Through Alice's Glass: The Creation and Perception
of Other Worlds in Movies, Pictures, and Virtual Reality
WE TAKE OUR seats, sit back, and prepare to be enthralled. In the coming “two hours' traffic of our stage, ” we will see people, places, objects, and events. They are familiar— they are ours, from this planet, this life. We understand what we see. But wait! The actor is twenty feet tall. She is flat and trapped on a surface that slopes away to one side. She is in focus, but the landscape surrounding her is not. We see her face, then her back, then her face again. Our viewpoint changes though we have not moved. This is a motion picture. We shift our attention once more, and the other world returns. The people are not giants. They move in depth, they are solid. There is a conversation. This is life.
How to explain this experience—the easy reality of life behind the screen and the undeniable artifice of the sequence of highly crafted images projected there? Film theory has swung from realism through semiology to a postmodernist neglect of this essential question (see Anderson, 1996). The created world is “real” to be simply seen. It is a book to be read, a mental fiction to be constructed. The ecological approach to perceptual psychology supports a new alternative: The motion picture is an artifact, constructed to exploit everyday perceptual processes and to reveal information about the world depicted. As an artifact, the motion picture is not part of the natural world though it is like it. We look but we cannot touch. Past events are re-presented or replayed before us but can not be reshaped. The filmmaker has created a world through Alice's glass—like ours, yet different.
Filmmakers and photographers have long sought to create new worlds and preserve moments of old ones. Their chosen media seem especially close to the truth of life compared to the more visibly manufactured media of drawing, painting, and now virtual reality. Small slices of real life are caught in silver or preserved in digital memory to be pasted to the paper in our photo albums or strung together in sequences that replay the past over and over. Through narrative and visual trickery, the real objects and events thus captured can seem to show worlds unknown, times and places that no living person has seen. Yet, while knowing there is artifice at work, we cannot shed the feeling that we observe reality. Light made these images, and that light was once in contact with the actual objects and places that we see in the image. Indeed, the philosopher Ken Walton (1984) has written that to observe a photograph of Napoleon is to observe Napoleon himself. (See also Bazin, 1971). By extension then, perception of the picture proceeds exactly as it would if the originating object were itself before us and not its image. No special theory of image or film is needed because pictures, still or moving, are not recognized as having any special qualities that distinguish them from natural objects.