Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations

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

Part Five

Coupling of Perception and Emotion

IN THE 1990S, when cognitive film theory (remember that cognitive in the field of film studies broadly denotes an approach to film study that seeks to incorporate the findings and methods of science into the study of film) was just beginning to gain momentum, it was generally thought that such an approach could deal only with conscious and rational responses to film and that emotional or nonrational responses would be addressed far more adequately by psychoanalysis or feminism. The work that has been published since has dispelled that notion. A number of works in cognitive film theory have advanced our understanding of the role of emotion in film viewing.

In the essays that follow, Torben Grodal and Dolf Zillmann are working toward incorporating an ecological perspective into the study of film and emotion. Ecological psychology has, of course, focused on perception and action, seldom venturing into the murky waters of emotion. Yet, if we are to do justice to film theory, issues such as the viewer's engagement with fictional characters, narrative pattern, and narrative comprehension and the appeals of genres like melodrama, horror films, and comedy, where emotional responses are fundamental to our interest, must be addressed. In these two essays, Grodal and Zillmann tackle two difficult subjects: film lighting's role in the creation of mood and the diversity of emotional responses to fictional dramas.

Grodal, while still using the language and some of the concepts of cognitive science, is approaching the ecological concept of affordances in his assertion that “our visual attention is normally intimately linked with our human concerns. What we focus on is what is central to our concerns at a given moment, we cannot separate our interests and our attention.” And his consideration of film lighting is at base more ecological than it might at first appear.

Grodal points to a fundamental concern with the facilitation of information pick-up in the canonical lighting situation. He explains how the lighting techniques adopted by the Hollywood system are designed to provide “an optimum of object information” and are often combined with the presentation of objects or characters from angles that also provide optimum information. And he notes that alternate methods of lighting result in the objects, characters, or scenes being seen as expressive or theatrical—in his words, “perceived as representations under certain contingent lighting conditions.”

His analysis of the film viewer's experience of differently lighted film scenes is based upon a distinction between lighting that is natural (that is, lighting that approximates our experience with the natural world) and lighting that deviates in some way from this norm of naturalness. He is, in other words, asking whether the lighting being employed in a given film scene is ecologically valid and what effect any differences might have on the film viewer's response to the scene.

In our own work, we have found that viewers display a sensitivity to interactions between characters and objects on the screen that deviate from the laws of ecological

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