Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?
Start with this question, which I think is one of the
most fascinating we can ask: What enables us to understand films?
Well, set aside some hard cases, like Brakhage abstractions and transmissions
of the Crab Nebula from the Hubble telescope (above). Let’s
start with a prototype: a film whose moving images present more or less recognizable
persons, places, and things caught up in what we intuitively call stories. In
other words, an ordinary movie shown in theatres and on video.
Catching a code
The Naked City.
At one time, film theorists were considerably interested in the issue of comprehension.
The heyday of film semiology, roughly from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1970s,
brought forth vigorous conjectures about how we grasp images and comprehend stories.
One of the boldest proposals was the idea that understanding rests upon codes—rule-governed
relations between the signifier (a material thing, like an image) and a signified
(a concept). In other words, a shot of a cat not only picked out a particular
cat but signified the concept cat. Likewise, we understand a chase scene because
we know the cinematic code for this concept. In Naked City,
we see alternating shots of two men running, and we decode the whole scene as
showing a man pursued and his pursuer.
Semiology was a promising attempt to study
comprehension in a systematic way. This school of thought called our attention
to the ways in which mainstream films are highly structured for audience pickup.
Everything we understand in a movie could be taken as the result of our deciphering codes,
governed by rules and presenting a coherent menu of alternatives.1
For some thinkers, the concept of codes promised to give substance to the age-old “film
grammar” metaphor. Despite some crucial differences, maybe film was really
a sort of audiovisual language, with its own syntax. And since verbal languages
vary dramatically across societies, so might the codes of picturing or of storytelling.
Just as language must be learned, so too perhaps the codes of cinema require
Semiological research reminded us that what seems natural is often very artificial,
and relative to one society rather than another. In another culture, the code
of traffic signals might employ not red, yellow, and green lights, but any other
colors. The notion of codes also suited an emerging view of what one influential
book of the time called the “social construction of reality.”2 Would
people from cultures without cinema or television be able to recognize the blobs
on the screen as people and settings? Do codes go all the way down to the very
core of our perception? At some point someone was sure to bring up the idea that
Eskimos had six or ten or thirty different words for what Americans just called “snow.”3
Today, classic semiologists are rare in film studies.
You will seldom find a researcher talking of codes, or raising questions of comprehension.
Nevertheless the idea that filmic expression is quite arbitrary, socially constructed,
and learned remains in the ether. Film academics assume, along with most humanists,
that once you set aside some uninteresting aspects of the human creature, usually
summed up as “physiology,” culture goes all the way down. Beyond
cell division and digestion, let’s say, everything is cultural, and to
invoke any other explanations risks rejection.
That 80s show
In Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), I asked
how we could best explain our grasp of one aspect of cinema, the flow of story
information I called narration. I argued that since most narrative films were
made in order to be experienced by viewers, we ought to study the strategies
filmmakers used to elicit understanding. Most of those strategies, it seemed
to me, exploited rather general human perceptual and cognitive capacities.
research of the 1970s was dominated by a school of thought derived ultimately
from the great psychophysicist Helmholtz. “New Look” perceptual
psychologists like Jerome Bruner and Richard Gregory held that the stimuli hitting
our sense organs were noisy, incomplete, and ambiguous; we needed higher-level
faculties to sort them out. Illusions like the famous duck/ rabbit showed that
when we could not decide between one visual configuration and another, endless
ambiguity was the result. The eye, as was commonly said, was part of the mind.
Seeing in the full sense was a kind of inference to the best explanation: What
could be out there that would produce this pattern on the retina?
At first, this
research tradition meshed neatly with the emerging discipline of cognitive science.
In the early 1980s, cognitive scientists were largely focused on matters of language,
reasoning, applying categories, and making decisions about action.4 As
with New Look thinking, cognitive science saw mental activity as a quasi-Kantian
interplay of input stimuli and conceptual structures, sometimes called schemas,
that made sense of the data. Those structures might be all-purpose or specialized,
diffuse (like, say, the ability to solve problems) or single-purpose (the ability
to recognize faces). Again, inference was the model, although some mental inferences,
like those involved in vision, were held to be fast, automatic, and “informationally
encapsulated” (i.e., ignorant of anything outside their dedicated domain).5 Eventually,
the inferential approach would become the basis of a computational approach to
both perception and cognition, and it probably remains the dominant view in psychological
How adequate were New Look perceptual theory and Cog Sci mental mechanics to
explaining everyday thinking? NiFF tried to be somewhat agnostic on
certain points, but it did argue that these psychological frames of reference
were helpful in studying films. Perceptually, films are illusions, not reality;
cognitively, they are not the blooming, buzzing confusion of life but rather
simplified ensembles of elements, designed to be understood. They are made to
engage thought, particularly thought that goes “beyond the information
narratives, like narratives in all media, abstract and streamline their real-world
components for smooth pickup and invite us to fill in what is left unshown and
unsaid. What outline drawings are to the eye, narratives are to the mind.
