The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film
We watch films with our eyes and ears, but we experience
films with our minds and bodies. Films do things to us, but we also do things
with them. A film pulls a surprise; we jump. It sets up scenes; we follow them.
It plants hints; we remember them. It prompts us to feel emotions; we feel them.
If we want to know more—the
how, the secrets of the craft—it would seem logical to ask the filmmakers.
What enables them to get us to respond so precisely?
Unfortunately for us, they
usually can’t tell us. Throughout history, filmmakers
have worked with seat-of-the-pants psychology. By trial and error they have learned
how to shape our minds and feelings, but usually they aren’t interested
in explaining why they succeed. They leave that task to film scholars, psychologists,
What follows is a survey of some major ways in which people
thinking about cinema have floated psychological explanations for filmmakers’ creative
choices. Sometimes filmmakers reflected on their own craft; more often the task
of employing psychology to illuminate the viewer’s experience fell to journalists,
critics, and academics. But most of them did not conduct careful historical or
empirical research. This doesn’t make their ideas worthless, but it should
incline us to see them as working informally. Sometimes they connect ideas about
on viewer to wider theories of mind; sometimes they don’t. When Film Studies
entered universities in the 1960s, writers became more conscious of how specific
schools of psychological research accorded with the filmic phenomena they wanted
to study. Explicit or implicit, vague or precise, models of mind were recruited
to explain the power of cinema.
The tableau meets folk psychology
Nearly every form of cinema we have today appeared during the medium’s
first dozen years or so.1 Even
though the films were very short, ranging from a few seconds to ten minutes,
we find documentaries, as filmmakers presented everyday activities or visited
exotic locales for picture-postcard views or captured fires, storms, and other
unusual events. Other films told fictional stories, often as staged skits or
in scenes drawn from plays. There were animated films as well, usually based
on pixillation, the technique of moving objects or people around and filming
each position as a single frame. Among the most famous of the early filmmakers
was Georges Méliès, who exploited cinema’s capacities for
Cinema as a medium is itself an illusion. Although the
mechanics still aren’t
well understood, movies play upon faults in our visual system. A series of static
images, flicked past our eyes rapidly with intervals of darkness in between,
can provoke us to see a stable scene displaying movement. Without any training
in psychology, Méliès understood that if he controlled what people
saw from one film frame to another, he could create fantasy effects. So he paused
the camera, rearranged his actors, and then restarted the camera. On screen,
the actors seemed magically to disappear, reappear, or turn into demons or monsters.
the period 1908–1917, as film became a popular medium, film producers and exhibitors
settled on longer formats. Although many short films would be made throughout
history, programs began to center on a “feature” film
(that is, a movie that could be “featured” in advertising), and as
the years went by that feature tended to run an hour or more. For fiction films,
the new length called for more complex stories, with plots that relied on the
conventions of popular fiction and drama.
Since the films were silent, filmmakers
found ways to tell their stories visually. One result was what came to be called
the “tableau” style. Here the
camera is set fairly far back from the action, and the performers play out the
drama in prolonged shots. There is very little cutting, except to join scenes.
The approach is called the “tableau” style because stage performances
of the time often were arranged to look like pictures. (Tableau in French
meaning “painting,” but also a self-consciously pictorial layout
of actors on a stage.) And many shots from the period do look like carefully
composed paintings or theatrical productions.
Both the new feature film and the
tableau style relied on what has come to be known as “folk psychology” (Plantinga
2011). Filmic storytelling usually relies on our everyday assumptions about why
people act as they do, how they will respond to others, and how they come to
decisions. If one scene shows us a millionaire gambling in a casino, and the
next scene shows us the man as now a shabby beggar, we’ll assume that his
gambling ruined his life. In fact any number of incidents might have caused him
to lose his fortune, but in simply moving from one scene to another the film
invokes a simple notion of cause and effect. (A clever storyteller might
lead us to make this inference and then correct it.) Throughout film history,
movies exploit our tendency to make snap judgments and jump to conclusions on
the slightest of hints.
Somewhat like folk psychology is our intuitive sense of
how to emphasize things for pickup. We stress words in our sentences and count
on our listener to pay special attention to them. Similarly, if we’re shown
a picture, what will we notice? We’re likely to notice people’s faces
and gestures because in real life these convey important information. We’ll
also probably look at the center of the frame and areas of bright tones. If we’re
watching a moving picture, we’ll be alert for any motion—of people,
of animals, even trees in the wind. You’ve probably had the experience
of watching a home video and noticing that something in the background of the
shot is distracting you from paying attention to the main subject. (This is one
of the reasons that professional cinematographers throw backgrounds out of focus.)
directors didn’t perform experiments on eye-scanning, but they
understood intuitively what viewers would fasten on. Using common-sense assumptions
about pictorial emphasis, they sought to guide the viewer’s eye by means
of composition and staging. One actor might come forward while others stayed
still or turned away. An actor might briefly occupy the center before yielding
it to another one. And because the camera carves out a playing space very different
from that of a theatre stage, one that is wedge-shaped rather than rectangular,
depth played a major role in tableau films. Sets stretched back very far, and
an actor or a part of the set could block off things in the rear. This worked
to steer our attention toward something more important at that moment.
the tableau style exploited common-sense visual psychology in rich ways. Masterpieces
of the style like Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas (1913)
and Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg
Holm (1913) utilize complex
choreography that guides our attention precisely from moment to moment (Bordwell
The rise of Hollywood continuity
The period 1908–1917 hosted an alternative to the staging-based tableau approach.
American filmmakers developed a style that emphasized cutting. An establishing
shot somewhat like a tableau framing would be broken down into closer views taken
from different camera positions. Of particular importance were close-ups. The
tableau style had reserved close-ups for newspaper articles, messages, and other
things that were too small to be grasped in the overall shot. But the American
directors often built entire scenes out of close-ups of faces or props, even
neglecting to supply long shots. In addition, directors quickly understood that
they could build up tension by closer to the actors as the action developed.
close-ups were much remarked on at the time (Balázs 2010), and
not every critic appreciated them. To an eye trained in the tableau style, they
probably looked heavy-handed. But the exploitation of close-ups was another application
of folk psychology. As practical psychologists, filmmakers and actors had no
knowledge of research into the power of facial expressions, but they intuitively
realized that viewers across cultures could read piercing emotion into a lifted
eyebrow, a wink, or a grim smile. The close-up was also central to the growth
of the star system. Charlie Chaplin, as universal in his appeal as any actor
in history, made his mark not only through his dancer-like body but through an
encyclopedic array of nuanced facial expressions.
American directors exploited
editing in another way. Under the influence of director D. W. Griffith,
they developed their plots so that the viewer was constantly whisked from one
line of action to another. While the young man is strolling in the woods, the
young woman is dressing to go out. This technique, called crosscutting, would
keep the viewer riveted by constantly refreshing the screen. In addition, as
in the example above, it could lead the viewer to make a common-sense leap: If
the boy and the girl are shown in alternation, they will probably meet at some
point, and this inference creates expectations that keep us interested. Crosscutting
can control pacing as well. In a suspenseful scene, the shots of alternating
bits of action could be trimmed to be shorter and shorter. Griffth proved very
skilful at this in his last-minute rescue situations.
Analytical editing (breaking
the overall space into closer views) and crosscutting proved central to the American
style. There were further refinements, such as principles of spatial continuity,
sometimes called the 180-degree system. According to this system, when filmmakers
break up the space, they should confine all camera positions to one side of an
imaginary vector dividing up the scene—the “center
line” or “axis of action.” This would govern movement, eyeline
directions, and other factors. Since the scene was no longer played out fully
in a tableau, the 180-degree system had the task of keeping the audience oriented
as to where the characters are in the overall space (Bordwell & Thompson
The American, editing-driven style conquered the world.
