Psychology of Cinema: The Art and Science of Film by Tracy Morris

October 4, 2013
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 Psychology of Cinema: Perspectives on the Art and Science of Film


For many, film is a magnificent obsession. Films invite us into different lives and worlds and sometimes don’t let go. At least the good films do this: they stay with us for a while. They stick with you. You think about them after you leave the theater and want to talk about them with others. Over time thoughts and discussions recur and the film experience becomes a part of your very being.

Films also provide legitimate reasons to watch, observe, stare, and occasionally to see. Films help pass the time, but they can also entertain, teach, preach, demonstrate a particular point of view. Some are meant to make money, others aspire to create art, and a rare few do both. Some let us look into a world to which we may not have access. Some show us things we’ve never seen before or perhaps only imagined; helping us safely (usually) venture into places and times we cannot enter in our normal lives and to imagine new possibilities.

Films often describe and explain the behavior of characters. These descriptions and explanations are also part of the formal study of the field of psychology. This book is intended to discuss the intersection of film and psychology to help the reader better understand psychology through film and to better appreciate films that describe and explain human behavior.

The title of this book alone might have evoked images of films about abnormal human behavior—but this book is not merely about film and abnormal behavior. The purposes of this book are to:

• examine the interface between film and psychology
• describe ways of knowing, sensing, and perceiving—and how
these influences our understanding of film and human behavior,
• explore cinema classics—and modern masters—from a psychological
• examine the portrayal of psychological themes in film
• discuss how the film industry has made use of psychological principles in
the creation and marketing of movies
• enhance the film viewing experience and expand perspectives on readers’
future film selection and evaluation.

Mass media provides several modes of learning about psychology and undoubtedly has been the most pervasive means by which members of the general public have been exposed to psychology. Students who initially enter a psychology class have a particular perception that does not always match the reality of the field. Of course, this mismatch goes beyond film to other mass media outlets like television (see Frasier, Oprah, or Dr. Phil), radio (Dr. Laura), and print (Dear Abby).

Over the years, we have taught thousands of undergraduate psychology students. With each new group it was apparent that many entered the course with notions about what they thought psychology was—and these notions would eventually be revealed as inaccurate. These presuppositions largely centered on topics of psychopathology and psychoanalysis—ideas most often ascertained from portrayals of psychology in film, television, and literature. Students routinely were surprised to learn how vast the field of psychology is—and that psychology is both an art and a science.

Film may be used to document and explore all manner of human endeavor. We think about film, we talk about film, but mostly we enjoy film. Movies have the power to entertain—and to educate. Millions flock to theaters each week and millions more watch movies at home each night on television, DVD, or streaming the internet. It is the rare individual in modern society who does not have something to say about film.

Major selling points

This book is innovative in its perspective—it is not merely a book about depictions of psychology in film. It is bidirectional in the sense of both using film to help the reader learn about psychology and using psychological principles to understand film. As such the book is of interest to fans of film a well as students of psychology.

Intended audiences

General Public
This book will be of interest to anyone who enjoys film as well as those who wish to gain a basic understanding of psychology.

Textbook Adoption
This book may be suitable for adoption as a supplement to Introductory courses in Psychology, Film, or Communications;or as a primary text for undergraduate courses on Psychology and Film

Table of Contents

1. An Introduction to the Psychology of Cinema
Introduces the major psychological perspectives and terms including psychoanalysis and behaviorism, and the concept of film as perspective taking. Examples from specific films are used throughout the book to help the reader visualize the construct being discussed.

2. Psychology in Film
Film is one of the major sources through which the public’s view of psychology has been shaped. In this chapter we explore how the field of psychology has been portrayed in film over time and question assumptions that have entered the popular mythology. Such myths and misconceptions include the image of the evil genius, rampant sexual involvement between therapists and clients, the psychologist as master sleuth/detective, and rapid catharsis/miracle cures. We address public perceptions of psychology and mental illness—and the question of whether films have done more public service or injustice.

