WHAT PROCESSES ENABLE us to perceive, comprehend, and respond emotionally to moving pictures?
Here, in gross outline, is one answer. As humans we have evolved certain capacities and predispositions, ranging from perceptual ones (biological mechanisms for obtaining information about the world we live in) to social ones (e.g., affinities with and curiosity about other humans). By exercising these capacities and predispositions and by bonding with our conspecifics, we have built a staggeringly sophisticated array of cultural practices—skills, technologies, arts, and institutions.
Moving pictures are such a practice. We designed them to mesh with our perceptual and cognitive capacities. What hammers are to hands, movies are to minds: a tool exquisitely shaped to the powers and purposes of human activity.
A great deal of movies' effects—more than many contemporary film theories allow— stem from their impact on our sensory systems. We are prompted to detect movement, shape, color, and sounds, and this is surely one of the transcultural capacities that movies tap. Similarly, films from all nations and times draw upon more cognitive skills, such as categorizing an object as living or nonliving or seeing a face as furious—abilities that, it's reasonable to think, are part of our evolutionary heritage. And because affective states and counterfactual speculation are of adaptive advantage, it is likely that an artistic medium that permits emotional and imaginative expression would have appeal across cultural boundaries.
If we consider culture to be an elaboration of evolutionary processes, there's no inherent gulf between biology and society in this explanatory framework. True, these elaborations vary historically, yielding (among other things) what we usually call conventions—local practices that seem more artificial and that differ from one society to another. Yet some conventions are less artificial than others. 1 A verbal language takes years to learn and is perhaps the epitome of hard-core conventionality. Other conventions can be picked up fast because they are functionally similar across cultures. Some countries require drivers to stay on the right side of the road, others on the left, but the idea of ordering the traffic flow governs each choice. Still other conventions require only the slightest adjustments of our natural proclivities. In a picture, if the most important element occupies the center of the format, viewers from any culture will probably not be surprised. Centering (manifesting the principle of symmetry) is in some sense a convention of pictorial composition, but it seems to run with the grain of our visual predispositions, taking the line of least resistance. Strategic decentering, on the other hand, may be a convention that requires a little more tutoring.