International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 43, December 2004







Andrew Browne


Cognitivism: Use it or Lose it;

On _Film Style and Story: A Tribute to Torben Grodal_



_Film Style and Story: A Tribute to Torben Grodal_

Edited by Lennard Hojbjerg and Peter Schepelern

Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2003)

ISBN 87-7289-851-8

252 pp.


Torben Grodal has been credited with making a seminal contribution to cognitivism as applied to film theory, most notably as a result of the publication in English of his 1994 doctoral dissertation on the link between film genres and emotional cognitive states, which was subsequently revised and published in 1997 as _Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition_. [1] In this book Grodal incorporated emotional response and feelings into a cognitive structure that had been advanced by David Bordwell and others, showing the 'close links between narrative and cognitive-emotional activation'. [2] Grodal is currently Professor of Media Studies at the University of Copenhagen and has also taught and lectured in America. His influence has been acknowledged by academic film worthies such as David Bordwell and Noel Carroll, yet his work is not as generally known as it might be. _Moving Pictures_ remains his only English Language book, although he has published nearly one hundred articles on film, television, and computer images -- mainly in Danish, which perhaps explains why Grodal's work is not known to a wider audience. In fact the book concludes with a 21-page bibliography covering all Grodal's academic publications since 1968, of which only a handful are accessible to the non-Danish reader.


_Moving Pictures_ presents a densely argued theory resulting from a somewhat unconventional, or novel, cognitive/Kantian project. Following Kant's aesthetics, Grodal aims to elucidate the response of the subject as a method of categorisation of film genres. There is extensive academic and sub-academic literature on the subject of genres, primarily defining them in relation to certain iconic plot elements, characters, locations, etc. Grodal employs precise cognitive data to define genres in terms of the emotional responses they create in the viewer. As with Kant, Grodal refers to the appreciative response of the subject (the viewers), more than the object (the actors, frames, mise-en-scene, camera, etc.), as an essential element in defining genres. While Kant looked at the subject's response in relation to the beautiful and the sublime, Grodal tackles film genres. He specifically claims that his account of the subjective experience of films is compatible with a Kantian approach to aesthetics. [3] In philosophy, Kant might be taken as the first cognitivist. In film theory, Grodal arguably moulded an approach (articulated most coherently by Bordwell) to join the front line of film cognitivists. It is unfortunate that Grodal shares another feature with Kant in his use of unrecognisable terminology (e.g. 'structuration') and obvious absence of a sense of humour. Both make for difficult reading. In particular, it is surprising that while Grodal rejects psychoanalytical theories of response to film, he uses the language of psychology, such as 'schizoid', 'paranoid', and 'trauma', in a way that is reminiscent of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's metaphorical use of these terms. Grodal has his own interpretations of these terms, but the influence is apparent.


So, does _Film Style and Story_ further Grodal's approach and present, as the marketing hyperbole suggests on the book's back cover, 'the current state and future potential of cognitive film studies'? As is often the way with essays honouring an academic, this volume is something of a curate's egg, with articles of widely varying interest and quality. The first paper, 'Moving Through the Diegetic World of the Motion Picture' by Joseph D. Anderson, concentrates on comparing and contrasting the impact on the spectator of the cinematic devices of the zoom and dolly shot. While it is claimed that these shots are related to the process of 'seeking information', and that zoom-ins and zoom-outs are used for different ends, the technical information and comparisons between shots contains very little in the way of furthered cognitive understanding. Anderson fails to take the step -- implicit in Grodal's approach -- of explaining empirical differences by reference to a structured theory argument buttressed by data. His conclusions that: 'Zoom-ins are often used to focus attention and zoom-outs to reveal the larger context of an action or situation. A dolly shot is often used when the journey or process is the relevant issue . . .' (19) are hardly ground-breaking and, crucially, are not supported by any empirical observation (or any reference to specific films or scenes).