Its victory owed as much to commercial factors—U.S. films began to be heavily
imported to Europe—as
to the great appeal of American stars and storytelling methods. By 1920, all
major filmmaking countries were working with some version of continuity cutting.
The rise of the Hollywood style would have profound effects on virtually all
later efforts to understand film viewing from a psychological standpoint.
made for us
Because early films used cinema as a photographic medium, some questions arose
that had already been posed about still photography. Journalists and critics
asked whether cinema was a new art form or simply a manner of recording. Yes,
film could bring exotic sights to audiences who couldn’t visit distant
places; it could chronicle daily events; the storytelling films could record
great performers, as if on a stage. But could cinema be an art form in its own
This was not a simple question. Even if cinema was only
recording the surface of things, some writers argued that by doing so it had
artistic value. It could reveal the textures and movements of the world around
us in a sort of pure state.2 Other
writers took a stronger stance and argued that cinema was a creative art, not
simply recording reality but transforming it. During the 1910s, Hugo Münsterberg
championed the emerging Hollywood style on psychological grounds.
a German émigré, held a chair in experimental
psychology at Harvard. At first he disdained the movies as unfit for a professor,
but after he saw one in 1914 he became fascinated with both the industry and
the art. His book, The
Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916) celebrates
close-ups, rapidly changing scenes, and special-effects tricks. He spends some
time speculating on the causes of the impression of movement on the screen. Some
people thought that it was a matter of one brief impression replaced by another,
but Münsterberg suggested that there was a broader mental process involved. “The
movement…is superadded, by the action of the mind” (Münsterberg
1970, p. 29).
Münsterberg’s central argument was that film
has the capacity to imitate mental processes. Thanks to the new editing and framing
techniques, the flow of images on the screen mimicked the way our minds work.
Consider attention. Although the film is silent, the director can draw on many
resources of the theatre, like selective lighting, and of painting, like composition,
in order to steer us to what’s important. The tableau directors had smoothly
directed attention within the overall shot. When we pay attention in real life,
however, we concentrate sharply on something; it’s as if everything else
falls away. That riveting quality is mimicked when a filmmaker cuts in to a close-up,
which forces us to see only that detail. The film has built into its very texture
the highly focused quality of attention. “The close-up has objectified
in our world of perception our mental act of attention and by it has furnished
art with a means which far transcends the power of any theatre stage” (Münsterberg
1970, p. 30)—and,
presumably, any long-take tableau film scene.
Münsterberg extended his argument
by claiming that other mental activities are modeled by the film. In the theatre,
a character may speak about a scene we’ve already witnessed, so we have
to make an effort to recall it. But in a film, a quick flashback can remind us
of the scene. Or a character may conjure up, in words, a fantasy; the film can
materialize it. Actors on the stage project emotions, but film has the possibility
of triggering them in the audience directly, through not only performance but
also images of nature or the built environment. And
crosscutting imitates the way our mind may oscillate between two or more events
in different places. Memory, imagination, emotional arousal, and our craving
for “omnipresence” are made tangible on the cinema screen. In film, “the
objective world is molded by the interests of the mind” (p. 46).
writers had seen a parallel between cinema and mental activity. The philosopher
Henri Bergson had famously spoken of the “cinematographical mechanism of
thought ” (Bergson 1911, p. 306). Writing in 1907, he compared our
sensory impressions to snapshots of reality that our mind strings together like
frames on a ribbon of film. It was cinema as a machine that provided the analogy
to the flow of consciousness. Münsterberg, writing while Griffith and others
were developing editing-driven technique, concentrated on style, and he argues
in the other direction. Our mind isn’t like a film; film has been engineered
to engage our mind. It does so by mimicking our common activities of noticing
things, remembering the past, investing emotion, and so on.
Scholars debate the
extent to which Münsterberg owed debts to one or another
school of academic psychology. He has been considered a Gestaltist because of
his recognition of certain holistic perceptual effects, especially the illusion
of motion. But he also owes a debt to earlier traditions in German research.3 In
any event, The Photoplay was not widely known in either America or Europe,
and Münsterberg’s fervent pro-Germanic views did not make him popular
during or after World War I. It took about sixty years for him to reemerge
as an important thinker about cinema.
Montage and Materialism
Münsterberg appealed to psychological mimicry to explain how the new American
films of his day achieved their unique power. That power was evident in the wide
distribution of American films throughout the world. Filmmakers in other countries
picked up the editing-based system fairly quickly. At the same time, however,
some filmmakers wanted to try other styles. In Germany, there were efforts to
bring into cinema principles of visual design from Expressionist painting, and
in France some filmmakers tried to develop new methods of camerawork and subjective
storytelling. These, like the tableau style and the American style, worked with
principles of intuitive psychology. Thus the distorted settings of The Cabinet
of Dr. Caligari (1920) were motivated as the way a madman might imagine
the world. Later in the 1920s, however, two other film movements explicitly appealed
to current schools of psychology.
After the 1917 revolutions in Russia, a new
generation of filmmakers emerged. Very young—some were still in their teens—they
rejected the tableau style vociferously and promoted what they called “American
montage.” Montage was
a Russian word borrowed from the French. It denotes film editing, but it can
also be used to describe machine assembly, as when one mounts a motor on a chassis.
The mechanical connotations of the term appealed to the young rebels because
it suggested that filmmaking could be put on a systematic basis, like engineering.
American-style editing seemed to promise a way to control the film from moment
to moment with great exactitude.
Borrowing from Hollywood, Soviet directors pushed
editing possibilities further. Lev Kuleshov conducted informal experiments in
which he cut together different combinations of shots. He showed a woman on a
street looking off and waving. Cut to a man on a street looking off and waving.
Even without a shot showing both of them, the viewer understands that they’re
seeing and reacting to each other. Likewise, Kuleshov would cut together bits
from different films in order to make a coherent scene. An expressionless man
looks; cut to something else—a meal, a voluptuous woman, a dead child—and
then back to the man. Kuleshov realized that we tend to read hunger, lust, or
sadness into the man’s neutral expression. In other words, you didn’t
need an establishing shot to get the audience to understand the scene. The viewer
will naturally infer the meaning from small bits. This constructive editing,
as opposed to analytical editing, suggested that the filmmaker could convey ideas
simply by the juxtaposition of shots (Kuleshov 1974, pp. 52–55).
Soviet director, V. I. Pudovkin, suggested in a somewhat Münsterbergian
mode, that our natural flow of attention could be mimicked by editing. You’re
standing on the street and see a woman calling to a passerby from a window. You
will look between the woman and the pedestrian, back and forth. A filmmaker can
capture these shifting perceptions by separate shots of each person. Echoing
Münsterberg’s idea of “omnipresence,” Pudovkin suggested
that we should think of the camera as an invisible but ghostlike observer, capable
of occupying any point in space at any point in time (Pudovkin 1970, pp. 68–73).
directors gave us memorable films supporting their theories: Kuleshov’s By the Law (1926)
and Pudovkin’s Mother (1926)
and The End
of St. Petersburg (1927). Indeed, sometimes the films went beyond
the theorist in daring ways; some sequences push the American method toward bold
discontinuities. But the directors’ arguments about how montage-based films
work relied on intuitive psychology, not scientific findings. One Soviet director,
however, put forth a line of thinking that drew on an important strand of psychological
Sergei Eisenstein made the most famous films of the Soviet
Montage movement: Strike (1925), The Battleship
Potemkin (1926), and October (1928).
In these and in his theoretical writings, Eisenstein explored a great variety
of editing possibilities. Never a systematic thinker, Eisenstein nonetheless
clung to a basic idea: He wanted his films to have maximum impact on the viewer.
He wanted to arouse the senses, the mind, and the emotion of every spectator.
In fact, while Kuleshov and Pudovkin took cinema’s basic material to be
strips of film, Eisenstein declared that the basic material “derives from
the audience” (Eisenstein
1988, p. 34). Every movie plays upon the spectator’s physiological
Eisenstein was a strict materialist. He thought that mental
and emotional states are higher levels of “nervous activity.” There
is no ghost in the machine; mind and feelings can be reduced to brain and body.