3. Cinematography and the Psychology of Perception
An area within psychology of particular relevance to film production is that of sensation and perception. Sensation refers to the process of detecting environmental stimuli and encoding corresponding neural signals. Perception is the process by which we organize and interpret such sensory information. The field of perception fundamentally and scientifically addresses issues of what is real or how we know the world around us. Filmmaking is the practical application of the rules of perception to create a particular effect on viewers. This chapter also provides the reader with a basic understanding of cinematography, use of color, and editing.

4. Film and Mind
Films provide an artistic exploration of the mind; the science of psychology provides another set of answers to how the mind works. This chapter provides an overview of basic concepts of cognitive psychology that are relevant to making and interpreting films. There is an additional way cognitive psychology is useful to film making: as a device of the plot or narrative structure. Some films include objective points of view reflecting what happened, while others include reflections and recollections of the characters that may be more subjective. Other films use memory faults and disorders as part of the mystery to be solved throughout the film. Underlying the art of film is an epistemological question: how do we know? Or more fundamentally, what is true? How does film help us to know something? Is what we are seeing true or is what the characters saying true? Can we trust the narrator? How have we been biased?

One of the goals of this book is to answer the question: What does it mean for a film to be psychological? One answer is that it portrays the inner workings of the mind—our memories, the lies we tell ourselves or that we end up believing about ourselves, the decisions we make, how and why we solve certain problems. We can be out of our minds. We can be of two minds. We can switch minds. We can follow a character as he or she tries to remember. We also sometimes observe characters trying to forget. Sometimes remembering is suspenseful. Sometimes it is revealing. Other times the truth is hard to remember—and perhaps better off left unknown.

5. Psychopathology and Abnormal Behavior
In this chapter, we present the major categories of psychopathology and discuss films in which the disorders are represented. We also address several issues relevant to abnormal behavior, including violence and child maltreatment.

Portrayals of abnormality in film have somewhat paralleled advancement in scientific understanding. That is, presentation, causal explanation, and treatment of psychopathology in film have seen changes over time. In early cinema, highly distorted presentations of the mentally ill were accompanied by unnecessarily pessimistic predictions for improvement. The mentally ill were portrayed as extremely dangerous individuals, suffering from some form of genetic defect, who must be locked away for life. With the rising influence of Freudian psychology, later films gave the indication that psychopathology may be due to deficits in early childrearing (primarily emphasizing the role of the bad mother), yet continued to promote the impression that such problems were likely to be permanent or at least resistant to change in the absence of the analyst uncovering a deep-seated source of trauma. More recently, we have begun to witness films that attempt to normalize a range of psychological disorders and that leave us with a more hopeful outlook on the possibilities for successful treatment—whether through pharmacological intervention, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Such films may be of great public service in reducing the stigma of mental illness and encouraging those experiencing psychological problems to seek professional assistance with dignity.

6. Sex Roles and Sexuality in Cinema
What would life—or cinema—be without sex? Life originates with the act of sex. By virtue of including human beings as subject matter, all films address issues of sex roles and sexuality at some level. Expressions of sexuality in film have been evident for almost as long as cinema has been in existence. The first on-screen kiss occurred in 1896 in the aptly titled film The Kiss. The event was decried in newspapers all over the land. The kiss, quite tame by our standards, was considered an act of moral depravity. This chapter will discuss changes in cinematic representation over time and cover constructs such as gender roles, images of men and women in film, sexual orientation, sex and relationships, sexual taboos, and sexual disorders.

7. Social Psychology
Social psychology is the subdiscipline of psychology that addresses how people think, feel, and act in social situations. Films rarely focus on the life of a single individual apart from interaction with other human beings. As such, virtually all films can be seen as touching upon one or more aspects of social psychology. This chapter includes coverage of social influence and social identity, friendship, interpersonal attraction and love, prejudice and stereotypes, conformity and compliance, aggression, altruism, and censorship.

