A Multimodal Theory of Film Experience



A Multimodal Theory of Film Experience



Films come in many varieties, and they have changed significantly since their inception. There are comedies and dramas, horror flicks and science fiction, love stories and Biblical epics, dance movies and action movies, cartoons and crime thrillers. Some films are short and some are long. They come from different countries and were made at different times. At the outset, they were silent and black and white; then came the talkies, though still in black and white; later color arrived, with better cameras and projectors; 3D popped up, then disappeared, and has lately had a renaissance.  But is there any unity to all this variety? Is there something in common to the experiences had by viewers of movies of all these types? And is this commonality distinctive of movies? When a person watches a film there is obviously something going on in his or her mind, but what is it exactly and does it occur only when watching films? By “mind” here I mean all levels of what we call the mind, from the most conscious to the least conscious: so my question is whether there is a unique and specific mental configuration—at all levels—that characterizes the experience of film. What is the phenomenology of the film experience as such, and what are its more elusive and covert characteristics?

            The theory I am going to propose is that film experience is highly multi-modal, incorporating a number of distinct sensory and cognitive channels. It is a synthesis of many parts, themselves quite disparate. I want to emphasize both concepts in the theory: there are many disparate parts and they are synthesized—unified, integrated. There is irreducible diversity and there is undeniable unity. Thus, according to the theory, an important feature of film experience is that it generates a unified mental state on the basis of quite heterogeneous elements. The human mind is creating something seamless from distinct and separable components—and this in itself is a remarkable feat. No other mind on the planet is capable of such a synthesis, and we might wonder whether extraterrestrial intelligences could achieve it. Yet the human mind is effortlessly capable of this impressive cognitive stunt, apparently without coaching.  [1]  

What then are the basic elements of the total film experience? The first and most obvious is vision: the viewer is seeing things. The kind of seeing that is involved is not a simple matter (I explore it in The Power of Movies).  [2] It is not the same kind of visual processing that is involved in seeing ordinary objects in one’s environment; it involves seeing a representational medium—the optical image on the screen—and interpreting what one sees there. It is a kind of imaginative seeing, a “seeing through”, and hence recruits the power of the human imagination. The mind’s imaginative eye and the body’s recording eye both work together in watching a movie. Still, despite the visual complexity, we can confidently say that seeing is centrally involved in film experience—that surely is a datum. We go to the movies in order to have a visual experience (by contrast, we don’t read a book in order to have a visual experience, though we have one). It is not like listening to the radio, in which the eyes idle. But the experience is not limited to vision, of course—even in the early days there was a sound track, though it might just be someone playing the piano in the movie theater. And the experience would have been lacking without such a sound track (it would be more like looking at paintings in a silent art gallery). Moreover, speech was not altogether excluded, since characters could move their lips and speech acts would appear in captions; so the audience could hear voices in its head corresponding to those moving lips (not so with static portraits).

 Once sound recording progressed the visual medium could be augmented with audible speech and music, and audiences welcomed the enrichment. We now have an auditory component to the film experience that must be integrated with the visual component. Adding speech was no great cognitive challenge for the viewer, since we look at people speaking all the time; but the addition of music requires a cognitive leap, since ordinary life is not usually accompanied by music. The mind has to adjust to the presence of music, not just call upon its old resources. And so we have the first major act of cognitive synthesis: integrating seen action, heard speech, and accompanying music. Two-dimensional images on the screen give the appearance of producing spoken sounds and, improbably enough, music is synchronized with the movements of these images: the audience has to make sense of all this. Centrally, the emotions of the characters are conveyed by the music, as well as the words spoken. We are so used to this act of synthesis that we take it for granted, but it is really quite remarkable—why don’t we ask, “Where is all that music coming from? I don’t see an orchestra anywhere”? Nor is it quite like opera, in which the words are sung to musical accompaniment; in film the music is simply superimposed, seemingly emanating from nowhere. Yet we experience the music as contributing to a seamless whole, not as a distraction to viewing the film (as if we wanted to shout, “Keep the noise down—I’m trying to watch a movie here!”). Alien sounds, issuing from elsewhere, are woven into the film experience as if they were the most natural things in the world. We look into the heroine’s eyes, hearing the swelling violins, and feel no sense of dissonance—but when does that happen in real life? We certainly don’t wonder whether the heroine can hear the violins too. We mentally merge the incongruous, uniting the visual and the musical. In fact, we hardly notice the music, which functions as background to the action—though if it stopped we would be brought up short.