Following the dominant psychological schools in Russia at the time, Eisenstein
saw responses in terms of reflexes. A work of art arouses us because it triggers
certain learned or innate responses. Echoing later research into mirror neurons,
Eisenstein claims that viewers involuntarily repeat movements they see, but in
a weakened form. This sort of expressive contagion is central, he believed, to
theatre and cinema. For example, acting on the stage or screen involves producing
movements that the audience feels as well as sees. He calls it “a
direct animal audience reaction” (1988, p. 81).
More complex responses
depend on chains of associations built up over time. Pavlov’s
dogs learned to expect food when they heard a bell announcing it. How do we know
they expected it? They salivated, supplying a direct physiological response.
This is where editing comes in. If we think of each shot as a bundle of stimuli,
we can orchestrate them through repetition and variation so that viewers can
be “conditioned” to take their experience to a higher level. For
example, in an early scene of October, workers protesting the provisional
government march with banners. Shot compositions associate the banners with the
workers’ cause. But when one speaker rails against the uprising, calling
it premature, rows of banners held by unseen workers rise up to blot him out.
Thanks to repetition of the banner motif, we understand that the workers have
What, then, is the role of editing? Eisenstein proposed
that we think of each shot as a bundle of stimuli. Cutting shots together can
build up associations that will shape our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.
At its simplest level, editing can arouse motor responses. Eisenstein used rhythmic
editing for a sawing sequence of Old and New (1929) and was delighted
to see peasants rocking from side to side as they watched it (1988, p. 192).
But editing can provoke higher-level thought too. The most famous example is
the “Degradation of
the Gods” sequence in October. Here Eisenstein cuts together statues
of different deities from different cultures, in order to cast doubt on all of
them. The sequence extends Kuleshov’s point that our minds will create
a connection between any two shots, but instead of summoning a sense of space,
we build up an idea that isn’t present in any one of the images.
Making an intellectual point is important to a cinema that emphasized propaganda,
as the Soviet films did. But Eisenstein didn’t think that intellectual
editing should smother all emotion. The Gods sequence, abstract as it is, evokes
some sardonic humor. Thanks to editing, Christian icons start to look as peculiar
as the deformed gods from other cultures.4
Fantasy and Freud
Eisenstein turned to academic psychology to explain how the filmmaker could seize
and move audiences. He was also interested in Freudian psychoanalysis, but the
Bolshevik government’s disapproval of this school of thought made him keep
his ideas about it in the drawer. In other countires, filmmakers and writers
engaged with psychoanalysis more openly. Since the 1920s, psychoanalysis has
probably been the most frequently invoked school of psychology throughout the
Several aspects of psychoanalysis seemed to tally with
cinema. Filmmakers had long been interested in evoking the twilight life of the
mind, providing their characters with dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations.
Films as different as the Douglas Fairbanks comedy Reaching
for the Moon (1917)
and the brooding German psychodrama Nerven (1919)
gave us delusional protagonists with flamboyant fantasy lives. Freud attached
great importance to dreams as revealing unconscious desires, and many writers
noticed an affinity between dreaming and sitting in a darkened movie theatre
in a state of lowered wakefulness. Thematically, many films seemed to feature
characters straight out of the Oedipal drama: tyrannical fathers who have to
be overcome by sons, or daughters in conflict with their mothers for the love
of the father.
One film achieved fame by trying to dramatize Freudian
doctrine for a mass audience. Secrets
of a Soul (1926) was produced by the mammoth German company Ufa. Freud
withheld his support, doubting that the concepts of psychoanalysis could be dramatized,
but prominent members of his circle served as technical consultants. The plot
shows a husband who dreams of murdering his wife. By recounting his memories
and fantasies to a psychoanalyst, he achieves a catharsis. He returns to his
wife, cured, and soon she gives birth to a child. The dreams and flashbacks made
sophisticated use of Expressionist imagery, but the oversimplifications of the
story led to hostile relations among many Freudians.
Rather than simply illustrate
Freudian theory, another filmmaking strain sought to put it into action. In France
the Surrealist painters and writers had believed that their art would be enhanced
by liberating their deepest impulses, no matter how anti-social. Rather soon
there appeared Surrealist films built out of imagery that was by turns shocking,
nonsensical, and strangely beautiful. The most famous of these was An Andalusian
chien andalou, 1929), a
collaboration of the painter Salvador Dalí and the young director Luis
Buñuel. From the start, the film is casually horrific: A man stropping
a razor uses it to slice open the eye of an unresisting woman. (The effect is
accomplished through shrewd constructive editing à la Kuleshov.) After
that, events proceed with the logic of a dream, portraying a young man with,
evidently, fantasies of homosexuality and impotence. Rather than diagnose him
as a case study in the manner of Secrets of a Soul, An Andalusian
Dog revels illogical imagery rising up from the depths of the unconscious:
dead donkeys stretched across pianos, a chopped-off hand lying in the street
and poked by the stick of a mannishly-dressed woman. The film’s authors
made no secret of the film’s aggressive intent: Buñuel called it “a
passionate cry to murder.”
Eisenstein was interested in an associationist
model of mind, but that was because he believed he could channel the filmic associations
to a clear-cut end: a political point, an emotional upsurge. By contrast, An
Andalusian Dog celebrates
the poetic possibilities of free association, with no final grounding in a coherent
idea or unmixed emotion. The world of dreams, daydreams, and sexual fantasy yielded
a film that seemed open to many interpretations but remained impossible to pin
down. In later years, Dalí’s and Buñuel’s film, along
with some other Surrealist works, would steer critics to find the same subversive
associations lurking within more commercial Hollywood movies.
By the end of the 1920s, the battle for film as an autonomous art form had been
won. Very few people would have argued that the cinema was simply a mute form
of stage drama. Critics were well aware that the techniques of the medium—closer
framing, cutting, unusual viewing angles, camera movement—set it apart
from theatre. But one critic and theorist, Rudolf Arnheim, went a step further
and maintained that artistic cinema gained its power not from recording reality
but from failing to record reality.
In Film als kunst, published
in 1932, and its English translation Film (1933)
Arnheim made a predominantly aesthetic argument. All art media differed from
the reality that they portray. A statue is made of marble, not flesh; a painting
is flat, not deep; a room on stage lacks a fourth wall. Film was and still is
a flat projection. It was then silent as well. Arnheim argued that these deficiencies
in realism actually worked to artistic advantage. By being a flat projection,
the film image could use its frame to create spatial relations that don’t
exist in our three-dimensional world. By being silent, it was forced to tell
its stories visually. And sooner or later the camera ran out of film, so the
medium could not capture the world’s continuous duration. But this deficiency
obligest the filmmaker to create her or his own time scheme by assembling shots
into a pattern that cannot exist in reality.
Accordingly, Arnheim argued, documentary
films that simply record the world can be valuable for many purposes, but they
cannot count as art. With ruthless logic, he concluded that the closer that film
came to rendering reality by adding sound, color, and stereoscopic images, the
further it got from art. In his most famous formulation he wrote:
Art only begins
where mechanical reproduction leaves off, where the conditions of reproduction
serve in some way to mold the object. And the spectator shows himself to be lacking
in proper aesthetic understanding when he is satisfied to see the picture as
purely objective—to be content with recognizing that
this is the picture of an engine, that of a couple of lovers, and this again
of a waiter in a temper. He must now be prepared to turn his attention to the
form and to be able to judge how the engine, the lovers, the waiter, are depicted
(Arnheim 1933, p. 60).
As many critics of modern painting argued, sensitive
appreciation of film demanded that viewers be aware of how formal manipulation
altered the subject matter.
