Passionate Views. – Review

Passionate Views. – Review – book review

Casper Tybjerg

Passionate Views Film, Cognition, and Emotion Edited by Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. $49.95 cloth; $17.95 paper.

One of the most interesting developments in recent film theory is an increased interest in and openness toward ideas about the human mind and human behavior originating in the natural sciences. This approach differs markedly from a social-constructionist view, where the tendency would be to stress the ways science reflects ideology, even prejudice–looking upon science more as a target for demystification than as a source of inspiration. The contributors to Passionate Views demonstrate their interest in a reconnection with science, which is not to say that they spurn humanistic learning and scholarship, but rather that they regard themselves as part of the same larger endeavor as their colleagues in various scientific disciplines. They draw on cognitive psychology in particular, but evolutionary biology and neurophysiology are also mentioned in several articles.

The main subject matter of this tightly focused anthology is the importance of the emotions for the experience of cinema. It is apparent that the contributors share a number of basic assumptions about the subject, keeping many of the same problems in view, even though they come from a variety of fields: most are film scholars, but there are also a couple with a background in experimental psychology, and several of the others are professional philosophers (all working within the tradition of analytic philosophy, with its focus on the clarification of concepts). While the contributors’ interests do not overlap in all respects, and while they disagree among themselves on a number of points, they still refer repeatedly to one another’s work, especially the handful of books that have dealt at length with the issues taken up in the anthology: Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror (1990), Murray Smith’s Engaging Characters (1995), Ed Tan’s Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film (1996), and Torben Grodal’s Moving Pictures (1997). There is a strong sense of working on a common project with a shared foundation.

A central point is the rejection of the old opposition of emotions and rationality. Emotions are inseparable from cognition; without the guidance of the emotions, we cannot think clearly, evaluate our situation, or engage with our surroundings. An emotional reaction is always linked to something else, it is oriented toward an object; it involves a propensity to act in a particular manner, an “action tendency,” and a direction, a “goal orientation” (104). It is the same emotional apparatus that we bring with us into the movie theater, and the emotions that we experience there are everyday emotions.

In Passionate Views, moviegoing is thus not described as an activity that is radically discontinuous with the rest of our lives, nor one that engages the psyche in unusual or aberrant ways. Throughout, the articles are dedicated to making un-strange and un-perverse our enjoyment of movies. Psychoanalytically oriented film theory is regarded by nearly all the contributors as their chief opponent, and Passionate Views presents itself as a rival, alternative approach. The arguments are forcefully made, and those who favor psychoanalytic theory will have to engage with this book if they still want to be taken seriously.

The succinct introduction by the two editors gives an excellent overview of the issues and the shape of the field. The main body of the book is divided into three parts, each comprising four esssays. The first section, “Kinds of Films, Kinds of Emotion,” involves some of the ways in which particular genres can be said to be linked to particular emotions, but also how emotional patterns can be said to group films that do not necessarily belong to an established genre.

Noel Carroll addresses these matters at a general level in his “Films, Emotion, and Genre.” Carroll notes the object-orientatation of emotions: certain things must be present in order for particular emotions to arise. The object must meet certain criteria; for instance, if I am to feel fear, I must be confronted with an object or situation that meets the criterion of being harmful. To Carroll, films are “criterially prefocused”; that is, they present us with objects that meet the criteria linked to relevant emotions. Monsters, for instance, appear in horror movies, and they are harmful by definition. In addition, spectators are typically encouraged to be concerned about what happens to characters, to take a “pro attitude” towards certain characters and story developments, which gives direction to the emotions.

Ed Tan and Nico Frijda write about sentimental emotions in their article, “Sentiment in Film Viewing.” They point out that “sentimental” is often used in a derogatory way to mean excessive, disproportionate, unearned; it is “associated with weakness and femininity in a sense hostile to women” (49). They distance themselves from this view, insisting that “the sentimental is a true emotional variant” (55). According to Frijda’s theory of the emotions, an emotion is always linked to an action tendency, in this case, “to yield to the overwhelming.” Tan and Frijda refuse to condemn this embracing of helplessness, though they acknowledge that it can be “embarrasing.” This account should be of great interest to anyone writing on the melodrama.