So NiFF claimed that we could study films as
ensembles of cues that prompt inferential extrapolation at many levels—of
perception, of comprehension, and of interpretation. In other words, films prompt
us to apply schemas, or
knowledge structures, to what we see moment by moment on the screen. Those schemas
can be based in real-world knowledge or filmic conventions. Each type posed problems
for the concept of codes.
Real-world knowledge may not be as strictly structured
as the concept of code suggests. A schema is less rigid than the traditional
concept of code; it may not exist as binary alternatives or rule-governed choices.
Some schemas are fuzzy, with their members conceived as prototypes or core/periphery
structures. So for us a robin is a prototypical bird, a penguin or ostrich is
not. The latter might be prototypes for people in other cultures, but that doesn’t
invalidate the point that some categories are organized by “best-instance” criteria
rather than hard and fast boundaries.
Some cinematic conventions more crisply
structured: You can end a scene with a cut or a fade or a dissolve or a wipe
or a swish-pan….and that’s
about it. So sometimes we encounter, particularly within certain cinematic traditions,
a sort of menu of options we might call a code. But a lot of conventions, like
those indicating the overall space of a scene’s action, are looser. There
is no rule that requires a long-shot to be followed by a close-up, the way a
preposition in language requires an object. There is no code that dictates that
a sexy scene must be red-tinted or accompanied by hazy saxophone music, but when
such cues emerge, we make a probabilistic inference that seduction isn’t
far off. Not all conventions, it seems, are coded. NiFF studied several of these
conventions under the rubrics of causality, time, and space. Those three categories,
NiFF claimed, are basic to narrative and to human cognition, and so they ought
to play roles in the process by which we understand stories.
Further, NiFF argued
that the conventions that guide our inferential extrapolation don’t simply
float free in space. There were recurring clusters of favored choices for presenting
causality, time, and space. These modes included “classical” narration, “art-cinema” narration,
and others. The historical layout still seems valid to me, and they seem to have
proven useful to other researchers.
Theoretically, however, NiFF ran into problems in the role it assigned
to inference. At the time of writing NiFF, I was aware of the writings
of J. J. Gibson and his insistence that perception evolved in environments very
different from the impoverished information that New Look theorists assumed triggered
perception. In the three-dimensional world in which creatures like us live, the
stimuli are not typically partial or degraded; they are in fact quite rich, even
redundant. Moving through space, we register an optic flow that specifies the
layout of surfaces quite precisely.7
NiFF finessed this problem by saying that even if Gibson’s account
of ordinary perception were right, films don’t present the informational
array afforded by the real world. Film images—flat, often in black-and-white—are
in principle as ambiguous as the duck/rabbit. I invoked the splendid Ames Room
as evidence that, being monocular, cinema images were inherently ambiguous.8
This now seems to me misguided. Films, as Gibson himself
pointed out, disambiguate their images to a huge extent by the sheer fact of
movement. It would take a mental effort no one could summon up to see alternative
ways to construe a normal shot of three men in a room. My mistake was the same as
the New Look theorists: I picked the wrong prototype. Just as illusions aren’t
fair samples of perception in the wild, so the Ames Room is an extraordinary
piece of filmmaking artifice, not a typical one. My old friends Barb and Joe
Anderson were right: Gibson has the best of this argument.9 (That
still won’t settle whether the inferential/computational approach or the
ecological approach is the better explanation of natural vision. On that I retreat
to the amateur’s agnosticism.)
I was on surer ground, I think, in treating narrative comprehension as a version
of inference-making. But NiFF pushed it in a problematic direction.
Considering narrative comprehension as inferential led me to bring in the Russian
Formalist distinction between fabula and syuzhet. These two
terms have been used in several ways, but the most plausible way, it seemed to
me then and seems still, is to see fabula as the chronological-causal
string of events that may be presented by the syuzhet, the configuration
of events in the narrative text as we have it.
Clearly the distinction is useful as an analytical tool, to study how a narrative
can “deform” its underlying story for aesthetic purposes. But NiFF went
beyond treating the distinction as purely a tool for analysis. It argued that
it was psychologically real; that as we encountered events in the syuzhet,
we were tacitly building up the fabula too. The process is a bit like double-entry
bookkeeping, with the viewer keeping track not only of what is happening each
moment on the screen but also slotting that into the chronological pattern of fabula events.
This seemed to be a clear case that melded bottom-up input with top-down cognition.
Unfortunately, some people argued, it’s psychologically implausible. Eventually
I had to agree. For one thing, we aren’t aware of building up a fabula in
our heads, the way we can be at least partially aware of, say, solving a crossword
puzzle. For another, we can’t access it easily; try stopping a film on
video and reciting the entire chain of events leading up to the moment of pause.
