International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 46, December 2005







Andrew Court


The Measure of Cinema?:

Per Persson's _Understanding Cinema_



Per Persson

_Understanding Cinema: A Psychological Theory of Moving Imagery_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003

ISBN 0-521-81328-X

52 illustrations, 281 pp.


Part technical analysis and part introduction to film psychology, _Understanding Cinema_ will be instantly recognisable to those familiar with David Bordwell and Noel Carroll's 1996 _Post-Theory_. The rhetoric has been updated to exclude the polemical engagement with current theory that made Bordwell and Carroll's anthology so avowedly *argumentative*. But it remains familiar in its determination to develop a new reading of films, borrowing models from psychology and cognitive science, and departing from standard critical fare.


Persson is careful to distinguish his theory from standard models. In contrast to approaches which fracture film analysis along gender, race, and class lines, the theory proposed here deals with '(semi)universal dispositions' and 'shared understanding' (17). Whereas narratology theories suggest an implied rather than a real reader, and reception theories to date impose identificatory mechanisms that ultimately contain 'so many different processes and layers' that their conceptual utility is 'close to zero', this book is about paring explanation back to the 'everyday processes' that inform the reception of film (146-150). _Understanding Cinema_ is an opening gambit, a preliminary delineation of the basic psychological processes by which editing, mise-en-scene, and characterisation in film (there is a chapter on each) are at once interpreted and, in their historical development, determined -- one which ultimately calls for a turn to empirical film studies.


Persson intends his approach to be as integrative as possible. The mission statement for the humanities and social sciences is that they must explain the emergence and function of all 'human systems' along four lines of inquiry -- philosophy, culture, evolutionism, and psychology -- each concerned with different strata of the phenomenal world and making up, in combination, a total explanatory thesis (2-6). Epistemology and metaphysics will be components of this unified theory, since an inquiry which deploys scientific theory, cognitive or otherwise, can only be justified by examining the nature of different aspects of the world, divided here into the 'phenomenal' and the 'external', and our knowledge of each (2-3). Persson's psychological approach will be a 'complement' to historical ones (40-41); 'ecumenical ambition' is meant to act as a by-line for this effort to integrate disparate (until now) research programmes (6).


But _Understanding Cinema_ is more of a cautionary tale than a successfully inclusive one. Though not explicitly polemical, it may be read as a reaction *against* philosophy. Arguing that philosophy has been 'until recently the only systematic investigation of the phenomenal' (3), Persson posits the now possible alternative of a self-confident empiricism, providing direct access to knowledge of actual experience, including that of film spectatorship. Meanwhile, philosophy is charged with speculation and a lack of reference to reality. It is worth considering what is at stake with these claims.


For Persson, the 'phenomenal world' is comprised of our perceptions, experiences, feelings, desires, and attitudes. It requires explanation in terms of its relation with the 'external world', that which is objective and 'observer-independent' (3). Cognitive phenomena are produced in our everyday encounters with the external world. Our experience of film is determined by a complex of 'dispositions', mental constructs which flavour our interactions with phenomena (3). Accordingly, the film text exists at the intersection of the phenomenal and external worlds. It is an object 'out there' in the world, one which produces cognitive phenomena in the process of film viewing. Cognitive phenomena have also led to 'dispositions' which, in a reciprocal move, inform the narrative and textual structure of film, as well as its historical development. The film text is evidence of these 'dispositions', and the level of explanation appropriate to film is that which accounts for them (39-40).


Should this model have anything to do with philosophy? Although, owing to its best-of-both-worlds position (external and phenomenal), the film text is an example of how the 'origins of dispositions blur' (39-40), this problem is a philosophical one, and holds import for philosophers only.


'From a psychological point of view, however, scientific work can continue without resolving this question. Psychologists are concerned with the phenomenal world and the nature of mental processes situated in a physical, social, and cultural environment, not whether these correctly represent observer-independent features of external reality (or texts). Even though the question at some point needs answers, psychologists can still concentrate on their thing' (44).


Dispositions are what count in a psychological explanation of film, and 'armchair philosophizing' is a luxury we cannot afford while much empirical, scientific work waits to be done. Each chapter of Persson's book (dealing with 'point-of-view editing', 'variable framing', and 'character psychology') is a 'case study', necessarily preliminary to and of greater priority than philosophical questions (44).


One might wonder what constitutes 'philosophy' in Persson's account. He mentions epistemology and metaphysics in the first few pages, but the concept quickly loses focus and becomes -- by the end of the introductory chapter -- a term which simply connotes unreality, against which the 'real' work of an empirical, cognitive programme in film studies is brought into relief. Persson suggests a 'balance between theory and empirical work' (249). Theoretical arguments drawn from the findings of studies in psychology and linguistics should be buttressed by 'setting up experiments in similar ways to those of discourse psychology and communication studies' in which psychology and film studies would share findings and enjoy a 'win-win situation' (249-250). This is worrying, despite the confidence with which it is articulated. Not only are the references to 'empiricism' and 'experiments' rather vague, but they demonstrate a reliance on ideas which have philosophical ramifications: the nature of empiricism itself, or the ability of science to make determinations about the relationship of knowledge and experience. If Persson means to collapse the dichotomy between science and philosophy then it might be asked why it is posited in the first place, and why no attempt to answer these questions is -- not 'preferred', but -- made on the same level with the book's 'empirical ambitions' (44).