Arnheim’s book constituted a synthesis of ideas
about film as art and a summary defense of the silent cinema as a pure medium
of expression. It’s
unlikely that many readers of its time would have detected any allegiance to
a particular school of psychology. Yet when Arnheim rewrote his book in 1957
As Art, he included a prefatory note in which he stated that
the book had been written under the aegis of the Gestalt tradition. Arnheim had
studied with the Gestalt pioneers Max Wertheimer and Wolfgang Kohler, and he
had been impressed with their idea that human perception sought out patterns.
three dots at angles to one another, and you’ll see a triangle.
Your mind contributes an order that isn’t given in the data. Such insights
led Arnheim, in a way different from Münsterberg’s, to posit an affinity
between the mind and the film. “Even the most elementary processes of vision
do not produce mechanical recordings of the outer world but organize the sensory
raw material creatively according to principles of simplicity, regularity, and
balance” (Arnheim 1957, p. 3). When an artistic film shapes the raw
photographic material into a coherent image, it is imitating our ordinary perception.
We see not a hodgepodge of corners, surfaces, textures, and patterns of light,
but rather a stable array of figure and ground, enclosed spaces and enclosing
In the years between the first edition and the 1957 edition
Arnheim had written one of the pioneering applications of psychology to the visual
and Visual Perception (1954) revealed that the history of
drawing and painting followed the principles of Gestalt psychology. After writing
that, it seems, Arnheim saw his early strictures on cinema in a more psychologically
tinted light. Some of his earlier examples now take on new significance. For
example, Charlie Chaplin on a boat railing, filmed from the rear, appears to
be heaving with seasickness. But when he turns around, we realize that his shoulders
were wriggling because he was fighting a fish on a line. The 1957 Arnheim could
argue that we applied one conceptual Gestalt to the early part of the shot and
then had to correct it when the image was reconfigured.
If something like this
construal is right, then art not only calls on stable and symmetrical Gestalts;
it also plays with them, asking us to complete them or to find another pattern
that replaces an earlier one. Nonetheless, even the 1957 edition of Film
as Art did not invoke the experimental tradition
of the Gestalt school to the degree that Art and Visual Perception had.
Arnheim’s revamped discussion signaled only a somewhat diffuse adherence
to psychological science. His main purpose, from first to last, was to justify
cinema as a modern visual art.
Freud (again) and Filmology
Avant-garde movements like Expressionism and Surrealism waned with the coming
of sound cinema in the late 1920s. Now that Hollywood’s editing-driven
style had become universal, sound recording was fitted to the demands of it.
Dialogue replaced written intertitles, the music was now firmly attached to the
visuals (instead of being played live in the theatre), and sound effects were
added to enhance the sense of a concrete and continuous space and time. As we’d
expect, the standard artistic handling of sound was guided by common-sense psychology.
Voices in long shot, filmmakers believed, should seem a little quieter than voices
in close-up (but in both cases they would be unnaturally clear); music should
not draw attention away from the story; and certain spaces demand plausible auditory
textures, so big sets ought to have a noticeable reverberation.
tended to accept the dominance of Hollywood conventions, and when they discussed
psychological effects of the reigning style, they appealed by and large to intuitive
principles. For example, the title of Andre Malraux’s
1940 article “Sketch for a Psychology of the Moving Pictures” is
misleading. The piece is principally about the artistic possibilities of the
sound film, which, contra Arnheim, he considers a more mature form than the silent
picture. The psychological dimension comes chiefly in Malraux’s contention
that the mass-reproduced and mass-distributed nature of film makes it ripe for
myth, in which stars become like gods and goddesses (Malraux 1958).
A more original
note was struck by André Bazin. In his ambitious exploration
of the art of sound cinema, he raised once again the matter of attention. Directors
in the tableau tradition became skilled at guiding the viewer to notice the most
important area of the frame. Defenders of editing countered that changing the
shot scale and concentrating on one bit of action at a time was a more secure
and engaging method of shaping the viewer’s attention. Bazin noticed, however,
that many directors of the late 1930s and early 1940s were minimizing editing
and creating shots that packed many areas of dramatic significance into the frame.
maintained that in some scenes, directors Orson Welles and William Wyler, forced
the viewer to choose between competing items of interest. Confronted with a dense
deep-focus shot in Citizen
Kane (1941) or The
Little Foxes (1941),
the viewer is forced, in a sense, to edit it himself. For Bazin, this artistic
choice gave the viewer the sort of freedom of choice that was part of ordinary
perception, and became a step forward in the development of film language (Bazin
1967, pp. 33–36). Just as important, the idea of less-fettered attention
fitted with Bazin’s idea that, in opposition to theorists like Arnheim,
cinema was inherently an art of realism, since it depended ultimately on photographic
Although one can connect Bazin with strains in contemporary
French philosophy, notably phenomenology, he continued for the most part to rely
on intuitive conceptions of the spectator’s activity. For example, he suggested
that in the continuity style, analytical editing operated in a manner similar
to opera glasses at a play. The viewer is provided a full view and then a bit
of action is extracted for closer examination (Bazin 1967, p. 32). Münsterberg
had made the same comparison thirty years before (Münsterberg 1970, p. 39).
1940s also saw psychoanalytic theories of cinema return to the fore. Freudian
psychoanalysis had been picked up by elite culture in the 1920s and 1930s, but
in the 1940s it became common currency in the popular arts as well. A great many
Hollywood films made explicit or implicit references to the unconscious, repressed
desires, disguised wish-fulfillment, Oedipal relations, and other tenets of classic
Freudianism. The young hero of Kings
Row (1942) goes to Vienna to study
the workings of the mind and returns to his small town to find it a hotbed of
neurosis. Protagonists often find themselves in madhouses (as in The
Snake Pit, 1948) or haunted by disturbing dreams (as in Spellbound,
1945). The plots are often driven by a mystery, so that the doctor plays detective
in uncovering repressed childhood memories or forbidden impulses.
presenting (and simplifying) Freudian theory, it isn’t
surprising to find film critics using the same approach to interpret films. A
group of anthropologists at Columbia University, led by Gregory Bateson and Margaret
Mead, began analyzing German propaganda films for their revelations of unconscious
Oedipal conflicts (Bateson 1953). Social psychologists Martha Wolfenstein and
Nathan Leites turned their view toward current American films of the late 1940s
and found repeated psychodynamic patterns that reflect hidden anxieties. For
instance, the common plot pattern of an innocent hero who must clear himself
of guilt serves to deny that he harbors less-than-innocent impulses. The conflict
is attributed to outsiders who misjudge the hero. Like most of the writers in
this vein, Wolfenstein and Leites were doing film criticism by interpreting the
Freudian dynamics they found in the films, but also positing that these patterns
harmonized with broader cultural anxieties (Wolfenstein and Leites 1970).
the history of film theory and criticism, movies have been compared to dreams,
but the critics of the 1940s pursued this metaphor more avidly than earlier writers.
Barbara Deming suggested that American films revealed a dream-portrait of their
public at the period.
It is not as mirrors reflect us but, rather, as our dreams
do, that movies most truly reveal the times.… Through them we can read with
a peculiar accuracy the fears and confusions that assail us.… The heroes
and heroines who are most popular at any particular period are precisely those
who, with a certain added style, with a certain distinction, act out the predicament
in which we all find ourselves (Deming 1969, p. 1).
For Wolfenstein and Leites,
films were closer to daydreams than nighttime ones: less fraught but no less
revealing of repressed fears and desires. Freud had seen a connection between
the fantasies of daydreaming and literary creativity, and Wolfenestein and Leites
extended the analogy to films, which promote “the
common day-dreams of a culture” (p. 13). Like Deming, however, Wolfenstein
and Leites believed that the deciphering of the dream-content in psychoanalytic
terms went beyond the film itself to suggest forces at work within the audience.
playful and ingenious in pursuing the dream analogy was Parker Tyler, an essayist
much influenced by Surrealism. In dazzling prose-poetry, Tyler argued that Hollywood
films whipped together a phantasmagoria of infantile fixations and adult regression.