Worse, try at the end of the movie to grasp mentally the entire fabula you’ve
purportedly worked out. Chances are you can’t do it. Given that our memories
are reconstructive rather than photographic, creating an accurate fabula is
extremely difficult. More theoretically, Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks
proposed some reasons that the viewer’s mental representation for the most
part cannot reflect the underlying structure of the film.10
I think that NiFF made the valid point that our
understanding of narrative is often inferential, and we do flesh out what we’re
given. But I now think that the inference-making takes place in a very narrow
window of time, and it leaves few tangible traces. What is built up in our memory
as we move through a film is something more approximate, more idiosyncratic,
more distorted by strong moments, and more subject to error than the fabula that
the analyst can draw up. Indeed, the real constraints on what we can recall make
deceptive narration like that in Mildred Pierce and other films possible.11
I think the error was a productive one. In assigning to the spectator the task
of ongoing fabula construction, NiFF harmonized with
one premise I consider central: a holistic sense of form. Even if we scan the
entire narrative through a narrow slit, it’s important for the analyst
and theorist to consider the overall design of the work, the more or less coherent
principles that govern the unfolding tale. I’m thinking of such matters
as smoothly cascading character goals, psychological motives and personality
change, gradual development of knowledge, shifts in viewpoint, repeated and varied
motifs, and finer-grained patterns of visual and sonic presentation. In an analysis
of Jerry Maguire, for instance, I tried to show how such features were
operating at many scales, creating a considerable formal richness.12
Such design features need to be accounted for, especially
when they crop up in an otherwise innocuous popular movie. Why are many movies
more tightly organized than they need to be, given the drastic limits on viewer
attention and memory? Clearly, goals, motifs, and the rest aim to shape the spectator’s
experience in some respect, and we may well register many of them at some level
of awareness. NiFF posited
a too-sapient viewer, but methodologically at least, it’s better to point
up many things that a spectator could respond to, even if no real spectator
grasps or recalls all of them. Indeed, some narrative traditions seem to try
to pack things tightly, so that readers or viewers can return to the book or
film and notice things that escaped them on a first pass. Here, as elsewhere, NiFF’s
desire to mix formal analysis with an account of spectator response created some
gaps in the theory, but in some respects it’s better to have more to explain
(about the architecture and detail of the film) than less. It’s a dynamic
I’m still trying to refine many years later.
For the most part, NiFF explicitly
left aside the emotional dimensions of narration. That was done on the assumption
that comprehension as such was relatively insulated from affective response.
You can follow a story, I claimed, without being moved by it. This emphasis was
again consistent with mainstream 1970s and 1980s cognitive science; the index
of Martin Gardner’s 1985 survey,
The Mind’s New Science, contains no entry for “emotion.” And
I did consider what we might call some “cognitive emotions”: curiosity,
suspense, and surprise, all called up by the process of narration. In the decades
since the book was written, however, the relation of emotion to cognition has
become central to cognitive science, and it has been explored by several film
scholars working in the cognitivist paradigm.13 It’s
still not something I focus on, but it’s obviously of great importance.
someone might ask: Why contrast NiFF’s cognitive approach
with semiology, which was passing out of favor when the book was written? Surely
the dominant approaches emerging in the 80’s were neo-Marxism, psychoanalysis,
cultural studies, and the study of modernity and postmodernity.
answer. These perspectives don’t play a role in NiFF,
or in this essay, because their proponents weren’t asking about how films
are understood. These writers focused on questions of how social, cultural, and
psychodynamic processes were represented in films. Typically those questions
were answered by interpreting individual films, reading them for traces of the
larger processes made salient by the given theory. 14 My
concern was explaining, not explicating; I wanted functional and causal-historical
accounts of why films in various traditions displayed certain regularities in
their narrational strategies. That was, I thought, most pertinent to the semiological
line of inquiry.
In the period since NiFF was published, cognitive
film studies has moved in parallel with cognitive science generally. We have
had neurological studies of film viewing; we have seen appeals to evolutionary
psychology; we have seen studies of suprapersonal patterns of emergence.15 These
all seem to me fruitful. In what follows, I want to sketch out some ideas that
I’d develop in a new and improved version of NiFF. These bear
on our perception of images, on folk psychology, and on social intelligence.
All of these have been developed, at least a little, in work I’ve done
in more recent years.
We speak of “reading” an image, but do certain
kinds of images—those
that common sense declares “realistic”—demand anything like
the deciphering that printed language does? How much does grasping an image depend
on learned conventions of representation?
In NiFF I waffled on the question
too much. Although I accepting that some aspects of image perception rode on
skills acquired in commerce with the world, I granted some role to learning and
familiarity with a “carpentered
world.” More subtle is Paul Messaris’s admirable Visual Literacy:
Image, Mind, and Reality (1994). Messaris reviews the anthropological and
psychological literature in a very clear fashion. He points out that some conventions
for representing depth in still images may not be widely understandable; the
classic example is the drawing above, which was interpreted by viewers in some
African cultures as a hunter pointing his spear at a very tiny elephant.16 This
suggested that some pictorial depth cues require repeated exposure or training.
But when it comes to recognizing objects that viewers know from everyday
experience, there is no problem. The African viewers recognized the tiny elephant as an
When it comes to moving pictures, the issue is even clearer.
Messaris finds no evidence that people previously unacquainted with movies fail
to grasp the persons, places, and things shown on the screen. This is congruent
with more recent research by Stephan Schwan and Sermin Ildirar, who studied adult
experience of watching films. 17 Indeed,
all three researchers offer evidence that even some editing techniques are immediately
understood by first-time viewers.
