Perception and Cinema

Hugo N. Santander
American University Central Asia


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1. The flaws of perception

The unreliable relationship between cause and effect constitutes the cornerstone of human perception. I hear a voice calling me, and as I turn around I see a woman; two separate facts that my mind unifies in order to establish a third meaning: a woman has called me. 'It is sufficient to observe, that there is no relation, which produces a stronger connection in the fancy, and makes one idea more readily recall another, than the relation of cause and effect betwixt their objects'1. I am in the right to ask myself, however, whether I am called by the woman I see or by someone else-a reasonable doubt confirmed or dissipated by further certainty.

As perceptive entities we are subject to continuous error. Movement itself is an illusion grounded on causality: 'For as that action or motion is nothing but the object itself, considered in a certain light, and as the object continues the same in all its different situations, 'tis easy to imagine how such an influence of objects upon one another may connect them in the imagination.'2 By the end of the 19th century the makers of cinema had exposed the mechanisms of movement. Each instant in time is, in fact, subdivided ad infinitum. Our senses, nonetheless, reject absolute perception (a process that would stagnate us in the universe of a given instant) to select twenty-four frames or still instants, per second. Film, as our senses, dissects eternity.

Georges Méliès was not only the first great filmmaker, but also the president of the Chambre Syndicale des Artistes Illusionistes from 1895 to 1935. Voyage dans la lune (1902) (A Trip to the Moon) stages a sidereal journey through anthropomorphic planets and constellations, and an attack against its voyagers by an army of moon inhabitants. Méliés' reputation is indisputable: Louis Lumière and René Clair considered him the inventor of cinematic spectacle; Henri Langlois, the first auteur; Georges Sadoul, the father of the art film. Méliés' cinema exposed albeit his own artistry, the flaws of perception.

Years later a filmmaker and professor of the First State Film School in Moscow, Lev Kuleshov, studied the possibilities and limitations of causality. The 'Kuleshov effect' involves a long close-up of the expressionless face of the actor Ivan Mazouchin, undercut with shots of a bowl of steaming soup, a woman in a coffin, and a child playing with a toy bear. «The public raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked at the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.»3 Kuleshov proved that two shots projected in succession are not interpreted separately by the viewer; in the audience's mind, they are integrated into a whole. His effect can be expressed by the equation A + B = C, in which A and B are independent images.

In 1924 Eisenstein valued post-production over the previous stages of filmmaking. Well aware of the flaws of perception, Eisenstein relied on the dialectics of editing. But by stretching the boundaries of perception, he unwillingly opened the gates to propaganda. The greatest rhetorical film of the twentieth century is not Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (1935) (Triumph of the Will,) but Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potemkin (1925) (Battleship Potemkin.) Commissioned by the committee set up to coordinate celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 revolution, Eisenstein portrayed a State that mistreats soldiers and children. But the raise of the marble lion -the greatest achievement of communist propaganda, only occurs after the spectator has witnessed the shooting of a defenseless woman carrying her dead son, and the fall of an ownerless baby carriage bouncing down the Odessa steps. Riefenstahl, by contrast, glorifies technology, discipline and water games. Her images are not compelling, but imposing. The representation of Hitler as the leader of hygienic men was intended to suppress, rather than to seduce, dissent. Although the mise-en-scène of Berta Helene Amalia Riefenstahl became the dim reality of Nazi Germany, indignation against the powerful proved to be more effective than sympathy towards the willful.

Men and animals perceive, but only men recreate perception. The book is the only media that requires the active complicity of its reader. The written narration of the fall of Constantinople by Edward Gibbon is far more compelling than the invasion of Normandy by Steven Spielberg. Shakespeare's Macbeth preserves its hierarchy over the violent sequences of Kurosawa's Kumonosu-jo (1957) (Throne of Blood.) With the end of silent cinema, mainstream filmmaking has impoverished not only our imagination, but also our power of reflection.

