Thursday, August 30, 2007

Film Genre and Perception

If we could think of films as paintings of different styles and forms, be it history painting, landscape or portrait painting, we would be able to solve only some of the problems of defining “film genre”. It is important to identify genre as a problem, and interpreting it, more so, at least from a film critic’s point of view. In Chapter 8 of his book “Image and Mind” (1995), Gregory Currie speaks extensively of the ‘interpretive problem’. He explores the ways in which film narrative and literary narrative differ. Others such as Noël Carroll and Richard Allen have theorized the nature of moving images in great lengths. Grodal presents models for interpreting film genre by transcending to a psychological perspective from a philosophical one. In this essay, we shall only ponder about film and film genres, and how we, as spectators or film critics, may interpret it.

Genre comes from the French word for ‘type’ or ‘kind’, which was initially used to categorize literary works or paintings, and is now widely used to classify films. The problem arises from the fact that no film of a particular genre can incorporate all the elements of that genre. In concomitant, no definition of genre is capable of defining all aspects of a film of a certain genre. (Langford 2005:Preface)

Genres are meant to be defining but not limiting a particular style or convention of all filmic elements. The building blocks of genre films are reflective of one another, thoroughly patronizing, and not original. ( However, there is no hard and fast rule to that concept. Genres are able to attract a specific target audience and so they exploit our portion of the brain that loves repetition or wants to feed itself with overtures of the same iconography or narrative. ( It is also surprising how the audience enjoy watching the kind and extent of violence that they would normally loathe in real life. (Altman 1996:279 in Langford 2005)

Torben Kragh Grodal has explored some of the important aspects of our thought processes which aid in our interpretation of films. He believes that “emotions are not irrational forces but necessary motivators for cognition and the possible resulting action”.(Grodal 1997) He describes how we interpret film genres from their narrative patterns, thus bringing about emotional effects in viewers. Signals from the screen travel via the visual cortex to the association areas and frontal areas, finally reaching the pre-motor areas of the brain. This process can be inhibited at any point or channeled in opposite directions to bring about a specific response in the viewer. According to his four-step model, it can be theorized that after the initial basic perception of image consisting of shapes, texture and figures, a memory matching occurs. The brain searches for visual cues that are stored in the memory as visual structures with affective values to be matched with the current image. A film which allows it to be represented/recognized in such a manner is termed as ‘lyrical’. The third step of this model involves “construction of diegesis”, which eventually leads to identification with the characters and/or context. This may produce different sorts of reactions, but Grodal stresses on three categories: voluntary telic (goal-oriented responses), paratelic responses (semi-voluntary ones that are repetitive and not goal-oriented), and autonomic responses (involuntary responses such as laughing, crying, shivering, or an increased heart beat rate). (Anderson 1998)

Cinematic images, like paintings, are ‘detached displays’ (i.e. they do not belong to the space and time the viewer resides in), but they differ in a way that in films, something or the other is happening, whereas in paintings there is no question of anything happening. This is because pictures or slides are static whereas films consist of moving pictures. However, this idea can easily be dismissed if we consider films of comic strips such as Oshima’s Band of Ninjas, or films of photos such as Godard & Gorin’s Letter to Jane and Michael Snow’s One Second in Montreal, or films made up of only sentences such as Michael Snow’s So Is This. Yet, the possibility and the expectation of movement in films will always be lurking in our minds, unless we are conditioned into repetitive viewing of static elements in films. Even then, stasis in films is always a stylistic choice rather than a necessity. It is aesthetically prescriptive in nature. On the other hand, describing paintings or slides as static is like stating the obvious. Carroll stresses that a more appropriate synonym for films is moving images rather than moving pictures, as the term image encompasses both pictures and abstractions. Then he goes on to locating the borderline between our perception of theatres in comparison with that of films by citing other theorists such as Roman Ingarden, elaborating on words versus spectacle as dominant factors in theatres and films respectively. He also engages in a fine brainstorming of the focus of performance in the two medium.(Carroll 1996) We may simplify our understanding of the matter as the difference between writing on a paper with pen and typing in a computer using a keyboard. The mental processes that differ in the two instances may be likened to the difference in perception of film narrative and literary narrative.

Richard Allen throws some light on fictional and non-fictional depictions being common in that both can be recognized by looking rather than by reading. To analyze depictions, it is important to recognize patterns without having to process imaginations of seeing the patterns. (Allen 1997). In her article on Cognitive Science and Film Theory, Cynthia Freeland ponders upon the debate of film as an illusion. She refers to two psychologists, Joseph Anderson and Ed S. Tan, who endorse the pro-illusion theory, as opposed to the philosophers Carroll and Currie who are contra. Anderson thinks of film as a set of illusive stimuli that can be run like a program in the viewer’s mind. (Freeland 1997). Contra-illusion theorists believe that the primitive subsystems of the brain cannot distinguish between an object seen and a depiction of the object seen. In such a theory, illusion is something that we can live with.(Currie 1995)

