The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory

The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory

The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory

The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory

Synopsis

Anderson's primary argument is that motion picture viewers mentally process the projected images and sounds of a movie according to the same perceptual rules used in response to visual and aural stimuli in the world outside the theater. To process everyday events in the world, the human mind is equipped with capacities developed through millions of years of evolution. In this context, Anderson builds a metatheory influenced by the writings of J. J. and Eleanor Gibson and employs it to explore motion picture comprehension as a subset of general human comprehension and perception, focusing his ecological approach to film on the analysis of cinema's true substance: illusion. Anderson investigates how viewers, with their mental capacities designed for survival, respond to particular aspects of filmic structure - continuity, diegesis, character development, and narrative - and examines the ways in which rules of visual and aural processing are recognized and exploited by filmmakers. He uses Orson Welles's Citizen Kane to disassemble and redefine the contemporary concept of character identification; he addresses continuity in a shot-by-shot analysis of images from Casablanca; and he uses a wide range of research studies, such as Harry F. Harlow's work with infant rhesus monkeys, to describe how motion pictures become a substitute or surrogate reality for an audience. By examining the human capacity for play and the inherent potential for illusion, Anderson considers the reasons viewers find movies so enthralling, so emotionally powerful, and so remarkably real.

Excerpt

Preparation for this book began twenty-five years ago when, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, I discovered that film history, theory, and criticism were constituted pretty much the same as literary history, theory, and criticism, except that in the former a group of motion pictures was substituted for a body of literature. While such an approach might suffice for history and criticism, it seemed to me woefully ineffectual for film theory. I knew of no literary theory capable of addressing the interaction between a spectator and the series of images and sounds that constitute a motion picture. I was fascinated by the special power of the motion picture, for as a filmmaker, I had learned to work some of the magic, but I had no idea how the magic worked.

In his role as department chairman, Sam Becker listened patiently as I laid out my misgivings, and he suggested that perhaps the kinds of questions I was asking might be addressed by experimental research in perception and cognition. It was with his blessing that I set out to find someone in the psychology department familiar with such matters. And as luck would have it, in the bowels of Spence Laboratory, I found a perception specialist, Harold Bechtoldt. I promptly asked him to explain to me how we perceive images and sounds, and it is my great fortune that he began an explanation that held me entranced for the next three years. I pursued an interdepartmental degree under the direction of both Sam and Harold, and it is to them that I dedicate this book as a token payment on the great debt I owe them.

As a young faculty member in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin, I taught motion picture production and film theory and set up a laboratory to conduct research on the perception of motion pictures. The theory course was entitled "Psychophysics and . . .

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