The Illusion of Continuity: Active Perception and the Classical Editing System

Article excerpt


INTHE MOVIE THE MATRIX (1999), CHARACTERS experience a completely virtual worldcreated by sending electrical signals directly to their spinal cord and brain- that contains the sensations of the "real" world but without a corresponding physical environment. The psychology behind this scenario is essentially accurate. Our experience of the physical world exists in our brains, and a controlled stimulus can cue our brains to experience a world that is virtually physical.

Virtual realities can exist because the brain does not experience the physical environment directly. Information in the environment exists in the form of physical energy. Cells in the brain, however, communicate through the release of neurochemicals. Each of our five senses contains "receptor cells" that translate the information in the environment into the neurochemical language that the brain can understand.1 For example, specialized cells on the retina, called photoreceptors, respond to the physical energy of light by releasing neurochemicals, thereby converting the physical energy into the language of the brain. Creating a virtual world involves artificially stimulating the cells that lead to the brain in the same way that receptor cells would.

The Matrix scenario is an emblem of the cinematic experience. The sights and sounds presented in the cinema have the potential to stimulate the visual and auditory receptor cells in ways that are similar enough to those experienced in the physical world that, under specified circumstances, many of our perceptual processes2 do not distinguish between stimuli generated by the cinema and those generated by physical environments. When organized according to the principles of classical continuity editing,3 the cinema stimulates a series of cognitive processes4 that construct a coherent model of on-screen space. Indeed, the cognitive processes that generate spatial coherence for classical cinema spectators are, this article shall demonstrate, the very same cognitive processes that generate coherence for spectators in the physical world.

This article proposes a new model of how the human perceptual system extracts coherence from discontinuous cinematic images edited according to classical continuity principles. Based on the current understanding of real-world perception, our model of spatial continuity lays out the cognitive basis of classical editing conventions. Drawing on research from both film studies and perceptual psychology, this article explains how classical editing devices exploit and accommodate the cognitive processes people use to perceive the physical world.

The field of film studies has seen a variety of approaches to explaining the predominance of the classical editing system, including psychoanalytic (Mulvey, Silverman, Oudart, Dayan), semiotic and structuralist (Metz, John Carroll), auteurist (Bazin), and ideological approaches (Baudry, Heath, Zavarzadeh), and many theorists combine several different approaches. But none of this research answers the following straightforward question: if you are watching The Philadelphia Story (1940), and you see a shot of C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) at the front of a house, followed by a shot of a front door opening (see Figures 10 and 11), what are the cognitive processes that lead you to perceive the two depicted spaces as connected? Film textbooks, in explaining the continuity system, will note eyeline matches and other narrative and stylistic devices, but identifying continuity devices does not explain how and why the spectator perceives continuity. Our model does. It addresses a key concern of the classical continuity system that no previous scholars have addressed comprehensively: how the fundamental conventions of classical editing accommodate our perceptual and cognitive processes and stimulate the perception of continuity.

The principles of In/in Rock's inferential theory of perception, often termed "constructive perception," supply the foundation of our approach Indirect, Logic). …


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