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Hum 3: Film Principles
Fr. Rene C. Ocampo, SJ/Fr. Dot O. Temporal, SJ/Bong S. Eliab/
Humanities Division
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University

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Movie Pleasures and the Spectator's Experience:
Toward a Cognitive Approach
Carl Plantinga

"In order to discuss [films] critically we have to find ways of defining . . . the nature of our involvement." V.F. Perkins, Film as Film<1>

V.F. Perkins claims that for most films, critical appreciation begins (but does not end) with a reconstruction of "the naive response of the film-fan."<2> That response perhaps not so naive as is sometimes assumed has significant implications beyond aesthetic appreciation, for the relationship of film to psychology, culture, and ideology. The nature of the film spectator's experience is key to many of the questions we want to ask about film. In turn, spectator pleasure which both motivates and inflects that experience is central to the inquiry.

In film studies, the most visible attempt to explain spectator pleasure comes from the "apparatus theory" which dominated film theory in the 1970s and 80s.<3> The apparatus theorists claimed to have uncovered the deep levels of spectator pleasure, which were said to originate in repressed and unconscious desires. Jean-Louis Baudry, for example, argued that mainstream films encourage a regression to primitive stages of human development, a return to a facsimile of infantile wholeness and homogeneity. Baudry and other apparatus theorists described classical cinema as a powerful, univocal fantasy machine with a specific purpose to encourage regressive psychological states that implement the subjection of the spectator to dominant ideology.

The major criticisms of apparatus theory are by now well-known, and the consensus is that it requires revision.<4> The attraction, and at the same time weakness, of apparatus theory was its simplicity; it claimed to have found the essential psychological and ideological effect of mainstream film. Positing these monolithic effects allowed apparatus theory to take an unequivocal position on the allegedly harmful psychological and ideological consequences of viewing classical films. However, it was too quick to assume a uniform, ahistorical, psychological effect, and a wholesale ideological subjugation as the norm for the film spectator.<5> The spectator's experience in viewing mainstream films is more complex and contradictory than apparatus theory allowed. Apparatus theory failed to account for the diversity and in some cases, the simplicity of the pleasures of the cinema.

This essay is not an attempt to revise and revitalize apparatus theory. Instead it offers an alternative approach to film pleasure, from what might broadly be called a cognitive/affective psychology. As a prolegomena to a fuller understanding of spectator experience, it gives a phenomenological account of various types of film pleasures. Thus it does not attempt to find an essence to film pleasure, but remains at a more local, piecemeal level. Aside from some brief remarks throughout the essay, I defer questions about why we enjoy these various enticements, or about their ideological effects. These are essential issues, but my deferring them is not simply due to limited space. A phenomenological account of spectator pleasures, I believe, is a prerequisite to exploring their psychological and ideological effects.

My claim is that five sources of spectator pleasure in film are (1) orientation and discovery, (2) visceral experience, (3) empathy and character identification, (4) narrational structuring, and (5) reflexive criticism and appreciation.<6> Though I present these pleasures as discrete, they are rarely experienced in isolation; the artificial separation I offer here serves a heuristic function. Moreover, though here I describe normative film viewing pleasures the typical rather than the idiosyncratic a cognitive/affective theory can also suggest ways of accounting for spectator difference, as I argue below.<7> Finally, this account is not meant to be taken as exhaustive, but preliminary and suggestive.<8>


Since much of human action is motivated by the need for survival and adaptation to our environment, it is unsurprising that elements of spectator activity relate to human adaptive skills. We delight in exercising the cognitive skills required to survey, understand, and interact with our environment and its inhabitants. As psychologist Morton Hunt writes, humans are motivated not simply by physiological, but also cognitive needs. We have a drive to know; we are curious. We also seek to mentally stimulate ourselves, for example, by playing games, solving challenging puzzles, viewing or reading mystery stories, and engaging in various crafts and hobbies. This has obvious adaptive benefits, since we must learn and practice skills enabling us to effectively relate to our environment. This is more than a human phenomenon. Research shows that monkeys, dogs, and even rats are aroused by situations of novelty and the need for mental stimulation. It may be that, with regard to our arts, amusements, and entertainments, drive induction the arousal of drives or desires is a stronger motivation than the drive reduction assumed by psychoanalysis.<9>

Cognitive film theory hasn't explicitly taken up the issue of spectator pleasure, but it implicitly assumes a spectator fundamentally motivated by the pleasures of orientation and discovery. David Bordwell and Edward Branigan, for example, write of the cognitive processes by which spectators comprehend film narratives; comprehension is itself implied to be the spectator's primary motivation. Bordwell's analysis of Rear Window (1954) is a case in point. Bordwell gives an account of the types of spectator inferences cued by the film, and of the means by which it plays on our desire to know by suggesting outcomes, teasing us with alternative possibilities, and presenting surprises.<10> Similarly, No‰l Carroll describes what he calls the erotetic narrative, in which succeeding scenes are related to preceding scenes as answers to questions.<11> The implied premise of cognitive theory is that the spectator is motivated by a desire for discovery and orientation.

All genres incorporate orientation and discovery, but none so much as the mystery. In this regard, it is noteworthy that Alfred Hitchcock promotes suspense above mystery. "In a whodunit," he says, "there is no suspense, but a sort of intellectual puzzle. The whodunit generates the kind of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense."<12> Where the mystery teases the spectator with an intellectual puzzle, the suspense film presents the relevant information, then creates anxiety about when and how the feared outcome will occur. Nonetheless, although Hitchcock dismisses pure mystery, his films incorporate mystery throughout. The pleasures of Rear Window come not from suspense only, but also from our curiosity about the film's mysteries: whether Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murdered his wife, how he disposed of the body, and whether Jeff's (James Stewart) hypotheses about the murder are correct.

