We watch films with our eyes and ears, but we experience films with our minds and bodies. Films do things to us, but we also do things with them. A film pulls a surprise; we jump. It sets up scenes; we follow them. It plants hints; we remember them. It prompts us to feel emotions; we feel them. If we want to know more—the how, the secrets of the craft—it would seem logical to ask the filmmakers. What enables them to get us to respond so precisely?
Unfortunately for us, they usually can’t tell us. Throughout history, filmmakers have worked with seat-of-the-pants psychology. By trial and error they have learned how to shape our minds and feelings, but usually they aren’t interested in explaining why they succeed. They leave that task to film scholars, psychologists, and others.
In an online essay on my blog, I survey of some major ways in which people thinking about cinema have floated psychological explanations for filmmakers’ creative choices. Sometimes filmmakers reflected on their own craft; more often the task of employing psychology to illuminate the viewer’s experience fell to journalists, critics, and academics. But most of them did not conduct careful historical or empirical research. This doesn’t make their ideas worthless, but it should incline us to see them as working informally. Sometimes they connect ideas about films’ effects on viewer to wider theories of mind; sometimes they don’t. When Film Studies entered universities in the 1960s, writers became more conscious of how specific schools of psychological research accorded with the filmic phenomena they wanted to study. Explicit or implicit, vague or precise, models of mind were recruited to explain the power of cinema.
I refer you to my blog, to read the essay in its entirety, at this link. I would appreciate continuing this conversation with my SCSMI colleagues, so I invite you to comment here.