On the “film as language” question Messaris’s conclusions
What distinguishes images (including motion pictures) from language and
from other modes of communication is the fact that images reproduce many of the
informational cues that people make us of in their perception of physical and
social reality. Our ability to infer what is represented in an image is based
largely on this property, rather than on familiarity with arbitrary conventions
(whereas the latter play a primary role in the interpretation of language, mathematics,
and so on).18
Messaris’s review suggests that grasping pictures rides on our abilities
to identify objects and spatial layouts in the real world. Some intriguing research
on infants reinforces the point.
In a famous experiment, Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks kept their son away
from pictures during his first eighteen months. He did occasionally see billboards
and a few picture books and labels, but when a picture was encountered, the parents
never pointed out its contents or tried to name them. At nineteen months, when
the boy was starting to spontaneously call out names of things he spotted in
accidental images, “It was evident that some form of parental response
to such identification would soon become unavoidable.” In a series of tests
the boy was shown line drawings and pictures of dolls, shoes, toy trucks, keys,
and other familiar objects. He named them to a high degree of accuracy. Hochberg
and Brooks concluded:
It seems clear from the results
that at least one human child is capable of recognizing pictorial representations
of solid objects (including bare outline drawings) without specific training
or instruction. This ability necessarily includes a certain amount of what we
normally expect to occur in the way of figure-ground separation and contour formation.
At the very least, we must infer that there is an unlearned propensity to respond
to certain formal features of lines-on-paper in the same way as one has learned
to respond to the same features when displayed by the edges of surfaces….
The complete absence of instruction in the present case…points
to some irreducible minimum of native ability for pictorial recognition. If it
is true also that there are cultures in which this ability is absent, such deficiency
will require special explanation; we cannot assert that it is simply a matter
of having not yet learned the “language of pictures.”19
Hochberg and Brooks used only still pictures, although
their son did once glimpse a horse on TV. (He cried, “Dog!”) What
about moving images?
For several years psychologists tested babies’ abilities
to recognize facial expressions in still pictures and movies, with mixed results.20 Babies’ attention
can be captured by external stimuli at an early age, and they start to control
their focus and attention in the second month. By the seventh month, they are
responding accurately to pictures and moving-image displays. Yet it’s possible
that recognition starts much earlier. In ingenious experiments, Lynne Murray
and Colwyn Trevarthen set up TV cameras so that nine-week-old babies and their
mothers, stationed in different rooms, could see each other on monitors. The
experimenters wanted to record the interactions between them, as well as to vary
the timing of responses through pauses and replays.21
Murray and Trevarthen’s
conclusions about the babies’ ability to
synchronize their responses with the mothers’ expressions has touched off
considerable debate and further experimentation.22 That’s
not what matters for us as students of cinema. What’s relevant for us is
that the babies evidently did, in both real time and in tape delay, recognize
the moving images of their mothers.
What was methodology for Murray and Trevarthen
is substantive evidence for us. Very young babies could grasp the video image,
at least to some extent, as a representation of the most familiar person in their
lives. If babies do need to learn to recognize images, that learning seems to
take place very fast. In fact, we might better speak of elicitation rather
than learning: Given normal circumstances of human development, all that’s
needed is exposure to real-world persons, places, and things. Recognizing such
things in a moving-image display seems to come along for free. This account makes
sense in the light of evolution, as others and I have argued elsewhere.23
Folk psychology: Success stories
The Big Clock.
There is a lot more to be said and studied about grasping
moving images as representations of real-world items, most saliently people,
but let me turn now to some matters of narrative that I’ve rethought since NiFF was
Recognizing the contents of realistic images, I’ve
suggested, depends heavily upon our everyday perceptual abilities. Similarly,
filmic storytelling relies upon cognitive dispositions and habits we’ve
developed in a real-world context. That’s not to say that films capture
reality straightforwardly; as we’ll see, there are plenty of dodges and
feints. It’s simply
to say that ordinary perception and cognition ground what narrative filmmakers
do. On that foundation quite various, even fantastic, edifices can be built.
to narrative psychology, I’ve come to suspect, is that elusive
thing called folk psychology. Folk psychology calls on “common sense”—our
everyday habits of attributing qualities, beliefs, desires, intentions, and the
like to ourselves and to people around us. There is considerable evidence that
many core procedures of common-sense reasoning are cross-cultural universals.24
perception.” We tend to arrive at quick impressions
about those around us. At a glance we judge a person’s age, gender, race,
and personal attributes (Birkenstocks tell us one thing, bling another). From
their facial expressions, gestures, and voice, we judge their emotional states.
Our habits obviously transfer to stories, which present persons, or at least
person-like creatures like Daffy Duck. To follow the story we have to assign
the characters certain qualities. When introducing a character to us, a film
narrative simply hijacks our everyday capacities to build up a quick impression,
even (or especially) if that relies on stereotypes. That impression may be confirmed,
tested, or repudiated as the story develops, but our quick and dirty habits of
person perception provide a point of departure.
We also indulge in mind-reading.
