Torben Grodal The Psychology of Flow

The film scholar who has most recently proposed an explanation of filmic emotions based on cognitive psychology research is Torben Grodal. Grodal's book Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings, and Cognitions 14 begins by investigating an enormous issue: the status of fictional representation itself. He provides a striking explanation for the philosophical conundrum of how we can respond emotionally to representations that are not "true" or "real" in a strict sense. Using cognitive research on brain architecture, Grodal argues that judging reality depends on the modularity of the mind, on the potential for parallel processing by separate function centers in the brain. He posits two systems: a more global system for evaluating the reality-status of phenomena and labeling them as "real" or "fictional," and a more local system for processing perceptions and activating responses. Mental representations of a fictional or a real object have the same "local reality" in the mind, but the global module that judges reality-status prevents us from mistaking the fictional for the real and also allows us to experience emotions evoked by the local simulations.15

Grodal provides a convincing model for the interrelationship between fiction, reality, and emotion, a broader issue than the ones explored in this book. Much more than Tan, he believes that the understanding of emotion used in film analysis should be congruent with current neuropsychological research into emotion. Grodal relies on studies of central and autonomic nervous system structure as key sources of insight into the emotion system structure. He emphasizes parallel processing and the interaction among separate mental modules as important principles for understanding emotional functioning.

In particular, Grodal asserts the importance of associations in the emotion system. For Grodal (and the mood-cue approach), words and images summon a host of sensations, ideas, motor simulations, and memories, opening up the possibility that film style can evoke emotion. Instead of simply "throwing away" stylistic information as we, the spectators, process a film's plot, these stylistic data remain in our enormous visual memory, where it can be worked on by the associative network. Based on a similar neurologically based conception of emotions, Grodal's system contains the seeds of a radical approach to analyzing film emotions - one that depends on stylistic cues of all kinds, not simply a person-oriented understanding of emotion.

Grodal does not create such a stylistically based approach, however. Because of certain other assumptions he makes, his system becomes very character oriented. Grodal turns away from the more radical potential of his emotion system because he believes in the primacy of identification.

Through the interaction of identification and empathy, the viewer "tries to construct the preferences, plans, and goals" of the character and "to assess the means and possibilities of implementing these plans and goals."16 By simulating a character's state through identification, we activate cognitive scripts concerning the character's motivations toward goal achievement. If we then empathize with that character, this activates the emotional experiences that correspond to the cognitive script.

How these characters pursue their goals is crucial to Grodal's typology of emotional modes of experience, and this typology is a primary product of his system. If the narration focuses on a goal-driven character who has active control of the fictional world, then we experience a mode of affect that Grodal calls "tense." Blocking those goals leads to a modality he calls "saturation," in which tension accumulates because it cannot be transformed into an action or motor tendency. Such saturation can occur when we are identified with the passive protagonist of the melodrama who is paralyzed into inaction. The difference between active and passive protagonists is critical in Grodal's classification of our filmic emotions, because this distinction leads to active or passive emotional simulation among viewers. As characters find blockages in their diegetic paths, we viewers also experience blockages in what Grodal calls the "downstream" processing of narrational "flow."

The key to Grodal's system is this model of "flow." According to Grodal, narrational flow normally progresses in a "downstream" manner from simpler to more complex processes, beginning with the encounter with the images themselves. Patterns of color, contrast, intensity, and so forth can create simple emotional responses such as surprise. Abstract avant-garde films do not provide representations for the flow model to process, and so in these films the viewer's emotional experience is blocked from progressing to the next more complex level, leaving the viewer to respond purely to the image patterning. In more representational media, the viewer moves downstream to the next level of the flow model, in which the viewer is encouraged to work over the associative linkages with the images. A lyrical nonnarrative music video may remain at this level, but traditional narrative films ask us to attain the next level: appraising actions and organizing them into narrational schemes, such as characters, motivations, and goals. In conjunction with identification, these narrational patterns create larger emotional reactions. The downstream direction of this flow model pushes the viewer toward these larger emotional responses, unless this flow is interrupted by blockages.