8. Human Development
Developmental psychology deals with the description, explanation, and optimization of physical, cognitive, and social age-related changes. This field focuses on identifying the processes and mechanisms of change (the why and the how of change). It is the study of how things begin, how they change over time, and how they end. Most films and stories are about how things progress from one state to another. They present something in the beginning and attempt to hold our interest as the story progresses from its beginning to its ending. The notion of change and the causes of change are inherent in narrative structure: the stuff of which movies are made. Films often depict development and change, particularly in the social context of the family. This chapter deals with the science of change that is embedded in films by virtue of their narrative structure. It deals with films about children, families, teens, fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons. It deals with the events that indicate how we as individuals change from one state to another and the causes and implications of those changes.

9. Film Noir
Film noir is loaded with psychological themes, concepts, and conditions. Noir characters and settings evoke perceptions of angst and psychopathology. Noir films are inherently psychological and that may be part of their appeal. The nature of their allure is quite complex. We respond to such films in ways we don’t to others. The dark is compelling, it makes us think—it can be threatening and many of us are drawn to understand the threatening. For some it may mean that film noir captures the inner workings and motives of the characters (e.g., sex, money, power) in ways that lighter fare may not.

This chapter provides the reader with an understanding of the stylistic elements characterizing the genre and places film noir into its social, cultural, and historical context. Such examination helps us understand how psychology influenced cinema during that period, and in turn how cinema helped serve as one of the modes of describing, and perhaps defining, the field of psychology for a larger audience.

10. Cross Cultural Psychology and World Cinema
Cross-cultural psychology is the study of behavior, thinking, and emotions as they vary across cultures and how culture as a variable affects individuals within it. The point of this chapter is to encourage movie viewers to watch films from other cultures or subcultures to gain better understanding. Unless one has traveled abroad, most of what we know about other cultures likely has been derived from film or television. While much of this information may be generally accurate, some perceptions inevitably will be biased. In addition to cross-cultural psychological constructs, this chapter also provides a brief tour of world cinema.

11. Alfred Hitchcock the Master of Suspense
No other director is more closely associated with the psychology of film than Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock directed almost 60 films and many of them dealt directly with psychological themes. Spellbound (1945) featured a psychiatrist and her patient and included a dream sequence by Salvador Dali. Psycho (1960) probably the most popular film dealing with psychological issues explored what happens when a son’s love for his mother goes wrong. Vertigo (1958) included a main character who is afraid of heights and includes themes of obsession, delusions, hallucinations, and parallel worlds. Rear Window (1954) made voyeurs out of us all as we watched Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly watch others. The titles themselves evoke many sinister, psychological emotions and themes.

As the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock made films that were both thrilling and disturbing. Despite the typically dark themes, Hitchcock’s films also contained comic elements that served to heighten the fear and anxiety and increase the range of emotion the audience might experience.

12. David Lynch and Krzysztof Kieslowski: Alienation and the Search for Meaning
David Lynch is an American, reared in a nation and time that promoted independence and artistic creativity. Krzysztof Kieslowski was an Eastern European, reared in a land devastated by Hitler and later Soviet oppression. Their backgrounds, like the content and style of their films, were very different, but the commonality in their work is found in an exploration of the fundamental aspects of human existence: themes of alienation, longing, love, aggression, and spirituality.

Detailed intellectual analysis has its place. Technical deconstruction and evaluation can be a valuable learning experience. Such academically minded pursuits can also be much fun for those who are into that sort of thing. For many people though, it is the overall experience of watching the film that has meaning for them. Was it enjoyable? Did it speak to them? How did it make them feel? The two directors profiled in this chapter have a way of evoking emotion through their films in a way that is powerful, but not always able to be articulated fully. Of course film critics and cinephiles have taken on the task of trying to derive meaning from specific symbols in their work, but as with all true art, there can be as many interpretations as there are viewers. One thing can be said: their films will make you feel. You may be offended, uplifted, saddened, or liberated. You may love their work or you may hate it—but it is unlikely you will walk away untouched.

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This post was written by Tracy Morris

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