In a mystery, the murder (or other crime) initiates little compassionate concern for the victim, or even of empathy for the investigating sleuth, but depends on the pleasure of an intellectual puzzle gradually solved. That such pleasures are predominantly intellectual is revealed in the superior intellect of the sleuth for example, in the cases of Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, or Jessica Fletcher. In identifying with their intellectual prowess, the audience not only celebrates intelligence as an inherent value, but perhaps also gains a narcissistic satisfaction in the presumed homology between the protagonist's mental powers and her or his own.

In part the pleasures of orientation and discovery are narrative but only in part. We also enjoy looking and hearing, because images and sounds fascinate us (though only briefly) and because they are a primary means through which we orient ourselves to the narrative world. Rear Window has become a touchstone for discussions of spectatorship, in part because many claim that its narrative situation mirrors that of the film spectator. The protagonist, L.B. Jeffries, or Jeff, is himself a spectator and a voyeur, peering through his neighbors' windows and perhaps witnessing a murder. In fact, much contemporary film theory has assumed that pleasure in looking, defined as essentially a voyeuristic pleasure, is central to spectatorship.

While voyeurism may be among the spectator's pleasures, it is neither characteristic of looking in general, nor of the pleasure offered by images and sounds. Although some film pleasures likely stem from the enticements of sexual pleasure in looking, to describe spectatorship as essentially voyeuristic simplifies the film viewing situation. Voyeurism requires two features that confine it to specific situations in specific films: (1) the voyeur derives sexual gratification from observing others (usually the sexual activities and/or nudity of others), and (2) the voyeur observes others unobserved, from a secret vantage point.

In the first case, viewing nudity and sexual activity has increasingly become central to contemporary film, and certainly constitutes one of the pleasures of spectatorship. However, the enjoyment of looking and hearing is not merely sexual, but is as varied as the visual and aural world itself. For example, we derive pleasure in looking at beautiful objects, unfamiliar scenes, or interesting characters. We also enjoy using our senses as a means of orientation and discovery. The senses are a primary means by which we gather information about our environment, and again, to exercise those senses in the unfamiliar environments offered by films can itself be rewarding. The soundtrack in Rear Window is a case in point, as through its subtle mixture of ambient sound traces of strangers' conversations and faint music wafting through the air it orients us and creates an intriguing sense of setting.

We also enjoy "discovering" visual and aural information. Think of the significance of the wedding ring in the film. Jeff resists the idea of marrying Lisa (Grace Kelly), though she wants marriage. When Lisa enters Thorwald's apartment, she finds the wedding ring of Thorwald's wife, reinforcing the suspicion that the woman has been dispatched. Lisa slips it onto her finger, and waves her hand behind her back at Jeff, who views the whole situation through his binoculars. The irony of the ring and what it signifies is subtly communicated through visual means. The pleasure here is not merely derived from recognizing the ring's thematic significance, but in the visual "discovery" of that significance.

To characterize film viewing as essentially voyeuristic, we would also need to show that the spectator's situation mimics the secret vantage point of the voyeur. Some of the visual pleasures of Rear Window are undoubtedly voyeuristic in this sense, as Jeffries peers at unsuspecting neighbors, and since, through point-of-view editing, we "see through his eyes." However, in Rear Window, we can characterize the spectator as a voyeur only because the protagonist, with whom we are perceptually aligned, engages in voyeuristic activities. Many spectating situations are nothing like this, and carry none of the implications of danger or social opprobrium accompanying Jeff in Rear Window. Unlike Jeff's clandestine snooping, film viewing is a public and accepted activity, and hardly something that we hide from others. (Of course, the "slumming" English professor may try to avoid notice as he or she exits a screening of True Lies or Steel Magnolias, but that is another matter). In Rear Window we see from a voyeur's perspective, but in many films the protagonist looks openly and publicly. It is a distortion to describe the film viewer as a voyeur, or looking as inherently voyeuristic. While the gratification of voyeurism is one of the pleasures of film viewing, it is not the essential or only one.<13>

Returning to the main point, while the mystery story plays on our interest in the solution to a crime, other genres, such as the science fiction film, depend on the pleasures of the orientation to and discovery of unusual environments and alien beings. Imaginary alien worlds, our world in the future, strange beings, or the dinosaurs of the Earth's past, all engage the curiosity of the spectator. Yet orientation and discovery apply beyond environments to our interest in characters, for we orient ourselves not simply to the physical environment, but to the social world. For that reason it would be wrong to claim that family melodramas, for example, depend little on these cognitive pleasures. Various genres play on orientation and discovery in ways designed to take advantage of varied spectator interests.


More so than any other art, film works directly on our senses of sight and hearing, on widescreen and in "surround" sound. Neither television nor any other media can equal film in presenting a compelling sensual experience.<14> To admit this isn't necessarily to claim the superiority of film; visceral experiences dependent on sensory stimulation are not highly valued by the critical community. Chases and pursuits, jumping, fighting, and falling, high-speed travel, explosions, extreme violence, nudity and voyeurism, spectacle, representations of the disgusting and repulsive, shocks and surprises this is the stuff of some of the most popular contemporary films. While Jurassic Park (1993) lacks a compelling story, it became the biggest-grossing movie of all time because viewers wanted not only to see a realistic portrayal of dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but to experience (something like) being chased by one.<15> Neither television nor literature can equal the sensual experience Jurassic Park presents on the big screen.