The second paper, 'Danish Film Noir' by Ib Bondebjerg, is a rather dry attempt to argue that a Danish Film Noir genre can be identified which has links to French poetic realism and is only indirectly influenced by Hollywood noir films (then should it not be called Danish Poetic Realism?). This argument is advanced by quoting examples from obscure Danish films and then making personal subjective comments on them. 'John og Irene' may indeed be a 'masterpiece of the Danish post-war noir-tradition [sic]' (39), and it may be true that it is 'an important milestone in the modernisation of Danish mainstream film culture in the classical period' (41) as the article concludes, but these contentions need some external validation if they are to be anything other than personal opinion.


In contrast, the third paper, by David Bordwell, is a delight. In a sharp and witty tone, Bordwell starts off at the micro level contrasting blinking in films with blinking in real life. Whereas 'in real life' people have been observed to blink around 12 to 16 times a minute, they blink significantly less often in films (around a third of this number in the films Bordwell analyses). There is also a difference in the way film actors look at each other when speaking compared to that observed in real life. They direct their gaze at each other much more in films than in real life (about 70% of the time compared to around 30%). From these empirical observations he goes on to suggest a theoretical rationale for why this should be so, based around the filmic need to emphasise narrative and direct the attention of the spectator. Bordwell concludes that: 'If cinema, like other artistic media, often models social intelligence, it doesn't simply copy the relevant behaviours . . . Cinematic style often streamlines ordinary human activity, smoothing the rough edges away, reweighting it for the purposes of creating representations, which are densely informative as well as emotionally arousing' (55). This article is a nice example of how a cognitive approach based around empirical data can inflect and inform film theory, employing a methodology that Grodal would applaud, and the nod to emotions represents a refinement of Bordwell's earlier position.


'How Frame Lines (and Film Theory) Figure' by Edward Branigan identifies the frame as having a 'radial meaning', in the sense that that term has been used by the cognitive linguist Mark Johnson. [4] Branigan advances a linguistic analysis of how we talk about films and focuses not on first-order phenomenological and mechanistic states of cognitive science, but analyses what film theorists do. In conclusion, Branigan argues that: 'I believe the word 'camera' is a radial concept that extends far beyond the properties of a (definite) physical apparatus able to record the real world . . . I believe the camera extends beyond -- dare I say? -- photographicity, beyond pictured-ness, beyond even the visible and visual'. (78) This article would not be out of place in a postmodernism reader. It does, however, seem out of place in a tribute to Grodal.


'Style: Segmentation and Patterns' by Lennard Hojbjerg compares the use of 'segmentation' (effectively film editing techniques) in films as a cue to knowledge in Dogme and main-stream cinema, finding a surprising consistency of styles. Examples are provided of cognitive and emotional responses produced in the viewer through film segmentation, and Hojbjerg shows that the basic ingredients of storytelling are similar in 'Dogme' and mainstream films, albeit that ''Dogme' films use segmentation techniques to 'articulate' interpretive concepts on a high narrational level'. (99).


'A Story With a Style' by Birger Langkjoer analyses the film _Nightwatch_, showing extensive critical skills and adopting a cognitive perspective, although greater empirical validation of arguments would have been useful. As a cognitivist reading of _Nightwatch_, it perhaps has limited insights. The concluding sentence betrays the lack of ambition in the article when Langkjoer modestly concludes that Danish cinema 'will most likely provide stories worthy of our attention for years to come' (122). Not too sure about that then?


The following paper, 'Urban Legends' by Peter Larsen, scrutinises the proposition of visual literacy proposed by Bela Balazs and others. Larsen argues that the examples often quoted -- where a tribe or grouping who had never previously seen a film were unable to comprehend the narrative when first shown one -- are akin to 'urban legends', stories often repeated and generally believed but without basis in reality. Using what is in fact rather old research data, he suggests that many interpretive skills are inherited rather than learnt from film viewing, which is consistent with Grodal's own view that much of our emotional and cognitive response is essentially 'hard-wired' rather than assembled by experience.


