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Observations on film art Invasion of the Brainiacs II Print

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Invasion of the Brainiacs II

Posted By bordwellblog On June 10, 2009 @ 9:26 am In Directors: Ray, Satyajit,Film scholarship,Film
technique,Film theory,Film theory: Cognitivism,Narrative strategies,National cinemas:
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DB here:
What gives movies the power to arouse emotions in audiences? How is it that films can convey
abstract meanings, or trigger visceral responses? How is it that viewers can follow even fairly
complex stories on the screen?
General questions like this fall into the domain of film theory. Its an area of inquiry that divides
people. Some filmmakers consider it beside the point, or simply an intellectual game, or a
destructive urge to dissect what is best left mysterious. Many readers consider it academic bluffing,
another proof of Shaws aphorism that all professions are conspiracies against the laity.
These complaints arent quite fair. Early film theorists like Hugo Mnsterberg, Rudolf Arnheim, Andr
Bazin, and Lev Kuleshov wrote clearly and often gracefully. Even Sergei Eisenstein, probably the
most obscure of the major pre-1960 theorists, can be read with comparative ease. Moreover,
generations of filmmakers have been influenced by these theorists; indeed, some of these writers,
like Kuleshov and Eisenstein, were filmmakers themselves.
But those day are gone, someone may say. Does contemporary film theory, bred in the hothouse of
universities and fertilized by High Theory in the humanities, have any relevance to filmmakers and
ordinary viewers? I think that at least one theoretical trend does, if readers are willing to follow an
argument pitched beyond comments on this or that movie.
That is, film theory isnt film criticism. Its major aim is more general and systematic. A theoretical
book or essay tries to answer a question about the nature, functions, and uses of cinemaperhaps
not all cinema, but at least a large stretch of it, say documentary or mainstream fiction or animation
or a national film output. Particular films come into the argument as examples or bodies of evidence
for more general points.
In about three weeks, about fifty people will gather at the University of Copenhagen to do some film
theory together. Its the annual meeting


. I talked about the group last year (here

of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image


and here


) in the runup to our Madison event.

The sort of theorizing well do, for all its variety, is in my view the most exciting and promising on
the horizon just now. Its also understandable by anyone interested in puzzles of cinematic
expression, and it has powerful implications for creative media practice.

Well also be in Copenhagen for Midsummer Night, which is always pleasant. Go here
for the
lovely song that thousands of Danes will try to sing, despite terminal drunkenness. No real witches


, however.

Concordance and convergence

But back to topic: Puzzles of cinematic expression, I said. What puzzles? Well, films are understood.
Remarkably often, they achieve effects that their creators aimed for. Michael Moore gets his message
across; Judd Apatow makes us laugh; a Hitchcock thriller keeps us in suspense. What enables
movies to reliably achieve such regularity of response?
Its not enough to say: Moore hammers home his points, Apatow creates funny situations, Hitchcock
puts the woman in danger. Any useful explanation subsumes a single case to a more general law or
tendency. So a worthwhile explanation for these cinematic experiences would appeal to more basic
features of artworks, cultural activities, or our minds. We can pick up on Moores message because
we know how to make inferences within certain contexts. We can laugh at a joke because we
understand the tacit rules of humor. We recognize a suspenseful situation because well, there are
several suggestions


This sort of question is largely overlooked by theorists of Cultural Studies, another area of
contemporary media studies. They typically emphasize difference and divergence, highlighting the
varying, even conflicting ways that audiences or critics interpret a film.
Studying how viewers appropriate a film differently is an important enterprise, but so is studying
convergence. Arguably, studying convergence has priority, since the splits and variations often
emerge against a background of common reactions. A libertarian can interpret Die Hard as a paean

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to individual initiative, while a neo-Marxist can interpret it as a skirmish in the class war, but both
agree that John and Holly love each other, that her coworker is a weasel, and that in the end John
McClanes defeat of Hans Gruber counts as worthwhile. Both viewers may feel a surge of satisfaction
when McClane, told by a terrorist he should have shot sooner, blasts the man and adds, Thanks for
the advice. What enables two ideologically opposed viewers to agree on so much?
Films arent just understood in common; they arouse remarkably similar emotions across cultures.
This is a truism, but its been too often sidestepped by post-1960 film theory. Who, watching The
World of Apu, doesnt feel sympathy and pity for the hero when he learns of the sudden death of his
beloved wife? Perhaps we even register a measure of his despair in the face of this brutal turn of
We can follow a suite of emotions flitting across Apus face. I doubt that words are adequate to
capture them.




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Are these facial expressions signs that we read, like the instructions printed on a prescription bottle?
Surely something deeper is involved in responding to themfor want of a better word, fellowfeeling. Indians marriage customs and attitudes toward death may be quite different from those of
viewers in other countries, but that fact doesnt suppress a burst of spontaneous sympathy toward
the films hero. We are different, but we also share a lot.
The puzzle of convergence was put on the agenda quite explicitly by theorists of semiotics. Back in
the 1960s, they argued that film consisted of more or less arbitrary signs and codes. Christian Metz

, the most prominent semiotician, was partly concerned with how codes are read in concert by
many viewers. Today, I suppose, most proponents of Cultural Studies subscribe to some version of
the codes idea, but now the concept is used to emphasize incompatibilities. So many codes are in
play, each one inflected by aspects of identity (gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc.), that commonality
of response is rare or not worth examining.
A complete theoretical account, if we ever have one, would presumably have to reckon with both
differences and regularities. The dynamic of convergence and divergence is a central part of one
arena of film studies that has, for better or worse, been called cognitivism.