But visceral experiences can be presented subtly, and are not necessarily opposed to the pleasures of cognition and empathy. In contrast to Jurassic Park, Rear Window is spare in its visceral effects. This isn't surprising given the restricted space of the film: the action, such as it is, occurs either in Jeff's apartment or in what he can see through his windows. Examples include Jeff's waking from a nap to find Lisa kissing him, and the anxious scene when Thorwald catches Lisa in his apartment. The climactic point of any film is often its visceral peak. In Rear Window, this occurs after Thorwald discovers that Jeff is spying on him. When the murderer enters Jeff's apartment, Jeff delays him with a series of flashbulb bursts, and Thorwald responds by dumping Jeff out the window.

To some extent, our emotional involvement at these points depends on our allegiance with Jeff and Lisa (I discuss identification and empathy below). However, visceral experience is often independent of character empathy. A visceral experience is a response to the formal qualities of the film and the events it represents, regardless of our allegiance with characters. Hitchcock himself recognized that our responses to situations are partly independent of identification. The director gives the example of an intruder who enters a stranger's room and rummages through his drawers. When the audience sees the room's occupant approaching the door, it feels suspense, and wants to warn the "snooper" that the other approaches. As Hitchcock says, "even if the snooper is not a likable character, the audience will still feel anxiety for him."<16>

We sometimes distinguish between the "higher" emotions complex mixtures of temporal situation, cognitive appraisal, physiological response, and conscious feelings and simple affects, such as the "startle response" that occurs, for example, when your infant daughter unexpectedly screams in your ear. Though upon close examination the distinction is riven with difficulties, affects such as the startle response are the simple end of the spectrum of visceral experiences. For example, the automatic shock, horror, and repulsion I feel when the alien bursts from the crew member's stomach in Alien (1979) is a visceral experience. But visceral experience can also be more complicated, less automatic, and dependent on a subtle and evolving appraisal of an unfolding narrative situation.

Film technique is essential in shaping visceral effects, whether perceptual or emotional. Sergei Eisenstein wrote of the "montage of attractions" as a means of producing perceptual effects in the spectator. The Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, creates visceral effects through a montage of contrasting screen directions, movements, graphic compositions, and rhythms. Hitchcock insisted on the use of film technique to create and sustain the appropriate emotion. In The Birds, for example, he speaks of the "emotional truck" in the scene where the mother (Jessica Tandy) discovers the body of the dead farmer. As she flees the house, Hitchcock exaggerates the sound of her footsteps as she approaches her truck and the screech of the engine as she starts it up (to convey her anguish). The dirt road leading to the farm house had been watered down to film the truck's arrival, to minimize the dust kicked up by the wheels. As she escapes the gruesome scene, however, Hitchcock not only has the truck kick up clouds of dust, but also had artificial smoke billowing from the tailpipe.<17>

Noel Burch writes of "structures of aggression," whereby the filmmaker causes shocks and otherwise aggressively "assaults" the spectator through formal means.<18> Burch implicitly understands that the nature of affect depends on the mental "set" of the spectator on expectations and assumptions in part cued by the film itself. A clear example is the shower murder in Psycho (1960), in which Hitchcock does everything possible (within the bounds of the "allowable") to maximize the shocking nature of the scene. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) has stolen a large sum of money, but after a conversation with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) at her motel, decides to return it the next morning. Just as she begins to enjoy the literal and figurative cleansing of the warm shower, and just as the audience begins to relax in the presumption that her decision will put things right, the brutal murder occurs. Not only has the audience been set up cognitively for this shock, but Hitchcock's rapid editing and Bernard Hermann's shrieking musical score add to the visceral horror.<19>


Above I mentioned Hitchcock's contention that audiences find certain narrative situations suspenseful, even if the characters are unlikable. He adds, in reference to her trespassing in Thorwald's apartment, that "when the character is attractive, as for instance Grace Kelly in Rear Window, the public's emotion is greatly intensified."<20> Strong allegiance with characters is not a necessary element in the mix of audience pleasures; in fact, certain genres, such as horror and action/adventure, minimize audience empathy. Nonetheless, empathy for characters is one of the primary means through which many films engage emotional response. Empathy also provides a moral compass for the viewer, a means of appraising situations according to their implications for favored characters.<21> We sometimes derive pleasure in our negative reactions to oppositional characters, or antagonists. This is the opposite of empathy an antipathy, and a desire for vengeance, that fuels films such as those in Charles Bronson's Death Wish series (1974-1987).

That we experience empathy for characters is not a controversial claim, though we do sometimes wonder about the propriety of responding emotionally to fictional characters as though they deserved our fear and pity. Some viewers mistake actors for characters, or discuss a charac- ter's emotional life as though it were independent of the text. Aside from these confusions, however, responding emotionally to characters is no more questionable than becoming interested in the solution to a mystery plot. That is, there is nothing quaint about responding to characters in a film, that is not also quaint about responding to any element of the film story. It makes no sense to deride empathy for characters as naive, then go on to champion other kinds of mimetic response.<22>

The question of why we respond to fictions emotionally is a difficult one, too complex to be dealt with here.<23> That we do so respond, at least occasionally, is not a matter of controversy. Folk psychology, and some scholars, tell us that when we identify with a character, we feel and experience exactly what the character does. But this could hardly be the case; if it were true, it would be difficult to account for our pleasure in the film experience. Suppose that we feel exactly what Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) does as she is attacked by birds in The Birds (1963), or what Jo MacKenna (Doris Day) experiences when her son is kidnapped in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Of course, Jo has no idea that her son will eventually be rescued. If we assume our experience to be equivalent to her terror and grief, it would be unpleasant indeed, and certainly not something to actively seek out. Viewers can both empathize with Jo and enjoy the experience in part because even while we empathize, we are aware that we view a fiction. Our implicit knowledge of mainstream film conventions including the probable happy ending also assures us that our empathy will usually result in psychic rewards.