'Film Acting and the Communication of Emotions' by Johannes Riis is a functionalist consideration of the perception of expressiveness. Expressive behaviour can be either communicative or functional -- allowing us to adapt to environmental changes -- and it is this latter approach that Riis adopts in analysing expressiveness in _Hamlet_ (1948) (though hardly a typical film in terms of acting style). It is argued that unconvincing acting is identified as such due to a failure of its proper function, and we recognise this divergence between the intent of an acting expression and that actually portrayed. This is a useful cognitive analysis of the perception of performance and the emotional basis of aesthetics, and the argument could be usefully expanded and extended.


Murray Smith, in 'A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise', provides an analysis of musical cues in David Lynch's _Lost Highway_, particularly analysing the emotional impact of Lynch's 'illbient music', the stark, downbeat, discordant music that is one of Lynch's filmic trademarks. 'Lynch appeals to the more experimental and outre fringes of rock, to its omnivorous assimulation of other traditions of music, and to its fascination with the bedrock of noise'. (168). Yet at the end one is left with a feeling of 'so what'.


'The Sense of the Word' by Casper Tybjerg discusses Bordwell's constructivist position and then provides a rather over-long analysis of Dreyer's _Ordet_. He aims to support Grodal's position that significance and meaning prompt emotional responses and Bordwell's claim that a reading of a film is enriched when informed by historical and theoretical research. Tybjerg comments, in response to criticism of Bordwell, that his (Bordwell's) critics 'do not pay attention to what is on the screen the way Bordwell does' (190), which is indisputable given Bordwell's 'blink counting' in the earlier essay.


The final paper, 'The Documentary Style of Fiction Film in Eastern Europe' by Peter Wuss describes the background and problems of 'documentary fiction'. Wuss suggests that these films faced problems gaining an audience because they were considered boring and lacking in emotional impact, and their 'unarticulated conflicts were trivial and their ambiguous messages were too demanding' (232). East European filmmakers of the time such as Milos Forman recognised the difficulty in provoking an emotional response and developed directorial tricks such as comically exaggerating situations in order provide stronger audience stimuli. Wuss argues that this represents a neglected stylistic movement and that 'Forman's _One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest_, Tarkovsky's _The Mirror_, or other important works of filmmakers coming from Eastern Europe . . . would have been impossible without the professional experience of working within that style' (233). This is an interesting argument, but needs evidence if it is to be anything more than personal opinion.


In order to form a view on the picture of cognitivist film studies presented by this book it is useful to try and locate Grodal's arguments within the wider context of cognitivism. Cognitive science has now supplanted the both behaviourism and psychoanalysis as the dominant approach within psychology and anthropology. Arguably, cognitivism grew out of nineteenth-century phenomenology. However, some forms of phenomenology at that time can be retro-identified to be early forms of cognitive science. For instance, Gustav Fechner might be held to the father of experimental psychology, but his phenomenological approach might just as validly be described as cognitive science. This form of cognitive psychology based around clinical experimentation has clearly influenced Grodal, as echoes of Fechner's ideas can be heard in Grodal's account of attention and intensity.


However, applying cognitivist -- as opposed to psychoanalytic -- approaches to film is a relatively recent development and has become increasingly popular as a flag of convenience, binding together a disparate group of academics interested in applying the insights gained from neuroscience and psychology to the study of how narrative information in books and films is received and processed. Cognitivism has been defined by Howard Gardner as 'a contemporary, empirically based effort to answer long-standing epistemological questions -- particularly those concerned with the nature of knowledge, its components, its sources, its development'. [5] Bordwell has commented that cognitivism 'has proven a rich perspective in many domains, from linguistics and psychology to anthropology and education'. [6]


Cognitivism thus has two elements: the study of the brain or the physical, and the study of subjective experience or the mental. It seeks to provide a psychological explanation of aesthetic effects. Cognitive scientists who purely study brain activity in response to stimulus do not take such a holistic view of the subject, as does Grodal, who seeks to build onto clinical psychology a structured neo-formalist theory of response. Indeed, cognitivism proper differs from behaviouristic stimulus/response psychology in being holistic. It presupposes that a subject has a full range of conscious sensory input such that a change in one aspect of input will affect the whole. The realm of the mental is treated realistically by Grodal, who identifies internal mechanisms such as identification, projection, and introjection as part of the filmic experience, as well as distinguishing between different responses such as the voluntary, non-voluntary, and autonomic.


