Motor resonance and the Hollywood spectacle

In Has Hollywood Murdered The Movies? film critic David Denby decries the state of the Hollywood mainstream where, in his opinion, big-budget spectacle films have become loud, pointless, “defoliated of character, wit, psychology” and full of “rushed, jammed, broken, and overloaded, action.”  Big Hollywood movies, he writes, tend to be saturated with visual and aural decoration, which dulls intellectual and emotional stimulation.

According to Denby:

The old ideal of action as something staged cleanly and realistically in open space had been destroyed by sheer fakery and digital “magic”—a constant chopping of movement into tiny pieces that are then assembled by computer editing into exploding little packages.

Denby’s targets include Gladiator (2000), Moulin Rouge (2001), Inception (2010), and many others.  His argument brings to mind Tim Recuber’s paper Immersion Cinema: The Rationalization and Reenchantment of Cinematic Space, whose point of scorn is the so-called “new cinema” – “a host of technological and architectural devices” – which, he argues, “turns the moviegoing experience into a series of technologically-induced thrill rides” and “emphasizes technical achievement to the detriment of social or artistic relevance.”

The perspectives of Denby and Recuber could be perhaps understood as reactions against a kind of Hollywood “neo-baroque”, a shift of the cinematic mainstream away from classically ordered spaces towards architectures of vision emphasizing increasing visual complexity, polycentricity and instability, stemming largely out of an increased reliance on computer generated special effects (Ndalianis, 1999). One might wonder then whether these new architectural spaces serve a function to support or distract from meaningful narrative form and function.

Although these points of view are likely not without merit, it might be a bit too easy to dismiss this new cinema.  Whether technological innovations and their use in contemporary Hollywood have profound narrative significance is ostensibly a fitting topic for cognitive film studies.  Does all of this spectacle actually bring anything to the viewer but aesthetic commotion?

In my current study of contemporary mainstream Hollywood films I look at immersiveness from the cognitive poetics perspective, and argue that innovations in spatiality, virtual three-dimensionality and narrative engineering have contributed positively in aesthetically generating cinematic meaning. We know from the work of David Bordwell that Hollywood to this day remains classically-oriented in its approach to storytelling, and changes to visual rendering of narrative information are very much in line with this thinking. Scholarship on intensified continuity will be acutely familiar to most here.

My research concentrates on two areas that I believe are key to contemporary moviemaking – sensory-motor cueing and conceptual metaphor.  Firstly, due to increased technological capacities, films have a heightened capability to spatially and hyper-immersively embody spectators and motivate these capacities.  Secondly, motivating these capacities in narrative terms involves creative visual representations of mental worlds of characters, which cue responses based on metaphorical understanding of embodied schemas.

I suggest that films do not, and most likely never will, attract us solely by dazzling with attractive technological and special effects-laden nonsense.  We’re smarter than that and demand more.  To the contrary, this new cinema has the capacity to reach deeper for novel, imaginative ideas of visually representing meaningful experiences by combining unparalleled technological sophistication with an acute spectator and body-aware concern for narrative engineering.

Motor resonance

One cognitive-oriented approach of studying embodied effects in films may focus on what can be called “motor resonance.”  Films tend to give off cues or instructions that invite us to imagine undergoing experiences, often by reference to bodily acts (Caracciolo, 2011).

The concept of sensory-motor simulation (used by the likes of Rolf Zwaan and Gregory Currie) suggests that participants of fiction tend to simulate embodied activity, enacting physical movements and gestures without performing them, cued in some respect by semiotic instructions of the narrative.  By engaging aesthetically with a work of fiction, we rely on our familiarity with embodied-perceptual experience and related patterns and simulate undergoing the process in relationship with character-narrators of a story.

Because films vividly represent bodily orientation in space at most times, specifying actual cues or instructions from unskilled forms of filming isn’t an obvious task.  Kuzmicova writes that it is the effect of spatial vividness in a narrative that indicates its ability to cue sensory-motor simulation.  For example, references to bodily movement have the capacity to activate motor and pre-motor functions of the brain.  In this respect, references to hand movements activate some sensory-motor response in the participants hands, and the same happens when we have references to movements of feet.

In movies, the relationship of the body to surrounding spaces can be explored and emphasized differently.  For example, the three-dimensionality of contemporary computer-generated animation differs from most 90s-era animation in terms of the increased sophistication of the rendering of bodies in their orientation in space. The genius of Pixar is largely in its ability to innovate environments in making them complex, detailed and three-dimensional enough to be believable and, in that respect, habitable.  The beings housed in the environments then orient their way in relation to the architecture of these spaces, which become altogether crucial for the overall aesthetic effect. Not decorative, but fully intrinsic and therefore vital to the storytelling.

The represented bodily act is then understood not simply as witnessing a movement of an arm or a leg, but rather seeing the orientation of an arm or a leg within a surrounding space – whereby space is every bit as crucial as the object.

A film like Inception, which could make the superficial impression of having a lot of overloaded motion and confusion, is an apt example of new cinema’s vivid experiments with representations of space and bodily mobility.  The film does not merely represent characters moving out and about, but flaunts the spatiality of environments and the characters’ attempts at establishing a sense of balance within.

Take, for example, Arthur’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gravity defying fight in the hotel corridor of a gravitationally challenged dream space. Similar experimentation with spatial balancing can be seen in the final fight sequence between the hero and Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).  In that scene, the characters battle with the instability of the elements as much as they battle one another.

But consider another approach to spatiality that matters in a film like Inception; a kind involving spatial metaphors.