            If we consider the matter from the point of view of the brain, then we can say that different parts of the brain are co-activated and some sort of synchronizing mechanism is brought to bear. The visual cortex is stimulated in complex ways, as is the auditory cortex. The language centers and musical centers are simultaneously activated. Then something has to integrate these far-flung cerebral events or else we would just experience a meaningless barrage. Clearly a lot is happening in the brain as you sit silently and motionlessly in the dark—you may be passive but your brain certainly isn’t. And this is just the beginning, because other mental faculties are invoked too, as we shall soon see. Your stimulated brain is already firing on many cylinders, even at this elementary stage of the proceedings.

In The Power of Movies I emphasized the kinship between movies and dreams, a fairly common theme in theorizing about film.  [3] Unlike the points I have made so far, however, this suggestion is not obviously true and requires quite a bit of argument to support it. It is quite controversial. I won’t be re-defending it in this paper; my aim is rather to incorporate it into a broader theory—the multi-modal theory. The dreaming capacity of the human mind is just one component of the total experience of watching a film, though it is quite crucial. There are a number of respects in which the experience of dreams matches the film experience, which I will merely list: sensory-affective fusion, in which the image is shaped to fit the emotion; spatial and temporal discontinuity, as the viewer or dreamer is taken abruptly from one place and time to another, without traveling continuously through the intermediate space and time; montage, whereby thematic unity is maintained without obedience to the laws of nature; the intricate mixing of reality and fantasy in both dream and film; the way people’s minds are put into the foreground in both types of experience; the prevalence of pronounced or extreme bodily movement in dreams and films, often movement not found in ordinary life; the way dreams and films engage with some of our baser fears and desires; the high degree of mental absorption characteristic of dreaming and film viewing. The general point here is that the mental apparatus that is operative during dreams is also operative during the film experience: the apparatus of dreaming—its vocabulary and modus operandi—is brought to bear in the interpretation of the movie image. It is as if we were dreaming. Thus the dreaming part of the mind—the dreaming module–is activated by films, so that we go into a dreamlike state while watching a film. But we do not enter a state exactly like dreaming—we are not asleep for one thing. Rather, fragments of our dream life, its grammar and affective charge, penetrate the film experience, which itself already contains other non-dreaming components. The dream psyche is just one component of the total film experience, though an important one. The viewer is dreaming in addition to consciously seeing and listening. That is not the usual state of affairs: when we dream at night we do not also consciously look and listen (we are unconscious). The hybrid state of dreaming-looking-listening is peculiar to film experience: an odd combination of usually disparate elements, running together concurrently.

            And it is not just that a dream-like state accompanies a state of consciously looking and listening; the multiple mental streams are integrated, forming a synthetic unity. To use a film metaphor, they are spliced together. It isn’t that we have, on the one hand, conscious looking and listening and, on the other, a concurrent dreaming state; the dreaming and the perceiving are unified and fused. We engage in “dreaming perceiving” or “perceiving dreaming”. The dream is up on the screen in front of us, as it were, and we perceive the screen. A film is like a perceived dream—while a typical dream is not perceived by the senses. If I am watching The Wizard of Oz, say, I am sinking into the dream state suggested by the film (which has many markers of dreams in it), but I am also consciously seeing the images and hearing the soundtrack (I am not actually falling asleep), and these all form a single thematic unity. The tin man is a creature of my dreams, but he is also seen and heard by me. To enter into this peculiar state one needs a capacity to integrate dreaming experience and waking experience. This is not like merely recalling a dream while awake and perceiving the world, since dreaming and perceiving have to be brought synthetically together in the movie theater. Without the ability to dream our experience of film would be drastically impoverished, but without the ability to synthesize discrete things the activation of the dream apparatus would just lead to mental confusion—we would be left with a disjointed amalgam of perceiving and dreaming. What we need to recognize is the existence of the “dreamy gaze”: a condition simultaneously perceptual and dreamlike. We perceive the filmic world as if we were in a dream. Sometimes we subliminally perceive an external stimulus while asleep and incorporate an element into the dream derived from that stimulus—as when an external car noise is experienced in the dream as the roar of a lion, say—but in watching a film this process is much more systematic: each element of the perceived film is injected into a dreamlike narrative, so that we are effectively dreaming what we see. We are thus suspended deliciously between sleeping life and waking life. Seeing and dreaming become inextricably joined.  [4]