Having a commitment to cognitivism, Grodal rejects the psychoanalytical analysis of films as a body of unproven supposition and faux theory which needs to be built upon if it is to ever get beyond subjectively identifying fetishes and unsupported generalisation. For Grodal, cognitivism is a form of post-psychoanalysis, and presents a whole new way to both evaluate and interpret film by reference to its reception. As fellow (sometime) cognitivist Bordwell puts it:


'Cognitive theory wants to understand such human mental activities as recognition, comprehension, inference-making, interpretation, judgment, memory, and imagination. Researchers within this framework propose theories of how such processes work, and they analyze and test the theories according to canons of scientific and philosophical inquiry.' [7]


As with Kant on aesthetics, Grodal's approach to film studies is difficult to criticise. In a review of _Moving Pictures_ for _Film-Philosophy_ in 1997, Eric Parkinson objected that Grodal is a reductionist, in that he explains artistic appreciation in terms of cognitive mechanisms. [8] However, Grodal does not simply describe the physical aspect of the mechanisms. As Grodal and cognitive scientists are aware, cognitive mechanisms cannot be identified without reference to phenomenological experience as a starting point. We need to know which cognitive subjective experiences we are investigating before we can think of underlying physical mechanisms. Hence Grodal gives full reality to subjective consciousness in terms of emotive experience's compatibility with cognitive science. Cognitivism is able to benefit from experimental psychology, which was not available to Kant.


For Kant, the mind structures the world in a certain way such that we cannot not experience objects as in space and time or as caused. It is a necessary condition for perceptual and rational beings that this is so. Kant's theory of consciousness can be retro-identified as a form of constructivism compatible with that of modern cognitive scientists. Cognitive psychologists now know that some predispositions, such as empathy, are hard-wired. This means that there is a physical predisposition in the brain to process and so to mentally respond in a particular way to a distal source (object, person). Unless there is damage to the relevant part of the brain, a person simply will empathise with others. For Grodal, when we watch a narrative film we experience motivations that belong also to the protagonist. The same real-life hard-wired response mechanism is activated by both narrative film and reality.


While for the philosophical Kantian constructivist there are necessary conditions for conscious experience in general, for modern constructivists there are, as Grodal puts it, 'fundamental formulas of consciousness', or ways we respond to filmic representations. [9] While it is 'characteristic' of a comedy that we react with laughter, it is possible to find a comedy sad, but in such a case the viewer has 'redefined the reality-status' of the film, where this is an evaluative activity of the viewer. [10] While the viewer agrees in many responses where these are hard-wired and universal, we can differ as individuals in our appreciative skills. We can bring background knowledge to bear when watching a film and here our cognitive processing will be individualistic. Because hard-wired cognitive mechanisms are common in man, though each individual can differ to an extent in emotional make-up and appreciative skills, an education in cultural structuralism or formalism, or film studies in general, may add to the richness of the experience of the viewer, but these are not found by Grodal to be very explanatory of the basic filmic experience. By eschewing the abstract and theoretical, and by making use of factual knowledge and drawing on cognitive considerations, Grodal has made a concrete advance in film studies.


It might be objected that Grodal puts too much stress on the viewer's response and appreciation over that of film technique, but this does not constitute a valid criticism as he discusses the frame and boundaries in detail and provides many examples of cues and signifiers in film. The cue and the signifier are arguably meaningless without reference to the response they bring about. The narrative schemata is only such insofar as it cues a 'mental model', a term which originates with the cognitive linguist Mark Johnson.


