Cognitive film theory

While doing some bibliography research for my UAL Ph.D. application, I found out about cognitive film theory.

Cognitive film theory was born in the late 80′s from a dissatisfaction with dominant film theory that tended to analyse films either from an ideological viewpoint, be it marxist, Althusserian, feminist, Lacanian or such, or as a codified language through the use of semiotics. Cognitive film theory tends to focus on the experience and reaction of the film spectator, on the relationship between film content proper, context in which the viewing experience takes place, and viewer psychology. Scholars of cognitive film theory include David Bordwell, Noel Caroll, Per Persson, Carl Plantiga, Greg M. Smith.

The cognitive approach is interdisciplinary and varied rather than a unified methodology and its scholars draw from from various disciplines including philosophy, empirical psychology, neuroscience. Its founder Caroll focuses on ‘look[ing] for alternative answers to many of the questions addressed by or raised by psychoanalytic film theories … in terms of cognitive and rational processes rather than unconscious or irrational ones’ ( his own words from ‘Engaging the Moving Image’). Greg M. Smith and Per Persson favour a cognitive psychology approach, and their books study the cognitive and emotional responses of the film spectator.

According to an article Caroll believes that film cues the spectator’s emotions primarily through narrative, and studies this process within different genres: horror (‘The Philosophy of Horror’ (1990), but also suspense, humor, melodrama (‘Engaging the Moving Image’).

On the other hand, Greg M. Smith believes that the “primary emotive effect of film is to create mood” moods having longer duration and being elicited more throughout most films, whereas emotions are intense, brief, and intermittent. Smith also argues the emotions depend on moods as “orienting states” that prepare the viewer for specific emotional responses. Smith believes that mood is primarily created by stylistic devices rather than narrative.

I can only write this very simple overview because I haven’t read any of the books yet, but the focus of this theory on the audience’s emotional and intuitive response to film seems related to my moving image practice, and I plan to study it further after the MA. I’m especially interested in Greg M. Smith’s concept of mood as a product of aesthetic choices rather than narrative devices.

Reference books I included in the bibliography for my Ph.D. application were:

Allen, R. (1995) Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2008) Film art. London: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Persson, P. (2003) Understanding cinema: a psychological theory of moving imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plantinga, C. & Smith, G. (1999) Passionate views: film, cognition, and emotion. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Smith, G. (2003) Film structure and the emotion system. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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