ISSN 1466-4615



Eric Parkinson

Project for a Scientific Film Theory




Torben Grodal

_Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition_

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997

ISBN: 0-19-815941-2

306 pages



In 1895, Sigmund Freud attempted to write a tome that would anchor his psychological theory on a description of the neurological workings of the brain. His incomplete _Project for a Scientific Psychology_ has been of interest to many theorists since one of the common complaints about Freudian psychoanalytic theory is that it offers an explanation of our mental activity with murky, possibly unverifiable, concepts such as the Id, Ego, Superego, repression, sublimation and so on. To many with an empirical bent, appeal to such concepts is, at best, metaphorical. Despite these worries, many have also admitted that there is 'the ring-a-ding of truth' to Freud's system despite its lack of grounding on a satisfying neurological model.


In 1915 Freud announced in his paper on 'The Unconscious' that he had, as Richard Wollheim notes, 'given up all hope of the localization of mental processes -- that is to say, of their correlation with specific parts of the brain or nervous system -- he also put by, *for the present* the enterprise of linking psychology and anatomy'. [1] Despite Freud's partial abandonment of that project, many have tried to pick up where Freud left off. There has been an unflagging interest in explaining how psychologized states such as fear, pain, empathy, aesthetic interest, genre expectations and so on, can be described by uncovering the neurological properties of the brain that are relevant to such states. Though Torben Grodal's new book, _Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition_, does not provide an exhaustive catalog of the relevant neurological phenomena that occur during our film-watching experiences, he does provide models which are based on some experimental research on neurological activity and which point toward future, fruitful avenues of research. In particular, Grodal is interested in explaining the nature of some of our aesthetic experiences while watching films with these models. This book is Grodal's 'Project for a Scientific Aesthetic'.


Early on, Grodal announces the main hypothesis which he wishes to explore:


'there is a systematic relation between the embodied mental processes and configurations activated in a given type of visual fiction and the emotional 'tone' and 'modal qualities' of the experienced affects, emotions, and feelings in the viewer. Prototypical genres of visual fiction will evoke typical tones and modalities' (3).


This relationship between the reception of visual fiction and the emotional tones and modal qualities in the viewer is informed by an evolutionary interpretation of how human beings manage their presence in the world. The evolution of cognitive skills and the development of certain emotional reactions is directed by pragmatic considerations: 'we want to perceive and represent the world in such a way that by actions we can implement our body-brain preferences in an optimal way' (6). Imaginative activities such as participating with visual fictions are valuable since they exercise our cognitive/emotional machinery by allowing us to practice, in a way, our potential responses to future challenges from our environment. Visual fictions, and films in particular, fulfill this role by stimulating our cognitive apparatus in ways which allow us to practice our behavioral and emotional responses.


Grodal argues that we are creatures who posses 'scripts' which direct the flow of inputs from our environments in certain ways in order to produce outputs which, ultimately, allow us to survive and better relate to the challenges of our environment. 'To understand language, visual phenomena, or behavior, we need to understand the mechanisms and structures by which these activities are processed by the human mind-brain (including the perceptual systems).' (13) These ways of processing the flow of information are, to a great extent, part of our cognitive hardware -- they are innate, and a product of evolutionary pressures and development. Because of this, Grodal argues, these basic mechanisms can be trans-cultural. Despite this, Grodal is careful to make clear that he is not a full-blown realist about all aspects of the ways in which we process information; 'the more specific contents and competencies are, however, products of culture and learned skills' (21). He names his position with the label 'ecological conventionalism'. He uses numerous research projects in cognitive psychology, neurology and perception to support his approach. The numerous footnotes and healthy bibliography provide us with guidance as to where to find these research projects and further detail.


Despite this wealth of experimental research, Grodal makes it clear that he will not provide an exhaustive account of every nuance and detail of our neurological activity when we process visual fiction. 'Given the present state of psychological knowledge this represents utopia, of course, especially for a non specialist. However, it is possible to outline certain functions and dimensions of the internal processing.' (39) Given this background, Grodal attempts to provide an account of film genre, emotional participation and the experience of aesthetic effects which depends on his functionalist/cognitivist account.


Grodal devotes a healthy amount of space explaining how humans process the flow of visual information in order to identify objects, to distinguish between foregrounds and backgrounds, to 'edit out' information which is not necessary and to fill in 'gaps' in our visual field in order to best interpret our environment. This strategy (though not the content) is analogous to Immanuel Kant's attempt, in the 'Transcendental Aesthetic', to explain how the manifold of our sensations is synthesized into identifiable patterns of time and space, before explaining how additional synthesis of this initial flow occurs. Since chances are that readers of this review will be more interested in how our cognitive machinery processes our experience of film rather than the initial processing of primitive, raw sensory data, I will skip a discussion of Grodal's treatment of these early stages and move ahead. Grodal describes four steps which occur during the processing of audiovisual input (and this is a simplified model):


'1) Processing of the 'flow' by analyzing textures, lines, figures etc. Basic, initial sorting out of the perceptual flow. 2) Matching the results of this processing via memory and association to past audiovisual experiences and/or emotional tones. 3) Construction of narrative scene or universe producing basic physiological reactions, 'affect appraisals' and labeling. 4) Higher, more complex reactions to this narrative: Evaluative and/or emotional reactions.' (59)


I will discuss each step -- with the exception of step 1 -- in more detail, and give an example of how Grodal can explain one particular film genre through the use of this model. In step 2,


'the brain searches its memory-files for possible matches, aided by feelings of familiarity or unfamiliarity . . . The items in the memory-files are not only stored by, say, visual structures, but also with affective values, affective labels. If the match of the figure is 'snake', then the item will surface in consciousness with its visual features and with its affective value, fear.' (60) [2]


Films that provide audiovisual cues causing us to match them with memories and affective responses but do not proceed to organize such material into a driving narrative fall under the genre of 'associative lyricism'. Lyrical films are effective to the extent that they provide sufficient stimuli to cause spectators to remember certain experiences and to feel certain emotional responses. There is no need to construct more complex narrative structures since this may dilute the affective saturation a spectator might be experiencing. Though Grodal does not mention her, I think most films by Maya Deren might be considered as examples of associative lyricism.


In step 3, we proceed to place the visual structures in the context of a narrative or story (or, in Grodal's terms, placed 'into the framework of a hypothetical narrative scenario'). At this point, the subject experiencing the audiovisual flow will have to identify with one or more of the characters in the narrative in order to be able to label the physiological and emotional reactions received by the flow. For instance, the presentation of a snake isolated from any other object or character may produce some associations in the viewer; but these associations do not become full-fledged fear until the viewer places the snake in the context of the narrative and finds a focal point to identify with and, thus, be able to fear the snake as a threat. At the higher levels of processing, there are many possible ways a subject could manage the audiovisual flow. It is at this higher level where differences in audiovisual flow management occur -- there may be evaluations about the narrative itself where we participate in the hypothetical scenario: forming expectations; reacting involuntarily to represented events (i.e., some kinds of emotional responses); reacting with some level of voluntary control (i.e., self-consciousness about being a viewer experiencing a film and analyzing the methods in which a film influences us -- metafiction responses); or empathizing with characters, etc.


This is a quick, simplified summary of Grodal's model. He spends considerable space filling in details about how our cognitive economy processes the audiovisual flow and how different ways of processing this flow are informed by genre expectations. Grodal resists the tendency to define 'genre' as a set of categories used to describe general properties present in works of fiction. Grodal wants to include the emotional and cognitive responses which certain kinds of fictions cause as essential to a thorough analysis of 'genre'.


'The usefulness of a genre typology based on emotional reaction is that it increases an understanding of the way in which the cueing of emotions takes place as a choice within a set of structural options that mutually define each other . . . A typology based on emotional reaction also corresponds to an important aspect of the basis on which viewers in a given situation choose a type of fiction (I want to see something funny, or something passionate, or something that terrifies me). The generic expectations of dominant emotional impact further play an important role in a viewer's reconstruction of the film. When De Palma's _Blow Out_ suddenly changes from canonical narrative to melodrama almost at the end, it creates an emotional disorientation in the viewer . . . Genre, according to this typology, is merely a set of dominant features of a given fiction, which shapes the overall viewer-expectations and the correlated emotional reaction.' (162-163)


Wedding the way the cognitive/emotional mechanism processes visual fictions with an account of genre allows Grodal to argue for, at least, two general theses. 1, There are central, prototypical genres across several cultures which are strongly determined by their relation to mental functions. These are: associative lyricism; canonical narratives of action; obsessional fictions of paratelic [3] cognition and enaction; melodramas of the passive position; fictions of horror; schizoid fictions; comic fictions; and metafictions. Grodal warns the reader that he is not to be interpreted as claiming that this is an innate genre system but, rather, 'that we have innate emotional functions and schemata which may or may not be used as a basis for creating an overall emotional tone by those producing visual fiction' (282). 2, Aesthetic effects occur when the audiovisual flow is processed by the cognitive/emotional economy in familiar ways (i.e., in order to sharpen and practice our skills in managing potential challenges from the environment) *and* when the audiovisual flow resists being processed in such familiar ways, thus causing us to re-evaluate and concentrate on how the flow has subverted our expectations (e.g., experiencing a good avant-garde film that abandons traditional forms of narrative often causes us to focus our attention and use functions in our cognitive economy which we may not be used to activating).


