THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CINEMATIC IMAGE

This is the fifth in a series of essays in honor of André Bazin.

Irving
Biederman, a
neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, has conducted
experiments in the evolutionary and biological basis of the human need
for information.  It would seem that the human brain is to a
certain extent programmed to acquire information, especially about the immediate physical environment — logical enough since
such information, about sources of sustenance and about external
threats, would be crucial to the survival of the species.

Lee Gomes, writing in The Wall Street Journal (linked on Boing Boing), reports this about Biederman's research:

Dr. Biederman first showed a collection of photographs to volunteer
test subjects, and found they said they preferred certain kinds of
pictures (monkeys in a tree or a group of houses along a river) over
others (an empty parking lot or a pile of old paint cans).

The preferred pictures had certain common features, including a
good vantage on a landscape and an element of mystery. In one way or
another, said Dr. Biederman, they all presented new information that
somehow needed to be interpreted.

When he hooked up volunteers to a brain-scanning machine, the
preferred pictures were shown to generate much more brain activity than
the unpreferred shots. While researchers don't yet know what exactly
these brain scans signify, a likely possibility involves increased
production of the brain's pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters called
opioids.

“A
good vantage on a landscape and an element of mystery” strike me as
qualities of all powerful cinematic images — providing we expand the
word landscape to include interior spaces.  “A good vantage”
implies sufficient clues to read the space of the environment
represented, while “an element of mystery” implies an image that is
complex, that doesn't yield up its information too quickly, that
requires investigation.

A cinematic image whose primary function is to deliver narrative
information, as opposed to a spatial illusion, is not going to engage
our imagination in a powerful way.  A cut between two
informational images whose primary function is to establish another
piece of information is likewise not going to be deeply
satisfying.  An example of this would be a cut between a close-up
of a woman looking at something and a close-up of what she's looking
at.  If the two shots in question were not themselves
intrinsically engaging, the relationship between them would be purely
narrative, purely expository.  The shot of the woman looking at
something would not create genuine mystery, only an informational
question — and once the question was answered (by the close-up representing her POV) the interest of the
images would be exhausted.

There might be meta-cinematic qualities to the two images — if the
woman turned out to be looking at a knife, we might wonder what role
the knife will play in the story — but this would not reflect on the
essentially cinematic qualities of the images.

In all this, of course, I am simply recapitulating André Bazin's theory
of the role of montage in cinema, but I think Biederman's research
offers a psychological support to Bazin's thinking.  The
deep-focus shots of Welles and Ford, the long scenes that play out
without directing our attention to specific elements through editing,
give us both “good vantage” and “mystery” — they engage deep levels of
consciousness that seem to be fundamental to human perception. 
And, like Biederman's “preferred images”, they create a pleasure that
may well have a pre-programmed neurological basis.

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