Attention, Blending, and Suspense in Classic and Experimental Film
BLENDING AND THE STUDY OF NARRATIVE, Narratologia Series, Ralf Schneider & Marcus Hartner, eds., Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2010
21 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2009
Date Written: November 25, 2009
Alfred Hitchcock claimed that suspense arises when viewers have - or believe that they have - privileged information about a forthcoming undesirable event and are powerless to intervene. In Hitchcock’s canonical formulation, then, suspense is a function of information management and audience anticipation. Cognitive approaches follow this line of reasoning, and thus the cognitive literature on suspense has thus been especially concerned what is sometimes called the “paradox of suspense” or the “anomalous experience of suspense”: if suspense involves uncertainty, why should people feel suspense when they know what’s about to happen? In the present study, we think the explanation lies in another aspect of suspense that Hitchcock alludes to but never develops in his own account: namely, the extent to which its suspense seems to be the product specifically of social cognition. That is, it is not merely a matter of tracking information about a sequence of events, but of processing and applying social information, managing multiple perspectives, and ascribing mental states to real and imagined participants in the narrative scene. To explain how suspense emerges from the interaction of narrative conventions and our natural cognitive responses, we will need to look at the contributions of two important cognitive systems that underlie the construction of meaning: (1) joint attention, in which two or more people are both focused on an external object and mutually aware of this shared focus; and (2) conceptual integration, in which elements and vital relations are selectively projected from multiple inputs, and processes of composition, completion, and elaboration give rise to new emergent structure in the blend. Each without the other fails to provide an adequate cognitive model of the phenomenon of suspense as it plays out in real time. Suspense is a product of manipulations of blended joint attentional scenarios. Filmic conventions generate suspense by constructing triangles of joint attention in which the intentions of the filmmaker, or the camera-eye, overtly overpower the agency of the viewer. They engage our natural systems for social cognition while frustrating our desire to complete the joint attentional triangle. We use this model for the analysis of two classic Hollywood films, Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) and Wells's Touch of Evil (1958), and one experimental film, Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967).
Keywords: Film, Suspense, Hitchcock, Wells, Snow, Joint Attention, Mental Spaces, Blending and Conceptual Integration, Filmic Conventions
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