Over the last 20,000 years, our brains have gotten smaller. There are several schools of thought on this seemingly counterintuitive evolutionary turn of events, which, at face, counters the previous 1.9 million years in Homo sapiens evolution. Some note the warming trend that has occurred over this period, suggesting this hastened the selection of slighter body-types and thus smaller brains in ratio. Others cite the advent of agriculture which ironically worsened our nutrition for great periods. There is also the Idiocracy theory (a real thing, scarily enough) which posits that we are indeed dimmer than we’d like to think, owing mostly to correlations between cranial size, population density, and the capacity for social safety nets. In this scenario, in theory, one requires less brain power to survive.
The more optimistic amongst researchers argue in the opposite direction, reading the data as evidence that the brain is becoming more efficient—more complex in its wiring while requiring less energy to function. Still others throw the concept of intelligence out the window and simply point to our domestication over these millennia. In terms of brain size alone, we track closely with the dozens of species that have been tamed and have downsized compared to their feral brethren. These animals, and we, potentially, it is theorized, have selected against aggression, and the best way to do this is to seek out slower developing brains—brains that are, in effect, more juvenile and thus of a much different temperament, and, incidentally, smaller. However, in very recent times—I’m talking the last few hundred years—there has been an uptick in size. What should we make of this? Are we getting smarter? Are we trending more aggressive? Are we regressing?
As a matter of course, our movies are starting to poke at the intricacies of our changing brains in the short-term. The Social Network, for its part, sets the template—beginning with a guy and a girl in a crowded Somerville pub engaged in a ratcheting tête-à-tête and ending with the same guy alone in a board room sending a friend request to that same girl and refreshing his browser over and over. The trajectory of modern human conversation is clear in these bookends: from communal/face-to-face to distanced/mediated (though, one could argue that the mechanically quick dialogue and editing links both as closer that they appear, and I’d have to agree with that, but that’s for another day). Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, on the other hand, begins with a series of rapid-fire, intercut internet videos—porn, mostly, naturally—spliced with a static, straight-on shot of the protagonist watching, the glow of the screen lighting his face; and it ends with two people, both shot straight on, looking directly into each other’s eyes. The arc is the opposite, kind of. Don Jon—ostensibly a romantic comedy that follows the titular lothario through relationships and the confrontation of his porn addiction—takes the kinetics of Fincher and Sorkin and morphs it into kitschy blocks, mimicking, in its own way, the contours of internet information, experience, and style, but fit to the cinema.
Don Jon is built as a sort of base mathematical group, and it changes over time according to similar principles. Its sequences are delimited, elliptical, and disjoined; its movement is measurable and it operates as a closed-circuit, beholden to laws specific to its ecosystem. In this world, everything is quantifiable and everything is mapped out—relationships, daily routines, women, preference, rationale, denial, etc. The simplicity of this approach is tested each time the function loops back on itself—blocks of information match in content and visual build with variations at each iteration. And, snags emerge: if each person is calculating, and the algorithms between people vary, what happens? Subjectivity is both enemy and liberator—the mathematical and idealistic potentials of cinema end up on a collision course. Don Jon resists, but it never frees itself from the unshakable inevitability of the schematic.
In part, Don Jon is a movie built from spare parts of the internet (which is itself built from an endless conglomeration and amplification of forms that presupposed it). It operates through a series of Pavlovian response mechanisms—synthesizing routinized delivery patterns and insulated motifs that elicit designed responses specific to this subsystem. The opening line squares Jon’s physiological response to the noise of his iMac booting up, and we too are guided by expectation entwined with biology. This is a movie that makes sense in this particular time and would not exist in this way and with this internal logic just a couple decades ago. It seems to have the desire to sit still but can never manage it, complementing the addict at its center.
