Categorizing the Cognitive
Hawks and Doves
When looking at the work of cognitive film theory and criticism, at writers who sees similarities between the human mind and a computational one, we can notice there are those more inclined towards the analytical; others towards the empirical. When one of the cognitive practitioners, Gregory Currie, says "even we hawks are capable of ontological generosity" ('Film, Reality and Illusion'), we might notice that there are doves as well as hawks: those who wish to see themselves as guardians of logical non-error, hawkishly determined to root out faulty thinking in film theory, and the doves, thinkers keener to take on the films themselves rather than take out their opponents. For us, Stephen Prince, the tangentially cognitive Geoff King and the resolutely cognitivist David Bordwell are fine practitioners of the empirical school; Noel Carroll, Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga examples of the more bullying method. Bordwell, easily the most famous name in the field, and by far the most influential (no matter if Carroll is the philosopher-king) sometimes assumes a swagger and takes pot-shots at Zizek and others, never more imperiously so than when saying the likes of Deleuze, Foucault and Bataille, "the maitres a pense bump into each one another in the pages of film books far more than on the boulevard St Michel." ('Film Studies and Grand Theory') But most of the time, Bordwell is busy on the mid-level research the practitioners propose is their purpose, writing very useful books on complex mise en scene in Figures Traced in Light, and the shifts in style in modern American Cinema, evident in The Way Hollywood Tells It. Prince has analysed very well computer-generated imagery on film, screen violence and the limitations of the Kuleshov effect. Geoff King has written clear, concise accounts of Modern Hollywood as well as independent cinema.
We will return to the work of these three writers shortly, but first let us deal with the Hawks, with writers who have points to make rather than observations to offer. When Carroll says "probably anything can be made to say anything else once interpretative protocols get as loose as they are in criticism departments nowadays" he is attacking those who freely use Freud, Lacan and Levi-Strauss in their work, reckoning that what matters is: to answer "many of the questions addressed by or raised by psychoanalytic film theories, especially with respect to film reception, in terms of cognitive and rational process rather than irrational or unconscious ones." ('Prospects for Film Theory') Carroll doesn't think that cognitivism should sit alongside psychoanalytic film work; it should more or less replace it, believing that only where the rational analysis fails should psychoanalysis be utilised. It is Carroll's narrow notion of thought that allows for points to be won. He will spot flaws in others' logical reasoning as a means by which to dismiss the position held. But one might make a weak point within a strong position, and often logic is no more than an aspect of that strength. When Carroll attacks Bill Nichols and others he talks of their "facile deconstructions of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction that conclude nonfiction film is just like any other kind of fiction" (Nonfiction Film and Postmodern Skepticism'), but the reason Nichols is an important writer on documentary, and Carroll isn't, rests on Nichols' immersion in the subject, in books like Introduction to Documentary and Representing Reality, well aware that numerous documentaries have themselves gone some way to collapsing these categories. This doesn't mean fictional and factual films are all one; more that documentary films often no longer claim such an epistemological assumption about the truth. Carroll's article appears weak next to Nichols's work when we see just how many documentaries have blurred the line between what is fact and what is ficton, including Exit from the Gift Shop, Catfish and I'm Still Here. Carroll may in various places take apart Nichols' argument, but the points he makes seem weak next to the strength of Nichols' work, an oeuvre that has looked at numerous documentaries over the years and sees in them different modes of address. Carroll's writing seems aridly devoid of content, with the odd film grist to his argument rather than evidence of acts of immersion.
