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In Memoriam: Edward Branigan

(1945–2019)

Jason Gendler

Teacher. Mentor. Dissertation committee member. Advocate. Colleague. Friend. These are the many roles that Ed Branigan filled in my life over the eleven-plus years I was privileged to know him. However, merely listing these roles does not really do justice to his impact on me, because it leaves out the kindness, generosity, wit, and enthusiasm that he always had in store for me in all of our interactions, be they postlecture dinners together in Santa Barbara, movie marathons at his house in Oak Park, California, or, as was more and more common over the last few years, e-mail messages.

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Medium Specificity, Iterative Ethics, and Algorithmic Culture in The Good Place

Jane Stadler

Abstract

In conversation with Carl Plantinga's persuasive account of emotion and the ethics of engagement in Screen Stories, this article considers how audiences engage with film and television in an emotive, evaluative manner that is mediated by technology. Because sensory experience and immersive technologies set screen media apart from forms of storytelling such as literature and because technological developments affect the formal strategies of screen media, I argue that the distinctiveness of and differences between film and television warrant attention. I focus on the ethical implications of sustained engagement with immersive narratives and technologies in contemporary television and algorithmic culture.

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A Robust Neural Fingerprint of Cinematic Shot-Scale

Gal Raz, Giancarlo Valente, Michele Svanera, Sergio Benini, and András Bálint Kovács

Abstract

This article provides evidence for the existence of a robust “brainprint” of cinematic shot-scales that generalizes across movies, genres, and viewers. We applied a machine-learning method on a dataset of 234 fMRI scans taken during the viewing of a movie excerpt. Based on a manual annotation of shot-scales in five movies, we generated a computational model that predicts time series of this feature. The model was then applied on fMRI data obtained from new participants who either watched excerpts from the movies or clips from new movies. The predicted shot-scale time series that were based on our model significantly correlated with the original annotation in all nine cases. The spatial structure of the model indicates that the empirical experience of cinematic close-ups correlates with the activation of the ventral visual stream, the centromedial amygdala, and components of the mentalization network, while the experience of long shots correlates with the activation of the dorsal visual pathway and the parahippocampus. The shot-scale brainprint is also in line with the notion that this feature is informed among other factors by perceived apparent distance. Based on related theoretical and empirical findings we suggest that the empirical experience of close and far shots implicates different mental models: concrete and contextualized perception dominated by recognition and visual and semantic memory on the one hand, and action-related processing supporting orientation and movement monitoring on the other

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Screen Stories: Emotion and the Ethics of Engagement

Opening Remarks

Carl Plantinga

Abstract

In this overview and discussion of my recent book, I outline its major topics and arguments and ruminate on its purpose, its implications, and possible objections to the very idea of an ethics of screen stories. Screen stories are narratives that appear on screens, and in this book I focus on long-form screen stories. The book has three parts. Part I develops a theory of the persuasive or rhetorical power of screen stories. Part 2 argues that while one dominant response to that power in film and media studies has been what I call “estrangement theory,” it is in fact an “engagement theory” that offers more promise for the development of an ethics of screen storytelling. Part 3 examines some of the contours of engagement, or, in other words, some of the means by which screen stories engage the viewer in ethical thinking and moral persuasion. There, I focus on character engagement, narrative structure (and especially endings), and narrative paradigm scenarios.

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Screen Stories, Ethics, and Practical Reason

Malcolm Turvey

Abstract

This article questions the priority that Carl Plantinga accords to the viewer's emotions in his theory of the rhetorical power of screen stories, and makes the case that reason, in the sense of practical reasoning, plays just as important a role as emotion in our ethical response to such fictions. Practical reasoning is the form of reasoning concerned with the actions of agents and what they should do in specific situations. The protagonists of screen stories often engage in practical reasoning, articulating and deliberating about the reasons for their actions, and secondary characters around them regularly question their reasons. In this way, these stories prompt us to understand and question their reasons too and thereby to engage in practical reasoning, a species of which is moral reasoning. Screen stories also often stage a confrontation between divergent ethical perspectives and ask audiences to reflect about which one is more morally compelling.