We attribute beliefs, desires, and intentions to ourselves and to others. You
want a burger; you stop at a burger joint to get one. You act on your desire
based on beliefs about the world, most notably the belief that you can get a
burger at that joint. Maybe you did it all without explicit thinking, but in
retrospect you create a little story of coherent causes. We interpret others’ actions
the same way. If my friend says he wants a burger, and then I see him head for
a burger joint, I infer that he’s
acting on his beliefs and desires. Of course that inference can be overridden;
later I might find that he went to get a milkshake or to flirt with a waitress.
But even revising the inference requires the same schema. (Aha, he really
wanted a shake, or a date for tonight.)
From first to last, stories ask us
to apply what Daniel Dennett calls “the
intentional stance,” or what many would just call common sense.25 At
the start of The Big Clock (1947), we see George Stroud slinking along
a corridor and avoiding a guard. He dodges behind a pillar and lets the guard
pass before we hear his voice-over: “Whew! That was close.” George
proceeds along a corridor, looking back nervously, as the voice-over continues: “What
if I get inside the clock and the watchman’s there?”
disheveled appearance and furtive movements, as well as the stream-of-consciousness
commentary, we have no trouble inferring his beliefs (he’s being hunted)
and his desire (to take refuge). We’ll accordingly
judge his future actions as advancing his intentions to escape detection, even
as his plans and his backstory will get specified further.
The centrality of
characters’ goals in classical filmmaking, of which
Kristin and I have made much on this site and in our research, fits our folk-psychological
tendency to pick out actions that fulfill desires in the light of characters’ beliefs.
The web of intentions can get very complicated—think of all the beliefs
and desires at play in The Godfather—but we’re very good
at tracking them because we expect that social situations exhibit what people
are planning to achieve. To bring babies back in, it seems that they too can
do mind-reading. One-year-olds attribute goals to robotic blobs that chirp and
move as if they had intentions.26
There are enormous philosophical debates around the belief-desire
component of folk psychology.27 Is
it truly explanatory, or just vacuous? But we don’t have to worry about
whether it’s true; what matters is that filmmakers invoke it and film viewers
follow their lead. Storytellers are practical psychologists, preying (usually
in a good sense) on our habits of mind in order to produce experiences.
there are important ways in which folk psychology leads us astray. Film exploits
Folk psychology: The downside
In Everything Is Obvious* (*Once You Know the Answer),
Duncan J. Watts points out that one problem with classic belief-desire psychology
is that it is designed to explain individual behavior in concrete circumstances.
scale up well to explain large-scale trends. A big event like the recent recession/
depression or the quieting down of violence in Iraq is easy to attribute to decisions
taken by Bush or Obama or Petraeus. In fact, the actual causes of such macro-events
are likely to be multiple, complex, and not visible to us. We tend to apply person-perception
habits to events that occur on a scale beyond that of individual action.
is a contribution to “Wrongology,” the study of
our tendencies to overestimate our abilities, make simple logical errors, and
act inconsistently. The research area has its roots in the studies of heuristics
and biases conducted by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.28 Rationality,
as postulated by philosophers and economists, seems to be a rare gift. To take
a now-classic example:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very
bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with
issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear
Now, which is more likely?
Linda is a bank clerk.
Linda is a bank clerk and a feminist.
Most people say the latter
is more probable, although it can’t be. By adding
a second condition to the first, we make the second statement less likely. If
people reasoned according to formal logic, they would recognize this as a fallacy
Likewise, the rational agent beloved of economists turns out to be motivated
by more than gain, as shown in the so-called Ultimatum
Game. Veronica has $100, while Betty has no money. According
to the rules, Veronica must offer Betty some of the money, and if Betty refuses
the split, neither player gets anything. Now if Veronica is a rational
agent, she ought to offer Betty as little as possible, maximizing her own gain.
And Betty, who starts off with zero dollars, should take even a measly $1, since
that leaves her better off than before. But in experiments conducted around the
world, the players in Veronica’s position tend to offer a fifty-fifty split.
More surprisingly, players in Betty’s position tend to reject offers of
less than $30, leaving both players with nothing.
Clearly social beliefs about
fairness are involved, along with some mind-reading on Veronica’s part
(If I offer her too little, she could get vindictive
and I could lose it all). Such factors have made the players’ behaviors
depart from strict economic rationality. Economists and psychologists who recognize
such “predictably irrational” pressures have created a discipline
So folk psychology has its own biases. Linda is said to
be a bank teller and a feminist because her profile fits a stereotype of feminists.
This is sometimes called the availability heuristic, the tendency to
apply the handiest schema to a situation. There is as well confirmation
habit of looking only for evidence that supports the idea you’re leaning
toward. Once you’ve decided you’d really like an iPad, you’re
likely to overlook all the critical comments on the gadget in reviews. If you
believe in astrology, you’ll tend to remember the times that your horoscope
seemed to predict what happened to you and forget the more numerous times when
it failed to do so. Watts points out the reconstructive nature of memory as
another biasing effect. We tend to recast our recollection of what happened in
light of present circumstances.
One of my favorite biases is the primacy
effect, already discussed in
entry. Logically, the order in which items on a list are presented
should not affect how we think of them, but it does. Take Hong Kong supermogul
three daughters. Which of their names doesn’t belong with the other two?