We have, then, additional multi-modal synthesis, with the brain now firing on a further cylinder. The dream centers of the brain are also lit up, but they are yoked to the visual and auditory (including musical) centers. Usually when the dream centers are activated the perceiving centers are quiescent, and vice versa, but in watching a film both are activated together. The brain is then lit up like a Christmas tree, with everything furiously firing at once. The result is a heightened state of consciousness, unlike any other. As psychologists say, movie watching is a massively parallel process, tying together disparate elements into a higher unity. It is a new and intoxicating form of human consciousness, not existing prior to the invention of cinema.

But is that all there is to the film experience? What about the so-called higher cognitive functions? Don’t we also respond to movies aesthetically, morally, and intellectually? In reading a novel or attending a play we certainly engage our highest mental faculties, and watching a film is surely akin to those activities. So isn’t there an extra layer of film experience in addition to perceiving and dreaming? There is also what we may as well call thinking—reflecting, contemplating. We understand the action in psychological terms; we make moral evaluations of the characters; and we respond to aesthetic aspects of the film—its beauty, originality, and truthfulness. The sophisticated regions of the cerebral cortex light up too (though perhaps with a less garish glow).

I now want to explain this more cognitive aspect of film experience by reference to some ideas of Plato, because I think his system provides a valuable way to conceptualize what is going on when we engage intellectually with a film. It has been said that Plato’s parable of the cave provides a good parallel to the movie watching experience. Shadowy images are projected onto flat walls from a fiery background, which is unseen by the denizens of the cave. These denizens are immobile and their entire experience of the world is confined to the two-dimensional images cast before their eyes. They believe this is reality in its entirety. Their situation is thus like that of the moviegoer, who also sits still while two-dimensional images are projected in front of her. If one were to be placed in a movie theater from birth and allowed to see nothing but movies, one would be in a position rather like that of Plato’s cave dwellers. Clearly this would be epistemically confining: one’s knowledge of the world would be very limited, and also distorted. Shadows on a screen are not real things. Plato then envisages one of these restricted cave dwellers leaving his impoverished prison and ascending to the outside world, where he would experience nature as it really is, in glorious 3D, and eventually see the Sun in its splendor. The analogy is to the world of Forms, with the Sun as the Form of the Good. This world, for Plato, is more real than the empirical world of perceptible particulars, consisting as it does of abstract universals, which are eternal and unchanging. The individual liberated from the cave would thus achieve cognitive enlightenment, a higher state of knowledge, and with it an expansion of the self. He would understand that the perspective from inside the cave is severely limited and distorted, not a true depiction of reality at all.

            The analogy to movie watching, therefore, is that we are likewise limited to the flickering two-dimensional image while ensconced in the movie theater—it is not reality that we see up there on the screen. Compared to the reality outside the movie theater, what we experience inside it is impoverished, desiccated, and unreal. To be confined only to such images would be to miss out on the true nature of reality. Thus watching movies is held to be detached from reality, a mere substitute for contact with reality—a film is a kind of weightless simulacrum. It is not like perceiving and holding actual solid objects.