In “The Sublime in Cinema,” Cynthia A. Freeland investigates Kant’s philosophical concept of the sublime, relating it to studies of the emotions by cognitive psychologists (sensibly leaving aside the ruminations of Lyotard, Derrida, and Zizek). She discusses three films in detail, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Dreyer, 1928), Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Herzog, 1972), and Les Enfants du paradis (Carne, 1945). She describes these as sublime in their entirety “not just because [they prompt] deep emotions but because those emotions are linked to moral reflection” (79). To explain this complexity, she argues, is an important challenge for cognitive theory.

Dirk Eitzen argues for a functionalist understanding of humor in his article, “The Emotional Basis of Film Comedy.” He acknowledges that there are a number of different accounts of how comedy works: there are “tension-relief” theories, “incongruity-resolution” theories (which argue that humor arises from unexpected solutions to puzzling situations), and “superiority” theories (which explain humor as a socially acceptable sort of aggression). These are difficult to reconcile with one another, but Eitzen argues that a comprehensive explanation would have to be based on the function or functions humor could have had for our evolutionary ancestors.

The second section is entitled “Film Technique, Film Narrative, and Emotion,” and the four essays here link the study of emotions in film with narratological ideas. A key work in the development of the study of film narrative is David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film from 1985, and its influence is evident here. Bordwell’s book was also important in calling attention to some of the ways that cognitive theory could inspire and enrich film theory.

It is within this framework that Greg Smith, in “Local Emotions, Global Moods, and Film Structure,” argues that character and action have received too much attention at the expense of style. In his view, the emotional high points of a film must be seen in the context of the general mood of the film. Moods are often generated less by narratively prominent features such as the characters and more by non-person elements, of which music is given particular attention.

Film music is investigated in more detail in Jeff Smith’s article, “Movie Music as Moving Music.” He usefully outlines various competing theories of the emotional effects of music, including those inspired by analytical philosophy, by cognitive science, and by psychoanalysis. He then proceeds to examine how well they can help us in understanding the highly complex phenomenon of film music and its dramatic functions, of which Jeff Smith emphasizes “the signification of characters’ emotions, the communication of an overall mood, and the arousal of emotional responses in audiences” (167).

Of all the contributors to the volume, Torben Grodal is probably the one who goes furthest in his attempt to integrate film theory with a scientific understanding of human nature. In “Emotions, Cognitions, and Narrative Patterns in Films,” he emphasizes the embodiedness of the human mind and the importance of the evolutionary history of the human species for the understanding of the ways in which film spectators respond to the images on the screen.

Susan L. Feagin’s essay is about timing, that is, the relative duration of particular elements of the film–was opposed to sequencing, the order of story elements. While recognizing that the emotional impact of a particular sequence may be due to its content, not the timing of its elements, Feagin insists on the importance of the latter to our appreciation of films.

The last section, called “Desire, Identification, and Empathy,” contains four essays concerned with the response of spectators to film characters. Gregory Currie takes up the concept of desire, but does not at all concern himself with gratification (sexual or otherwise), or other features of psychoanalytically inspired accounts. He distinguishes between character desire and narrative desire: the first has to do with the spectator wanting something to happen to a character, whereas the second concerns the spectator’s desire that the narrative have a particular outcome, which allows the spectator to know about this outcome. This pattern is also observable in real life, Currie contends; real-life narrative desire is that shown by Jane Austen’s character Emma, for instance, who tries to script the romantic lives of her friends.