When we identify with a character, we may feel something analogous to what she or he experiences, but less intense and always tempered by our implicit awareness of the film viewing situation. Christian Metz wrote of a "double identification," whereby viewers identify on the one hand with characters, but also more primarily with the projection situation itself, and with themselves "looking." However, Metz downplays any notion of spectator awareness of the film viewing situation, but assumes instead that the viewer acquires a false sense of mastery over the artificial world she or he sees, and becomes what Metz calls a "transcendental subject, anterior to every there is."<24>

In my opinion, talk of double identification is unhelpful. We may identify with a protagonist, but do we identify or empathize with ourselves? Of course, we are ourselves, and we view a film from our perspective, but does that constitute identification in the way that we identify with a character? A less confusing account of the viewing situation was described in 1916 by Hugo Munsterberg, who writes that in addition to character identification, spectators respond to the film "from the standpoint of [their] independent affective life."<25> Though spectators may become absorbed in films, they rarely lose an implicit awareness of their situation in the theater.<26> Were this not the case, one would expect more of the behavior described in fables about early film spectators, who ostensibly panicked when viewing film of a passenger train approaching the station.<27> That spectators maintain a sense of self an awareness that they are being addressed is made evident in such common responses to film narratives as rejection, ridicule, and simple criticism.

Empathic response to characters is in part an emotional response. Human emotion is a complex phenomenon arising from a mixture of a concrete situation, an appraisal of the situation, goals and motives, physiological and emotional dispositions, and tendencies toward response. The defining feature of the cognitive theory of emotion is the claim that the nature of a particular emotion depends, to a great extent, on individual appraisals of a situation.<28> For example, as two persons (say, Tom and Teresa) wait on a deserted street corner at night, a lurking figure approaches from the alley behind them. While both notice the figure, Tom thinks him a stranger and quakes with fear, while Teresa recognizes the figure as her long lost brother and laughs with joy. Both Tom and Teresa are in the same situation, but they experience different emotions according to their appraisals of it.

Moreover, research in psychology has shown that just as situation alone does not determine emotion, neither does physiology. In a classic experiment, persons injected with drugs to simulate the physiological characteristics that accompany emotions, interpreted their own emotional states largely according to cues provided by researchers. Though undergoing strong physiological changes (such as increased respiratory and pulse rate), they did not report themselves as experiencing a particular emotion until they were put in a context of euphoria or anger, or in other words, supplied with the appropriate "cognitions."<29> Again, this is evidence for the importance of cognition in emotional experience. Situation and physiological response aren't enough to govern emotion; in many cases, the individual's evaluation of the situation is significant in determining the experienced emotion.<30>

Character identification partly depends on the spectator's evaluation of a character's situation. But it also rests on the human capacity for empathy, for responding emotionally to the situation of other persons. Unlike compassion, empathy in itself isn't an emotion, but a capacity or disposition to emotionally respond to another's situation (which may cause in us a diversity of emotions such as happiness, fear, anger, compassion, disgust, etc.).<31> Here Hitchcock's folk psychological observation about empathy seems right; we tend to empathize most strongly with those who are familiar to us and who we like. Hitchcock insisted on the importance of obtaining major stars for his films because the public is familiar with them. When the protagonist is played by a secondary star, Hitchcock says, "the whole picture suffers, . . . because audiences are far less concerned about the predicament of a character who's played by someone they don't know."<32> Empathy is key to audience strong response, Hitchcock says, because it is a means by which the audience becomes emotionally invested in the narrative situation.

Murray Smith has described what he calls the "structure of sympathy" presented by the film. That structure consists of (1) our recognition of the emotional experience of characters, (2) a structure of alignment (consisting of spatial attachment, subjective access, and perceptual alignment), and (3) allegiance, or in other words, our moral and ideological evaluation of characters. This analysis accounts for the fact that empathy seems to be partly automatic, based on the "emotional contagion" that occurs with the recognition of emotions in others (in this case, in characters). But empathy also depends on assessment and appraisal, determined in part by the perceptual experience the film creates and by our moral and ideological evaluation of the character.<33>

The problem of spectator difference is most striking in light of empathic response. Of the many ways we can differentiate between spectators, gender differences are currently of most interest to film scholars. When apparatus theory has differentiated between spectators, it has not done so on that basis. Laura Mulvey chiseled a crack in the apparatus theory monolith when she suggested that pleasure should be differentiated according to gender.<34> However, she maintained a fundamental tenet of apparatus theory when she found cinematic pleasure in a unitary source. She argued that the pleasures of mainstream film spectatorship are based in voyeurism and the symbolic dissolution of the threat of castration, and are thus male pleasures.