In fact, Persson's book does not strike me as one which makes a particularly good case for the additional productivity of an empirical approach. The minimal polemical argument, compared with a book like _Post-Theory_, already suggests the author's preconception of the direction in which theory is moving. Accordingly, precisely because it comes from this relatively secure position, it seems exemplary of the very challenges faced by scientific models touted as having greater explanatory power than non-scientific ones.


In its attempt to bring the level of explanation back to everyday dispositions, and despite its claims of drawing upon an 'extended' empirical literature (187), _Understanding Cinema_ runs the risk of stating the obvious. In a chapter on 'Character Psychology and Mental Attribution', Persson describes the function of character in terms of a search for coherence: the spectator makes 'mental attributions' about characters on the basis of those characters' more or less probable goals and sub-goals. The model is doubly causal. Attributions are what determine plot structure in classical narrative cinema, as well as spectators' interpretations of those plots. In a reading of _Die Hard_ Persson explains that any 'failure' on the part of the spectator to make a mental attribution along the lines of goal-directed motivations 'would render the events random and disconnected and would generate only superficial understanding by the viewer' (187). Beyond positing the kind of headwork a spectator is actually doing while viewing a film, how does such an explanation avoid similarly 'superficial' readings, regardless of their coherence? For example, what can we say about the motivations of characters in _Die Hard_? Persson: 'Hans et al. *want* to steal the $600 million in bonds in the vault (and McClane and the police *want* to prevent them from doing so)' (187).


One response to any complaint about the literal-mindedness of such explication would be that exposition of the psychological model takes priority in Persson's book, and the readings need only demonstrate its veracity. Such a disclaimer enables Persson to accept the impotence of his theory when faced with films that deviate from the classical model. Though an explanation along the lines of 'mental attributions' ought to be the first tool out of the box, if such explanation fails -- presumably since it is unable to account fully for the myriad other motivations of a film aesthetic -- then we should move on to alternative 'stances' or to other 'levels of coherence' (209). This seems to be in accord with the gesturing towards complementarity earlier in the book. It need hardly be added that it is too much to expect any given theoretical paradigm to provide a total reading of a film, beyond which nothing more can be said. But if this book is an argument about the utility of psychological explanation of film at the level of 'everyday dispositions', then it must be judged not only on the quality of its theoretical propositions, but on the readings it provides, too. On Godard's _Weekend_: 'Because rapes are intentional acts on another's part, *anger* and *dislike* are emotions strongly associated with these kinds of associations' (207). No-one is likely to object to such a self-evident assertion. But Persson can tell us nothing about Godard's film except that; because Corinne's experience in a ditch with a passer-by elicits no emotional response from her husband, the film is simply not a contender for explanation by a causal attributive model. What, then, are we to make of Persson's claim that 'the main function of the text becomes *specifying* the goal of a given character' (191)? What texts are we talking about? Not Godard's. If we can only really describe films which lend themselves to description with this model, then the risk is one of describing film in tautological terms, while texts which clearly deviate from psychological norms can merely be described as more peculiarly driven by aesthetic concerns, or, at best, wilfully 'blocking' the motivational attributions spectators are wont to make, producing 'strangeness' effects in their oppositional stance to the usual 'normality' effects (209).


In sum, Persson is keen to make a distinction between his theory of everyday processes, and peculiarly scholarly accounts of film. Whereas the latter aim 'at providing cinema scholars with methods with which to analyze and evaluate films', here the attempt is 'to describe general psychological processes of understanding in everyday cinema spectators' (183). But if his book is meant to encourage others to adopt the model, they might expect more sophisticated readings of films than those provided.


The psychological-theoretical discussion is rather more sophisticated than the readings it produces. But without the extended summaries and elaborations of empirical psychological research, books like this would be embarrassingly slender. One can only hope that with additional hands on board, the film readings produced by the type of model promoted in _Understanding Cinema_ will become more vital and sophisticated. Perhaps the bare-bones approach is meant to further illuminate the model under development, while avoiding the temptation to 'speculate' brought on by abstruse film readings. But the relationship between science and philosophy is more complex than the rather arbitrary prioritisation of one over the other, and Persson complicates the issue further by distancing his own programme from the actual hard science of psychology. His is a 'naive theory', one which is complex enough to function as an explanatory model, without being expressly scientific (174-175). The attempt is to shift registers, to point towards a less theoretically mediated impression of process, one in which the way 'Western people make sense of behavioral phenomena in everyday situations' is readily apparent (175). Psychologists working in the same area would make a similar claim, namely that the attributive mechanisms of the 'everyday man on the street' are not necessarily particularly sophisticated when taken at face value, but that nonetheless they are influenced by many variables, are worthy of investigation, and much empirical work still needs to be done in order to account for them totally. But to suggest that the future of film studies lies in empirical experimentation raises the spectre, given the level of explanation provided here on this very basis, of film studies somehow becoming a wing of scientific endeavour (249-250). Though I fear I might be taken for one of those 'humanists' whom David Bordwell would decry as hostile to science by saying it, I think there is a lot of work to be done in order to be convincing on this front.


University of Sydney, Australia



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005



Andrew Court, 'The Measure of Cinema?: Per Persson's _Understanding Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 46, December 2005 <>.












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