In “Identification and Emotion in Narrative Film,” Berys Gaut presents a defense of the concept of identification, which has been strongly criticized by several other contributors to Passionate Views. These criticisms have mainly been directed at theories of identification that invoke psychoanalysis; Gaut is by no means trying to resurrect those theories, but he believes that identification need not be jettisoned along with psychoanalysis. Gaut distinguishes between different sorts of identification; one is imaginative: “… what I do in imaginatively identifying myself with Jeeves is imagining being in his situation, doing what he does, feeling what he does, and so on” (203). In empathetic identification, the spectator doesn’t just imagine what the character feels, but shares the actual feeling. This is again distintinct from sympathetic identification, which is a question of care and concern (if we know of impending danger, we may fear for the character rather share his soon-to-be-shattered contentment).

Gaut also discusses how these types of identification may be elicited through various cinematic devices. Gregory Currie and Murray Smith have argued strongly against equating character subjectivity with point-of-view shots, and Gaut does not dispute Smith’s very important observation that “the point-of-view shot in horror films often functions to disguise the killer’s identity” (204), an observation that makes quite a number of writings on horror films look highly dubious. Nevertheless, Gaut tries to get around this by separating imaginative identification into a perceptual aspect (how things look to a character), an affective aspect (how she feels about events), an epistemic one (what she believes about them), and so on. While Gaut’s account is clear and sharply drawn, one may question whether the distinctions are in fact as evident as he makes them out to be. Both Murray Smith and Carl Plantinga prefer to get rid of the concept of identification because it carries too many misleading connotations.

In Murray Smith’s essay, “Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances,” he discusses the implications of rooting for the bad guys. Smith distinguishes between apparently perverse allegiance, which means that spectatators sympathize with bad guys despite their odious traits, and genuinely perverse allegiance, where they sympathize with them because of their odious traits. Smith suggests that it is very unusual for films to actively solicit the latter. As an example, he takes Dr. Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs: he has been given various attractive qualities that encourage audiences to feel a certain sneaky admiration for him, despite our knowledge that he is a homicidal maniac–but we certainly are not meant to admire him because he is a cannibal.

Finally, Carl Plantinga’s “The Scene of Empathy and the Human Face on Film” discusses the power of faces (especially when seen in extended close-ups) to not only reveal to spectators what a character is feeling, but to elicit the same feeling in the spectator. Plantinga draws on psychological research that suggests that vividly emotional facial displays can be contagious: spectators will involuntary mimic the expressions they see and feel some of the same emotion. Plantinga is careful to note that he’s dealing with a “complex process”; in what he calls “scenes of empathy,” the powerful, extended view of the human face in close-up is reinforced with other cinematic techniques and a great deal of narrative weight.

Throughout the book, the writing is clear and methodical. A serious tone is maintained, although Carroll clearly take considerable relish in drawing examples from outre horror movies and describing stomach-churning monstrosities in a deadpan style. The philosophically oriented writers have a slightly different style and a slightly different way of going about things (for instance, trying to forsee and rebut even manifestly silly objections to their ideas), but their articles are not overly technical and certainly no more difficult to understand than the other pieces. Verbal pyrotechnics, paradoxes, and elaborate puns are avoided, and it is evident that the intention has been to foreground not the writing, but the theories–and the films that they explain.

All in all, this anthology tries to enrich and deepen the film scholar’s experience of movies, not to demystify them and drain her enjoyment of them away. In her article, Susan Feagin makes the point with great clarity:

Appreciating a film, experiencing it in richer and fuller ways, involves

getting the value out of it, that is, using it to do what it is supposed to

do. And part of what it is supposed to do will often be to evoke emotions,

feelings, moods, and desires, that is, to have those kinds of effects on

the human psyche. Thus, part of what needs to be explained in the

theoretical account of a film is how certain affective responses contribute

to the film’s doing what, according to this account, it is supposed to do.


Taking films at face value (so to speak) without surrendering theoretical sophistication is perhaps the most important point of the thought-provoking Passionate Views.

Casper Tybjerg teaches film history at the University of Copenhagen and is currently working on a book on Carl Dreyer and film historiography.

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