One can see the impetus for such a claim. To say that classical Hollywood film has often assumed a male viewer seems right to me. Taking Rear Window once more as an example, much of the film seems designed for a male subjectivity. The protagonist is male, of course, and to the extent that the spectator identifies with him, Rear Window offers a male fantasy. We are perceptually aligned with Jeff when he views Miss Torso in her apartment, and the sunbathers on the building's roof. It is also a male fantasy in the way that the female characters dote on him. Lisa participates in his journey of discovery in part because she wants to prove her worth to him. Throughout the film Lisa caters to Jeff by offering to buy him a new silver cigarette case, modeling lingerie and an $1100 dress for him, offering herself sexually to him, having dinner, wine, and champagne delivered to his apartment, and planting favorable "items" about him in newspaper columns.

However, to say that even Rear Window offers exclusively male pleasures is simplistic. Certainly the pleasures it allows spectators in part fall along gender lines but only in part. For one, contrary to what Mulvey assumed, women empathize with male characters and vice versa. In fact, I would speculate that many audiences find Lisa to be more sympathetic than the cynical and demanding Jeff, and it is certainly possible that our fundamental allegiance lies with her, though we are aligned with Jeff perceptually and spatially. It is Jeff who initiates the voyeurism here, which the film itself questions, and it is Jeff who dubiously resists the love Lisa offers because she is "too perfect." Lisa holds our sympathies, though Jeff is the protagonist.

Although Laura Mulvey was right to claim that Hollywood has (and still does) often presume male spectatorship, this presumption should be challenged. However, she is able to claim that mainstream films offer exclusively male pleasures only because her account of pleasure is too narrow. As Jane Gaines asks, "Is the spectator restricted to viewing the female body on the screen from the male point of view?"<35> If I am right that the pleasures films offer are more complex than this, then we must revise conventional accounts that posit a binary opposition between male and female pleasure. This is not a new suggestion, and is in fact gaining acceptance even among those sympathetic to apparatus theory.<36> To some extent orientation and discovery, visceral experience, and empathy, though differently inflected, are cross-gender pleasures.

A cognitive/affective theory can account for spectator differences and similarities. Many have argued that psychoanalytic theory is inherently patriarchal in its emphasis on Oedipal desire, the "Law of the Father," and the ubiquitous power of "the Phallus." Of course, much recent scholarship has been devoted to disputing that very point.<37> However, psychoanalytic theory cannot match the ability of cognitive/affective psychology to account for cultural and gender differences and for social change. Cognitive/affective psychology stresses the importance of cognition in all of human experience, and in the case of emotion, for example, shows how cultural schemas and the appraisals they influence in part determine emotional response. Recent work in the psychology of empathy and emotion has described differences in emotional response due to gender and culture.<38> This work has direct bearing on the variations in pleasure based on spectator difference.


It is a film's narration, consisting of its narrative structure, style, and technique, that shapes the overall temporal experience it offers. Above I wrote of the centrality of film technique in cueing spectator experience. Much can be said about narrative structure; here, due to limitations of space, I offer a few brief remarks. Narrative structure determines the temporal processes of orientation and discovery, visceral experience, and empathy. It is obvious that Rear Window, for example, directs the mental activity of spectators in an ordered process. After learning something of setting and character in the exposition, viewers seemingly witness a murder and cover-up, engage in a process of discovery and questioning, and finally confirm their hypotheses. The visceral experiences the film offers are similarly structured temporally, often, as in Rear Window, in an ascending order of strength, until at the end the protagonist must engage in a basic human struggle for survival.

In everyday life, visceral experiences are often unpleasant, and empathy often rewards us only with pain or discomfort; to empathize can mean to share in another's disappointments and unhappinesses. Therapists commonly hear the complaint that family members are simply unable or unwilling to empathize because it is too threatening. In classical Hollywood films, on the other hand, the convention of the happy ending makes it probable that empathy will bring the rewards of a favorable outcome for the protagonist; thus our emotional investment will likely yield psychically pleasing results.

Even endings not uniformly favorable for the protagonist usually offer some type of psychic reward for the viewer, whether intellectual, moral, or emotional. The resolution of Witness (1985), for example, has John Book (Harrison Ford) vanquishing the corrupt New York police, but having to leave Rachel (Kelly McGillis), the Amish woman with whom he has fallen in love. Though the ending is mixed, the film implies that Book embodies an urban corruption, or fallenness, that would taint the Edenic society of the Amish. Though the lovers must part, the viewer can take comfort in the preservation of this rural Eden. In films of whatever type, empathy if allowed at all usually rewards the spectator in some respect.

That spectator emotion is so dependent on narrative makes sense in light of the nature of emotion. We sometimes think of emotions as static mental states, but emotions are a process. While moods are thought to be pervasive and long-lasting, psychologists think of emotions as transient disturbances, initiated by the subject's appraisal of a (normally) disruptive situation. Emotions occur in time, and have a structure; they ebb and flow according to the subject's evolving situation and evaluation of it. Our emotional experience may change dramatically as our expectations are met or thwarted, and as the situation takes unexpected turns. The language philosophers and psychologists use to describe the structure of emotion is very close to that used by screenwriters when speaking about narrative structure. Consider the screenwriting manuals with their talk of catalysts and disruptive events, goal-oriented protagonists, conflicts and crises, expectations and reversals, rising action and climaxes, resolution and a return to a state of calm. A film's narrative structure is largely a structure designed to cue emotional, visceral, and cognitive experience.


