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