Maisy, Daisy, and Pansy
Pansy that’s out of step, since she doesn’t
rhyme with her sisters. But present them in reverse order:
Pansy, Daisy, and Maisy
…and the outlier is Maisy, who isn’t named
after a flower. The first item in a series tends to serve as a benchmark against
which we measure the ones that follow. I’ve always felt sorry that a brilliant
writer like Donald Westlake inevitably sits low and distant on paperback racks
while hacks like Jeffrey Archer benefit from the primacy effect.
Again and again,
narratives manipulate our psychological biases. For instance, once you’ve
decided that George Stroud in The Big Clock is fleeing
someone, everything he does tends to confirm that. The filmmakers exploit confirmation
bias. Likewise, the syuzhet layout relies on the primacy effect. The
film starts at a point of crisis, with George fleeing his boss’s goons.
The narration then flashes back to the beginning of the action, when George tried
to escape from Janoth’s overweening control by taking a long-promised vacation
with his family. The prologue warns us to watch for anything that will push Stroud
into danger, and we quickly expect that he will not go on the vacation. Had the
film begun with the more prosaic events that come earliest in the fabula,
we would not have been on the alert for Stroud’s plunge into a critical
situation. The prologue also signals the importance of the clock as a sinister
force and time as a motif through the film.
Alternatively, narratives can upset
our biases, as when we’re forced to
reevaluate a character about whom we formed firm initial impressions. We’re
obliged to do this with Danny Ciello in the closing moments of Prince of
the City. Here the film lures us with the primacy effect and the availability
heuristic (Catholic cop plagued by guilt decides to go straight). Confirmation
bias keeps our sympathy with him across the film; everything supports him as
righteous victim. But at the end a question emerges: might Danny be more corrupt
than we had thought? Meier Sternberg describes this as the “rise and fall
of first impressions,” and it often depends on the power of the primacy
the limit, a narrative film can try to avoid setting up any clear-cut first impressions,
as happens in “art films” like In the City of Sylvia.30
one aspect of folk psychology can rescue another. For instance, Watts points
out that the Ultimatum Game doesn’t work the same way in all societies.
In experiments with the Machiguenga tribe of Peru, the moneyed partner tended
to offer only about a quarter of the total, and nearly all offers were accepted.
Both parties were being more “rational” by the economists’ standards.
But now belief-desire psychology kicks in. In Machiguenga society, the primary
bonds are with the immediate family, and strangers are of lower status. So the
moneyed partner felt little obligation to make a fair split, and the recipient
was happy with whatever was offered. Once we know this, the Machiguenga strategy
makes sense.31 A
similar sort of thing happens in fantasy and science-fiction films. Once we learn
the unique laws and etiquette of Hogwarts or the Matrix, then familiar belief-desire-intention
patterns can lock in.
Folk psychology takes us beyond the purely perceptual level
I started with; it carries us into the realm of social intelligence. Mind-reading
requires us to detect, sometimes on very faint cues, what people are expressing
or signaling through their behavior. Elsewhere I’ve talked about this in
cases involving eye behavior—blinking and eyebrows,
in particular. But there’s much more to be done with the ways in which
cinema mobilizes our social intelligence in order to track a narrative. Sometimes
the narrative eases our task by making things redundant and clear; sometimes
the film throws up problems, making it hard to understand characters’ intentions
or reactions, as in the enigmatic veteran played by Henry Fonda in Daisy
I found the concept of social intelligence especially useful
in explaining a form of cinematic storytelling that has become prominent since
the 1990s, what I called the network narrative. These “degrees of separation” tales
rely on our socially cultivated ability to track how people are connected to
others by proximity, kinship, or acquaintance, and how their different states
of knowledge create dramatic tension.32 We
might as well call it the soap-opera effect. Again, however, such films are likely
to streamline the vast complexity of real-world social networks: the networks
in movies like Love, Actually and Sunshine State tend to be
simple and redundantly stated. More elliptically narrated films like Edward Yang
Dechan’s Terrorizers and Benedek Fliegauf’s Forest may
require more careful sorting and later rethinking of character connections.
aspect of folk psychology, crucial to narrative but neglected in NiFF,
merits more study: emotional response. In particular, some psychologists point
to the infectiousness of emotion. Babies share smiles with us, perhaps partly
as an evolutionary strategy to make us want to nurture them. (Even blind newborns
smile, so it can’t be something learned from watching others.) Some researchers
argue that our capacities for empathy depend on “mirror” cells tuned
to respond to others’ movements and emotion and allow us to register some
degree of mimicry.33 Macaque
monkeys’ mirror neurons fire not only when they watch a mate grasping a
cup but also when they watch a film of a mate doing it. (More evidence that film
images require no special code-learning.) V. S. Ramachandran suggests that mirror
neurons could explain the fact that a mother sticking out her tongue provokes
her newborn baby to do the same, a presumably innate response.34 If
assumptions about mirror neurons in humans turn out to be well-founded, we may
find that cinema, with its ability to capture gesture and the flickers of facial
expressions, is an ideal medium for triggering involuntary reactions (kinesthetic,
emotional), which can in turn can be recruited for narrative purposes.