Our cognitive response to media has fundamentally changed. Don Jon is an internet movie—perhaps one of the first real “Netflix flicks”; not in terms of the company’s original programming, mind you, but with respect to the mode of viewership streaming has cultivated in the last decade. Don Jon uses the internet’s cultural detritus to craft a weird hybrid stock-footage rom-com combined with television-esque pace and structuring. The film’s attention span mirrors that of the ruthlessly efficient, attention deficient modern viewer, eager to keep things speedy and engaging. Our surrogate is a man obsessed with a compartmentalized viewing experience built around short clips. The film matches this view, offering a buffet of short, self-contained scenes. We, like him, are invited to partake in the easy pleasure of this tunnel vision—compartments (screen) within compartments (tabs) within compartments (video clips), etc., a sort of nesting doll-type viewing experience. It’s insular, and so is the cinematic perspective by design and definition; and made even more so by the advent of new exhibition patterns. Don Jon inhabits a hybrid no-man’s-land between internet viewership and the cinematic—progression exists in short bursts over staggered chunks, creating stacked mini-narratives, consistent patterns and repetitious movement.
It’s a film that’s built like a psychology experiment. The overlapping narrative chunks, discrete and not cut to continuity, end up informing each other and creating meaning despite themselves through sheer proximity and osmosis. It most resembles, at points, Lev Kuleshov’s early film experiments and complicates the effect he pinpointed with the infinity of the internet. The synthesis is non-linear in the new formulation. Don Jon strangely has quite a bit of old Soviet blood in its veins, updated and complicated for the internet age. There’s a dash of Dziga Vertov in the montages that explore our complicated shared consciousness with machines and machinery, some Eisenstein in the emphasis on contrasting compositions that make meaning through conflict, some Pudovkin in turning these techniques in relation to the individual. Don Jon’s quick-cut montages highlight our aptitude with indexical images. The frame negates and denies and the mind fills the gaps based on the wealth of data it has uploaded. But, like many a modern sex comedy, it is also designed around a deeply ingrained denial and cultural repression in the form of self-censorship. Its porn clips are carefully curated to the point of obsession and absurdity. Off-screen space is used to activate the gestalt receptors in the brain. The mind fills in the blanks and colors outside the lines based on knowledge and experience of both film as a medium and pornography as a particular form of storytelling.
The modern movie viewer is a savvy consumer, fully initiated from birth on the intricacies of media consumption and able to pick up minute details and intuit multitudes. Our patterned processing does have the tendency to trip us up and manufacture false-positives. When things don’t align as expected, the resulting dissonance steers us down muddy paths in the desperate attempt to compensate. Jon finds autoerotic activities and glossy gonzo porn clips more stimulating than human interaction. Barbara tries to shape Jon into a submissive yet virile ideal à la the romances she predictably fancies. Jon’s mom dreams about the fairy-tale daughter-in-law narrative coming to fruition. Don Jon aligns our view as well. Through casting, it draws on the history of deviance and obsession surrounding Scarlett Johansson by virtue of hacks and endlessly proliferated, mediated, sexualized versions of her in magazines, tabloids, and online outlets. And we are carried along a tenuous romantic comedy throughline that seems to feed in an obvious direction before veering. All the while, several alien presences stick out as counterpoints and extra coats of lacquer ironically ground the film and expose its unnaturally shiny finish. Even so, our foreknowledge, expectations, and preternatural prowess guide our desire and subconsciously block our receptors to contradictory information.
Sex and ritual are knotted in the film; desire is transferred. Primality percolates under modern media ingestion. From inside out, film, genre, pornography, narrative, etc. are situated on a plane, all designed and constructed to approximate scenarios and elicit patented returns. The film never resolves this fatal flaw and allows it to remain open in the end—that is, stylistically it remains open even when it feigns narrative closure. The denotative and connotative levels come undone in the final frames. The film argues for a multi-dimensional appreciation of the world, but charts this path to empathy through two-dimensional tropes and types. And, in the very act of watching this, we as viewers are locked in a fixed gaze, staring at a screen; so where’s the progress? Where’s the way out of the tunnel? As Jon looks at Esther in the final moments, she is spliced in identically to the clips from the opening flurry. Is he seeing her differently, finding a depth in her reciprocal gaze that is lacking in the machine? Or, has she been incorporated?
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.