Gregory Currie is equally allergic to example. When he discusses Bergman's The Passion ('Bergman and the Film Image') and sees in it a couple of instances of what he calls the non-depictive aspect of the film. Drawing the distinction between the depictive and non-depictive Currie sees that almost everything we see in films is objectively present in the frame: what we see in life we see in the frame. This is Depictive Fullness. According to this principle, every part of a ﬁlm image depicts some-thing objective; everything we see when we see the screen depicts something, and the something depicted is a part of the objective world. But occasionally film shows us what is not in life but a property of the camera, and Currie gives as an example the shot at the end of the film where Andreas disintegrates into the pixels of the image. Yet Currie devotes most of his article to a point few would disagree with rather than exploring how this works in films themselves, and how the non-depictive might change from one work to another. Is the end of The Passion similar to the conclusion of Two-Lane Blacktop, where the image itself burns up, or the flicker effects at the beginning of Persona? There are many interesting examples of the non-depictive in film, but Currie doesn't explore this even if we might assume this is exactly what mid-level research should be doing.
Paisley Livingston likewise has a yen for the abstract. Discussing in an essay on whether films can think he insists on making clear why they don't. But the purpose isn't to show in which ways film comes up against the limits of its own capacities (as any art form does), but what he sees are the properties of thinking, which of course is closely linked like other cognitive film thinkers, to the logical. "In short, inquiries into films' epistemic values can be a rational strategy insofar as they provide a useful component to the overarching project of philosophical pedagogy and research." ('Theses on Cinema as Philosophy') Livingston doesn't want to explore the question as an intriguing hypothesis, but wishes to close it down, insisting that cinema can't think - period. But when Hitchcock links two shots together to create inferences, is this a thought being produced, as we realize when Ray Milland turns a key in the lock in Dial M for Murder something is untoward? When Eisenstein shows us Korensky and the peacock in October a different thought is produced, one based on symbolic reasoning. In Antonioni's The Eclipse, when the director shows us Monica Vitti looking out of the window at the mushroom-shaped building the symbolic gives way to something more indeterminate. These are quite different thoughts we happen to be having, so does this mean the film is creating thought for us? Yes if we have an open notion of what thinking happens to be; no if it must be a rational argument. The problem with the latter position for film is that it leaves the academic with little to say; the former can create an elaborate process of differentiating the type of thinking cinema can do. But the Hawks allow for little such space.
So now we can turn to the Doves. Bordwell is a very fine example of the mid-level researcher, someone who devotes a lot of time and energy to breaking down the lengths of the shot, the number of cuts, the uses of light, the approach to music and so on, creating useful terms in the process. Whether it is intensified continuity to describe the increasing speed and panoply of devices used to push perspective in contemporary American film, or scenic density to look at classic Hollywood mise-en-scene, Bordwell is very good at creating a conceptual reservoir for the formal choices directors make. He might not posses the insight or ingenuity of Stanley Cavell or Gilles Deleuze but that would be half the point. He isn't looking at the exceptions which require perceptiveness, but the norms that demand hard slog. When addressing style in cinema he usually insists on working with a broad sample analysis, picking films randomly rather than aesthetically to see how norms can be examined. To this he and his wife, Kristin Thompson, are indebted to the important Barry Salt, a debt Salt insisted upon when writing in Film Quarterly. Wondering if Bordwell and Thompson were being a little contemptuous towards his own research, he insisted that "without my work, Bordwell and Thompson would not know what to look for, where to look for it, or how to look for it." Strong words from someone who may have felt usurped by Bordwell, who is no doubt the best-known practitioner of quantitative analysis as film criticism, writing various tomes (sometimes with Thompson; sometimes alone) that corners and cul de sacs the market for academic film studies.