He found analogies for copulation everywhere, and discovered hidden homosexuality
in Double Indemnity (1944) and castration anxiety
in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Unlike the more rigorous academics,
Tyler saw criticism as a playground, as he confessed later:
The only indubitable
reading of a given movie, therefore, was its value as a charade, a fluid guessing
game where all meanings made an open quantity, where the only ‘winning
answer’ was not the right one but any amusingly
relevant and suggestive one: an answer which led to interesting speculations
about mankind’s perennial, profuse and typically serio-comic ability to
deceive itself (Tyler 1967, p. 11).
The free-association method that Freud
had asked his patients to pursue now showed up as a way to appreciate the tangled
appeals of a Hollywood movie. The writer becomes both patient and analyst: the
moviegoer’s bits of memory trigger
a session in which the critic opens the door to never-ending fantasy. And Tyler
was not as worried as the academics about the state of the American psyche. He
seemed to suggest that all popular art plays with subliminal appeals, and these
are more diverting than dangerous.
Very different from Tyler’s open-form
Freudian criticism was a research program taking shape in France at the same
time. There a team of academics began to conduct experiments on filmic perception
and comprehension. Known as the “Filmology” (Filmologie)
group, they blended social psychology, psychophysics, and film aesthetics into
a program that would lead, they hoped, to a science of cinema. They gained the
support of the French higher education establishment, created an Institute and
a course of study, and launched a journal.5
a movement, Filmology was rather eclectic. Some members embraced psychoanalytic
inquiry, while others envisioned a large-scale sociology of cinema, plotting
attendance figures and audience demographics. There were also forays into Gestalt
psychology and the psychology of perception. Some Filmologists undertook physiological
measures, while others ran tests on how children grasped film stories. Still
others tested subjects’ memory for film plots and specific shots.
these diverse efforts aren’t easily subsumable to a single research
program, but one of the threads running through them had already lived a long
life: cinema as furnishing an impression of reality. Perceptual research suggested
that viewers spontaneously recognized places and things displayed on the screen,
while investigation of children’s comprehension suggested that film techniques
like dissolves were learned more gradually. Filmologists also came to some conclusions
about narrative. At the conceptual level, a good deal of evidence converged around
the notion that film scenes were quickly understood and as quickly forgotten;
people had a hard time recalling particular moments accurately and often “remembered” things
that they had not seen. Two researchers concluded: “During the running
of a film, the viewer does not remain passive, but selects from what he sees
and hears that which is necessary to his comprehension; at the same time, he
carries our a hierarchization of story elements” (cited in Lowry 1985,
Filmology’s center of gravity shifted from France
to Italy in the early 1960s, but as Lowry plausibly suggests, its influence lingered
in Paris through the writings of Roland Barthes and Christian Metz (Lowry 1985,
These founders of film semiology saw in the diffuse but enlightening research
of the Institute the basis for a more systematic “science of cinema”—of
indeed all cultural phenomena. In addition, some Filmological projects anticipated
the empirical bent and the models of mind that emerged in cognitive film studies.
waves, new theories
The growth of the Hollywood continuity style, the emergence of avant-garde movements
of the silent era, and developments in the sound cinema had all shaped the ways
that critics and theorists thought about the artistic and psychological possibilities
of cinema. Something similar happened in the late 1950s and the 1960s. Some of
the cinematic forms and styles that emerged at this period offered the biggest
challenge to mainstream cinematic storytelling since Surrealism. A string of
films, made mostly by young people, forced observers to rethink their basic assumptions
about how the medium worked. The “young cinemas” and “new
waves” made waves of their own.
Although important films in this mode were
made in Asia, America, and Eastern Europe, the most influential at the time were
French films such as Hiroshima mon
amour (1959), The
400 Blows (1959), Last
Year at Marienbad (1961),
and practically all of the works of Jean-Luc Godard, from Breathless (1960)
to Weekend (1967).
At the same time, even more daring experimental movements came to the fore in
experimental cinema, from such Americans as Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith to
Europeans such as Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka.
One effect of this upheaval was
to relativize the ideas of craft on which mainstream cinema rested. Moviegoers
were suddenly reminded that Hollywood’s methods
of staging, shooting, and editing, along with its conceptions of plotting, were
not the only ones possible. The American system of continuity editing and tight
plotting now appeared as only one tradition, and perhaps a fairly stifling one
To take just one example: A husband who’s run off
with the family babysitter finds a dead man in her apartment. Instead of reacting
in horror, he calmly strolls by the corpse. When an investigator arrives and
starts to question them, the woman whacks him from behind and the couple flees.
But their escape isn’t
rendered with either the smoothness of classic continuity editing or the rising
tension of crosscutting (alternating, say, the couple’s flight with the
approach of the police). Instead, the fugitives escape in a series of shots jumbled
out of order. They’re in a car, then back in the apartment, then driving
down a road, then fleeing to the rooftop, while on the soundtrack we hear a fragmentary
conversation between them.
This sequence, from Godard’s Pierrot
le fou (1965),
triggers many effects, but one is to call attention to the normal way of rendering
the action. The husband’s casual acceptance of a corpse on the bed violates
our expectation about story causality, and we expect the couple’s flight
to be rendered in 1-2-3 order. Viewing the sequence, one can’t help thinking
that the Hollywood methods of characterization and cutting are only one option
among others, and those are in some ways more intriguing.
The rise of “new
cinemas” coincided with intellectual movements centered
in France that sought to understand how cultural systems represented meaning.
Influenced by developments in linguistics, various researchers argued for a science
of semiology, the rigorous study of social processes as sign systems. The basic
idea was that meanings circulated through a society not only through verbal language
but also through images and other media. Fashion, for instance, is a sign system.
By dressing in blue jeans, a businessman tells people something different than
if he wears a suit. The jeans function as a signifier, an item that expressed
a meaning (a signified). Jeans “say” that the wearer is hip, casual,
informal, unpretentious, and perhaps more like a working person than an executive.
Likewise, cars, furniture, and even interpersonal activities like gestures and
facial expressions function as signifiers pointing to signifieds (Barthes 1977).
are governed by codes. Take traffic signals. They consist of three signs: red
for “stop,” green for “go,” and amber for “proceed
with caution.” These three signs exhaust the possibilities; together, the
code carves up your possible behavior at an intersection. Moreover, these three
signifier/signified pairings exhaust the system; you wouldn’t know what
to do if you encountered lights that were purple, blue, and pure white. The code
of traffic signals consists of particular items picking out definite meanings,
and the meanings are defined differentially. If the green light has burned out,
you can still proceed after seeing the red and the amber signals. The green light
is not so much green as not-red and not-amber. The whole ensemble hangs together
as a system, a very simple code.
Most sign systems we encounter are far more complex
than traffic signals, but the semiologists believed that they could be analyzed
according to the same principles of code, signifier, and signified. From a semiological
standpoint, the Pierrot
le fou sequence is pointing out that filmic storytelling is also a matter
of signs. Hollywood has created codes of character behavior, linear ordering,
and smooth shot-matching. Godard has arranged his scene in a way that violates
the codes—and perhaps creates a new code of his own.
How does the spectator
fit into this line of reasoning? At the least, viewers are sign-readers. We know
the relevant codes and usually can move efficiently from signifer to signified.
If you’re a native speaker of English, you
can decode the sentences people say to you. Similarly, we have learned the codes
of mainstream cinema and can understand procedures like analytical editing and
filmic punctuation (dissolves, fades, wipes, and the like).
Film semiology, in
its earliest phase, was asking the question: What enables
films to be understood? Working with intuitive psychology, filmmakers had
typically not asked that question, but a new generation of film scholars, many
trained in European linguistics, did. The most outstanding of these thinkers
was Christian Metz. Metz owed a considerable debt to both filmology and phenomenological
trends of the 1940s, but he pushed into the terrain of semiology by asking: To
what extent is cinema coded?