Grodal argues for many other theses, but I find these two to be the most rewarding and challenging contributions in the book. Part three of his book is devoted to a thorough analysis of how the cognitive/emotional economy processes the audiovisual flow given each of the genres mentioned above. Part four focuses specifically on comic fictions, metafictions, crime and horror fictions and melodramas.


This book is a demanding, challenging and, at times, puzzling read. It is demanding because it requires the reader to have some command of terminology which may be common in empirical psychology or cognitive science but not for many of those toiling in traditional analytic aesthetics. Grodal does provide a glossary in order to help the reader, but the need for a glossary is telling. This is not a criticism, however. Given the state of film studies and the growth of the use of cognitive science in film studies, perhaps it is time for us to learn the lingo, so to speak. Grodal supports many of his central claims about how our cognitive economy works by appealing to the work of many scientists and psychologists working in that field, and he provides ample footnotes at crucial points allowing to reader to have a glimpse at the experimental evidence. I must admit that a critical evaluation of this book should include an analysis of whether Grodal has used the wealth of experimental evidence he appeals to in a responsible way, and I am not even close to being prepared to do that. Though it is accessible, at some basic level, to non-specialists in cognitive science, its central claims rely on work which is not accessible. This is, perhaps, a minor flaw in the book.


I would like to have seen Grodal explore the two theses mentioned above, not only by providing evidence from empirical psychology to support the theses, but by discussing what impact these have on traditional, non-scientifically based aesthetics. He presents them as the results of interpreting the evidence given to us by work in cognitive science; but I would have liked to see an in-depth evaluation of the significance of these theses for film theory and aesthetics in general. For instance, when Grodal identifies the experience of aesthetic effect as being the result of our cognitive economy channeling and processing the audiovisual flow through pathways which are not usually stimulated, I immediately thought about the long and rich debate surrounding the concept of the 'aesthetic experience'. Has Grodal zeroed in on the physiology of a distinctly aesthetic experience or is he describing how our cognitive economy manages any kind of innovative information -- whether the source of the flow be an artwork or something else? It is these kinds of questions that would have bridged the gap between truly fascinating empirical models of how the brain works and traditional aesthetics.


This book is mostly a taxonomy of how we process the audiovisual flow given to us by films and how this processing conforms to eight canonical 'scripts' or patterns which correspond to our genre expectations. These prototypical scripts may be explained by evolutionary factors and may be part of the hardware we need to manage the pressures from our environment, but what additional significance does this observation have? Is Grodal making the normative claim that aesthetics should be re-configured as the study of how audiovisual flows from any artistic medium happen to be processed by our cognitive economy? If so, should we abandon or assign a different status to different approaches to aesthetics which do not rely on the evidence from cognitive science? I admit that I am fascinated by the work done in empirical psychology and cognitive science and I think that it is central to any work done in aesthetics. However, I dutifully report that I suffer from a condition which I will term 'nostalgia for psychologisms'. Recasting aesthetics as an empirically-based discipline threatens the pleasures we experience when an explanation of an aesthetic effect is couched in non-scientific terms. I say 'threatens' because it need not replace alternative models of doing aesthetics, obviously. However, I will end by making a plea to those such as Grodal who are interested in using evidence gleaned from cognitive science and empirical psychology to explain our aesthetic responses: after describing how our cognitive economy processes audiovisual information, take a step back and discuss what impact these descriptions have on central issues done in non-scientifically based aesthetics. Grodal does this when he discusses character identification, empathy and the experience of horror; but a more general discussion of how cognitive science and traditional aesthetics intersect is missing. Perhaps that was not central to his agenda; but I think it should always be a part of any work which tries to explain aesthetic effects in terms of neurological models.


Syracuse University, USA





[1] Richard Wollheim, _Sigmund Freud_ (Cambridge University Press, 1971) p. 34.


[2] It is interesting to note that, at this point, Grodal makes an observation about the relationship between his account and a central figure in classical film theory: 'If the figure input is complex, say snake + grizzly bear + Marilyn + teddy bear, the match activation of the memory files will, of course, evoke complex, mixed feelings. This accords with Eisenstein's description of the way in which emotions are represented and evoked by montage' (60).


[3] 'Paratelic', as used by Grodal, means 'the experience of directedness towards the future as a process, that is, linked to a positive evaluation of arousal (as opposed to directedness as telic, linked to goals and activating arousal-reduction)' (283).




Eric Parkinson

Project for a Scientific Film Theory 

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 11, October 1997



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997




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