But is that the best way to understand the film experience? Is it as impoverished as this way of thinking suggests? I want to argue, to the contrary, that we should invert this way of thinking completely. The parable of the cave, remember, is just an analogy, not a literal description of our epistemic predicament: our experience of the empirical world is like seeing two-dimensional images, within Plato’s overall scheme. Indeed, the mode of experience enjoyed by the escapee from the cave is precisely the same as our ordinary mode of empirical experience—which Plato holds to be epistemically impoverished.  [5] For Plato, insight into the world of Forms does not come from sense perception but from intellectual apprehension—so it is quite unlike the experience of the escapee. What Plato is giving us is a metaphor, not a literal account of the epistemic faculties needed to grasp the reality of Forms. So we should not woodenly interpret the movie experience as necessarily limited, as the cave dwellers’ experience undoubtedly is (as Plato characterizes it). My suggestion, then, is that it is our experience of the empirical world outside the movie theater that is analogous to Plato’s cave dwellers (as he himself supposed), and our experience within the movie theater is analogous to the escapee’s experience outside the cave. That is, we gain a special insight into reality by watching movies that we don’t obtain by means of our ordinary empirical experience. To put it in Platonic terms, we can gain access to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by watching films—they give us a conduit to those “higher” realities. Let me state the position with maximum boldness: the movie screen is a window onto a transcendent level of being. It is the portal to Plato’s world of Forms, or something like it. So it is superior to ordinary perception as a way of knowing reality—it penetrates beyond the veil of appearance, i.e. the world as it is revealed by our limited and unreliable senses. As Plato would put it, in watching movies the soul makes contact with transcendent realities, which it does not do in ordinary perception of spatiotemporal particulars. The movie screen displays a deeper reality to us, thus engaging our highest mental faculties. It provides an escape from the cave of quotidian life.

            No doubt that sounds all very pompous and overblown, not to say mythical, but consider what it really means. Let me use The Wizard of Oz as an example, hardly a film about the philosophy of Plato. Plato speaks always of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as essential to the world of Forms; but aren’t these ideas fully present in that exemplary film? Beauty is on display at every moment in the film (at least once monochromatic Kansas has been left behind)—visual and musical beauty. It is a treat to the eyes and ears. Good and evil are registered with singular force in the shape of the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch, as well as in Dorothy and her worthy companions. This is a film centrally about virtue, among other things. And truth comes in for special attention, mainly through the deceptions and illusions of the Wizard, the truth about whom is revealed when a curtain is pulled aside (he is really a tubby little man trying to puff himself up with trickery). As we watch the film the mind plays about these ideas, presented to us in imagistic form, so that we become saturated in them. They are given to us with all the force of artistry and film technology. We experience them in crystallized form–sharply, clearly, and cleanly. I distinctly remember seeing this film as a child—I believe it was the first full-length feature film I had ever seen—and it felt like being introduced to another world, another level of being. I felt very stirred and moved by it—by its visual beauty, the fear of evil and love of good, and the shock of the Wizard’s deception. It lit my mind up powerfully. Was this my young Platonic self, resonating for the first time to the world of Forms? I had read books before and been entranced by them, but this was another level of experience altogether—it felt like direct access to another plane of reality, existing alongside the ordinary world of sense perception. It felt like liberation not confinement, enlightenment not ignorance. I was outside the cave! The cave was the quotidian world beyond the theater—a small provincial town in the south of England circa 1958.  [6] That world consisted of insubstantial shadows–distracting, confusing, and chaotic. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty existed in the world of the screen, not in the gloomy grotto of daily existence. To go into the screen world was to escape the cave, not to enter it. The screen seemed designed to present these higher realities, unlike the world outside: it brought them up close.  [7]

            Then there is the question of color. Plato’s universals are not just Truth, Goodness, and Beauty; they include universals of all kinds, including colors. In The Wizard of Oz there is the transition from the black and white world of Kansas to the startling Technicolor world of the Land of Oz—and what a world of color is that world! The red ruby slippers, the yellow brick road, the green of the Wicked Witch’s skin: these colors all register very forcibly on the viewer. Never have colors seemed so pure, so deep, and so animated: they leap out at you, with a kind of feline luster, asserting their full chromatic identity. These are colors as they populate Plato’s incandescent heaven, before they are diluted and compromised by the world of tawdry particulars. In general, color in movies achieves a degree of salience and vividness that is hard to find in the three-dimensional world. Thus we become more intimately acquainted with colors in their essence in the movie theater than we do in ordinary perception. It is rather like gazing at the rainbow: here we see colors in their pure form, unencumbered by material objects, almost as if the universal has come down to earth in its original pristine incarnation. And, of course, Oz exists somewhere “over the rainbow”—though soaked in its sparkling hues. Isn’t that also where Plato might locate his world of Forms? It is the dream of a better, purer, more perfect world.