In his early work, Metz posited that cinema was not
coded in the manner of verbal language. Language, like many codes, is quite arbitrary
and is governed by social convention. The word dog has little in common
with chien or hund,
but English, French, and German speakers are denoting the same concept when they
use these very different signs. By contrast, an image of a dog resembles a dog.
It denotes dogginess, we might say, directly. This is the famous “impression
of reality” yielded by cinema, and it seems based on natural perception,
as the Filmologists had suggested, rather than social codes.
Moreover, a word
can be broken down into phonemes, and these constitute a system in their own
right. In spoken English, the difference between sit and zit is
provided by a contrast between the voiceless sibilant /s/ and the voiced
sibilant /z/. There are a surprisingly small number of phonemes in any
language, and they’re typically organized in contrast classes. Out of them
you can build any word in the language. But it makes no sense to ask how we might
divide an image into its constituent “phonemes.” You might divide
the dog shot one way, I might divide it another, and both of us would be hard
pressed to explain the principles behind our choice. And while we can take one
phoneme out of dog and replace it with an l to get log,
we couldn’t assemble an image of a log out of two bits of our dog shot
and a third bit imported from elsewhere (Metz 1974, pp. 61–67).
language, pervasive as it is, isn’t the only code, and Metz
came to the conclusion that cinema was coded to some degree, most obviously at
the level of narrative denotation. He argued that the conventions of storytelling
cinema could be mapped into an intelligible array of alternatives—a “paradigm” of
choices. You might, for instance, film a scene in a single shot. That shot might
signify various things. If it was a brief shot of a road sign or letter, it might
stand alone as a separate episode in the plot. In Young
Mr. Lincoln (1939),
after one scene ends, we see an invitation to a ball in close-up; dissolve to
the party. The single shot of the invitation is a brief episode in the plot.
Other types of single-shot sequences include the sort of long-take sequence we
might find in a tableau film (Metz 1974, pp. 119–133).
Metz laid out a menu
of options, suggesting that different editing choices would signify different
arrangements of time and space. An ordinarily edited scene, for instance, shows
us a series of actions chronologically, while crosscutting presents actions taking
place simultaneously in different locales. To this extent, film makes us of the
sort of binary contrasts at work in phonology. As viewers we’ve internalized
filmic codes, so that on the basis of the signs emitted by the film, we can grasp
the momentum of the story action. We understand that cuts in a normal scene render
succession, while cuts in another sort of sequence present simultaneity. It’s
our acquaintance with the code that makes the Pierrot
le fou sequence seem so strange (Metz 1974, p. 217).
sought to bring to light the codes of traditional filmmaking and to analyze how
more unusual films might work in relation to those codes. As Metz’s thinking
developed, he reconsidered the question of the image’s
impression of reality and suggested that there might be some degree of coding
there too. But more consequential was his role in a broader rethinking of how
film engages its spectator. In the semiological framework, the viewer is a knowledgeable,
even masterful, decoder, moving skillfully from signifier to signified.
thinkers considered this too optimistic a view. If society is a vast array of
signs, why stop at the border of our skin? To others, we are signs; they try
to read our words, gestures, and glances. More broadly, the social roles we play
and identify with—student, citizen, basketball fan, admirer of
romantic comedies—can be considered signifiers as well. Perhaps we ourselves
are no more than sign systems.
Freud once more
The semiological question How are movies understood? was partly a response
to movies that were difficult to grasp, at least compared to the Hollywood product.
The new cinemas of the 1950s and 1960s indirectly raised another question as
Hollywood films, all agreed, aimed to provide pleasure.
But films from the new waves and experimental traditions seemed designed not
to be enjoyed. Many were dense and difficult, like Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960)
and Straub and Huillet’s Chronicle
of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968).
Even more troublesome cases came from the avant-garde, which seemed to challenge
the limits of boredom. Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) was a
series of zooms across a mostly abandoned loft. Andy Warhol provided an eight-hour
series of shots of the Empire State Building (Empire,
1964). What, then, made films pleasurable or unpleasurable? This question raised
issues of the spectator, and offered a certain challenge to semiology.
For a variety
of reasons, some of them political, academics saw in a new version of psychoanalysis
a better way to understand how humans used, or were used by, sign systems. In
particular, the failures of political rebellion during May of 1968 may have led
many to question why people could not seem to break free of their most entrenched
habits of mind. Did people employ codes, or were they the slave of codes? And
if people were in bondage to codes, why did they seem to enjoy it?
his knack for formulating a question pointedly, asked: Why do people go to the
cinema when no one forces them? The question reveals a shift from an objective
semiology of codes “out there” to an inquiry into psychodynamics.
Writers began to propose that spectators interacted with sign systems in a less
rational away than semiology had assumed. Instead of simply “reading” a
film’s flow of signs by applying the proper codes, the spectator was now
thought of as more deeply invested in the film. Cinema, Metz suggested, had an
allure that kept people engaged with movies in a very fundamental way.
central question became: What is cinematic pleasure? Many theorists,
Metz included, thought that the answer was to be found in psychoanalysis. But
this psychoanalysis was of a very different stripe than the version that had
inspired the social-psychological inquiries of the American writers of the 1940s.
Lacan, an unorthodox psychoanalyst much influenced by Surrealism, became a charismatic
figure through his effort to read semiology through Freudian spectacles. Lacan
adhered to many of the theoretical concepts of Freudian doctrine, like the Oedipal
conflict, repression, infantile sexuality, and the like. But he incorporated
semiology by suggesting that an individual human being was basically shaped by
a symbolic realm that surrounded him or her. That realm wasn’t simply the
real environment but rather, in the semiological sense, a vast set of sign systems.
went further, arguing that you aren’t simply conditioned by those
sign systems. Your very sense of self, your assumption that you are a conscious
agent able to act and make decisions, is constituted through and through by the
semiological ecosystem. Codes don’t just imprint us; they make us. This
authoritative set of sign systems Lacan called the Symbolic order. He associated
it with the role that the father plays in Freud’s Oedipus complex: the
source of power and the rule of order. The tissue of signs that constitutes each
of us reflects “The Law of the Father.”
But I don’t feel myself
to be just the product of all the sign systems that defined me since I was born
(or even before). I’m more than
my birth certificate, or my role as son or husband or professor. Where do I get
this sense of an essential me, something more than all my actions and roles?
I can look in the mirror and see that I’m at the very least a unified body.
By recognizing myself as this thing outside me, I draw on what Lacan considers
the fundamental process of identification: grasping myself as an Other.
believed that our sense of individuality is an illusion, constructed “from
the outside” by the Symbolic order. My sense of myself exists in the realm
of what Lacan called the “Imaginary”—the world of images and
perceptions that reassure me that I am me, that I recognize myself in and through
others, and that I am the boss of me.
The cinema can be considered one vehicle
for this imaginary sense of fullness and self-direction. We watch films as we
watch the world around us; but although it appears to be reality, the film is
a world made for us. This has been a constant in film theory since Münsterbeg.
For the Lacanians, however, the artifice of cinema works to maintain the illusion
that we are coherent subjects of experience. Seeing the Other, in life or on
the screen, reassures us of our own stability as a subject.
No wonder that Metz
called his primary essay on the psychodynamics of cinema “The
Imaginary Signifier.” When we see a film, he claims, each of us may identify
with the characters in the narrative, but more basically each identify with his
or her self. The machinery makes us the camera, seeing what it sees, as if its
gaze were our own. Cinematic illusion provides the famous “illusion of
reality” not by what it shows but by the way it shows it, which mimics
our usual act of perception. But it mimics it to a higher degree, because the
camera can go anywhere in space or time. As Pudovkin had suggested, we become
an idealized eye, not a real one. The movie viewer is a purely perceiving subject.
