Digital visual effects bridge art and science in ways that have expanded the expressive tools available to filmmakers. Digital imaging also has enlarged a domain for realism in cinema based on indexical and perceptual factors. Examining these factors, the article questions the visual skepticism that often surrounds discussion of visual effects in film studies. A conjunction of art and science has characterized cinema throughout its history, especially in the era of “philosophical toys” from which the medium originated. The article examines that era in light of what it suggests about digital imaging today and the aesthetic forms that it enables.
When Sam Peckinpah turned over his raw footage for Ride the High Country
(1962) to the MGM studio editor, she declared that the material he had filmed
for the final gunfight was incompetent and that it could not be edited together
in a coherent way. Viewed today, the scene does not seem especially
transgressive in its treatment of continuity, but in that earlier period when
studio editing rules were more conservative, Peckinpah’s disregard for standardized
camera set-ups and conventional coverage perplexed and infuriated
As it developed, cinema gained in popularity by offering pleasures that viewers found easy to experience and understand. Faced with an uncommonly vivid and accessible medium, moviegoers responded enthusiastically to comedies and dramas, and filmmakers learned to craft stories and characters and to design images and image transitions that made intuitive sense and that sustained the fictional worlds on screen and the pleasures engendered by an immersive visual experience.
This issue of Projections focuses on movie violence, a topic of continuing controversy. Concerns about screen violence are not new. Because of their visceral power, popular appeal, and the seeming ease with which they bypassed established channels and norms of socialization, movies swiftly drew the attention and scorn of social critics and reformers. The city of Chicago passed the nation’s first movie censorship ordinance in 1907. Numerous state and municipal censor boards were established in its wake, and movie violence drove the first court-adjudicated censorship case in American film history. The James Boys in Missouri (1908) and Night Riders (1908) were Westerns that Chicago authorities deemed to be immoral because they concentrated on showing the exploits of violent outlaws. The Chicago reformers felt that the films lacked an appropriate moral balance in failing to devote sufficient attention to law-abiding characters.
The journal’s subtitle—“movies and mind”—points to the intersection of cinema and its viewers. Although it works in foreseeable ways, mind is not a machine. Its constituents include the unique sets of circumstances that define a person; thus there are many routes to revealing the intersection of movies and mind.
This issue of Projections ranges across the avant-garde cinema, tear-jerking melodramas, the nature of historical trauma, and narratives that assume playful, game-like formats and that may be found in title sequences and trailers.
The topic of violence in moving image media has retained its salience and controversies over several decades, and Stuart Bender returns our interest to the subject in his analysis of depictions of war violence in movies and video games. Bender is a working filmmaker as well as a scholar and university educator. This combination of skill sets enables him to blend a filmmaker’s attention to the craft of creating moving images with a scholar’s attention to the historical, theoretical, and cultural contexts in which moving images circulate and are produced. He is interested in why viewers describe certain depictions as being realistic even under circumstances in which various elements of cinematic style take those depictions away from the known contexts where battlefield violence occurs. He compares Hollywood films from the classical and modern eras with video games in order to advance a conception of realism based on viewers’ perceptions of the accretion of detail within the surface design of shots and scenes. He situates what he terms “reported realism” with reference to existing traditions of realist theory in cinema.
As the subtitle of the journal indicates, the intersection of movies and mind is a key theme of our coverage. First up in this issue is Jeffrey Zacks’s wide-ranging discussion of how our brains process the sights and sounds of motion pictures. He gives us a précis of his new book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, which aims to introduce a wide audience to the psychology and neuroscience that underlie our experience of motion pictures. He discusses the ways viewers parse narratives and build models of story events, perceive shot changes,
respond emotionally to fictional situations, and recall filmic information, and he ends by speculating about the future of virtual entertainment. In some not-too-distant future, will movies jack directly into our central nervous system? The readership of Projections is a key constituency of the research that guides Zacks’s discussion. His contribution differs a little from our usual style. Because it derives from a book that he has aimed at a broad audience, the tone of the writing is a bit more informal than is the norm in scholarly venues. Our readers should find the discussion both lively and fascinating. I am grateful to Jeff for providing us with this overview of his work.
If people generally do a poor job of recognizing liars, it is interesting that so many movies employ deceptive characters. Duplicity and prevarication are common plot devices whereby scheming characters maneuver to get their way. Such movies often rely on viewers’ abilities to recognize the deception at hand. Does this represent a disconnect between movies and life, with viewers tasked in one arena with a skill set that doesn’t seem to function well in the other?
David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film is one of the groundbreaking books in film and narrative theory, and it has been thirty years since its original publication. We begin this issue with a symposium marking that book’s importance for the field. Scholars from cognitive science, literature, philosophy, and film studies assess the book’s impact. Its author, David Bordwell, replies to their remarks and shares his contemporary perspective on the book. I thank the participants in this symposium and especially Malcolm Turvey for his efforts to organize it.