            As it is with color, so it also is with shape. In black and white movies well-defined shapes move stealthily across the screen, in a kind of geometrical dance. Plato himself was entranced by geometry, holding that in it we have deep knowledge of one important kind of Form. Of course, we also perceive geometrical forms in ordinary life, but they are not arranged as they are in the movie image—composed into a geometrical tableau—and they do not achieve the same degree of salience as they do on the screen. On the screen the pure shapes themselves are sensed and grasped, because of the two-dimensional nature of the medium—rather like with painting, but with movement added. The abstract geometry of objects is highlighted. It would be much the same in Plato’s cave, where two-dimensional shapes would also be salient to the cave dwellers—and Plato would no doubt allow that these otherwise limited beings could have a thorough knowledge of Euclidian geometry (though only in two dimensions). Geometrical universals are prominently displayed in both the cave and the cinema, in all their abstract glory, and hence made available for our contemplation. Euclid would have loved it.  [8]

This displaying and contemplating is different from our ordinary engagement with the empirical world, as we sense it and move through it. The ordinary world is primarily a practical world from the human point of view: it consists of threats and opportunities, and we must carefully negotiate it if we are to survive and prosper. Contemplating it is a luxury, never wholly free from practical concerns. But the world of films is not a practical world for us: it does not consist of threats and opportunities (as other works of art also do not). We are therefore free to contemplate it in serene safety—attending to its non-practical aspects. For example, we can apprehend colors and shapes as such, without regard for their practical significance. Thus the screen makes reality available to us in a contemplative mode, which aids the Platonic perception of things. In the movie theater we enjoy a kind of God’s eye view of reality, in which we view it as if from high, without a care in the world. The screen displays reality to us in a form fit for contemplation, not practical action; and this allows us to adopt a more calmly Platonic perspective on what we see. We do not attend to the world-as-it-affects-us but to the world-as-it-is-in-itself. We can attend to appearance qua appearance—not qua threat or promise. Similarly, when Plato contemplates his Forms, his state of mind is not practical—the objects of his contemplation are neither threats nor opportunities. He gazes at the world of universals in an attitude of calm receptivity and disinterested appreciation.

            Here I think it is important to stress the beauty of films. Films are beautiful. Beauty shines forth from them. Plato assigned beauty a key role in the world of Forms—they are themselves deemed beautiful. In watching a film we are flooded with beauty (at least if it is any good). The people, the scenes, the landscape, the composition of the image, the narrative, and the music—all are bearers of beauty. Thus films convey us with unique power into the world of beauty, and hence into Plato’s higher plane of reality. The screen is a window onto the beautiful, and—as Plato also taught—we love beauty. I like this quotation from Roland Barthes on Greta Garbo: “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt… The name given to her, the Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person, descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light.”  [9] This is obviously highly Platonic language, even using that word to describe the actress’s face: a quasi-divine being has descended from another more perfect realm and intersected with an actual human individual. I would add that it is not just faces that achieve this kind of sublime ontological elevation but also simple shapes and colors—they too appear as Platonic Ideas through the scintillating medium of film. And in so doing they reveal their intrinsic beauty more clearly and forcibly to us. Film is an art form, after all, and so it is properly concerned with that most central of aesthetic concepts, viz. beauty.  [10]

            In The Power of Movies I stressed the way the movie screen acts like a window, through which things are seen. We don’t look at the screen but beyond the screen. The screen is just a visual steppingstone, not the visual destination. This fits nicely with the Platonic theory I am developing, for we can now say that the screen enables us to look beyond it into the world of Platonic universals—Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, as well as shape and color. It acts as a conduit to apprehension, and what is apprehended is a world of Platonic complexion. It is as if we are gazing into the world of Forms. Plato himself is notoriously silent on what direct apprehension of the Forms would actually be like, though he supposed that it occurred some time before birth; and indeed it is difficult to envisage quite what he had in mind. Can we really apprehend the essence of color, say, without using our senses? And what does it feel like to gaze directly at The Good? It is all very well to speak of “intellectual apprehension”, but what does that really mean? Perhaps the existence of cinema can help to fill the theoretical gap: it gives us a tangible model for what it would be like to transcend the ordinary perception of things. The movie image provides us with a new perspective on the world, in which Platonic realities are made salient—they come to us in a form that reveals them more clearly than in ordinary sense perception. The artistry and technology of film provide another way to apprehend reality, directing our attention to things not normally experienced, or not experienced so clearly and distinctly. And why should we suppose that the contingent human senses provide a privileged take on what objective reality is like? The cinema gives us a view from somewhere else, one that seems better geared to revealing the abstract world behind the world of particulars.

