Ed Tan The Psychology of Interest and Action

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The mood-cue approach places most of its faith in the work done in the other cognitivist camp: cognitive psychology. Ed Tan in Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine10 shares my faith in the empirical work of cognitive psychologists. Instead of attempting to synthesize a range of psychological research into emotion, however, he chooses the work of a single psychologist (Nico Frijda) as the basis of his account of filmic emotions. One can hardly fault Tan for his choice of theorists. Frijda's work synthesizes much other emotion research and is comprehensive enough to cover a wide range of emotional experience. His theories generate "laws" of how emotions work, which can be usefully used to produce specific hypotheses. Frijda takes a more "humanistic" approach to the psychology of emotion, emphasizing larger cognitive structures and processes over the minute workings of subprocesses, making his work more straightforwardly applicable to the humanities. The danger of relying so heavily on one theorist, even one as integrative as Frijda's, is that one can leave out significant factors that are better dealt with by other researchers.

Tan asserts that the central emotional mechanism in film viewing is "interest." Interest induces us to investigate the film and discover more about the diegetic world it presents. It encourages us to anticipate possible future events in the narrative, which engages us more strongly in the story. Interest fluctuates over the course of a film; it is a temporal phenomenon. A canonical narrative film promises to reward our interest with narrative payoffs, such as the resolution of open plot questions. For Tan, interest guides both our cognitive and emotion processing of narrative information.

Although Tan's system emphasizes the importance of interest, my system emphasizes mood. At first glance, these concepts seem to be similar. Both mood and interest provide an overall emotional orientation toward the text and encourage the viewer to peruse the text and search for further emotion cues. Both mood and interest are structures that provide unity for the emotional experience. In fact, Tan even points out that mood in film helps produce this unity of emotional response.11 But for Tan mood is a mere by-product of the more central process of interest. To understand the distinction, we need to examine Tan's definition of the emotions.

Tan follows Frijda in asserting that emotions are action tendencies, and so for Tan, interest encourages us to perform certain actions: it leads us to examine the text closely and to anticipate what will happen next. In the movie theater, we engage in the actions that are appropriate to interest; we do not act in ways inspired by the emotions we feel concerning characters. Pity or anger at characters only create virtual action tendencies. We do not attempt physical harm on film characters when they make us angry, and so these emotions are not given full expression. But we do fully engage in the actions called for by the emotion of interest.12 We do investigate the film and scrutinize it for further emotional data. If action tendencies are crucial to the definition of emotion (as they are for Tan and Frijda), then actual action tendencies (such as those caused by interest in the film) are more important than virtual ones. This is why Tan emphasizes interest as the primary filmic emotion.

This distinction between Tan's understanding of emotion and my own is crucial. Because emotions for Tan are necessarily action tendencies, he can confine his analysis to those filmic elements that best fit this conception: characters and narratively significant actions.

According to Tan, the two elements that largely determine the way a particular film shapes our interest are action or plot structures (which he calls thematic structures) and character structures (including empathy, sympathy, admiration, and compassion). "Themes" are scenarios that guide our expectations concerning character actions, motivations, and possible narrative outcomes. Common themes include betrayal, self-sacrifice, and deceit. Psychos shower scene, for instance, activates the theme of "punishment"13 by doing violence to an embezzler on the run from the law. A "retaliation" thematic structure would involve a malicious act that causes a loss, prompting a character to retaliate by committing a vicious act in return. The script for such themes is composed of smaller plot units, which are the major plot landmarks, such as successes, losses, and malicious acts.

Tan's detailed analysis of the structure of plot episodes allows him to model how viewers take in narrative information one piece at a time and assemble this into cohesive emotional scenarios. For instance, in the Danish short feature Straf (Punishment), we see a girl maliciously destroy her father's beloved violin, and then the father discovers the wreckage. These plot events summon the retaliation scenario, which then leads us to expect that the father will punish the girl. Tan breaks down the short film Straf into elementary events that are the components of the plot. Events include "Marjan goes into her father's room and destroys his violin," "Marjan and Robbie sit down to play the piano," and "Marjan waits in suspense in the kitchen." Tan tested subjects who had seen the film to determine that the "retaliation" theme was conveyed to the audience. Guided by their feedback concerning which scenes were most salient, Tan plotted the course of rising and falling interest over the course of the film. In this way, Tan was able to differentiate between scenes that contributed to interest in the film's "foreground" (the story of retaliation between Marjan and her father) and those that primarily contributed to the "background." Tan parses through films, tracing the ebb and flow of viewer interest based on the diegetic events in the films, noticing how certain plot events raise and confirm viewer hypotheses about what will happen next.

