Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations

By Joseph D. Anderson; Barbara Fisher Anderson | Go to book overview

7

Three Views of Facial Expression and Its Under-
standing in the Cinema

Ed S. Tan

THE POPULARITY OF American mainstream movies has been immense over virtually the whole world since the 1920s. As is known, part of the success is best explained by economic push factors, such as affluent production and distribution, and the ubiquity of the English language and American culture. However, there must also be something in this cinema that attracts such large audiences. Imaginary wish-fulfillment has often been mentioned as a crucial asset of Hollywood's dream factory. However, in order for any film to offer vicariously experienced happiness forever, the people, things, events, and other story existents have to be recognized by the viewer. A damaged car, a tender caress, a bold stance, and an escape plan need to be recognized as such if the viewer is to indulge in the story world and empathize with characters. It is with this very fundamental recognition process and, in particular, recognition of character emotion that this contribution deals, advancing a number of hypotheses that may be starting points for experimental tests. Also, in outlining the contribution of current research in the psychology of facial expression, I will attempt to frame a discussion about the role of nature and nurture in recognizing character emotion from facial behavior.

A simple example may illustrate some basic observations about facial expression in the cinema. Figure 7.1 presents three frame enlargements from a sequence of Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1953). Before reading on, try to name the emotions that you see expressed by the faces. Montgomery Clift is Father Logan, a priest who has heard the confession of the murderer, Mr. Keller. His priestly oath prevents him from conveying his knowledge, and he becomes a suspect himself. By the end of the film, he stands to trial and is released for lack of evidence. Outside the courtroom a crowd, in a lynching mood, awaits him. In figures 7.1a and 7.1b, we see Mrs. Keller, the murderer's wife, who appears to be appalled. Figure 7.1c shows the murderer, Mr. Keller, shouting in anger at his wife after she has run forward to help Logan. In figure 7.1a, next to Mrs. Keller, and in figure 7.1c, there is a woman eating an apple. This “woman from the people” expresses a kind of “malevolent curiosity, ” as François Truffaut (1985, p. 205) has put it. The shots are interspersed with images of the priest being shouted at, threatened, and attacked by the crowd. How does recognizing character emotions, important for understanding the plot and appreciating the film as a whole, come about through perceiving facial expressions such as these? 1

I shall consider three alternative explanations. First, an explanation based on the so- called universal theory of facial expression (UTFE), which rests on the assumption that people have an innate capacity for recognizing certain emotions from other persons' facial expressions. UTFE is the dominant paradigm in the psychology of facial expression and

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