These blockages are not limited to diegetic obstacles. For instance, if a film shifts into slow motion, this postpones goal achievement and shifts us toward a more affectively charged perception of the images' sensations, which Grodal calls "lyrical." Whenever goals are blocked for the character through diegetic or nondiegetic means, the viewer's emotional experience flows into a different modal quality.

Grodal's system depends on a metaphor of fluidity. Whenever the downstream flow of the emotion process is blocked, the flow shifts toward another mode of emotional experience. For instance, because Double Indemnity begins by showing us the protagonist near death, the normal forward-looking (telic) love-crime narration is blocked. We already know what the outcome of the events will be (in all likelihood), thus short-circuiting the goal-oriented emphasis of its canonical narration. According to Grodal's hydraulic system of flow, this blockage redirects our emotional experience "upstream" toward saturation and lyricism and away from tension and suspense. Grodal's classification of films and their resulting emotional experiences depends on various kinds of blockages to the normal downstream flow processing.

Grodal's use of the terms "flow" and "blockage" gets a bit slippery. By using identification as one of his foundational concepts, he makes it easier for him to elide the differences between blocking a character's goal in the diegesis and a block within the viewer's own emotion system. Because of identification, blocking a character's goal necessarily blocks the normal processing flow of emotions in the viewer. These two "blockages" (one in the diegesis, one in the viewer) are not equivalent, although sharing the same label helps them seem interchangeable.

In Psycho, for instance, Grodal would be interested in the shift in iden-tificatory characters and the blockages that occur in accordance with these identifications. The film carefully positions us to empathize with Marion, and while her actions control the film (i.e, when she decides to steal the money), Psycho would be labeled "tense." Almost immediately fears of being caught enter Marion's mind, causing her to become less an active shaper of the story than a passive character dreading her imminent capture. Grodal would suggest that this would be a shift toward saturation mode, because the character's progress is being blocked. Then, surprisingly, our locus of identification is removed when Marion is killed. This is the most overwhelming of blockages; we can no longer identify with Marion as she lies cold on the bathroom floor. Grodal correctly notes that her death creates a "vacuum" in our identification, and there is only one person onstage to step into that vacuum: Norman Bates, a seemingly perverse choice for our empathy.17 The viewer is encouraged to identify with Norman as he carefully cleans the bloody bathroom. His unrestricted effectivity in the world again returns us to a tense modality, but then the film returns to saturation as blockages begin to occur in Norman's life. As Arbogast, Sam, and Lila close in on Norman and his mother, Norman's actions become constricted and nervous. Soon the film presents more morally acceptable figures for our identification; first, the detective Arbogast, and when he is killed, Marion's sister Lila. As they begin to tighten the noose around Norman, we identify with these characters who gain active control of the fictional world. Grodal's system is as character oriented as Carroll's or Tan's. Of the three, however, his is the system most closely linked to identification.

The primary advantage of this system of flow and blockages is that it helps Grodal to produce an array of labels for various emotional experiences, providing the terminology called for in the desiderata. Blockages of different types create the need for labels for the resulting emotional experiences, and Grodal creates a dizzying array of terms, for example, telic and paratelic enaction, tensities, and proximal and distal foci of attention. He attempts to provide a terminological system broad enough to describe the full range of filmic emotional experiences. In some sense, he is trying to provide an emotional equivalent to Metz's grand syntagmatique, providing a comprehensive model of emotional response. He creates a top-down classificatory system and then proceeds to carve up the corpus of film into genres and modalities.

The advantage of this system over the mood-cue approach is that it provides a more comprehensive set of terms to describe filmic emotions, as opposed to the bottom-up approach that I advocate in this book. A bottom-up approach may provide a less comprehensive picture of filmic emotions, but it has the advantage of remaining close to the surface of particular films. As the mood-cue approach encounters more and more films, it adds terminology rooted in the specific structures of particular films. Grodal's system of classification is better suited to describing film categories than individual films.

