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Creative Spectator, Rich Text

Senior Lecturer, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK.

Per Persson (2000) Understanding Cinema: Constructivism and Spectator Psychology. Stockholm: Department of Cinema Studies, Stockholm University.

Understanding Cinema (UC) represents a bold and significant contribution to the growing body of cognitive – or, as the author prefers to put it, psychological – film theory. The thesis engages with specific debates concerning POV, framing and proximity, and character psychology. These three case studies are framed by a substantial ‘introduction’ (more like a philosophical and methodological manifesto) outlining the author’s background assumptions on a whole range of issues. The key issue here is the ontology of both the text and our understanding of it. Distinguishing between object or text-centred theories, expressive theories, mimetic theories, reception and contextual theories, Persson carves out a distinctive position for his own theory of ‘understanding cinema’, informed by both cognitive theories of spectatorship and historical reception studies, though identical with neither. Thus, while UC incorporates reception studies work on the socio-historically specific belief systems which inform individual spectators’ understanding of films, Persson's focus is more resolutely on the individual spectator and at the psychological (rather than social) level. And while broadly allied with existing cognitive film theory, the thesis is suspicious of its ‘object-centredness’, and its emphasis on the literary and artistic domains, rather than the domain of the everyday. A key concept for the author here is the notion of spectator dispositions – a disposition being any physiological or psychological set of characteristics which spectators employ in their understanding of films (these range from universal features of our perceptual make-up, through culturally-specific dispositions, to entirely idiosyncratic attitudes arising from personal experience). One of Persson's key claims is that more attention needs to be paid to everyday dispositions – those arising from and informing our ordinary interactions with the world, rather than dispositions specifically connected to our experience with art or media – and the burden of this case is carried by the three central case studies.

Each case study combines an overview of a particular everyday psychological disposition, along with an argument showing how these dispositions can explain the psychological functioning and the historical emergence of certain conventions (thus, there is an emphasis on early cinema, as well as on the differences between the ‘cinema of attractions’ and ‘classical’ narrative cinema). Thus in the first of the case studies, Persson argues that POV editing is explained, psychologically and historically, by its mimicry of deictic gazing – the disposition to follow the gaze of another person to the object of that gaze. This basic thesis – originally proposed by Noel Carroll – is impres sively deepened and refined by eight further hypotheses, each regarding the use of conventions which, assuming the basic thesis is correct, would predict greater ease on the part of the spectator in inferring a POV connection between two shots.

Personal space dispositions (the subject of the second case study) concern our assumptions about personal space – the immediate space around us – and the kinds of behaviour appropriate in the various ‘layers’ into which this space can be broken down. As with all the main dispositions examined in the study, these dispositions are regarded as a blend of universal and culturally-specific attributes. The relevant dispositions at stake in the third case study concern 1) our capacity to attribute mental states on the basis of bodily and facial cues, and 2) our capacity to reason about the mental states of both ourselves and others, on the basis of folk psychology (the assumed network of causal interrelations among perceptions, beliefs, desires, intentions, goals, and emotions). This chapter also presents the culmination of an argument for the place of psychology in the explanation of historical shifts in film form and style. Persson acknowledges that the shift to narrative form is primarily to be explained in socio-economic terms, as well as the argument that some new stylistic features within the emerging narrative regime can be attributed to ‘inter-medial’ influence (so his position is not a purely ‘naturalistic’ one, in that not everything is explained by reference to everyday dispositions). But he insists that psychology must then be invoked to explain why certain stylistic conventions (and not others) came to be adopted – or even, dare one say it, evolved – in relation to the goal of narrative (and the stress on character psychology that this inevitably brings with it) (289). In sum, one might say that the thesis seeks to triangulate text, spectator, and historical context – to provide an integrated, multi-levelled explanation which pays equal regard to all three of these factors, so often emphasised at the expense of one another in film studies.

