ISSN 1466-4615



Torben Grodal

Film Aesthetics and Parkinson's Nostalgia for Psychologisms




Eric Parkinson

Project for a Scientific Film Theory 

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


Eric Parkinson has published a review of my book _Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition_. The review provides a description of some of the main points in my book, for instance my description of the difference between experiencing action-oriented films, and films of an associative-lyrical type in which the acting out of emotions is blocked. I want to thank Eric Parkinson for his succinct remarks on these parts of the book.


However, Parkinson has some reservations about the book. The main objections are; 1, that my book should provide a more general description of the relation between a 'traditional' and a scientific/cognitive aesthetics; and 2, that a cognitive approach threatens the pleasures felt by reading a traditional non-scientific aesthetic description: '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 do not think that these objections are totally fair to my book. Parkinson mentions that I explain the relation between my approach and more traditional approaches to identification, empathy and horror, but he leaves out numerous instances, in which I explicitly make alternatives to existing theories within film aesthetics. I will indicate some of the areas in which I explicitly have contrasted my new aesthetic theories with traditional aesthetic descriptions.


A. I have argued for a new, cognitive theory for explaining comic effects, describing how the comic is a cued viewer reaction to affective and mental overload by means of an innate reaction which redefines the reality status of the experienced. I have shown in detail how my theory is superior to the existing theories, from Pascal, Kant and Schopenhauer to Freud and Carroll among others.


B. I have argued for a new theory of the reality status of fiction, showing that the mental existence of perceptions and images precedes an evaluation of their reality status. I have further shown that my theory provides much more general and simple descriptions of the effect of films (and mental experiences) than existing theories -- psychoanalytical theories among others.


C. I have put forward a theory of melodrama as a way of simulating subjective experiences by blocking emotional outlet and cueing autonomic responses, and show how existing theories, for example Peter Brooks' and Thomas Elsaesser's confuse cause and effect by claiming that the melodramatic fiction expresses a blocked experience by showing non-communication.


D. I have shown how linear narratives are linked to innate mental functions and argued against theories originating in romantic philosophy and Critical Theory, claiming that such rational forms of representations are caused by culturally specific bourgeois, western, male or 'rational' thought.


E. I have further shown how a romantic dualism between reason and passion misrepresent the way in which these two types of experience are two different, but interconnected and innate types of experience.


F. I have shown how a cognitive theory provides a better description of the experience of time than the existing structuralist descriptions (Genette, for example).


G. I have shown how a description of brain processes may enrich our understanding of a series of aesthetic effects central to abstract films and to traditional descriptions of visual composition.


As for Parkinson's 'nostalgia for psychologisms' I do not quite understand the objection, although I may guess some of the reason for his misapprehension of my project. I think that it is very important to distinguish between different layers of the explanations.


As I have emphasized, my aim have been to provide a description of our phenomenological experience of film. Why do some effects like 'freeze frame' provide a subjective experience, whereas 'narrative frames' provide us with objective and tense experiences? Why do we laugh or cry in given situations? What is the importance of whether a protagonist is able to act out of free will or whether he is at the grips of some autonomic processes? All such experiences and transformations should rightly be described in a phenomenological and anthropomorphic language because these phenomena are central to our ordinary aesthetic experiences. Then I provide a model of our experiential mental 'flow' from perception, via cognition, association and emotional arousal to actions, and show how this phenomenological flow may explain our experience of a series of aesthetic effects. This is all very 'human', 'soft' and anthropomorphic.


But I have also used the knowledge provided by modern brain science in order to show that my phenomenological description is not only free fantasy, but highly compatible with what we know about the brain. But thereby I do not say that our aesthetic experience, our anthropomorphic level of understanding is 'just' neurons firing, brain wiring etc. It is an additional level of explanation which does not invalidate our psychological, phenomenological understanding, it supplements and enriches this understanding.


I can tell that most of the outline of my theory has been made, before I knew anything about brain science. Paradoxically it was Christian Metz which led me into brain science. Commenting on an early draft of my theory, he asked about the role of hormones etc. I thought that I should better check these things out, and found out that my theory could be very much enriched by being described not only on a psychological level, but also on a 'brain' level. It is, however, possible to describe my theory on a purely 'psychological' level -- as I have done in an article, 'Emotions, Cognition, and Narrative Patterns in Film', which will appear in Carl Plantinga and Gregory Smith, eds., _Passionate Views: Thinking about Film and Emotion_ (Johns Hopkins, 1998).


The dominant framework for describing emotional effects in film has for the last two decades been psychoanalysis. Although some of these explanations may have a narrative 'psychological form' like: 'boy wants to kill father and marry mother', the descriptions of the phenomenological experience of film have caused a 'nostalgia for psychologisms' in many scholars, who could not link ideas of symbolic orders, or castration and 'oedipal trajectories' to their experience of films with protagonists, goals and ordinary feelings. I hope that Eric Parkinson can also be persuaded to see that my framework for understanding the film experience is able to provide gratifying 'psychological' descriptions of aesthetics.


Copenhagen, Denmark




Torben Grodal

Film Aesthetics and Parkinson's Nostalgia for Psychologisms 

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 12, November 1997



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997



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