But if we look at Bordwell as no more, nor any less, than the finest exponent of pragmatic, piecemeal cognitivist film analysis, he is a marvellous creature to behold. Wade through a couple of Carroll or Livingston pieces and then alight upon a Bordwell essay and you can breathe a sigh of relief because Bordwell allows films into the discussion on a fundamental basis. His work is full of references to numerous films, with screen grabs and scene analysis. He might not quite bring the films to life (there is an anatomist eye to Bordwell), but he is at least willing to examine the bodies. Carroll, Currie and co you sometimes feel would faint at the first sight of celluloid. They may be Hawks but that doesn't mean they like to see battle. Reading through Bordwell's account of Angeloupolos's work in Figures Traced in Light, or his examination of the four elements he sees as central to the development of contemporary Hollywood's use of intensified continuity in The Way Hollywood Tells It, we are reading someone who has spent a great deal of his time in front of one screen or another. Discussing what he calls 'singles, he says "by building dialogue scenes out of brief shots, the new style has become somewhat more elliptical, using fewer establishing shots and sustained two shots. As Lev Kuleshov, I V Pudovkin and other Soviet montage directors realized, classical continuity contains redundancies: shot/reverse shot exchange reiterate the information about character placement" etc. Here is a writer who can move from silent cinema to today's film and have the confidence to know what he is talking about.
Stephen Prince is less far-ranging than Bordwell, but no less incisive. Whether in an essay with Wayne Hensley on the Kuleshov Effect in Cinema Journal, writing on screen violence in a compilation he edited, Screening Violence, or writing on digital imagery, 'True Lies', in Film Quarterly, Prince's work is to the point without forcing one. We may find him along with Caroll, Livingston, Currie and Bordwell in the book on cognitive film, Post-Theory, but he seems to us a fringe member interested in taking from cognitive analysis what he needs to pursue questions of film form and developments in film technology. Whether differentiating between visible and invisible CGI, or suggesting that classic cinema worked with a substitutional poetics when it came to violence, Prince rolls his sleeves up and gets on with the business to hand. Whether describing a scene of muted violence in One-Eyed Jacks or the way in which special effects are used in Jurassic Park and Forrest Gump, Prince might, like Bordwell, have little interest in meeting the maitres a pense on the Boulevard St Michel either, but he would be less inclined to cross the street to avoid them, and on occasion will even use them. Roland Barthes is a key reference in the 'True Lies' essay. It should also be said, however that while the high theorists of cognitivism tend to be very dismissive of Barthes (as we find in Caroll's remarks on the French writer in his book The Philosophy of Horror), Bordwell has found him of use, especially in Narrative in the Fiction Film.
This leaves us with Geoff King, someone who is even less inclined towards cognitive assertiveness than Prince, but like Prince, looks at the films to hand rather than abstracting them out of existence. He is another great example of the mid-level research Bordwell and Caroll speak so much about in their introductions to Post-Theory. What interests King is looking at what constitutes an independent film in American Independent Cinema, tracing its genealogy and its financial base, and in New Hollywood Cinema calling into question just how much has changed in recent American film. He disagrees with those, for example, who see Hollywood films like Armageddon and Speed as heavier in story than many critics happen to claim. As he says, "a graphic profile of the main central portion of Speed would depict a line remaining high in the action-spectacle range and showing a rapid sequence of sub-peaks as a large number of minor crises follow closely upon one another." But at the same time, he creates the term impact aesthetics to explain how many contemporary films are concerned with high-blast tension.
Our purpose here has been brief, and simple. To distinguish between the Hawks and Doves of the cognitive skies. To suggest that cognitive film analysis has its place: that when it happens to be doing no more than indicating there are norms to be explored, that it might be useful to see the human brain as bearing similarities to a computer in the way we process information, then effective work can be done. But to take on the work of numerous other areas of thought (from psychoanalysis to phenomenology, from post-structuralism to deconstruction), in a survival of the academic fittest, is to diminish the field not expand upon it. In our eyes the work of Bordwell, Prince and King have a lot to tell us and can sit alongside (if not always in so distinguished a form) the work of Bazin, Cavell, Deleuze, Metz and others as important contributions. So often the arguments of Carroll, Currie, Livingston and other more analytically inclined thinkers seem to be needless noise, adding little to the debate except a decibel level in danger of drowning out more important voices. Any course that includes Carroll and Livingston to the detriment of Metz and Cavell, say, could seem remiss indeed.
© Tony McKibbin