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Screen Stories: Responses to the Critics

Carl Plantinga

Abstract

This article is a discussion of and rejoinder to the comments of three respondents on my book, Screen Stories: Emotion and the Ethics of Engagement. Jane Stadler argues that the book would profit from more attention to the “temporal prolongation” made possible by multi-episode television, especially as it relates to the nature of character engagement. While I have reservations about the notion of medium specificity in relation to television and film (and thus prefer the term “screen stories”), I agree that temporal prolongation in relation to an ethics of screen stories is a vital topic. Malcolm Turvey argues that Screen Stories promotes moral intuition and emotion at the expense of moral reasoning and that an ethics of engagement should pay equal attention to reasoning. In my response, I enumerate four reasons why, despite my belief in the importance of reasoning, I focus on emotion and intuition. I do agree that, once we can decide just what moral reasoning is, it should become a focus of an ethics of engagement. Cynthia Freeland focuses her remarks on various aspects of the third part of my book, “The Contours of Engagement,” in which I examine how the features of screen stories can lead to viewer experiences with ethical implications. In response, I discuss three issues: medium specificity once more, the supposed tension between conceptions of the active and passive spectator, and the psychological underpinnings of various sorts of character engagement.

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Toward a Naturalized Aesthetics of Film Music

An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Intramusical and Extramusical Meaning

Timothy Justus

Abstract

In this article, I first address the question of how musical forms come to represent meaning—that is, the semantics of music—and illustrate an important conceptual distinction articulated by Leonard Meyer in Emotion and Meaning in Music between absolute or intramusical meaning and referential or extramusical meaning through a critical analysis of two recent films. Second, building examples of scholarship around a single piece of music frequently used in film—Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings—I follow the example set by Murray Smith in Film, Art, and the Third Culture and discuss the complementary approaches of the humanities, the behavioral sciences, and the natural sciences to understanding music and its use in film.

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Elemental Imagination and Film Experience

Climate Change and the Cinematic Ethics of Immersive Filmworlds

Ludo de Roo

Abstract

In an age of ecological disasters and increasing environmental crisis, the experience of any cinematic fiction has an intrinsic ethical potential to reorient the spectator's awareness of the ecological environment. The main argument is that the spectator's sensory-affective and emphatically involving experience of cinema is essentially rooted in what I call “elemental imagination.” This is to say, first, that the spectator becomes phenomenologically immersed with the projected filmworld by a cinematic expression of the elemental world, and second, much like there is no filmworld without landscapes, the foundational aspect of elements are revealed as preceding and sustaining the narrative and symbolic layers of film experience. While suggesting the existential-ethical potential of this fundamental process of film experience, the second aim of this article is to show that this form of elemental imagination complements more mainstream “environmentalist” films, such as climate change documentaries and blockbuster apocalyptic genre films.

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Grey Gardens and the Problem of Objectivity

Notes on the Ethics of Observational Documentary

Mathew Abbott

Abstract

This article turns to the Maysles brothers’ 1975 film Grey Gardens to problematize the philosophical assumptions at work in debates about objectivity and direct cinema. With a suitable picture of documentary objectivity we can avoid endorsing the claim that no film can be objective or the corollary that only documentaries that reflexively acknowledge the biases of their makers can succeed aesthetically or ethically. Against critics who have attacked Grey Gardens for its problematic claims to objectivity as well as theorists defending it for how it undermines objectivity, I argue that the film's objective treatment of its subjects is part of its aesthetic and ethical achievement. In the context of observational documentary, being objective does not mean taking a purely dispassionate stance toward one's subjects, but treating them without prejudice or moralism and letting them reveal themselves.

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Guest Editor's Introduction

Phenomenology Encounters Cognitivism

Robert Sinnerbrink

Abstract

Since the early 1990s, phenomenology and cognitivism have become influential strands of inquiry in film theory. Phenomenological approaches remain focused on descriptive accounts of the embodied subject's experiential engagement with film, whereas cognitivist approaches attempt to provide explanatory accounts in order to theorize cognitively relevant aspects of our experience of movies. Both approaches, however, are faced with certain challenges. Phenomenology remains a descriptive theory that turns speculative once it ventures to “explain” the phenomena upon which it focuses. Cognitivism deploys naturalistic explanatory theories that can risk reductively distorting the phenomena upon which it focuses by not having an adequate phenomenology of subjective experience. Phenomenology and cognitivism could work together, I suggest, to ground a pluralistic philosophy of film that is both descriptively rich and theoretically productive. From this perspective, we would be better placed to integrate the cultural and historical horizons of meaning that mediate our subjective experience of cinema.