Film genres and sub-genres may be classified as the Western, the Musical, the War film, the Gangster movie, the horror film, the science-fiction film, Film Noir, the Documentary, the Holocaust film, Pornography, Transgenre and Metagenre films. But this is not a fully comprehensive list. When it comes to interpretation of films, Grodal’s typology of film genres is particularly helpful. This includes the canonical narrative, lyrical, obsession, melodrama, horror, schizoid, comical and the metafiction genre. The lyrical genre involves perceptual, nonlinear time, networks of associations, fusion of world and mind, intensities or saturations by proximal focus of attention, no telic enacting, possibly paratelic or autonomic 'motion'. Lyrical elements can be found in many film genres. The canonical narrative expression involves telic voluntary enacting (acting out), linear time, construction of objective world, cognitive and emphatic identification with subject, tension, distal focus of attention; the self is quite absorbed to the situation and the actions arise from intense, external desires or aversions. John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) are categorized as Western and Film Noir respectively but they can be both thought of having a canonical expression. Obsession involves paratelic/involuntary enacting, often progressive-regressive or non-linear time, some saturations and proximal focus of attention. Melodrama involves perceptual, causal enacting, autonomic reaction, construction of objective world, cognitive and empathic identification with 'object', fatalistic fusion of 'subject' with 'object', saturations and autonomic response combined with proximal focus of attention; one of two response is likely to occur - either positive (falling in love) or negative (tragedy). A lot of different kinds of films can have elements of melodrama in them. Early Neorealist films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945) as well as many film noir movies have melodrama in them. Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara(The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), Komal Gandhar (E-Flat, 1961) and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974) have high melodramatic elements in them. Horror genre of films (e.g. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)) involve causal enacting, autonomic reaction, construction of subjective world, cognitive and emphatic identification with object, aversion between subject and object, tensions, saturations, or autonomic response, proximal focus of attention; the film experience derived from this genre consists of strong feelings of fright, hate, desire, heroic courage are enacted in a subjective world, experienced from the point of view of the victim. Schizoid films involve causal enacting, construction of subjective world, cognitive identification with object, fragmented space, intensities and saturations, proximal as well as distal focus of attention; the response is likely to be alienation, objectivation, the self is cued to take a 'voyeuristic' position. Comics involve causal and autonomic enacting, rejection of emphatic identification with object, rejection of objective world, autonomic response; the response is autonomic (parasympathetic) reception at a high level of arousal, based on a redefinition of the reality-status of the arousing phenomenon, and we laugh at the failures of the protagonists. Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959) is clearly a comic. Some comedies of Chaplin are also capable of making us cry and laugh at different point. The metafiction genre involves mediated identification with subjects and objects via cognitive and emphatic 'frames' (personae, all types of schemata), several focuses of attention; the response is mastering, learning, true ideals, self development
strategies for avoiding conflict
idealized self images. ( Many of Satyajit Ray’s films such as Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road, 1955), Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959) are metagenre films according to Grodal’s typology, but are otherwise known to be feature films.

All said and done, it is important to appreciate film as a language, with the shots as words, the mise-en-scene as letters of the word, with editing and cuts resembling conjunctions and punctuations. The language of cinema is that of the camera mostly. In such contexts, it would be incomplete not to mention montage: Eisenstein noticed that if different shots, each meaningful on its own, can be joined together, a structured filmic sentence would emerge. If a shot doesn’t have a distinctive meaning of its own, it can be joined to another similar shot or a one completely opposite in meaning to the former one, to make a sentence out of a film. This technique of making meaningful shots directs the feelings and moods of the viewers, and undoubtedly serves to convey what the director actually prescribed.(Ray 1982) Again, we may please to think of the gaps between each paragraph in an essay as a montage. A montage may sometimes act as a brain-breather, especially following scenes which are quite intense. Paragraphs in an essay allow us to tread upon different seemingly unrelated aspects of the same topic or argument. Our mental processes are such that the moment we finish reading one paragraph and move on to the next, our preconceived notions prepare our mind to read a totally opposite, new and/or an elaborated form of the former paragraph. The same aim can be achieved for shots in a film joined together in a montage.

How we perceive film genres may vary between cultures and different regions. But as long as we have film as a language of its own, film makers and film critics will follow a certain grammar to interpret film. According to Ray, Westerns have a more ballad-like quality which is missing in Gangster films, which have harshness and less well-defined qualities. He also likens the twirl of lethal weapon around a finger to a trill or turn in Mozart or Haydn. (Ray 1976). André Bazin speaks of the lyricism in Westerns that the landscape and other iconographic elements have to offer. (Bazin 1956). Interpretation of film by mass viewers may vary substantially between people of the same culture/religion, let alone people of different regional or cultural origin. In 21st Century, the concept of genre is getting more and more complex and we are offered with films that have elements of different genres put together.



Film experience as a prototype for Self Experience

Allen, R. (1997). Looking at Motion Pictures. Film Theory and Philosophy. R. A. a. M. Smith. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 88-89.

Anderson, B. (1998). "Review: [Untitled]." Film Quarterly 52(Autumun No. 1): 87-88.

Bazin, A. (1956). "Beauty of a Western." Cahiers du cinema 55(January).

Carroll, N. (1996). Theorizing Moving Image. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Currie, G. (1995). Image and Mind. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Freeland, C. (1997). Cognitive Science and Film Theory. Santa Fe, American Society for Aesthetics. 2007.

Grodal, T. (1997). Moving Pictures. New York, Oxford University Press.

Langford, B. (2005). Film Genre. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press Limited.

Ray, S. (1976). Our Films, Their Films. Calcutta, Orient Longman Limited.

Ray, S. (1982). Speaking of Films. New Delhi, Penguin Books India.

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