This confirms us in our own sense of identity: I see and hear, therefore I am.
Metz answers the question of pleasure this way: When you watch a film, you are
enjoying yourself—literally, your self. But that self is freed
from the normal conditions of time and space (Metz 1982, p. 48).
out many other aspects of cinema that corresponded to Freudian and Lacanian concepts.
Picking up on earlier theorists, he mounted a cross-comparison between film,
reality, dream, and daydream (Metz 1982, pp. 104–147). He
suggested as well that voyeurism and fetishism are “perverse” practices
encouraged by filmic technique and so rendered socially acceptable by the cinema.
theorists tried to show that filmic pleasure had a gender bias. Laura Mulvey
(1975) suggested that mainstream cinema oscillated between a narrative impulse
that moves the action forward and an impulse toward spectacle that freezes the
plot so that we can enjoy simply taking in an audio-visual display. An example
today would be the common complaint that action pictures have very banal stories
that are periodically interrupted by chases and explosions.
Mulvey argued that
in Hollywood cinema of the classic era, the stories tend to make the male an
active protagonist. The hero makes things happen. By contrast, the woman tends
to be a passive recipient, standing by or acted upon—sometimes
rather brutally. She might be involved in the plot as an object of investigation,
or as the bad woman who needs to be punished. All this happens at the level of
narrative. But at the level of spectacle, the woman performs a very important
function. If cinema depends on a pleasure in looking, voyeurism—the pleasure
in looking at others who cannot look back—is reserved for the woman. She
becomes a spectacle in herself: singing or dancing, or simply being observed
as a thing of beauty. The narrative halts to dwell on her. Through the codes
of narrative and point-of-view editing, the idea of masculine control is reasserted
as a pleasurable experience of looking.
This system of presentation relies on
the threat that Freud claimed that woman poses. Lacking a penis, she is an ever-present
proof of the threat of castration, so she must be contained and subjected to
male authority. But today, Mulvey adds, the Hollywood studio film is not the
only way movies can be made. Other filmmaking practices can challenge it, and
the most radical way of doing so is by questioning or refusing the way it generates
the pleasure of looking, and especially looking at women. While Mulvey and many
other writers used these concepts to dissect classic Hollywood works, her own
films, such as Riddles of the Sphinx (1977),
and other avant-garde works by feminist filmmakers sought to offer an alternative
to the psychological dynamic at work in the mainstream tradition.
perspective that emerged in 1960s and 1970s film theory took other forms. There
were many interpretations of particular films as playing out Freudian/Lacanian
patterns. There were also attempts to show how conventional techniques, such
as shot/reverse-shot cutting, could be explained as part of a larger dynamic
of Symbolic and Imaginary relationships (Oudart 1978; Dayan 1974).
In sum, writers
accepted semiology’s insistence on the coded nature of
culture and merged that framework with Lacan’s psychoanalytic account of
unconscious processes. For many, the sign systems revealed by semiology turn
out to function not only socially but mentally. Regardless of the content of
the stories that movies tell, most films maintain viewers as passive subjects.
Pleasurable as it is, the theorists claimed, moviegoing as we know it is politically
and psychologically regressive.
The naturalistic turn
By the 1970s, the study of film was becoming established as an academic discipline
in colleges and universities around the world. Film Studies fostered a variety
of methods, including auteur criticism, research into early cinema, and theorizing
about cinema’s nature and functions. Film academics worried less about
responding to current cinema and tended to concentrate on exchanging views with
University-based scholars sacrificed the range of an Eisenstein
or Bazin for greater specialization and depth. As a result, ideas could develop
more dialectically. Bazin did not know about Münsterbeg and did not respond
directly to Arnheim, but via book publishing, professional journals, and conferences,
academic writers could become aware of their predecessors and communicate directly
with their contemporaries. A more coherent dialogue ensued.
some film scholars began to build research programs that called into question
tenets of the semiological-psychoanalytic tradition. One such program has come
to be called Cultural Studies. Borrowing many premises from semiology, this effort
develops a sort of sociology of mass culture, but without resorting to the quantitative
methods of traditional American sociology. Proponents of Cultural Studies have
tended to consider spectators in relation to social relations of power, but without
telling a Lacanian story about subject-maintenance. Some writers assume that
viewers are rational agents, “strategizing for pleasure.” They
know that they are being wooed as purchasers, they’re able to consume entertainment
ironically, and they may vociferously announce their tastes (for instance, as
fans). If the semiological-psychoanalytic model focused most closely on the film-spectator
relation, Cultural Studies focused more on the film-audience one.
confronted the 1970s psychoanalytic model more directly. The most salient alternative
has come to be known as cognitivism because of its earliest formulations. It
might more accurately be called naturalistic inquiry into the spectator’s
activities. The “cognitive” label suggests that
the new frame of reference draws on the research of cognitive science, which
emerged in the 1980s. (See Gardner 1987.) I use the “naturalistic” label
to signal the effort to draw on evidence and research frameworks developed in
domains of social science: psychology, but also linguistics, anthropology, and
neuroscience. Naturalistic inquiry includes as well an experimental component.
part this research program grew out of perceived problems with the semiological-psychoanalytic
model. For one thing, semiologists’ model of language could be criticized
as short-sighted. It was based largely in phonology (that is, the study of word
sounds) and lexical semantics (the study of word meanings). There was no account
of other dimensions of language, such as syntax (the rules for creating sentences)
and pragmatics (the more informal rules of language use that leave their traces
in discourse). Since a revolution in linguistics had recently been created by
Noam Chomsky’s arguments about syntax and universal rules of grammar, semiology
seems to have ignored what professional linguists were now considering central.
a similar way, psychoanalysis had long been a target of criticism (Macmillan
1997; Cioffi 1998). Studies couldn’t show that psychoanalysis achieved
cures beyond chance levels. The growing authority of brain science and a better
understanding of genetics and organic chemistry had reduced the therapeutic terrain
that psychoanalytic theory could cover. More specifically, Lacanian theory was
one of the most controversial theories even within the Freudian community (Macey
1988). Lacan left the international association of psychoanalysts and set up
his own school. As a therapy, his system could not be shown objectively—that
is, at a level beyond anecdote—to have helped suffering people. As a theory,
it was very difficult to appraise. Lacan delivered his ideas in lecture format,
where he tended toward the cryptic and oracular. His followers were hard pressed
to explain his theories clearly. Lacanianism had a bigger following among professors
of literature, art, and film than in the psychoanalytic profession, and skeptics
suggested that it was because his theories let humanists interpret artworks in
ingenious ways. A theory that yields intriguing interpretations is not necessarily
Once the merger of semiology and psychoanalysis moved to
its most general claims, it seemed to put a dead end to further research. Once
you have said that we are constituted as passive viewers by every image that
displays perspective, it’s
hard to see how any films with recognizable imagery can escape this criticism
(Baudry 1985). Once you have said that the very illusion of movement on the screen
constitutes a denial of one frame by another, in the manner of Freudian repression,
you seem to have condemned all movies that move (Kuntzel 1977). Once you have
said, as Metz did, that the very nature of cinema is to create an illusion of
an all-perceiving subject, there’s little to be added about various types
of films. Film scholars wanted to analyze and interpret particular films, genres,
periods, and trends. The condemnation of cinema as an all-encompassing ideological
machine left little space for new discoveries.
Although the semiological-psychoanalytic
paradigm retains some followers, many of its adherents drifted toward other projects.
This was probably partly due to shifting interests and partly due to some critiques.
(See Carroll 1988 and Bordwell and Carroll 1996.) In any case, during the mid-1980s
two writers started to suggest an alternative along naturalistic lines, and they
did it from opposite poles of generality.
