In this essay, I shall offer a historical overview of cognitive approaches to film, before putting forward what to cognitive film theory might be an ‘heretical’ argument, in that I shall try to find ways in which cognitive film theory can work with, rather than against, more ‘classical’ film theory in order to enrich our understanding of cinema. I shall do this by looking at the concept of heuretics, as discussed by Christian Keathley in his book, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (2006). Before reaching this point, though, let us look at the history of cognitive film theory.
From The Photoplay to Post- Theory and Beyond
For the uninitiated, cognitive film theory has as perhaps its central principle the idea that viewers are active while watching a film; that is, viewers constantly are carrying out cognitive/ conscious labour in order to recognise what they see, make sense of a story, make evaluations about situations and characters, have an emotional response to films and so on. In some senses, to assert as much should be self- evident: of course, viewers engage actively with films when they watch them. Nonetheless, this claim was perhaps a big one when cognitive film theory began to emerge in the mid- 1990s through the development of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image (SCSMI) and, in particular, the publication of David Bordwell and Noel Carroll's edited collection, Post- Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (1996a). For, as various authors make clear in that collection, cognitivism marks a break from the older, more ‘classical’ film theory that had psychoanalysis and Marxism at its theoretical core.
Emerging most prominently out of the journal Screen in the 1970s, the ‘classical’ or ‘Grand’ film theory argued that viewers of films were passive in that they unwittingly were prey to the ideologies peddled by mainstream cinema. Laura Mulvey (1975) famously suggested, for example, that mainstream cinema reinforced a specifically masculine way of looking both at the world and at women in particular, since in most mainstream narrative films, women are reduced to spectacles that are to be looked at, rather than being active agents or rounded characters.