What are we doing when we watch a movie?

Most schools of literary criticism suggest that it's fruitless to attempt to consider what the intentions of the author are; we can only examine the "text" itself: it is the only solid evidence we have. Similarly, critics toss up their hands when trying to comprehend the experience of the reader of a text. While the notion of "author" becomes even more complex when we consider film, examining the experience of the film viewer does seem to be attainable: since films are experienced in real time, we can compare the experiences of different viewers while they watch the same portions of a film. We can even chart and compare their body and brain functions across the course of an entire movie.

Monika Suckfüll of University Jena tries to do that in the research she reports in her article "Film Analysis and Psychophysiology: Effects of Moments of Impact and Protagonists" (Media Psychology, 2000). Suckfüll chose to study Jane Campion's film The Piano, showing it to 62 observers while charting their movements and heart rate. She divided the film into 30-second segments and analyzed it according to Peter Wuss' theory of film narrative, identifying seven key "moments of impact" in the film, such as when Sam Neill cuts off Holly Hunter's finger. Suckfüll hypothesized that these moments would be periods of increased attention by film viewers. Previous research has noted that participants' heart rates tend to decline when they are trying to focus their attention, so monitoring viewers' heart rates should help confirm or disprove Suckfüll's hypothesis.

Suckfüll was surprised to find that participants' heart rates behaved quite unpredictably at these key moments. She did find a correspondence between heart rates and events on the screen, but rather than corresponding to "moments of impact," they coincided with "topic lines" or motifs. Heart rates rose (signaling anxiety or the "defense reaction") when the "angel motif" occurred—typically when Anna Paquin was about to betray Hunter. Heart rates declined during the naughty parts (the "sex motif").

Suckfüll's discussion seems to indicate disappointment in her results, but they do offer some interesting insight into viewers' response to film. It seems to me that our physiological reactions to film are occuring over a much shorter time frame than our intellectual reactions. We can determine "moments of impact" in a film only after viewing the whole thing, so real-time analysis of viewers' responses to the film can never offer a complete explanation of the whole. It is interesting to recall that much of the critique of the film, when it was released, centered on the idea that it was thinly-veiled soft-core porn. Perhaps this reaction could have been predicted, had the filmmakers performed an assessment of the film similar to Suckfüll's study.

More like this

[...] y theory is being influenced more and more by research in cognitive psychology, and as the previous article I discussed showed, psychology research is also influenced by theory. Today's article, R [...]