Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations

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

Part Seven

Events, Symbols, and Metaphors

IN THE SENSES Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966), James J. Gibson wrote:

There is a curious paradox about a picture—it is neither a pure display on the one hand nor a pure deception on the other. The stimulus conveys information for both what it is physically and what it stands for. (235)

When viewing a motion picture, we are constantly in alternation between seeing the scene and seeing the surface. The perceptual alternation between scene and surface constitutes a framing of the motion-picture viewing event, separating the experience of a motion picture from the experience of the real world, and serving as a constant reminder to the viewer that the scene in which he is involved is not the natural world but an image (Anderson, 1996). There are two sets of information, one for the scene and one for the surface, but we do not see them equally, for there is much more information in the scene, the fictional world of the movie, what film theorists call the diegetic world.

Sheena Rogers discusses this phenomenon in her essay, “Through Alice's Glass: The Creation and Perception of Other Worlds in Movies, Pictures, and Virtual Reality.” The diegetic world is, to use her terms, seen “through Alice's glass.” It is a world created by the filmmaker that is like ours, yet different. It is a world we as viewers can watch but not touch, become engaged with but not interact with. Rogers offers an ecological theory of meaning in film, beginning with the basic tenets of ecological psychology—a foundation in realism. “As observers, ” she writes, “we become immersed in the world of the motion pictures because it shares its natural (non-symbolic) meaning with the real world it depicts.” The central concept is information rather than sensation as the starting point for perception. “The ecological concept of information provides a possible explanation for the moviegoer's sense of immersion in another world.” She reminds us of the crucial role played by movement in the experience of perception—movement of objects, in the world or in moving images, and movement of the perceiver. When perceiving the natural world, our movement increases the information available to us about the world. With a movie it is different. Any movement on the part of the viewer provides information only about the surface on which the images move, the “glass” of the essay's title.

The ecological explanation Rogers develops calls for a redefinition of the role of the filmmaker. In contrast to the dictatorial illusionist of subject-position and post-modernist film theory where a passive viewer is sutured into the text or victimized by imprisonment in the camera's position and constantly threatened with absorption, an ecological perspective offers a much more positive assessment of both filmmaker and viewer. The viewer is an active explorer, constantly in search of information, and the filmmaker as “auteur of information” takes on the formidable responsibility of providing the information needed to understand the world being portrayed on the screen. This requires,

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