Movie Watching: An Introduction
As you slide between the backs of chairs and peoples’ knees to find your seat in the movie theater, the lights begin to dim and a thin stream of light comes to life from the projector in the back of the room. Settling into your seat, you face the screen and hear the familiar opening song of the production company who created the story that is about to commence. Your can feel your mind relax and the details of your life are pushed to the very back of your thoughts as you prepare for full immersion into the world of the movie.
What makes movie watching so interesting as a mass media, is how it simultaneously provides a collective social experience as well as personal. We may gather in a movie theater, or in front of a TV in the living room, to share a journey with friends or strangers, while also creating our own relationship to the characters and situations being presented on screen. The phenomenon of becoming fully immersed in a narrative world occurs through the act of transportation, or a high state of engagement. The act of transporting itself is a multilateral expression involving attention, imagery, and feelings. While this sense of transference is shared with film’s predecessors’ literature and radio, it is the addition of visuals that allows for a different level of involvement.
This episode will be exploring the psychological affects of transporting while viewing cinema by looking at the motivations to watching movies, the process of transportation while watching, and the effects of transportation once the film has ended.
The motivation that drives movie watching is primarily connected to our emotional state. Entertainment has been used since the dawn of man to maintain good moods and assuage bad ones. Mood management can be seen as one of the incentives, which drives people to watching movies. This helps to explain the differences in what people elect to watch when undergoing different moods. Happy people tend to seek something easy to digest, with low levels stimulation, like a light hearted comedy, where unhappy people go for extremes and highly arousing fares like an outrageous comedy or dark drama in order to fully distract themselves.
Escapism is another emotional need in which movies have become the solution. Viewed psychologically, escapism allows one to check their social and emotional roles at the theater door and transport themselves to another world. Matilda and John Riley (1951) performed a number of investigations into how children use media in order to escape. They found that children who were more isolated from peer groups gravitated toward adventure stories. A study by Eleanor Maccoby also in 1951, realized that middle class children experiencing difficulty in a parent- child relationship had more exposure to television than other middle class children, relating that stress to the desire to forget their personal problems.
To look at motivations for movie watching in a larger context, this act can be seen as a means of communication. The conversation between artist and audience throughout the decades has been revealing of larger cultural desires and fears.
Psychotherapist Harvey R. Greenberg explained about movies, ”Cinema is a supremely valid source of free associations, a powerful touchstone into the unconscious”.
Audiences may also pursue a certain director or film artist because of how that artist provides insight into a viewer’s repressed fantasies. This allows both the creator and the receiver, through a symbolic medium like filmmaking, to satisfy basic desires and needs. This then furthers the purpose of transportation through movie watching as a means of escape, to a means of human communication, a complex relationship at that.
Transportation: The Process of Embarking on a Journey
Suspension of Disbelief
Sitting down to take in a movie, whether it’s in a theater, or in your home, initiates an agreement in your mind that you are ready to accept whatever is about to come your way. The willing suspension of disbelief is the first step in transporting yourself from where you are viewing the movie, to the heart of the story. While we may know that two characters in a movie are not actually married to each other, we are willing to accept that fact of the story so that we can more easily identify, connect, and experience the story in a more meaningful and personal way.
The level of transportation that we are able to experience when watching a movie heavily depends on a process of identification, or how we relate to the characters on screen. Are we capable of likening ourselves to the character or comparing ourselves against them? It is through identification that we are able to connect to the characters and become more engrossed in the story. This type of relationship with movie characters is considered parasocial, or a one sided relationship where one person is projecting emotional energy and interest and the other is completely unaware.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
Evaluating the parasocial relationship between movie character and viewer largely involves our ability to empathize or sympathize with the characters on screen. These two opposing schools of thought are divided between simulation theorists, who attribute empathy as the crux of one’s emotional experience of cinema, and cognitive labeling theorists, who believe that we receive cues on how we should feel or react to what is happening on screen.
Those who believe that empathy is enacted during the transportation of the self into the movie’s story, also champion the discovery of mirror neurons found by scientists at UCLA during the mid 1990s in the brains of primates. As their name suggests, these neurons were discovered to fire identically when a primate engaged in an action as they did when observing another primate engage in the same action. The existence of these neurons were discovered only recently in human testing, leading to a breakthrough in grasping cognitive and emotional processes in the human brain.
In reference to movie watching, Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA specializing in mirror neurons used the example, “…if you see me choke up, in emotional distress from striking out at home plate, mirror neurons in your brain simulate my distress. You automatically have empathy for me. You know how I feel because you literally feel what I am feeling”.