Uncommon sources of common sense
Someone might suggest that this general line of thinking leads to observations
that are quite superficial. What viewer doesn’t see that George Stroud
in The Big Clock is trying to avoid the guards? I’d reply that
once we move beyond the moment to look at strategies of patterning at different
scales, we find things aren’t so obvious; that was the primary task of NiFF.
But I grant that our point of departure will seem very commonsensical. In fact, NiFF and
other things I’ve written have been charged with committing “common-sense
In one way that’s true. The humanities have in general
suffered from straining for the most far-fetched accounts of how art, literature,
and music work. In the literary humanities in particular, ingenious interpretations—often
relying on free-association, wordplay, and talking points lifted from favored penseurs—get
more notice than plausible explanations do. In various places I’ve
argued for naturalistic and empirical explanations as the best option we have
in answering middle-range questions, and even bigger ones like “How do
we comprehend movies?” Sometimes our answers will not be counterintuitive.
To say that looking at images recruits our skills of looking at the world will not surprise many people; but it is likely to be true. What’s
likely to be counterintuitive are the discoveries of mechanisms that undergird
perception. Would common sense predict that an object’s form, color, movement,
and spatial location are analyzed along distinct pathways in the visual system?
Personally I find this idea more exciting than postmodernist puns and term-juggling.35
important, we can embrace common sense at a meta-level. Recognizing that it is
in play in narrative comprehension makes it something we need to analyze. We
can understand filmic understanding better if we recognize what’s intuitively
obvious, and then go on to ask what in the film, and in our psychological and
social make-up, makes something obvious. And those factors may not be
obvious in themselves. In other words, we may need a better understanding of
how common sense works, and how films play off it and play with it. That understanding
may in turn oblige us to accept empirical experiment, evolutionary thinking,
and neurological research—all of which most literary humanists find worrisome.
worrisome, in fact, that many don’t recognize naturalistic explanations
as being theoretical at all. For them, the only theories that exist are Big Theories,
and so efforts like the one I just mentioned are condemned as expressing a disdain
for or suspicion of theorizing tout court. But that objection, feeble
to start with, was blocked back in 1996 by the opening sentences Noël Carroll
and I wrote in our Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies:
Our title risks misleading you. Is this book about
the end of film theory? No. It’s about the end of Theory, and what can
and should come after.36
introduction and many of the pieces included in the volume float arguments for
theorizing as an activity that asks researchable questions and comes
up with more or less plausible answers—some commonsensical, some not, and
some probing what counts as common sense.
Ironically, just as filmic interpretation
is amenable to task analysis from a cognitive standpoint, a surprising amount
of Grand Theory seems to me to rely on the sort of folk-psychological schemas
and shortcuts that we find in ordinary life. But that’s a whole other essay.
The most influential, and still informative, account of one such code was Christian
Syntagmatique of narrative cinema. See Metz, “Problems of Denotation in
the Fiction Film,” in Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema,
trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 108–146. Metz’s
more general consideration of cinematic codes is to be found in his Language
and Cinema, trans. Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok (The Hague: Mouton, 1974).
2 : Peter L. Berger
and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the
Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1967).
3 : On this Golden
Oldie of humanities lore, see Geoffrey Pullum, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary
Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1991), 159–175.
4 : See Howard Gardner, The
Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution (New York:
Basic Books, 1985).
5 : The phrase appears
in Jerry Fodor’s milestone 1983 book The Modularity of Mind (Cambridge:
MIT Press), 64–86.
6 : The phrase became
something of a slogan for the New Look school. See Jerome S. Bruner, Beyond
the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing, ed. Jeremy
M. Anglin (New York: Norton, 1973).
7 : J. J. Gibson, Perception
of the Visual World (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1974 [orig. 1950]; J. J. Gibson, The
Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).
8 : On the Ames Room,
see William H. Ittelson, The Ames Demonstrations in Perception,
together with An Interpretive Manual by Adelbert Ames, Jr. (NewYork: Hafner,
1968). Go here for many videos employing the principles of the Ames Room. Interestingly, many of the voice-over commentators on these videos assume that
prior knowledge, expectations, and other cognitive factors influence perception,
indicating that New Look psychology remains a dominant paradigm for perceptual
9 : Gibson made his
arguments about movies in The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 292–302. See Joseph D. Anderson, The Reality of
Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory (Carbondale: University
of Southern Illinois Press, 1996) and the articles collected in Moving Image
Theory: Ecological Coniderations, ed. Joseph D. Anderson and Barbara Fisher
Anderson (Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 2005). Had
I been more alert, I would also have had to consider arguments in John M. Kennedy’s A
Psychology of Picture Perception (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974).
10 : Julian Hochberg
and Virginia Brooks, “Movies in the Mind’s Eye,” in In
the Mind’s Eye: Julian Hochberg on the Perception of Pictures, Films, and
the World, ed. Mary A. Peterson, Barbara Gillam, and H. A. Sedgwick, (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 387–395.