It is difficult to summarise the immensely detailed analysis Grodal provides of the understanding and experiencing of film in _Moving Pictures_, and the breadth of thought and research on which he draws. Writing within the parameters of current thought, he refers, for instance, to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, the materialist philosophers of mind Paul and Patricia Churchland, the anthropologist Levi-Strauss, and the semiotician Umberto Eco. Grodal disagrees with Damasio in relation to the degree to which responses are hard-wired as opposed to learnt, endorsing the former in what is surely only a debate about the degree of 'nature' versus 'nurture'. He moves far beyond traditional film theory and rejects structuralism or formalism as unable to constitute complete theories of how we understand a film, yet still regards them as having some core that can be built upon.


While it is Gardner's view that the cognitive scientist should 'de-emphasise certain factors' and these include 'affective factors or emotions', [11] Grodal's contention is that the film experience is affective and the rational cannot be investigated in isolation from emotion. [12] This is one of the key arguments in what is at times a difficult book where the ideas seem sometimes to be lost behind the language: as Parkinson suggested, it is 'demanding challenging and, at times, puzzling'. He criticised the empirical basis used by Grodal as being somewhat inappropriate since: 'Recasting aesthetics as an empirically based discipline threatens the pleasures we experience when an explanation of an aesthetic effect is couched in scientific terms' -- an objection which strikes at the very roots of cognitivism. This charge Grodal refuted in a reply to Parkinson's review, arguing strongly that his (cognitivist) theories were more valid than the insights gained from a psychoanalytic approach to film which often could not withstand academic challenge or debate. [13] There are clear echoes of the eternal arts versus sciences schism in such a debate.


Cognitivism is clearly not for everyone. Those academics who seek to identify a film aesthetic from the plastics of a film, namely those who focus on film-making rather than film-viewing, will find little to assist them. Relativists who have come to the sad conclusion that one film is as good as another and valorisation is all relative will take little comfort from clinical studies that demonstrate that different films do push different cognitive and emotional buttons in a predictable way. And postmodernists will hate the neo-formalist rigour of cognitivism's arguments. But for those struggling in psychoanalytic dead-ends, or lost in the jargon and ethereal nature of media studies, or wrestling with how to advance reception studies to gain insights into film response (and, crucially, if they are prepared to admit that scientific and clinical data has a place in the arts), then cognitivism provides a way to move film studies forward and out of the current rut.


As a better tribute to Grodal, Museum Tusculanum Press should produce a volume of his essays or facilitate the translation of some of his earlier articles. _Film Style and Story_ is not a good exemplar for cognitive film studies, nor in truth is it much of a tribute to Torben Grodal. [14] While it demonstrates a predictable diversity of understanding of what the term 'cognitivism' embraces, when taken as a whole its approach is too constrained and too parochially Danish, its ambition is too limited, and too few of the arguments are empirically buttressed.


Birkbeck College

University of London, England





1.  Grodal, _Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognition_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).


2. Ibid., p. 8.


3. Ibid., p. 11.


4. See Chapter 2 of _The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason_. (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1987).


5. Gardner, _The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution_ (Basic Books, 1985), p. 6.


6. Bordwell, 'Cognitive Film Theory' <>; originally published in _Iris_, no.9, Spring 1989, pp. 11-40.


7. Bordwell, 'A Case for Cognitivism' <>; originally published in _Iris_, no.11, Summer 1990, pp. 107-112.


8. See Eric Parkinson, 'Project for a Scientific Film Theory',_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 11, October 1997 <>.


9. Grodal, _Moving Pictures_, p. 8.


10. Ibid., p. 187.


11. Gardner, _The Mind's New Science_, p. 6.


12. See Grodal, _Moving Pictures_, p. 6.


13. See Torben Grodal, 'Film Aesthetics and Parkinson's Nostalgia for Psychologisms', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 12, November 1997 <>.


14. Readers interested in cognitivism and how it can be applied to film would be better served reading Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith, eds, _Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion_ (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). This book also contains Grodal's essay 'Emotions, Cognitions and Narrative Patterns in Films', which summarises many of the ideas in _Moving Pictures_.



Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004



Andrew Browne, 'Cognitivism: Use it or Lose it; On _Film Style and Story: A Tribute to Torben Grodal_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 43, December 2004 <>.











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