « Scott Ellington's Blog | 06 Apr 17 | Reply

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