Minds and private domains

Inception’s narrative is characterized by a prevailing sense of descent, which becomes pivotal deeper towards the climax of the film.  Characters, deeply embedded within several layers of dreams, psychologically travel towards outer layers and closer to reality, motivated by “kicking” their bodies (in outer levels) and in the process simulating a sensation of falling.  In this case, motor resonance plays an important role not only in moving the story forward, but also in emphasizing a kind of overarching schema of the inside and the outside, which is crucial to the film’s embedded narrative structure.

This embedding of dreams is not simply hinted at, nor just explained; it is represented visually by reference to bodily orientation.  We see Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) fall backwards into a tub of water and later a van of characters fall off a bridge.  Every single motion from layer to layer is emphasized as meaningfully embodied.

Aside from the role of space and motor resonance, consider that the narrative’s embodied architecture is largely container-based.  Although we may fashion to call the structure “layered,” it could be better understood as one based on the container schema.  Every habitable environment – from the purportedly real to the purportedly dreamed – is a container accessed and exited.  Conceptually every environment is intuitively understood as consisting of barriers and edges that separate it from others and establish its own autonomy.

Imagination and dreaming, like states of mind in general, are commonly grasped in the mind as internal worlds that are accessed at some distance from the real.  Consider for example the instances in which we say phrases like “John lives in his own world” or “I came out of a deep sleep” or “snap out of it”.  We are referring to experiences or states of mind by projecting another kind of experience, that of containment or inside-to-outside orientation. The container schema structures our fundamental awareness of our bodies, in relation to elements such as interior, boundary and exterior (Buckland, 2000).  Like other embodied schema such as up-and-down and motion along a path, it derives from the body’s relationship with objects in space (Johnson, 1990).

In Inception, space matters not only in terms of its three-dimensionality and complexity, but also its boundedness.  The sequence involving Cobb and Ariadne (Ellen Page) at the café gradually reveals itself to be a dream and eventually disintegrates through explosions.  The result might initially seem like effects-for-effects-sake, as David Denby might suggest, but conceptually the effect is intrinsically meaningful.  The disintegration of a contained, internal, dream space could involve the breaking of its boundary in returning its inhabitants back to the outer realm of reality.  The metaphor of the container is applied with logical consistency.

Camera and inside-outside orientation

While embedded narration is almost as old as literature itself, cinema deals with the challenge of visually representing embedding in ways that must be convincing and meaningful to the viewer.  Films like Inception and Moulin Rouge solve the problem by structuring the narrative as a matter of inside-outside travel, a sense of transportation embodied in space.

Like Inception, Moulin Rouge functions as an allegory for imagination.  In this case, the narrative embedding supports the weaving of multiple story-levels within the mind of the narrator Christian (Ewan McGregor).  The visual representation of inside-outside orientation is once more rendered by emphasizing motor resonance in space, this time by virtue of the camera frame in its travel to and fro various story levels.

In the pictured sequence, Christian is shown in the outer level of the story seated in front of his typewriter.  As he looks out the window and onto the street, an eyeline match follows to a framed shot of the window.  The frame then tracks out and onto the street and hypodiegetically travels its way into his tale.

The flying, tracking camera is prevalent throughout the film, as a means of travel and a way of connecting and accessing different levels of imagination. Furthermore, most sequences in the film are localized in contained spaces, often explicitly framed as such. The role of buildings, doors and windows functions to explicitly convey that narrative sense of inside to outside orientation.  To go from one level of imagination to another implies an act of motion into or motion out of.

The generated effect is ultimately one of activating sensory-motor structures that already exist in the spectator’s modes of reasoning.  The metaphorical connection between the container schema and narrative spatiality is evoked naturally and understood completely.  In the cases of Inception and Moulin Rouge, the visual is fundamentally technological, but at the same time wholly invested in the narrative, and ultimately based on the corporeal.  The meaningful concepts that we develop by virtue of the body’s preconceptual relationship with the world are reinforced in these films as cues to immerse the viewer completely.

In conclusion

I hypothesize that the meaningfulness of the contemporary mainstream Hollywood cinema is in this role of playing with space and corporeality.  I gave a talk on this topic in Portland a few weeks ago and a person brought up Stephen Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011) as an example of the extent to which movies today will go to engage viewers with spatial and motor resonance.  To her the entire experience was a bit too much, because everything moved just too quickly.

However as we know with studies on intensified continuity, increased pacing is characteristic of the evolution of cinema.  Likewise, I suggest, are the innovations in spatiality and their effects on spectatorial embodiment.  In this respect, not only are spectators bombarded with non-stop effects, they are also bombarded with non-stop spatial schemata.

As such, perhaps some caution should be exercised before dismissing the meaningfulness of Hollywood spectacles.

Works Cited:

  • Bordwell, D. (2004). The way Hollywood tells it. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
  • Buckland, W. (2000). The cognitive semiotics of film. Cambridge University Press.
  • Caracciolo, M. (2011) Narrative, embodiment, and cognitive science: Why should we care? Project Narrative. Retrieved from
  • Denby, D. (2012) Has Hollywood murdered the movies? The New Republic. Retrieved from
  • Johnson, M. (1990) The body in the mind. University of Chicago Press.
  • Kuzmicova, A. (2012).  Presence in the reading of literary narrative: A case for motor enactment. Semiotica, 189 (1/4), 23-48.
  • Ndalianis, A. (1999) Architectures of vision: Neo-Baroque optical regimes and contemporary entertainment media. MIT Communications Forum. Retrieved from
  • Recuber, T. (2007) Immersion cinema: The rationalization and reenchantment of cinematic space. Space and Culture, 10:3, 315-330.

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