Although Tan notes the possibility of nonempathetic emotions, his account of the viewer's emotional experience centers on our empathy with the characters. Differences in our understandings of characters become key for Tan because they yield differences in our emotional responses. For example, empathy toward a weak character creates compassion; empathy toward a strong character creates admiration. Depending on whether we consider Lila or Marion or Norman to be strong or weak has significant bearing on the quality of our empathy with them and the emotional experiences we have in watching Psycho.

If Tan were to apply his system to Psycho, he would examine the film using a very different approach from Carroll's. He would organize the film into "themes" that provide a cohesive structure for interpreting character actions as emotion episodes. He would pay attention to how our changing knowledge about characters' motivations affects our allegiances with them and our interpretations of their actions. Much of Psycho revolves around a central theme of fear of discovery. Will Marion be caught for embezzlement, and will Norman's mother's crimes be discovered? What changes during the course of the film is which character is the potential discoverer and which character is on the verge of exposure. Tan would note that Psychos first order of business is to establish a sympathetic motivation for Marion's behavior. She needs the money so that she can marry Sam and become respectable. Establishing a relatively acceptable motivation for her embezzlement inflects our fears of her imminent capture; she has entered a life of crime for somewhat respectable reasons.

On the other hand, when the film organizes itself around the question of whether Norman and his mother will be captured and exposed, it denies us knowledge of a similarly benign motivation for their actions. Norman's mother (we are told) seems to kill Marion out of jealousy for her son's affections or out of an overprotective urge to keep him from loose women. Although the film pursues the same theme (fear of discovery), it does so from very different emotional perspectives.

Tan might also note how the information we have on the various investigators alters the emotional equation. When Arbogast investigates Marion's disappearance at the Bates Motel, his actions appear to be motivated by a desire for a paycheck. When Lila, Marion's sister, takes over the investigation, her more personal motivations lend a special urgency to the process of discovery. The narrative information we are made privvy to concerning the various characters' motivations changes our emotional alliances within the theme that remains primary throughout the film.

Tan's system yields hypotheses that are specific enough to be tested on actual viewers, and this is a significant achievement in understanding how the emotional appeals operate. Nonetheless, although his structural analysis gives us specific ways to talk about character goals, motivations, and plot events, it provides no guidance concerning how to talk about emotion cues that are not character oriented. In addition, "interest" maybe a convincing explanation for the overall appeal of the cinema, but as an explanatory device for the emotional appeal of particular film texts, the central concept of interest does not encourage the critic to examine nonprototypical cues.

Relying on a single researcher's theories gives Tan's account of cinematic emotions more internal coherence than mine. Frijda is not overly concerned with the new research in the neuropsychology of emotions, and this allows him to provide an explanation that is highly systematic. For instance, Frijda (and Tan) assert the functionality of emotions, and this helps lend their account strong coherence; but this finding is not borne out in lower-level empirical research. When one examines the full range of recent psychological research on emotion, Frijda's explanation seems to be an articulation of emotion prototypes.

Frijda is the cognitive psychologist who has provided perhaps the most innovative articulation of higher-level emotion processes. He posits numerous "laws" that emotions have to follow, and these "laws" are extraordinarily useful in producing verifiable experimental hypotheses. But Frijda's explanation of emotions (although among the most comprehensive) has a "top-down" flavor that makes me uncomfortable. As cognitive psychology takes up the question of the emotions, an emphasis on the "bottom-up" mi-croprocesses being examined by neuropsychology keeps us from relying too heavily on our own preconceived notions of what "laws" emotions should follow. My account of the emotion system is significantly "messier" than Tan's. Synthesizing a broader range of research forces me to use a complex model of emotional functioning (the associative network), but I believe that this produces a more subtle description of the emotion system.

Tan's methodology is strongest where mine is weakest. Because he is dealing with actual subjects, he can confidently label emotion states elicited by films because he has empirical data from real viewers. He need not wonder about whether a film's emotional appeal is primarily "fearsome" or "sus-penseful" because he can easily ascertain which label his subjects use to describe the cinematic emotion. His approach goes further toward satisfying the desideratum concerning specific emotion terminology than my textually based approach possibly can. Tan's methodology is weakest where mine is strongest, however. His functionalist system remains tied to evaluating character-oriented behaviors (ascertaining character motivation, etc.), and it is less helpful in discussing the microprocesses of film narration. As Hollywood blockbusters continue to accentuate spectacular special effects and intricate soundtracks over nuanced characterization and classical wellmade narrative organization, film criticism should not embrace an understanding of emotion that is rooted solely in character and plot.

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