So far I have claimed that film pleasures can be traced to orientation and discovery, visceral experience, and character empathy, as organized by the film's narration all intratextual pleasures. Hollywood has always embraced an ethic of absorption. According to many practitioners, the purpose of film technique is to communicate narrative information, but also rivet the spectator to the fiction. Any technique that draws attention to itself, and away from the story, is thought to transgress that fundamental rule. Yet although this is a common rule of thumb, it is also one that is commonly ignored, as reflexive works become increasingly popular on both film and television. We also enjoy the intertextual pleasures of the text.

The reflexive and ironic interest in "bad" movies, for example, hardly admits the kind of illusionism sometimes thought to be characteristic of the spectator's experience. The recent release of Ed Wood (1994), a celebratory work about the man who gave us Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) and Glen or Glenda (1953), speaks to this ironic distance with which we view some films. Another example is the current fascination with the spectacle of special effects. How many theatergoers saw Jurassic Park for its story as opposed to its special effects? Similarly, the computer morphing in Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991) is almost guaranteed to initiate critical distance, ironically even while the spectator marvels at the "realistic," but obviously unreal effects. Hitchcock, of course, was very successful at self-promotion and was a marvelously playful director. A strong sense of Hitchcock as auteur is a component of viewing his work. This is most obvious in his reflexive appearance in each of his films. The extent of audience participation in this game is evidenced in his having to place the appearances toward the beginning of his films, so that the audience could thereafter attend more to the story proper.

Above I argued that the particular emotional experience offered by films depends on the spectator's implicit assumption that film viewing is a conventional practice, and that what is seen is fictional. Film viewing is rarely so absorbing that, while viewing, we have no conscious, "extra-textual" thoughts. Isn't this extra-textual mental activity, whether it occurs during the viewing or not, among the pleasures films offer? For much of the audience, I believe, reflexive film viewing is a common practice.<39> Our pleasure in a film can often be indirect, a second-order or reflective response to our initial reactions. To take a personal example, my initial response to the violence in Unforgiven (1992) was unease and revulsion; that response was gradually tempered by my reflection, while viewing the film, on how those feelings played into the film's thematic exploration of vengeance.

To some degree, this stems from an audience that, in part due to the increasing number of film courses in high schools and universities, is more sophisticated in at least one respect they know something about films and filmmaking. But a film education isn't necessary to enjoy the reflexive pleasures. As early as 1915, Vachel Lindsay wrote of the "buzzing commentary of the audience."<40> And as William Paul writes, "Anyone who has experienced a movie in a . . . crowded urban theater (especially in the inner city, where audiences are often as vocal in their responses . . . as worshippers in Pentecostal churches) might even find the notion of a passive audience to be rather quaint."<41> If we no longer think of the spectator as entirely passive and suffering from wholesale illusion, we should acknowledge that reflexive pleasures are among those viewers enjoy.


Can we identify one final source or single essence of our pleasure in film viewing? Psychoanalytic theories tend to relate narrative pleasures to repressed wishes and unconscious desires; for example, the Oedipal scenario has been claimed to lie at the heart of all narratives. As applied to film viewing particularly, psychoanalytic theorists have traced the special lure of film to looking, which is characterized as a kind of voyeurism or scopophilia. An alternative to psychoanalysis comes from evolutionary psychology, which claims that humans are fundamentally motivated by the need to reproduce their genes; thus most human behavior is adaptively motivated, a means of equipping "the organism" for survival and reproduction. For the evolutionary psychol- ogist, film viewing would have to be motivated by the adaptive benefits it offers.<42>

Others have suggested, in contrast, that film viewing is a form of play, a means of drive induction, of adding excitement and color to our lives; it need not necessarily have momentous psychological or adaptive significance. Of course, playing sometimes has an adaptive function. Clifford Geertz, for example, claims that art, entertainments, and amusements offer an indirect means of dealing with the crucial conflicts and issues of life.<43>

Theories of repressed drives, human adaptation, and play all have their attractions. But consider another alternative. Contrary to any grand theory, there may exist no final essence to the pleasures of mainstream spectatorship. Cinematic pleasures may be multiple and dispersed, depending on film, genre, viewer, and cultural and historical context. While apparatus theory posits a single, unitary pleasure as the fundamental motivation for viewing mainstream films, this account questions the existence of an essential spectating pleasure, even for classical films. Instead it offers a phenomenological account of the various kinds of pleasures film viewing offers.

A cognitive/affective account allows a more specific description of the particular pleasures of individual films, whether classical or not. The means by which orientation and discovery, visceral experience, empathy, and reflexivity are played out differ markedly in individual films and genres. For example, we could make the case that mystery emphasizes orientation and discovery, action/adventure depends on visceral thrills, melodrama on empathy, and parody and irony on reflexivity. Yet clearly no genre emphasizes one pleasure wholly at the expense of the others. Moreover, though classical films may share basic tendencies, each film nonetheless presents a complex mix of pleasures, resulting in a different type of spectator experience.

To examine the specific responses films allow, we need to reject the notion that classical films have a monolithic spectator effect. This is not to deny that classical Hollywood cinema is an institution with general characteristics; these characteristics may even have arguable ideological effects for spectators. However, it is also an institution riven with ideological contradictions, seeming anomalies, and differences within the broad bounds of a recognizable form or shape. An institution, perhaps, but univocal and homogeneous no. At the broad level of the "classical cinema," we had rather point to tendencies and probabilities than determinacies and essences.