Gathering for Uri Hasson


s keynote lecture, SCSMI 2008.

The cognitive approach to media remains a pretty broad one, and the Society for Cognitive Studies
of the Moving Image hosts a plurality of approaches at its annual meetings. SCSMI has become
home to media aesthetes, empirical researchers, and philosophers in the analytic tradition who are
interested in interrogating the concepts used by the other two groups. Last years gathering, at our
campus here in Madison, created a lively dialogue among these interests.
For instance, some of us Film Studies geeks wonder why people so consistently ignore mismatched
cuts. Dan Levin


s ingenious experiments on change blindness provide a hilarious rejoinder. In

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one study conducted with Dan Simons

, a stooge asks directions of an innocent passerby. As
theyre talking, a pair of bravos carry a plank between them, and another confederate is substituted
for the first one.


You guessed it. Most subjects dont notice that the person theyre talking to has changed into
somebody else! So how can we worry about mismatched details in cuts? Actually, Dans research
isnt just deflationary. It helps spell out particular conditions under which change blindness can

Another stimulating talk was offered by Jason Mittell

. He asked how long-running prime-time
TV serials can solve the problem of memory. In this weeks episode what strategies are available to
recall the most relevant action of earlier episodes? How can previous action be presented without

boring faithful fans? Jason, who has a new book on American TV and culture
out this spring,
went beyond describing the strategies. He suggested how they can become a new source of formal
innovation, as in the Death of the Week in Six Feet Under.

Sermin Ildirar
of Istanbul University presented the results of a study on adults living in a
village in South Turkey. These viewers were older, ca. 50-75, andheres the interesting parthad
never seen films or TV shows. To what extent would they understand film grammar, the
conventions of continuity editing and point-of-view, that people with greater media experience grasp
intuitively? To facilitate comprehension, the researchers made film clips featuring familiar
The results were intriguingly mixed. Some techniques, such as shots that overlapped space, were
understood as presenting coherent locales. But most viewers didnt grasp shot/ reverse-shot
combinations as a social exchange. They simply saw the person in each shot as an isolated figure.
The discussion, as you may expect, was lively, concerning the extent to which a story situation had
been present, the need to cue a conversation, and the like. I found it a sharp, provocative piece of

research. Stephan Schwan

, who worked with Sermin and Markus Huff, has become a central
figure studying how the basic conventions of cutting and framing might be built up on the basis of
real-world knowledge, and both he and Sermin are back at SCSMI this year.

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Stephan Schwan, Thomas Schick, Markus Huff, and Sermin Ildirar, with Johannes Riis in the
background; SCSMI 2008.
There were plenty of other stimulating papers: Tim Smiths usual enlightening work on points of

attention within the frame

, Johannes Riis on agency and characterization, Paisley Livingston
on what can count as fictional in a film, Patrick Keating on implications for emotion of alternative
theories of screenplay structure, Margarethe Bruun Vaage on fiction and empathy, and on and on.
One of the best things about this gathering was that the ideas were sharply defined and presented in
vivid, concrete prose. I cant imagine that ordinary film fans wouldnt have found something to
enjoy, and of course many of these matters lie at the heart of what filmmakers are trying to achieve.
Indeed, some filmmakers regularly give papers at our conventions. The much-sought link between
theory and practice is being made, again and again, in the arena of the SCSMI.
Last year I came to believe that this research program was hitting its stride. My hunch is confirmed
by this years gathering in Copenhagen. The department of media studies there has long been a
leader in this realm. You can download a Word version of the schedule here


Lest you think that the conference participants dont talk much about particular movies, I should add
that theres one film well definitely be talking about this time around. Our Copenhagen hosts have
arranged for a screening of von Triers Antichrist


Next time: Going deeper into cognitivism, and three recent explorations.


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Malcolm Turvey makes a point to Trevor Ponech and Richard Allen, SCSMI 2008.

Kristin and I have talked about pictorial universals elsewhere on this site. See her blog entry
eyeline matching in ancient Egyptian art, and my comments on representational relativism here

Images at the top of this entry are taken from the Danish film Himmelskibet (The Space Ship, aka A
Trip to Mars, 1918).

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[3] the annual meeting:
[4] the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image:
[5] here :
[6] here:
[7] here:
[8] No real witches burned:
[9] several suggestions:
[10] Image:
[11] Image:
[12] Image:
[13] Image:
[14] Christian Metz:
[15] Image:
[16] Uri Hasson:
[17] Dan Levin:
[18] Dan Simons:
[19] Image:
[20] Jason Mittell:
[21] a new book on American TV and culture:
[22] Sermin Ildirar:
[23] Stephan Schwan:
[24] Image:
[25] points of attention within the frame:
[26] here:
[27] Antichrist:
[28] Image:

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[29] her blog entry:
[30] here:

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