Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion

Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (eds.),
Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
ISBN 0 8018 6011 3 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by John Hopkins Press)

Uploaded 30 June 2000
The case for cognitive approaches in film studies goes something like this: cognitivism sets out to explain the ways we make sense of percepts in everyday life, the ways we interact with our environment to produce thoughts, feelings and responses. The relevance of this to the processes of film viewing should be immediately apparent as films similarly produce thoughts, feelings and responses in audiences. In answer to questions of why cognitivism should be preferred to other competing models for explaining film spectatorship, cognitivism’s adherents generally begin with the “straw-man” argument that cognitive approaches are more immediately applicable than methods derived from psychoanalytic theory, which were developed to explain specific psychopathologies.

As its adherents often stress, the label “cognitivism” is something of a misnomer if it is taken to denote a unified school of theory. People working in this area have converged on it mainly from Anglo-American philosophy, but also from psychology. This anthology brings together writers from both perspectives to discuss the question of emotion in the cinema. The essays have been grouped around three topics: introductory essays on types of emotions (sentiment, humour, disgust) and their relation to types of film genres (tearjerkers, comedies, horror); the relation of these issues to narrational and formal techniques; and finally the question of identification and the precise nature of spectators’ relations to the cinematic spectacle. The authors include names that will be familiar to those who have begun to read in this area over the past five years: Ed Tan, Nico Frijda, Noël Carroll, Cynthia Freeland, Greg Currie, and Murray Smith.

Although these authors have lately generated a significant body of work, one could hardly say that their positions amount to a formidable paradigm in film studies at present. This collection helps to focus some of the reasons for this. One of the first things that strikes you is that it proceeds from very different assumptions than most of the material with which film scholars will be familiar. An attempt to describe these differences is instructive.

The first major difference is that cognitive approaches tend not to assume a depth model of textual operations. We are used to producing interesting readings of films, under the question: what does this film mean that it does not manifestly appear to mean? The concerns of our authors here lie in areas other than textual exegesis, which is likely to be a problem not just for those interested in interpretation but also in those whose interest is textual poetics. When the authors in this collection refer to individual films they uniformly assume that the film means pretty much what any mildly competent multiplex audience would assume it to mean. When Ed Tan and Nico Frijda point out that Pocohantas(1995) is “one of thousands of examples from traditional movies where the good stands out in the face of evil’s presence” (58) their lack of interest in symptomatic criticism seems like a positive provocation.

This leads to a second difference, which is that much of the critical practice in contemporary film studies has been premised on the idea that many films are pathological in their effects, or that they appeal to pathological mental structures for their unity. These assumptions have been useful in giving textual interpretation its socially critical edge. Most of the writers in this anthology begin from a functionalist position, arguing that audiences use aesthetic representations for a variety of purposes, including the testing of emotions in safe, imaginative mental spaces. Only Gregory Currie tries to provide an outline of what a pathological use of fictional artworks might look like.

Plantinga and Smith point to another significant difference in their introduction when they point to the preference in cognitive studies for “breaking down processes into sub-processes”. (3) One of the prevailing trends in film studies is to work with analytical terms that are very broad in their application (desire or postmodernism, for example). Once these terms are in play, broad lines of connection can be used to draw together phenomena normally seen as widely disparate. A distinctive tendency here is not to make connections, but to sub-divide so that fine distinctions can be established. Berys Gaut’s essay, which attempts to reinstate the relevance of a theory of identification, is a good case in point. She distinguishes between different types of identification (affective, perceptual, empathetic) as a way of dealing with some of the problems spawned by a large and unified assertion of the term.

While these differences from other theoretical and critical movements might give cognitivism a loose external unity, there are significant differences between the writers here over basic questions. Plantinga and Smith might criticise psychoanalysis for its hydraulic model of desire, but the same kind of hydraulic economy of emotion features in the work of Ed Tan and Torben Grodal. Tan, Frijda, and Cynthia Freeland all favour mimetic explanations of narration in which the spectator is held as being positioned like an invisible observer, Freeland likening the emotional response to a crane shot to the spectator’s feeling of being liberated from gravity. (62) Currie, on the other hand, is staunch in his rejection of any participant observer talk in relation to spectators.

As I mentioned at the outset, the main flag under which cognitivist theorists can be gathered is the belief that they have more finely detailed answers to the questions concerning the ways in which spectators interact with films. However, this is only one of the questions which concern film scholars. Many of us are interested in the critical uses of theory, in the ways in which theory can help to understand techniques by which films have been constructed to facilitate or retard certain types of spectatorial relation. In other words, we have interests in the ways in which theories allow us to say interesting things about the close detail of films. On this point, the work in this anthology is much more sketchy. The detailed textual analysis which cognitive theory has generated in the work of David Bordwell or in Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters (Oxford University Press, 1995) is rarely in evidence here. Greg Smith, for instance, outlines a useful distinction between emotion and mood, and observes that films contain cues for both of these, but he has little to say on mapping cues on to formal structures.

The value of this collection is in its interest in producing very small-scale descriptions of processes by which viewing subjects internalise representations to produce responses. These are important issues and ones that are particularly relevant to media analysis at the moment. A good deal of work being done in areas such as identity politics tends to assume processes such as identification, suturing, and subject positioning – even though many authors assume these theories rather than argue them back to internally coherent theorisations of film viewing. Cognitive theories endlessly (and sometimes maddeningly) attempt to revisit and nuance theories of identification and affect to buttress them against the myriad of sceptical objections through which each model must work its way. As for the editors’ initial claim that cognitive’s advantage is its specificity, its ability to capture precise detail (3) – that claim still remains a challenge for cognitive approaches.

Michael Walsh


About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →