- Film Structure and the Emotion System
Film theory based on cognitive science has approached the study of audience emotion from a unique perspective, using empirical research to analyze the effects of cinema upon human physiology. In his book Film Structure and the Emotion System, Greg M. Smith describes a "mood-cue approach" to cinematic analysis that relies upon an associative model of human emotions and emphasizes emotional appeals that transcend a character-driven process of identification. Smith argues that numerous filmic elements work together to create an emotional mood that prepares the audience to anticipate, predict, and be moved by upcoming narrative events.
Influenced by psychologist Nico Frijda, who describes emotions that are merely expressive and not meant to satisfy a particular concern, Smith's account of the human emotion system differentiates him from previous cognitive film theorists. In Smith's model emotion moves beyond a prototypical definition in which emotions are directed toward a particular object. Describing experiments wherein fear is evoked by "stimuli below the conscious level," Smith suggests that emotions can exist without an object or goal (22). Smith labels these emotions, such as depression, "expressive-communicative emotions." While he recognizes that prototypical emotions are very common, they do not represent the entire emotional spectrum. With the introduction of nonprototypical emotions, there no longer needs to be a single concrete object to inspire an emotion; it can instead be elicited by a variety of sources in the environment. The emotional atmosphere of a situation or location can generate a "mood," a key concept in Smith's theory.
Smith describes research indicating that, despite what one's memory will have one believe, emotions usually last from half a second to a few minutes. Moods, in contrast, are longer-lasting, less-intense preparatory states that orient one to a particular environment, assisting the body in perceiving data that could be of potential use. They encourage a viewer to anticipate events that fit the particular mood: "They are not emotions per se, but they are tendencies toward expressing emotion" (38). Moods fade with time unless they are sustained by emotional jolts that continue to orient the person along similar lines.
This definition of moods is the foundation of Smith's "mood-cue approach" to cinematic analysis, described in his third chapter. Arguing that "the primary emotive effect of film is to create mood," Smith believes that setting the appropriate mood is imperative for filmmakers (42). Once a certain mood is created, the audience becomes more susceptible to emotional cues in the film and is more likely to respond in the desired manner. This process is cyclical, as emotional jolts in the film help sustain the mood, which in turn enables the audience to respond to these moments of intense emotion.
The intensity of the emotion is related to the redundancy of the emotional cues, which interact with different physiological subsystems in what Smith calls the "associative model of emotions." The activation of one subsystem alone is usually not sufficient to produce an emotional response. In order to elicit the appropriate emotion from the largest number of audience members, a film must use redundant emotional cues, each relating to a different subsystem. That way, if a particular cue does not activate the desired emotion within a particular audience member, another might. Because cues reflect the entire physiological spectrum of the associative model of emotions, many cinematic [End Page 76] elements can act as cues. Smith lists "facial expression, figure movement, dialogue, vocal expression and tone, costume, sound, music, lighting, mise-en-scene, set design, editing, camera, depth of field, character qualities and histories, and narrative situation" as potential conveyers of emotional cues (42).
Film Structure and the Emotion System also details the ways in which Smith's approach to filmic emotion and the spectator differs from previous work in the field. Classical film theorists such as André Bazin discuss emotion but within a limited context that fails to provide much foundation for a broad research project. Film criticism and theory of the 1960s and 1970s is more overtly political, less concerned...