Tag Archives: Noel Carroll

Cognitivism Goes to the Movies with ‘Vertigo’

The cognitivist approach led by Bordwell and Carroll goes against the grain of psychoanalytic Film Theory (or ‘Grand Theory’) that began in the 1970s. So what better film to apply cognitivism to than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): a complex narrative of obsession that psychoanalytically explores the subconscious human mind, so the opposite of cognitivist theory.

The scene occurs when Scottie (James Stewart) saves Madeline (Kim Novak) from drowning in the ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Principles of the Cognitivist Approach

Movies elicit the same cognitive responses as ordinary perception

How we see in real life is not that different to what we see in the movies. Scottie sees a woman jump into the ocean, makes a decision to act, and he jumps in to save her. The spectator does not need an understanding of psychoanalytic theory to understand what they have just seen.

Consciousness is constructivist

Humans use practical reasoning to construct and make sense of the world. We do not just passively sense something and leave it at that. If I see a ball coming towards my head, I duck; if I hear a loud explosion outside, I go to investigate. In a similar way, Scottie watches Madeline jump into the ocean, then through practical reasoning makes a decision to jump in and save her. In the real world, the same situation would (hopefully!) prompt the same response through practical reasoning. The cognitivist approach has a strong emphasis on practical reasoning rather than sensations and moods.

Movies are not as ideologically manipulative as ‘Grand Theorists’ have assumed

Spectators are not being manipulated by some form of Hollywood influenced ideology such as sexism if they use their own comprehension and judgement when watching a film. Scottie saves Madeline not because she seen as some objectified woman in constant need of saving; he simply her because Madeline is a person who will die if he does act to save her.

Do we really need more questionable entities to explain movies?

For the male spectator, the ‘male gaze’ objectifies women and identifies with men, but arguably, this psychoanalytic process is an intangible entity (much like the Oedipus complex and the unconscious). The cognitivist approach rejects this intangibility and focuses on methods that are more empirical. Madeline is not a helpless, weak object that Scottie receives perverse pleasure from saving to boost his ego. The cognitivist approach considers questions such as why Madeline jumped into the ocean and what made Scottie decide to save her.

Cognition plays a key role in perception and emotional responses through questions and answers, and therefore proposes a different approach to the more subconscious and intangible psychoanalytic analysis of film narrative.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Cognitivism Goes to the Movies’, Lectures 6, 6a & 7 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Understanding Film Narratives: Carroll’s Cognitivist Approach

Noel Carroll adheres to the cognitive psychology position of film narrative; a position that leans towards the empirical and demonstrable aspects of film narrative not concerned with subjectivity or exploration of psychoanalytical theories of the subconscious. Thereby, an unconventional way to look at Carroll’s approach is to apply his theories to a standout film of subjective narrative: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Key Points of Carroll’s Cognitivist Approach:

The scene analysed here occurs at the Club Silencio, where the two main characters (and those of us watching) realise they have taken part in an illusion, a dream.

Cinema intensifies/transforms our realism by focusing and directing our attention

The use of extreme close-ups on the singer’s face forces the viewer to witness every strain of her emotional pain. All other surrounding visual information is bracketed out: the sheer scale of her face intensifies the realism much more than how it would occur in real life. These close-up shots assist in producing a raw, passionate power by the inability to direct our attention to anything else.

We comprehend images directly

Even the ‘untutored’ spectator can at least understand movie narrative without learning any kind of language. For example, film scholars or children can comprehend that the woman is singing a song. Her strained facial expressions and sad eyes tell us it is sombre. Nobody could watch this scene and see, say, an action packed adventure shot because we comprehend (see) the images directly for what they are.

Movies do not depend on conventions to be intelligible – all viewers use the same cognitive processes

Many would be familiar with the melody of the Roy Orbison song ‘Crying’. The woman’s rendition of Orbison’s song in Spanish is still familiar and comprehensible to anyone who has heard the original song. Regardless of the language (convention) sung in, the cognitive process of seeing (a signer on a stage) and hearing (the familiar ‘Crying’ melody) tell us she is singing the song ‘Crying’.

Overall, Carroll’s objective cognitivist approach can also be applied to subjective narratives because to order cognitive processes, movies use both comprehension (what you see) and interpretation (what you think).

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Understanding Film Narrative’, Lectures 4 & 5 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Ontologies of the Moving Image: Bazin’s Realism

One way to look at the ontology (the nature of what something is) of the moving image is from a realist perspective.

Founder of the Cahiers du Cinema, influential French film philosopher Andre Bazin paved the way for filmmakers of the nouvelle vague. Bazin also championed cinematic realism: the unity of time and place with authentic realist style that produces aesthetic realism. Furthermore, Bazin claimed the real situations and locations used by the Italian neo-realists such as Rossellini and de Sica best exemplified the aesthetics of cinematic realism.

Some cinematic techniques used to attain aesthetic realism include the use of:

Outdoor Settings & Natural Light

Real People/Non-Professional Actors (provide ‘rawness’)

Long Takes & Minimal Quick Editing/Montages (provide a space to watch time unfold)

Deep Focus (allow spectators to gaze anywhere in the scene)

Unanticipated/Unscripted Footage

Some critics, such as Noel Carroll, disagree with Bazin’s realism, and argue:

  • Photography always requires at least some subjective human intervention (e.g. framing a shot)
  • Bazin’s ‘medium essentialism’ considers technology to dictate style, yet mediums are hard to define and often change
  • Photographs are not prosthetic images: I can’t orient my body towards that which the image depicts

Furthermore, some films question the ontology of cinematic realism:

Is a film made entirely of still photographs still a ‘film’?

Is a documentary film shot in 3D still an example of cinematic realism?

However, in Bazin’s defence, because he claims a human psychological and anthropological desire to preserve cinematic images against time exists; he is not claiming cinematic images are independent of human intervention. Bazin’s realism is aesthetic, psychological and ethical, and therefore not strictly ontological.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Ontologies of the Moving Image’, Lectures 2 & 3 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.