In his 1985 essay “The Power
of Movies,” Noël Carroll proposed
a naturalistic account of popular cinema. He suggested that the ability of mass-consumed
films to engage audiences depended on skills that were easily acquired. Film
images typically look like the world because they are keyed to our perceptual
systems; children swiftly learn to recognize pictures. Movies are easy to follow
on a moment-by-moment basis because they are designed that way; they have an “uncluttered
clarity” different from the messiness of action in everyday life. Thanks
to techniques like variable framing, the film director has more control over
attention than a stage director does. And since most popular films are narratives,
they draw on our ability to understand that each phase of the action crystallizes
a question. (Will the shark devour these bathers?) All of these resources—recognizable
imagery, coherent design, film techniques, and question-based creation of narrative
expectations—work together to assure that audiences understand the film
This process of understanding is, Carroll pointed out,
predominantly perceptual and cognitive. Since popular cinema has found success
in many times and places, “the
power of movies must be connected to some fairly generic features of human organisms
to account for their power across class, cultural, and educational boundaries.
The structures of perception and cognition are primary examples of fairly generic
features of humans” (p. 92). Carroll doesn’t insist that the
factors he isolates are the only relevant ones, just that they should be a part
of any explanation of films’ ability to reach widely different audiences.
account remains agnostic as to particular theories of mental life. The best explanations
that science devises for the workings of perception and cognition work will presumably
be compatible with our capacities to recognize objects in moving pictures, concentrate
our attention when guided by framing, and tacitly pose questions about the unfolding
action. In the same year of 1985, I proposed a more doctrinally specific, but
still naturalistic, account of cinematic comprehension.
Narration in the Fiction Film grew out of my effort
to understand why storytelling films were designed the way they were. An exercise
in reverse engineering, the book sought to grasp how narration—the flow
of story information as manifested in images and sounds—solicited certain
viewing activities. The book was much influenced by a current paradigm of perceptual
and cognitive activity that I called constructivist. Our eyes, on this account,
yield us incomplete and degraded data; yet we manage to grasp a coherent, consistent
world. Our visual systems must select, arrange, and extrapolate from the information
we get. At the level of cognition, we do much the same thing. In a story, the
whole of everything relevant isn’t directly declared, so we must fill in
a great deal through presupposition (Sherlock Holmes presumably has lungs) and
through inference (when he broods alone and utters cryptic clues, he’s
probably solving the mystery).
The central idea of the book is that directors,
screenwriters, and others on the filmmaking team design the film to solicit these
sorts of mental activities. Sometimes our perceptual and cognitive filling-in
proceeds automatically, but in other cases—such as flashback plots, or
have to become aware of these processes. What we see and hear in Rear
the protagonist’s observations, so we must reconcile two versions of events. Narration
in the Fiction Film argued that different cinematic traditions, ranging
from Carroll’s mass-market movies to more esoteric ones, have guided viewers
sense-making activities in different ways. The narrational conventions I pick
out have a historical dimension as well (Bordwell 1985).
Rejecting the then-reigning
psychoanalytic program, Carroll and I proposed, at different levels of generality,
that a naturalistic account of human perception and cognition was a more fruitful
way to answer some key questions about cinematic art. Since then, other researchers
have taken up this line of inquiry. Many of them have revisited some of the persisting
puzzles about how films solicit mental activities.
Take the classic matter of
attention. It was treated as a bit of folk psychology by most filmmakers: find
ways to guide the audience’s eye. Now, the modern
technology of eye-tracking allows researchers to study patterns of visual attention
in non-invasive ways. The experiments of Tim Smith and his colleagues have shown
that filmmakers are indeed skilled practical psychologists, able to use dialogue,
composition, staging, lighting, cutting, and other resources to steer our attention
quite minutely within the frame (Smith et al. 2012). Smith has confirmed the
intuitions of the tableau filmmakers by studying a sustained shot from There
Will Be Blood (2007) (Smith 2011). Experimental subjects do shift their
gaze in response to facial expressions and gestures, always seeking out areas
of maximal information about the action. Classic theorists were right to emphasize
attention as a basic aspect of film viewing, and empirical work can nuance our
understanding of the process.
Or take the long-standing issue of how editing constructs
space. Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks have argued, from what I’d consider
a constructivist stance, that spectators build up a sense of a scene’s
space not through detailed mapping of each shot but rather from more general,
and loosely identifiable landmarks (Hochberg and Brooks 1996). Through other
experiments, Stephen Schwan and Markus Huff have shown that viewers develop a “situation
the depicted flow of events, and the 180-degree system creates simplified, if
sometimes crude, spatial mapping (Schwan and Huff 2009). Dan Levin has investigated
how mismatched editing goes completely undetected because of both perceptual
factors (more salient items distract us from continuity errors) and higher-level
ones, like ascribing goals and intentions to the actors we see (Levin 2010).
study of narrative comprehension hasn’t been neglected either. Murray
Smith has suggested a cognitive framework for understanding character (Smith
1995). In later work of mine I’ve tried to provide a general model for
how spectators respond to narrative film (Bordwell 2008, pp. 11–133). Central
to these arguments is the assumption that the spectator draws on real-world knowledge
and awareness of narrative conventions in order to go beyond the information
given directly in the film.
That films arouse emotion is plain enough, and the
naturalistic turn has made contributions in this domain as well. The Lacanian
program tended to collapse all matters of emotion into “pleasure vs. unpleasure,” but
Carroll, Ed Tan, Carl Plantinga, Gregory Smith, and other theorists have proposed
that we can understand emotion by starting from issues of perception, often considered
initially as affect, and cognition, often involving judgment and prototypical
emotional scenarios. The
study of emotion has been a growing area within cognitive science more generally
(Griffiths 1997; Power and Dagleish 1997; Prinz 2004).
has not been absent either. Joseph Anderson’s trailblazing Reality
of Illusion (1998) offered a comprehensive account of cinematic perception
and comprehension from the standpoint of J. J. Gibson’s ecological psychology.
Anderson’s book yielded strong evidence for Carroll’s hypothesis
that filmic perception demands very little specialized code-reading, only those
automatic skills of ordinary perception filtered through millennia of evolution
(Anderson 1996). Torben Grodal provided a comparably broad view, but one based
more on neuroscience (Grodal 1997 and Grodal 2009). This neuroscientific path
has become an important component of the naturalistic trend (Hasson 2008).
this sketchy survey indicates, the naturalistic vein of inquiry plays host to
many sorts of questions and methods for answering them, from reverse-engineering
on the basis of filmic construction to more reductionist efforts to measure brain
activity. What we have is less a single research program than a growing research tradition—one
that tries to respect filmmakers’ craft and the intuitive psychology that
underlies it, the design features of actual films, and the various ways in which
spectators actively understand them. The book you hold in your hands is another
indication of the florescence of this research tradition.
Academics praise interdisciplinarity,
of the cooperation of the humanities and the sciences. Too often, though, that
cooperation involves only interpretations. Humanists join with social scientists
in producing readings but not explanations.
The engagement of film studies with empirical psychology and cognitive science
over the last three decades has come closer to providing the sort of “consilience” that
Edward O. Wilson proposed: unified explanations that bring art, humanistic inquiry,
and scientific inquiry together (Wilson 1998). Film researchers invoke naturalistic
models and findings from psychology in order to understand more fully how cinema
works, and works with our minds.
1 : For background information
on the filmmaking trends discussed throughout this chapter, see Thompson & Bordwell (2000).
In France, this property came to be known as photogénie. For
discussions, see Abel 1988, pp. 107–115.
Very helpful discussions of Münsterberg’s intellectual debts are to
be found in Allan Langdale, “S(t)imulation
of Mind: The Film Theory of Hugo Münsterberg,” in Münsterberg
(2002), pp 1–45; and Nyyssonen (1998).
4 : For a general
introduction to Eisenstein’s theories, see chapters three through five
of Bordwell (1993).
5 : My account of
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6 : See Carroll 1990;
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