Persson consistently emphasises the need for more empirical work in film studies – not to displace but to balance theoretical speculation. While this is a laudable goal, for the purposes of this review, this theoretically-disposed leopard isn’t going to change his spots – which is to say that I’d like to pursue the implications of the philosophical underpinnings, and especially the constructivist ontology, of the study as a whole. 'Constructivism' alludes to the emphasis in cognitive psychology on the 'creative' character of human perception and cognition – the way in which our apprehension of the world involves a far-reaching elaboration of our perceptual 'input' (26). Persson holds to a radical variation of this idea, which he summarises in the slogan ‘construction all the way.’ On this view, even such basic filmic phenomena as object recognition, and the perception of movement, require construction, a stance which entails that objectivity is only ever apparent. If this gives rise to relativism, however, it is not the relativism familiar to us from poststructuralism. Precisely because it is held that our 'construction' of the world goes 'all the way', pragmatically speaking, most things are left standing in their familiar places. We still recognise the difference between perceiving the world, and perceiving a film, even if both are ‘constructive’ activities; and we still need to distinguish between accurate ('objective') and inaccurate ('subjective') statements and perceptions, for example. Thus we can acknowledge that colours, strictly speaking, are a 'construction' of the human perceptual system; but colour perception is left intact as a normal human capacity, as is the fact that we are registering something actual in the world when we perceive colours (different wavelengths of light). So when I tell you that there is an orange sunset in the sky, I am perceiving 'constructively' but (in all probability) accurately. To talk of 'construction all the way' is not to commit oneself to subjectivism or idealism.

Persson states as much himself, but his attitude towards 'mimetic' theories of film is inconsistent with this position. Persson implies that to be a wholesale contructivist is to place one's theory outside of mimetic assumptions. And yet his theory surely assumes a kind of mimetic relationship between the world and film conventions, and (moving in the other direction) between film conventions and the everyday dispositions of spectators: our attribution of mental states to characters, for example exploits (and in this sense mimics) our attribution of mental states to persons (269). In positing an 'everyday' realm of interaction in which such dispositions as deictic gazing, personal space, and folk psychology have evolved, and in then stating that film conventions exploit these same capacities, a mimetic assumption has been put in place. It matters not that everything is 'constructed': what matters is that the (constructed) domain of art can be seen to mimic the more basic (but still constructed) domain of ordinary interaction. Persson assumes that a mimetic theory must commit itself to the naive view that the world is simply ‘there’, and yet he demonstrates how a theory can be mimetic and avoid such traditional objectivism. This is no trivial matter, as the mimetic dimension of Persson's argument is integral to his claim that the conventions he discusses are not arbitrary, but motivated by everyday dispositions – a compelling argument, and one necessary to shake film studies out of its residual, and usually unargued, attachment to semiotics.

Another corollary of Persson’s thorough-going constructivism concerns the status of the film text, which he describes as ‘impoverished’ – in the sense that the meaning latent in a film can only be realised when the ‘cognitively creative’ spectator ‘builds on’ the set of cues provided by a film. Does this purely ontological claim about the impoverishment of the text, however, risk confusion with an aesthetic claim, concerning the relative interest and value of films? In fairness to Persson, he explicitly forswears aesthetic evaluation. And yet, the word ‘impoverished’ (and related ones that Persson uses in the same context, like ‘poor’) perhaps have de facto aesthetic overtones. To claim that texts are (ontologically) ‘impoverished’ may have an (unintended) levelling effect, whereby all texts are regarded as equally ‘poor’. But there is a clearly a problem with this view. One of the fundamental assumptions of object-centred aesthetic criticism is that some texts are richer than others. The richness of particular films can arise because films are the repository of decisions made by filmmakers – they are, as it were, extensions of cognitively creative filmmakers. For this reason it is misleading to think of films as inert objects which spring to life under the spectator’s cognitively creative gaze. Moreover, a rich text does not entail an ‘impoverished’ spectator who contributes nothing – on the contrary, a rich text requires an alert and intelligent spectator in order to be understood. There is little to be gained by making the argument for the active, creative spectator at the expense of the text (which has become ‘impoverished’). Text and spectator are equally part of a cycle of expression and understanding. The emphasis on ‘construction all the way’ in this context risks driving us not so much into a vicious, as a fruitless, circular argument regarding the relative importance of text and spectator.

I noted earlier that UC is unusual, and unusually valuable, in the way in which it forges connections between the psychology of film, the sociohistorical context of reception, and the textual study of film. The interdisciplinary character of the thesis is also evident in the synthesis of material drawn from (among other fields) evolutionary biology, developmental and social psychology, and cultural anthropology – as well as Persson’s refusal to draw any sharp line between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’. Although it is a mere text, far from being impoverished, UC is a rich work, the surface of which I have only scratched in this review, and one can only hope that the level of sophistication and nuance evident here is further evidence of the intellectual maturation of film studies as a discipline.

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