Noel Carroll, in his book The Philosophy of Motion Pictures, defends sympathy. Where the discovery of mirror neurons seems difficult to argue against, Carroll suggests an alternative of mirror reflexes, a propensity to mimic what we see. This contrasts the feeling of it being a full emotional response and instead proposes that it is more of a physical reaction. Carroll describes the process,
“The activity on screen primes mimicry of a partial or limited variety which can deliver information about the internal states of characters which we sample in terms of similar sensations in ourselves. Though not full scale emotions- but only feelings sans objects, and, thus, without appraisals thereof- these sensations may nevertheless be a serviceable source of the affective grip that such motion pictures have on us...”
He believes that it is impossible to be empathetic because over the last century, Hollywood has instructed us on how to respond to the structure of films. Using techniques like shot composition, plot lines, and scores, uniformity has been achieved which causes us to all react the same way towards films. Whether through empathy or sympathy, it is undeniable that the connection made between a movie watcher and the character on screen is a vital step toward successful transportation.
In the most avant- garde interpretation of transportation, Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites (1950) believe that watching movies can be related to dreaming. They consider the symbolism of movies and how they allow an audience to create metaphors of the messages being conveyed in the movie, and apply them to their own desires, fears, and lives. Wolfenstein and Leites state in their book The Movies: A Psychological Study,
“These ready- made day dreams, come to occupy a larger place in the conscious experience of most individuals than their most fugitive, private, home- made day dreams”.
To further link the visual effectiveness of cinema and dreams Suzanne Langer (1953) adds, “Likened to reading a novel, the narrative aspect of film is telling a particular story, but the mode of film presentation uniquely creates a virtual present. Like dreams, films place the viewer/ dreamer at the center of the story”.
This suggests that unlike other modes of media that might transport you to the past, cinema is transportive to the present, bringing the viewer to the center of the story no matter when it takes place.
Transportation: The Effects
Satisfies Needs and Desires
Motivations for watching movies have been noted as a means to escape personal stresses, but this is also a beneficial effect of the transportive quality of movie watching. Self- focused attention can be detrimental to the psyche and create a bad cycle of negativity. Using transportation as a route away from self- focus provides relief from this negative state and allows for enjoyment by reducing a challenging affective state
Another way transportation might encourage self- development is through identity play. Transporting yourself into the various worlds of cinema allows one to safely experiment with other possible selves by inserting yourself into the characters on screen. This unique benefit of transportation is provided through the visual element of movies, which lends the opportunity to test different personalities and realities without any cost to the individual. Through this, one is also able to take the time to look introspectively at themselves, and really evaluate who they are, making this an extremely personal experience, only heightening the transportive experience during movie watching.
To have a positive experience through transportation does not always mean that one is transporting to a positive world. Many individuals are often drawn to narratives that are scary or depressing. This does not necessarily mean that the individual is a depressed person, but that it’s a great opportunity to explore our boundaries in regards to feelings of fear, sadness, and anger. Like the safety of identity play in transportation, there is also the chance to safely explore these feelings through the different scenarios and characters presented in the narrative worlds of movies. These more visceral feelings are also accompanied with physiological affects like heart pounding and crying that embed the experience further into our emotional centers and in turn deepen the transportation. Therefore, the transportive experience is not necessarily tied to the emotions being felt, but to the advantage of temporarily leaving one’s reality to inhabit another.
Conclusion: Transportation as a Beneficial Experience
Even as young children, we are drawn into narrative worlds through stories, something that does not need to be learned. Although it has been a general assumption that seeking entertainment, and in this case movie watching, is a purely for hedonic purposes, it also provides non- hedonic benefits like personal expressiveness, self- development, and autonomy. The effects of engaging in transportation through movie watching are widely positive.
The invention of cinema in the late 1890s and first feature length movie in 1927, dawned the movie theater, palaces for people to gather and enter a transportive experience together. The effects that transportation has on the individual, is also shared amongst a community and culture. While new information is learned on a personal level, the shared movie watching experience allows those socially adept and those who are alienated to connect to others on this shared experience.
Sam Grogg and John Nachbar stated in their book, Movies as Artifacts: Cultural Criticism in Popular Film, “To view an American film is to witness the dreams, values, and fears of the American people, to feel the pulse of American culture”.
They are recognizing the interpersonal relationship that a culture can have with movies through how they are made, and what the audience contributes. Therefore, I believe that by nature, there is nothing to change about the transportation experience, and no way to really alter it as a psychological result of movie watching. My recommendation would be to all movie lovers out there, to become more involved in the process, and more cognizant of your own experience to thoroughly experience the voyage, and all it has to offer.
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THINK ABOUT THE MOVIES THAT REALLY TAKE YOU TO ANOTHER PLACE, AND LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW!
Harris, R. J., & Sanborn, F. W. (2014).A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication(6th ed.). New York: Routledge. 58- 71.