            Part of what is going on here relates to what I called the “dematerializing” power of film in my book.  [11] The screen image takes solidity away from objects, rendering them immaterial (all we have is the play of light on the screen). The human body, in particular, is dematerialized in this way. But the Platonic world is itself a dematerialized world—it is removed from the world of mass and matter. So the screen is an apt medium for depicting Platonic realities: it is a dematerializing medium. Greta Garbo’s face is perceived as hardly material at all but as a kind of weightless abstraction—a pure geometrical form. In order for me to produce an adequate idea of the shade of red I see before me, as it exists as a universal, I need to perform an act of dematerializing: I have to conceive the color as it might exist independently of the material particular in which I now perceive it. I have to conceive of it as an abstraction, not as a concretely realized entity. But the screen image already does this job for me, by removing the concrete particular from the color, so that the color is presented naked, as it were (or at least closer to its pure unencumbered form). The concrete world must be stripped away in order for the abstract world to shine forth. Film achieves this stripping by virtue of its dematerializing power. Plato could have used film as a teaching aid in his Academy, at least as an approximation to direct apprehension of the Forms.  [12]

            I used the word “abstraction” just now, but I think this word can be misleading in the present context. Platonic universals are often described as “abstract” or as “abstractions”, but this makes it sound as if they are less real than concrete things—or worse that they are abstracted from concrete things. But Plato thought universals were the most basic constituents of reality, making empirical reality possible. In the context of the Platonic theory of film experience we need to remember this point: when we watch a film we are not experiencing abstractions—as we might be when doing mathematics or philosophy. What we see on the screen is quite “concrete” in a way—it is visible after all. These terms, “abstract” and “concrete”, are inadequate to the task; but they are such an entrenched part of the philosophical tradition that it is hard to manage without them. The point I would make is that a broadly Platonic conception of reality should not be made hostage to these traditional terms, which is why I largely avoided the term “abstract” up until the last paragraph. We should certainly not make the mistake of supposing that the phenomenology of film watching is like the phenomenology of mathematical thought.

            One further Platonic notion should be mentioned: what is sometimes called “Platonic mysticism”. In some moods Plato speaks as if apprehension of the Forms is a kind of mystic vision—a spiritual experience of some sort. The Forms themselves are conceived as perfect timeless entities that ground all beauty and value, so the apprehension of them might be expected to have particular spiritual resonance—as the mystic has traditionally supposed for other types of mystical experience. The only point I wish to make about this is that a parallel claim has sometimes been made about the experience of film, especially by people we might call “movie mystics” (Martin Scorcese comes to mind). These are people who are spiritually moved by films, profoundly so, and movies become a religion and a vocation for them. I am not that extreme myself, but I think I understand what these movie mystics are talking about. In so far as movie mysticism is a genuine phenomenon, we can see it as confirming the Platonic picture here defended: movies can produce the kind of mystical experience of which Plato spoke, precisely because they provide access to the sublime world of Forms.

            I began this paper by saying I would defend a multi-modal theory of film experience. I cited the perceptual aspects of the film experience, both visual and auditory, and then I added the dream theory of movie watching. I emphasized the importance of synthesis in this multiplicity. Latterly, I have introduced a further component into the picture, thus complicating it considerably: the notion that film experience incorporates something like a Platonic dimension—the apprehension of Forms. This latter brings in “higher” cognitive functions—higher than perceiving and dreaming. So now we have three basic elements to the film experience, all integrated into a grand synthesis: a sensory element, a dreaming element, and (for want of a better word) an intellectual element. Now we can see that the movie watcher’s brain is lit up all over the place—a great many mental faculties are simultaneously activated. We might describe the total experience as “a perceptually driven dreamlike apprehension of Forms”, just to put the complete theory into a concise formulation. There are therefore several constitutive elements to the film experience, of very different kinds, and yet these several elements are organized by the mind into a synthetic unity. Hence we do not feel psychologically fragmented as we sit there in the dark.  With so much going on inside a person’s head as she watches a film it is not surprising that people find it a uniquely stimulating experience. An enormous amount of mental machinery is brought to bear. There is not much in the mind that is not activated by film.  [13]