Apparatus theory has Brechtian roots; it sees mainstream film viewing as retrograde and pathological, steeped as it is said to be in illusionism and ideological subjugation. The account offered here, in contrast, paints a more benign picture of the pleasures offered by mainstream films. On the other hand, however, if those pleasures are often benign, they are not always or necessarily so. That some of our pleasures are rooted in psychological or social pathology is a distinct possibility. How else do we explain, for example, the pleasure some take in portrayals of violence towards women? However, apparatus theory was so general that it seemed to locate an ideological problem in spectator pleasure itself, not merely in certain of its diverse manifestations. We need to account for spectator pleasure with an appreciation of its diversity. The pleasures of the cinema are multiple, and so must be their psychological, cultural, and ideological effects.


<1> (Middlesex: Penguin, 1972), p. 141.

<2> Ibid., p. 157.

<3> For a survey of apparatus theory, see Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, The Cinematic Apparatus (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984).

<4> My criticisms of apparatus theory are not meant to apply to psychoanaly- sis generally. For a critical, yet sympathetic, examination of apparatus theory on spectatorship, see Judith Mayne's Cinema Spectatorship (New York: Routledge, 1993), and E. Ann Kaplan's Psychoanalysis and Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1989). No‰l Carroll's Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies of Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1988) is uniformly critical. One of the early critiques of apparatus theory came from dissenting members of the editorial board of Screen, the journal eventually most respon- sible for the dissemination of the theory. Their summation of the project of apparatus theory reveals their deep skepticism: "An ill-defined monolith (sometimes described as classic American cinema, sometimes as mainstream cinema) produces a passive audience, which is also conceived as a monolith and never investigated." Edward Buscombe, Christopher Gledhill, Alan Lovell, and Christopher Williams, "Statement: Psychoanalysis and Film," Screen, 16, 4 (Winter 75/76), p. 129.

<5> One line of defense for apparatus theory is to claim that it describes spectator "positions," not actual spectators. But this description of spectator positioning, it seems to me, is useful only if actual viewers inhabit those positions. At the least, apparatus theory should have explained the relationship between the concept of spectator positions and actual viewers. Recent theory derived from the original apparatus theory describes numerous and sometimes contradictory "positions of desire" offered by films. See, for example, Janet Bergstrom and Mary Ann Doane, Camera Obscura, 20-21 (1989), a special issue on the spectatrix. Also see David Rodowick, The Difficulty of Difference (New York: Routledge, 1991). The use of the word "positions," unfortunately, retains some of the deterministic force of original apparatus theory (the subject is positioned), and downplays the ability of the spectator to respond from the standpoint of a subjectivity independent of the particular film.

<6> The pleasures of the movies have much to do with their psychological power. On this topic see my "Affect, Cognition, and the Power of Movies," Post Script 13, 1 (Fall 1993), pp. 10-29. The first three categories of spectator pleasures orientation and discovery, visceral experience, and the sympathy and antipathy of character identification derive in part from Jon Boorstin's account of spectator pleasures in The Hollywood Eye: What Makes Movies Work (New York: Harper Collins, 1990). Boorstin describes what he calls the "voyeur's eye," the "vicarious eye," and the "visceral eye." Though I think his fundamental distinction between these types of pleasures is sound, my account of the particulars differs substantially. Boorstin's book and Francois Truffaut's Hitchcock/Truffaut (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, rev. ed.) are two of the most illuminating insider accounts of the spectator pleasures of classical film.

<7> I hope it goes without saying that an assumption of the norm in itself implies no moral judgment of atypical activity. My account of normative film pleasures presupposes no moral judgment. Neither do I assume my judgments of the norm to be unassailable. In determining spectator response, do we posit spectator positions, as did apparatus theory, or do we rely on empirical investigations of actual spectators? Here I take a middle ground. My hypotheses about "normal" or "typical" spectatorship usually are speculative approximations, yet necessary hypotheses if we are to say anything interesting about mass spectatorship.

<8> For example, I do not deal here with laughter and humor, no doubt important elements of film pleasure. The use of film music also raises difficult questions, because music, like so many film elements, has both visceral and cognitive implications for the viewer's experience.

<9> Morton Hunt, The Story of Psychology (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pp. 493-510.

<10> David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 40-47.

<11> Edward Branigan, Narrative Comprehension and Film (New York: Routledge, 1992); Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film; Carroll, Mystifying Movies.

<12> Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 73.

<13> One could counter my claim by saying that the fact that movies are socially sanctioned captures an important feature of the voyeurism of film viewing. Movies, one could say, offer a socially acceptable means of engaging in voyeurism, much as marriage offers a socially sanctioned means of engaging in sex. In reply, I offer two responses. First, I would agree that movies provide a socially sanctioned form of looking (and listening). However, that looking is varied in its nature and in what is looked at, and is not essentially sexual or voyeuristic. Second, my argument is not that voyeurism has no place in characterizations of film viewing, only that we should not characterize film viewing as essentially voyeuristic. The disanalogies between film viewing and voyeurism are strong enough to question those who characterize the former as a form of the latter.

<14> Note that recent trends in home viewing call for the replication of aspects of the sensual experience of the movie theater. We now speak of "home theatre," with large screen monitors and Dolby Pro Logic sound.

<15> Film images and sounds are compelling in part because they are both imitative and transformative, relying in part on the visual and aural percep- tual capacities of the spectator, and simultaneously exaggerating the visceral components of what is represented. On the means by which motion pictures depend on the real-world perceptual skills, see Stephen Prince, "The Discourse of Pictures: Iconicity and Film Studies," Film Quarterly, 47, 1 (Fall 1993): 16-28. Also see Paul Messaris, Visual "Literacy": Image, Mind, and Reality (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).

