Academic journal article Style

Prime Time: Visual Cognition in the Prelude to Citizen Kane

Academic journal article Style

Prime Time: Visual Cognition in the Prelude to Citizen Kane

Article excerpt

To experience a work of art is to have a distinctive kind of cognitive experience. Stated more specifically, the largely unconscious interactions between certain sensory systems and the sensible qualities that define a given kind of art constitute in substantial ways our conscious apprehension of that art. This is obvious enough for the visual or musical arts. But, it is equally true that our embodied cognitive experience of, say, reading a novel the relatively automatic processing of conventionalized black marks from left to right and top to bottom, and so forth--is an essential element of our more directly conscious understanding of the content of a given story. A cognitively oriented examination of a given art form, then, will take off from the kinds of cognitive operations that most matter for the apprehension of that art form.

Film, since its beginnings, has been discussed in terms of its psychological qualities and affects. (1) To this day, psychologist Hugo Munsterberg's 1916 The Photoplay: A Psychological Study remains a foundational work in film studies. Since that time, and especially in recent decades with the rise of second-generation cognitive psychology, two versions of a cognitive-psychological approach to film have emerged. We have a more strictly scientific version, grounded directly in cited laboratory research. It makes claims about the experience of film based on findings about the ways in which our eyes process moving images, the ways our eyes track the eyes of others, the ways that mirror neurons in the brain link us to the actions we see on-screen, or the ways our emotion systems respond to certain kinds of visual cues. This kind of study has been done in various ways by, among others, such scholars as Gregory Currie, Torben Grodal (Embodied Visions; Moving Pictures), Greg Smith, Per Persson, James Cutting (9-27), and Arthur Shimamura.

But we also have a less strictly scientific version. As David Bordwell has observed, film "researchers aren't psychologists or sociologists, but we can draw upon the best scientific findings we have to mount a plausible framework for considering effects" (44). That is what I will be doing here. My approach--I will call it a cognitive phenomenology--examines the experience of film in relation to our everyday kinds of cognitive experiences of the world, and it taps into cognitive psychology for direct support only at strategic points. Otherwise, this approach simply makes sure not to violate the general kinds of knowledge established by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychology. This kind of project has been carried out by, for instance, George Wilson, Colin McGinn, Noel Carroll, and David Bordwell. Here, I will take up a variation of this latter kind of approach. I will primarily turn to the field of ecological psychology in order to provide a cognitive-phenomenological reading of the Prelude sequence to Citizen Kane.

If we want to understand our embodied responses to fiction film, we may take as a first principle that film "engages our perceptual system directly, and we process the changing array of light before us as we process the natural world" (Anderson and Hodgins 65). Considered on the basic level of visuo-cognitive experience, motion pictures are the singular kind of visual imitation that comes closest to looking at the world. In fact as James Gibson, in establishing ecological psychology, explained, "we ought to treat the motion picture as the basic form of depiction and the painting or photograph as a special form of it.... Moviemakers are closer to life than picture makers" (293). Given this, we may explore our responses to film by asking: what every day acts of looking are like the special case in fact the unique case--of looking at movies?

An unsurprising first answer to this question is that looking at a movie is like looking at a scene through an aperture of some kind. The most basic case of such an aperture would be, as Colin McGinn has argued, simply a hole (20). …

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