Grodal's emphasis on identification leads him to neglect the possibilities of the associative network. The associative stage of his flow model is placed at a rather low level of processing, a level that in most mainstream film viewing is quickly superseded by larger identificatory processes. Blocking the downstream goal-oriented process (as in melodrama or lyricism) can occasionally cause us to revert back to an emphasis on associations, but once the blockage is removed, the downstream pull of the system moves us toward larger emotion processes. Although Grodal ostensibly shares my emphasis on the power of associations in the emotion system, his person-oriented understanding of filmic emotions shifts his true emphasis onto character-oriented film analysis.

Briefly considered, the mood-cue approach to Psycho would emphasize some of the same emotional factors that Grodal's, Tan's, and Carroll's systems do, but it would also foreground other crucial factors neglected by the others. Like Grodal's system, the mood-cue approach would be interested in explaining the switching of audience sympathies from Marion to Norman to

Arbogast to Lila, but the approach would explore both character traits and stylistic means of establishing these allegiances. In the first scene, Marion is given a somewhat acceptable motivation for her behavior that will help ease audiences into identifying with her. The same scene is characterized by fairly standard conversational editing, except for one notable long take in which the moving camera follows Marion down to the bed and then up again as she moves through the cheap hotel room. This viscerally involving camera movement following the character moving through space is an important stylistic marker of her centrality to the narrative.

This device is particularly important because it is rarely used in Psycho and marks each switch of identificatory character in the film. When the film switches its locus of identification to Bates, it does so (as Grodal argues) because there is no one else to identify with. It also marks the switch by an extraordinarily mundane sequence of action. After the shower scene, we see a drawn-out series of scenes of the details of Norman cleaning up the mess. He washes his hands, mops the tub inside and out, towels the walls and floor, repacks the car, opens the trunk, wraps the corpse in the shower curtain, and places it in the trunk. Following Bates as he moves through the hotel room marks him as the new locus of identification. Similarly, we follow Arbogast with a moving camera as he searches through the Bates Motel, and later we do the same for Lila as she snoops around the motel and the Bates home. The mood-cue approach suggests that early moments in a film alert us to crucial patterns in shaping our emotional response, and those patterns can be character oriented or stylistic (such as the moving-camera long take in the film's initial scene).

Like Tan, the mood-cue approach would be interested in explaining how emotion episodes are established, labeled, and sustained in Psycho. My approach would not place its sole emphasis on an understanding of character motivations and goals, although these are important. The mood-cue approach looks for a series of mood-congruent cues to establish and sustain a Hitchcockian level of suspense. The film's dialogue interrogations (both real and imagined) are just as crucial in cuing a "fear of exposure" reaction as are the characters' motivations and goals.

After Marion steals the money, the film encourages us to worry with her by giving us repeated access to her own paranoid thought processes. While driving, she imagines an involved series of conversations in which her office coworkers and family members discover that she has taken the money. We see her jumpy behavior as she is stopped by a policeman. He grills her, and we wince as she acts suspiciously nervous throughout this interrogation. We watch him shadow her, worried that her suspicious activities will result in her arrest. This repeated process of concentrated dialogue (imagined and real) uncovering the facts contributes to our fears for Marion as much as any other factor.

We see this same stylistic technique at work when Arbogast pumps Bates for information. We wince as Bates is caught again and again in self-contradictory answers and suspiciously nervous behaviors. He initially refuses to look at the picture of Marion; he then says he never saw her but later admits to seeing her; he says no one has been at the hotel for weeks but then blurts out that a couple was there last week; he says that he doesn't use the hotel register but Marion's handwriting has been recently entered. These interrogations are crucial for establishing and sustaining a tense fear that Norman will be found out. These repeated emotion cues are just as important in evoking emotion as the broader structures of character, motivation, and goals.

Any theorist inherits certain assumptions about emotions from the research, theories, and methodologies they favor. Carroll, Tan, and Grodal all chose concepts of emotion that are rooted in human agents, which prejudices them toward character-oriented explanations of filmic emotions. But by paying as close attention to style as it does to character, the mood-cue approach is much more capable of satisfying the desideratum for an approach that analyzes the full range of cinematic signification than Carroll's, Tan's, or Grodal's models.

part two

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