<16> Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 73.

<17> Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 297.

<18> No‰l Burch, Theory of Film Practice, trans. Helen R. Lane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 122-135.

<19> That the effect can still be powerful for audiences who already know the outcome is testimony to the automatic nature of our responses to certain representations. An obvious question here concerns the specific tensions and excitements offered by various genres. We can understand for others, if not for ourselves in all cases the pleasures of spectacle, of sexual allure, of the excitement of a high speed car chase, or of our satisfaction in the beauty of an image or scene. However, some visceral pleasures for example, the pleasures taken in representations of graphic violence or of what is conventionally disgusting or repulsive are more difficult to fathom. While many genres incorporate violence, contemporary horror most clearly combines graphic violence with the repulsive. Fully accounting for these "pleasures" is clearly beyond the scope of this essay. For a Freudian account of the pleasures of horror, see Ernest Jones, On the Night- mare (London: Liveright, 1971). Also see N”el Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York: Routledge, 1990) and William Paul, Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

<20> Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 73.

<21> Empathy sometimes has little to do with moral evaluation. In Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), for example, Clint Eastwood (the Good) lacks all of the moral qualities also missing in Lee Van Cleef (the Bad) and Eli Wallach (the Ugly). Yet the audience is encouraged to empathize with Eastwood. Here our moral evaluation stems from our empathy, rather than vice versa.

<22> Unless, of course, one wants to deride empathy itself, and not merely empathy as it is played out in films.

<23> This has recently been a popular subject in philosophical aesthetics. See, for example, Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), and Richard Wollheim, "Imagination and Identifica- tion," in On Art and the Mind (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974).

<24> "The Imaginary Signifier," Screen 16, 2 (Summer, 1975), p. 45.

<25> The Film: A Psychological Study. New York: Dover Publications, 1916, 1970, p. 53.

<26> One does not have to be consciously thinking about one's situation to harbor an awareness of significant aspects of it. When I play with my dog, for example, I am (usually) not consciously thinking that this is a dog and not a human. This is part of my set of implicit beliefs, or "horizon" assumed rather than consciously embraced. Similarly, film audiences, though absorbed in the world of the film, are nonetheless implicitly aware that what they see is not reality unfolding before them.

<27> See Tom Gunning, "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator," Art and Text 34 (1989), p. 34.

<28> The literature on cognition and emotion is voluminous. For a brief overview, see Morton Hunt, pp. 479-510. For a philosopher's perspective, see William Lyons, Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

<29> S. Schachter and J. Singer, "Cognitive, Social and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State," Psychological Review, 69 (1962), pp. 395-396. While this classic experiment has generated considerable contro- versy, what it claims to show that emotion is determined at least in part by cognition is nonetheless commonly accepted by both psychologists and philosophers of emotion.

<30> Appraisal of a situation is sometimes considered and volitional, and at other times automatic and involuntary. Psychologists who deny the connection between emotion and cognition usually describe emotion as a hard-wired, innate process, emphasizing its automaticity. Those who claim an essential link between cognition and emotion, however, do not claim that emotions all involve conscious deliberation. Richard S. Lazarus, for example, describes both deliberate and involuntary modes of appraising situations. He also discusses preconscious modes of evaluation, and though he does not embrace the Freudian model, allows for the possibility that sometimes ideas are kept out of awareness as an ego-defense. In other words, cognitive appraisal is not always conscious and rational. See "Cognition and Motivation in Emotion," American Psychologist, 46,4 (April 1991): 352-367.

<31> The origins and nature of our capacity to empathize with characters we know are fictional, and to emotionally respond to fictions generally, has been the subject of an intense debate in philosophy recently. For my purposes, I cannot enter the fray, but must simply assume that such an emotional response exists.

<32> Hitchcock/Truffaut, p. 145.

<33> See Murray Smith, "Altered States: Character and Emotional Response in the Cinema," Cinema Journal, 33, 4 (Summer 1994), pp. 34-56. See also Smith's Engaging Characters: Fiction and Emotional Response in the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). On emotional contagion, see Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson, Emotional Contagion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). For a classic discussion of the psychology of empathy in literature and film, see Hans Kreitler and Shulamith Kreitler, Psychology of the Arts (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972), pp. 257-284.

<34> "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in Patricia Erens, ed., Issues in Feminist Film Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 28-40.

<35> "Women and Representation: Can We Enjoy Alternative Pleasure?" in Erens, p. 84.

<36> Mayne, pp. 77-102.

<37> See Patricia Elliot, From Mastery to Analysis: Theories of Gender in Psychoanalytic Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

<38> See for example, N. Eisenberg and J. Straayer, Empathy and Its Develop- ment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); J.R. Averill, Anger and Emotion: An Essay on Emotion (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982); June Crawford, et. al., Emotion and Gender (London: Sage Publications, 1992); Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, Emotion and Culture (Washington, D.C.: American Psycho- logical Association, 1994).

<39> Bill Nichols describes various types of reflexivity in Representing Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 69-75.

<40> Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915; rev. ed. 1922; rpt. New York: Liverright, 1970), p. 224.

<41> William Paul, Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pp. 17-18.

<42> The evolutionary psychologist might count among those benefits, for example, social instruction, the exercise of cognitive faculties, the exercise of the sense of hearing and sight, and perhaps physiological benefits stemming from excitement and calming.

<43> Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).



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