  [1] A natural analogy is our understanding of language: when we hear a sentence and understand it we must synthesize elements corresponding to the words in the sentence, which are of different grammatical and logical types, as well as figure out the illocutionary force of the utterance, the intentions of the speaker, and other facts about the speech act. We do this effortlessly and without explicit coaching, though it is a remarkable feat of complex information processing. In processing a film we likewise engage in multiple sub-tasks that must be synthesized into a unitary experience. Just as we succeed in hearing what the speaker meant, so we succeed in grasping the full import of the cinematic event we are witnessing—smoothly and naturally.

  [2] Random House: New York, 2005, chapter 2.

  [3] Chapters 4-6. I still accept the dream theory, but in this paper I am going to add to it substantially.

  [4] This can be compared to daydreaming while observing one’s surroundings. The sensory stimuli may elicit mental imagery that is then woven into a daydream, and there may be interplay between inner and outer. This is a trancelike state in which perception and imagination merge and cooperate: we enter a state of dreamy seeing. Similarly, movies dig deep into our dream life, with perception eliciting the imaginative resources of the dream.

  [5] This is a defect of Plato’s analogy: he is equating a state of enlightened cognition with the very thing that he deems unenlightened. He actually thinks that seeing the Sun in the normal way is precisely the kind of thing from which we need to be liberated, not what the ideal state of knowledge is like (i.e. apprehending the world of Forms). The underlying problem for Plato is the difficulty of explaining what the ideal state of knowledge of the Forms would even look like. He resorts to an analogy that in fact gets things exactly the wrong way round: what the escapee sees outside the cave is just what we normally see, which Plato takes to be fundamentally illusory.  

  [6] The town was Gillingham, Kent, and the time was postwar Britain. It was probably a gloomy rainy day on a Saturday morning—so the world depicted in Wizard would have struck me as a vividly glittering world apart.

  [7] Of course film, like other art forms, is designed to present the Platonic trio of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—these being what art is all about. We may glimpse them in daily life, but in art the whole idea is to present them more clearly and distinctly, without distraction.

  [8] This is particularly true of cartoons, because they are composed as two-dimensional geometrical images. There is no mass and solidity to these images; shape is all. But even when ordinary three-dimensional objects are filmed the result has mass and solidity nullified: there is just the two-dimensional image on the screen, rendered as a pattern of light. Movies are geometry animated, at the primitive perceptual level.

  [9] Roland Barthes, “The Face of Garbo”, in Mast, Gerald, and Marshall Cohen, eds, Film Theory and Criticism (Oxford University Press: New York, 1985), 650-1.

  [10] Because movies are a popular art form, the traditional language of aesthetics may be withheld from them, being reserved for works of “high art”. But surely that is misplaced elitism: even mass-market films have their patina of beauty, even if it is concentrated in the faces and forms of the actors. It is not only “art films” that invite aesthetic evaluation.  

  [11] The Power of Movies, chapter 3.

  [12] It is not necessary to accept Plato’s metaphysics as the sober truth about reality in order to sympathize with my Platonic theory of film experience. You just need to accept that Plato was drawing attention to a genuine aspect of our thinking about things—so that we resonate to his metaphysics. His theory of Forms taps into something deep in our psyche, even if we ultimately find the Platonic metaphysics philosophically questionable.

  [13] No doubt it is the capacity of film to engage the whole mind that explains its appeal as a means of escape: we can become “lost” in a film, with our normal concerns left behind. When fully absorbed in a film there is no room left in the mind for other things to seize the attention. One is seeing, hearing, imagining, dreaming, feeling, understanding, and contemplating—all at the same time.

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