Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience

Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience

Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience

Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator's Experience


Everyone knows the thrill of being transported by a film, but what is it that makes movie watching such a compelling emotional experience? In Moving Viewers, Carl Plantinga explores this question and the implications of its answer for aesthetics, the psychology of spectatorship, and the place of movies in culture. Through an in-depth discussion of mainstream Hollywood films, Plantinga investigates what he terms "the paradox of negative emotion" and the function of mainstream narratives as ritualistic fantasies. He describes the sensual nature of the movies and shows how film emotions are often elicited for rhetorical purposes. He uses cognitive science and philosophical aesthetics to demonstrate why cinema may deliver a similar emotional charge for diverse audiences.


[The] cinema … makes it possible to experience without danger all
the excitement, passion and desirousness which must be repressed
in a humanitarian ordering of life.

Roger manvell

I experienced movie fright early in my childhood. At the ripe age of seven I was taken to a drive-in to see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), and I spent a good portion of those two hours cowering beneath the dashboard of the car. Despite all that cowering, I was thrilled. To this day I love that film and wonder how that initial childhood experience figures into the attraction. Years later, I saw how movie terror can affect an audience at a screening of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). the show was nearly sold out. My companion and I arrived late, and our only option was to sit in the front row; behind us an audience was about to scream and shriek in ways we had never heard before. the crowd was clearly enthralled with Alien from the beginning. the usual chewing and slurping sounds (courtesy of the concession stand) were soon drowned out by anxious murmurs and nervous laughter. I remember well the moment when the film transformed our experience from merely somewhat frightening to flat-out terrifying: it was when the carnivorous alien baby unexpectedly and gruesomely bursts from the crewman’s stomach, its high-pitched scream doubling the terror and sending much of the audience into an extended fit of shrieking from shock, fear, and revulsion. From that moment on, we all understood that for the length of the film we could never rest easy, for we might get the hell scared out of us again at any moment.

Some may dismiss these moments, however powerful, as of negligible interest or as the kind of idiosyncratic, subjective information that belongs in someone’s diary, hardly important to the understanding of the workings and significance of movie spectatorship. in this book, I take a different position. the images and sounds of The Birds and Alien have been seared into the memories of generations of moviegoers, becoming cultural icons. and it is the ability of those films to strongly move audiences that make . . .

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