Monday, May 11, 2015

Ribbon Farm contributor Haley Thurston on "compression" in the arts with a case study of Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott as bad and good at it, an observation

In his Formal Theory of Creativity & Fun & Intrinsic Motivation, AI scientist Jürgen Schmidhuber suggests the idea of “compression” as the explanation for both why art exists and why it is pleasurable. The gist of Schmidhuber’s concept of compression is that the human brain is itself a kind of hard drive with a limited amount of space. Given that the brain is space-limited, it makes sense that information that uses that space efficiently might reward the brain with pleasure. It’s in our interest, in other words, to find patterns so that we can get rid of extraneous data and use our brain for more things. This reward system explains why things like stereotypes (all people are X) or religion (everything happens because of X) feel good; it also explains why we’re drawn to symbolism, metaphor, and succinctness.
What about a more complex art form? Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a popular filmmaker that’s bad at compression.

There's quite a bit more, because, hey, it's ribbon farm.  But the observation here is that Nolan really is bad at this thing called compression.  This concept helps, however, to explain why his best films are his most genre-anchored.  His approach works best when he's mining pulpy genres for big ideas and that might be why some people just can't stand his films.  They don't want big ideas seeping into or out of low-brow pulp stuff.  And at another level, the reason the Batman trilogy or Memento work the way they do is that the trappings of the pulp genre does the work of "compression" for Nolan.  This could be why the afore-mentioned film in his output come off better than films in which he's explicating the rules of the narrative world such as The Prestige or Inception or Interstellar.

Conversely, though Ridley Scott gets the compression thing down in Alien (Thurston's counterexample) Scott's output gets more insufferable the more big-concept he tries to get.  If Nolan is on firmer ground in his approach by bringing ideals to pulp, Ridley Scott is on firmer ground in his approach by aiming low and nailing the target with gusto.  The higher he sets his conceptual sights the more ridiculous his failure.  Ergo Prometheus ... .

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