The Whats versus Hows of Film Spectatorship

[What follows is a 2007 paper I wrote for a graduate level course on film studies.  It was this paper that started me thinking about what I’ve come to term minutia reception studies.  I’ve edited the paper for length, and I’ve included a picture of the reception worksheets my brother filled out as part of this “study”.  The full paper can be found here.  I hope to be able to start doing more research on this topic soon, starting with a paper using part of the Virtual Worlds Entertainment project to do so.]

Since the arrival and construction of the “new” media, it seems that the variety of disciplines that have at some point in their history theorized and researched the relationship between human beings and works of fiction and nonfiction are converging.  However,  from social sciences and the humanities there still fall two different dimensions that dissect the fields on how they approach the study of the person-text relationship.  The first dimension carries the active-passive debate.  While few see the person as always active or always passive, the variation along this dimension still serves to separate research.  The second dimension carries the implied-actual debate; simply stated, this dimension concerns the extent to which research focuses on the reader as implied by the text versus the actual reader who exists external to the text.

The purpose of this essay is not to further differentiate how these dimensions are at work in the variety of disciplines studying the reader-text engagement.  This essay takes such distinctions as the current state of affairs and operates instead from a particular position on both dimensions to further an argument about the reader-text relationship when the focus of the research is the spectator-film engagement.  I shall stake my claim on being further into the always active and actual reader approaches, which places me in a camp surrounded by “uses and gratifications” media scholars, information scientists, cognitive scientists, new media scholars, and cultural studies scholars.  It is from this position that I shall argue for the need to understand the actual reader engaging with the film text in order to expand the ways in which this engagement can impact overall reception of the text.  My thesis will be supported by a preliminary empirical study that is also intended to promote a possible means for studying moment-by-moment spectator-film engagement in order to see the process of reading and its relation to overall reception.

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Visions of the Unconscious: An Analysis of “Juliet of the Spirits”

Did Sigmund Freud realize the impact he would have when he first proposed the idea of the unconscious mind as a reservoir for a person’s dreams, memories and thoughts that may be too violent or too sexually explicit for the conscious mind to handle?  When he wrote about the animalistic id battling the angelic superego on the battlefield of the literal ego, one wonders if he knew that he was going to spark a new way of pondering the human psyche, a way that would not only influence science but the arts as well.  Surrealism was one such impact, and from this art movement came the idea of displaying a person’s memories, dreams and hallucinations through images and sounds in cinema.  Filmmakers took the high art concept of irrational juxtaposing of various elements to evoke the functions of the mind and tamed it to portray their characters’ psyche so the audience could better understand the person they were watching.

Controlled surrealism is seen in Federico Fellini’s story about a woman caught between two worlds in Juliet of the Spirits.  The protagonist Giulietta never developed a strong self-identity, moving from her nuclear family into the arms of her first love without really working out who she was, and thus her ego is underdeveloped and her superego has the most control.  So when the world she knows comes apart around her, her ego finds itself besieged by the polar opposites of the id and the superego in an attempt for her mind to create a strong enough self-identity to allow her to be independent.  The battle between the opposites is seen in visual representations of both the Catholic Church controlled superego and the doctrine of erotic love for the id.  The manifestations of these “spirits” either in the diegesis — the world as depicted in the film — or inserted within as separate non-diegetic sequences illustrate this internal battle.  The surrealism-inspired aspects of editing and mise-en-scene serve to help the spectator understand the psyche of the protagonist as she comes to grip with the true nature of love and her own heart.

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