11 : See my “Cognition
and Comprehension: Viewing and Forgetting in Mildred Pierce,” Poetics
of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008), 135–150. The chart in the essay was
printed inaccurately; an accurate one is at http://www.davidbordwell.net/books/poetics.php.
12 : See The
Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2006), 63–71.
13 : Major examples
include Ed Tan, Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion
Machine (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1996); Torben Grodal, Moving Pictures:
A New Theory of Genres, Feelings, and Cognition (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1997), Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith, eds., Passionate Views: Film,
Cognition, and Emotion (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999),
Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007), and Carl Plantinga, Moving Viewers: American Film
and the Spectator’s Experience (Berkeley: University of California
14 : In another book,
I tried to show how theory-driven interpretations, like interpretations that
weren’t theory-driven, were amenable to cognitive and rhetorical analysis.
See Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1989).
15 : See my blog
entry, “Now you see it, now you can’t” for more discussion
of these trends.
16 : See William
Hudson, “Pictorial Depth perception in Subcultural Groups in Africa,” Journal
of Social Psychology 52 (1960), 183–208, and “The Study of the Problem
of Pictorial Perception among Unacculturated Groups,” International
Journal of Psychology 2 (1967), 89–107.
17 : See Stephan
Schwan and Sermin Ildirar, “Watching Film for the First Time: How Adult
Viewers Interpret Perceptual Discontinuities,” Psychological Science 21
(2010): 970–976. Online access is at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/7/970.abstract.
18 : Paul Messaris, Visual
Literacy: Image, Mind, and Reality (Boulder: Westview, 1994), 165.
19 : Julian Hochberg
and Virginia Brooks, “Pictorial Recognition as an Unlearned Activity: A
Study of One Child’s Performance,” in In the Mind’s Eye,
20 : For a review
of early experiments, see Charles A. Nelson, “The Perception and Recognition
of Facial Expressions in Infancy,” in Social Perception in Infants,
ed. Tiffany M. Field and Nathan A. Fox (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1985), 101–125. Later
experiments in infant cognition are considered in the light of “folk” theories
of mind, physics, and the like, in Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New
York: Norton, 1997), Chapter 5.
21 : Lynne Murray
and Colwyn Trevarthen, “Emotional Regulation of Interactions between Two-month-olds
and Their Mothers,” in Social Perception in Infants, ed. Field
and Fox, 177–197. Ellen Dissayanake has proposed a fascinating theory of the
origins of art based in mother-child interactions; see Art and Intimacy:
How the Arts Began (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000).
22 : See, for example,
Phillipe Rochat, Ulric Neisser, and Viorica Marlan, “Are Young Infants
Sensitive to Interpersonal Contingency?” Infant Behavior and Development 21,
2 (1998): 355–366.
23 : See Anderson, Reality
of Illusion, Chapters 3–5; see my “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic
Vision,” in Poetics of Cinema, 57–82.
24 : See for a summary
Donald E. Brown, Human Universals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
25 : Daniel C. Dennett, The
Intentional Stance (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).
26 : Alison Gopnik, The
Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love, and
the Meaning of Life (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 98.
27 : To get the
flavor of some of the debates, see Barry Loewer and Georges Rey, ed., Meaning
in Mind: Fodor and His Critics (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991), especially
Daniel C. Dennett, “Granny’s Campaign for Safe Science,” 87–94
and Fodor’s reply: “The enormous practical success of belief/desire
psychology makes a prima facie case for its approximate truth” (277). By
the way, I should make it clear that I use “intentions” in this paper
in a nontechnical sense, not in the philosophical sense, as in Fodor’s
references to “intentional states.”
28 : See Daniel Kahneman,
Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds., Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics
and Biases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
29 Meir Sternberg, Expositional
Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1978), 99–102. More generally, a great deal of Narration in the Fiction
Film, including its focus on curiosity, suspense, and surprise, is indebted
to Sternberg’s book, a trailblazing work of modern narratology.
30 : I discuss Prince
of the City’s narrational tactics a little bit here and
a crucial sequence of In the City of Sylvia, at greater length,
Duncan J. Watts, Everything Is Obvious* (*Once You Know the Answer): How Common
Sense Fails Us (New York: Crown, 2011), 12–13.
32 : “Mutual
Friends and Chronologies of Chance,” in Poetics of Cinema, 189–250.
33 : See Giacomo
Rizzolatti and Corrado Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain—How Our Minds
Share Actions and Emotions , trans. Frances Anderson (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2008) and Marco Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The New Science of How
We Connect with Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
34 : V. S. Ramachandran, The
Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human (New
York: Norton, 2011), 121–128.
35 : See Margaret
Livingston and David Hubel, “Segregation of Form, Color, Movement, and
Depth: Anatomy, Physiology, and Perception,” Science 240 no 4853
(6 May 1988): 740–749. Available at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/240/4853/740.abstract.
36 : “Introduction,” Post-Theory:
Reconstructing Film Studies, ed. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), xiii. More generally, much of what I’ve said in this online essay was said more pointedly in Carroll’s pioneering 1985 article, “The Power of Movies.” See Carroll, Theorizing the Moving Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 78–93.