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The Emotion System

Film Structure and the Emotion System
Greg M. Smith

Cambridge University Press, 2003 
isbn 0-521-81758-7 — Price: ±57,15€ (£40.00; US $55,00)

Films evoke broad moods and cue particular emotions that can be widely shared as well as individually experienced. Although the experience of emotion is central to movie viewing, film studies have neglected to focus attention on the emotions, relying instead on rather vague psychoanalytic concepts of desire.

Film Structure and the Emotion System synthesizes recent research on emotion in cognitive psychology and neurology in an effort to provide a more nuanced understanding of how film evokes emotion.

Part ONE develops some key concepts of what Smith calls the “mood-cue” approach. Smith first exposes some desiderata for a theory of filmic emotions. He explains that a theoretically founded approach should be able to describe and explain emotional phenomena, or the lack of them, in a wide range of films.

In chapter two, Smith synthesizes a range of research from experimental psychology and neuropsychology to create a cohesive, empirically based understanding of the emotion system. Smith deals with emotion and cognition, emotion prototypes and nonprototypical emotions, the structure of the emotion system, emotions as processes, and emotion and culture. Among other things, the author explains that a prototypical emotion is considered to be an object-oriented state. It is an action tendency toward a goal. Since certain emotions “express” the subject’s concerns rather than ensure that those concerns are satisfied, Smith labels these states as “expressive-communicative” emotions. Not all emotions, however, are goal- or action- or object-oriented. The human emotion network is flexible and allows us to create a variety of associations with an emotion. These associations make it possible to bypass prototypical functioning. Hence, the importance to include nonprototypical emotions into the study.

Chapter three outlines some key concepts of the “mood-cue approach”. Smith argues that the primary emotive effect of film is to create mood. Hence, the author defines a mood as a predisposition toward experiencing emotion. Several emotive cues increase the likelihood of moving the viewer toward a predispositionary mood state.

Chapter four situates the mood-cue approach in the context of the growing body of literature on film, cognition, and emotion, differentiating his own approach from the assumptions of predecessors such as Noël Carroll, Ed Tan and Torban Grodal.

Whereas Noël Carroll considers non-object caused effects as “bodily states” and therefore not emotions proper, Smith prefers to include these effects in the study of emotions.

Ed Tan and Nico Frijda’s psychology of interest and action deals with empirical data from real audiences. Smith acknowledges that his textually based approach is limited in that respect. Tan’s approach, however, is limited to evaluating character-oriented behaviours, ascertaining character motivation, etc. According to Smith, film studies should not embrace an understanding of emotion that is rooted solely in character and plot.

In this respect, Smith prefers Grodal’s system that depends on stylistic cues of all kinds, not simply a person-oriented understanding of emotion.

Part TWO applies the mood-cue approach to a number of films: Dallas, Strike, A Day in the Country and The Lower Depths, The Joy Luck Club and Casablanca.

PART THREE provides a brief conclusion suggesting future avenues of research open to scholarship.

The book closes with an APPENDIX that examines the Freudian assumptions about the nature of emotion that are the underpinnings of psychoanalytic film theory. Smith argues that these assumptions make Freudian-based theory insufficient to explain the nature of emotions.

“Film structure and the Emotion System” definitely continues an interesting line of scientific research. The study of narrative and rhetorical devices aiming at viewer empathy combined with the study of audience emotions opens up promising new perspectives.

Smith’s description of the analytical tools, however, is often brief and requires further reading.

The weak point of this study, as Smiths admits, is the lack of empirical research. Smith’s tools are limited to textual analysis only: they can help observe and describe in a more detailed way the presence or absence of specific textual features. Effects produced by those textual features upon actual audiences, however, can only be hypothesized, never known.

Hence, problems arise when Smith starts ascribing very personal interpretations to “the” viewer. Expressions such as “only then do we understand that…” assume that “the” viewer shall experience parts of the analysed movie in the same way as the scholar. The category of “the viewer” always remains vague. Sometimes, the author feels that his assumptions about “the” viewer are going too far, and he corrects and specifies by referring to the “well informed viewer”, “the observant viewers well versed in the convention of the woman’s film”, “the female viewers associated with melodrama”, etc. What the author is actually referring at is “the viewer called Greg Smith”.

Elsewhere, Smith distinguishes between the “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-audience and the “Stranger than Paradise”-audience; a distinction that parallels another binary opposition between the Hollywood mainstream movie and the art film. Recent achievements (a.o.) in Cultural Studies and film genre studies could help refine these simplistic binary views.

As a consequence, Smith’s film analyses at times (cf. Stella Dallas) glide into a personal critique rather than an analytical description of emotional processes occurring within specific audiences while watching one or more specific movies in a specific time-space context.

Still, as a series of first steps in a new direction, Smith’s study opens up a number of new avenues for future research:

  • How can one distinguish cognitive from emotive effects more clearly?

  • What are the effects created by different types of setup and payoff, between strategies of narrative progression vs. descriptive stasis?

  • How can one distinguish and label types of viewer motivation other than character-based (cf. Smith’s stylistic devices)? E.g. music in musicals, Aristotle’s spectacle and everything that pertains to the sense of vision (cf. photography, composition, colours, costumes, settings – e.g. landscapes -, etc. in road movies, …)

  • How can one distinguish narrative from nonnarrative (parts of) films and to what extent do audiences respond emotionally in a (dis)similar way to these narrative and nonnarrative (parts of) films?

These questions lead us into the study of types of aesthetic pleasure. As Smith explains, the interesting but difficult part of this line of research consists in its interdisciplinary nature: it involves narratology, rhetorics, semiotics, neuro- and cognitive psychology, the sociology of emotion, and statistics among other disciplines; a challenge scholars in the human arts have only recently been presented with.