As causality relies on two events logically independent, perception is articulated as a riddle. I hear a sound. I perceive. But such perception remains suspended until I question my mind about its meaning. Henri hears a noise. Wonder breaks through and Henri formulates a wordless riddle to his mind. «It thunders,» he concludes. A unit of perception is established. «Will it rain?» Any question triggers a second question, this one of a third one, and so on. What keeps the dynamics of this process is our sense of admiration, the qaumazos, in an unpredictable world. As our mind longs for understanding, we are subjects to the why and to the what for. An epistemological conflict arises. Without an immediate answer we endure suspense; each question burns in our mind until it finds its answer: true or false.

One of the characters of Eugène Ionesco claims in Victimes du Devoir: 'All the plays written by men, from antiquity until now, have been but detective stories. Theater has been but a realistic stage of detective plots... There is an enigma that is revealed to us in the last scene.'4

Ionesco praises or satirizes the writers who structure their work around a main conflict. As a playwright he clearly understood that the foundations of a dramatic play are laid on a given question. Hamlet might be considered a treatise on psychology and suicide, but anterior to these didactic interpretations, it is perceived as the story of a man who wants to murder his stepfather.


2. Conflict and narration

Conflict is the unit of narration. A drama is a chain of conflictive actions. Each conflict articulates an event, a why and a what for. The most celebrated tragedies, dramas or novels rouse the curiosity of the viewer/reader from its onset. A conflict is presented, generating suspense and expectation. Oedipus Rex starts with an urban calamity: the pest spreads out in Thebes. Why? What for? This unsolved conflict is soon bypassed and replaced by Teresias' humiliation. Before staging Yocasta's suicide, Sophocles induces the audience to wonder about the fate of a blind seer.

Conflict relies on an unknown motivation and an unexpected outcome. Its dynamic develops as the screenwriter articulates several possible causes and consequences. Truffaut's Les 400 Coups (1958) (The 400 Blows) portrays a youngster, Antoine Doinel, who lies to his mother, his stepfather and his tutor.

Diagram 1. The conflict A rouses several possible outcomes

Spectators try to solve the riddle articulated by this conflict. Its resolution happens almost immediately, when Antoine's mother discovers him on the street, but then it is replaced by a new conflict: the boy realizes that his mother has a lover.

Diagram 2. The conflict B rouses several possible outcomes

As the film rolls on we also understand the causes of each particular conflict. When Antoine lies to his mentors, he reacts against a history of lack of affection and misunderstanding. New conflicts arise, and new series of possible outcomes, all built up in the mind of the spectator as the film unfolds. When the school director chides him, the outcome seems to be his reclusion in the reformatory; when the mother embraces him, their reconciliation. His escape and his precipitated arrival to the beach become an unexpected albeit believable, aftermath.

Although perception is common to all humanity, wonder is conditioned by education, ideology and will. Thunderstorms were a widespread cause of anxiety amongst women and men before Ben Franklin devised the lighting rod. Lumière's Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat had Parisian audiences at the Grand Café jumping back from the screen as the train move forward.

We also become more or less interested on a film according to our disposition. Boredom is a result of frustrated perception: a spectator finds the conflicts of a film either too easy or too difficult to follow. Without a question mark our senses get stifled.


3. Close conflicts

Conflicts are close, cryptic or open.

Close conflicts have a sequential beginning, middle and end. In the main conflict of De Sica's La Ciociara (Two Women, 1960), Sophia Loren and her daughter start their way back to their native village in wartime Italy; danger increases along their journey, until both mother and daughter are raped by marauding Moroccan troops. In Dreyer's Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath, 1943) Anne falls in love with her stepson. When her decrepit husband dies, her community accuses her of witchcraft. She confesses and is sentenced to death. In Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), a depressed Marlon Brando clings to the love of a young woman, who by rejecting him prompts unwillingly his self-destruction.

Close conflicts are complaisant; they satisfy the imperatives of our understanding. A mystery is formulated, and as the plot evolves audiences experience a variety of emotions. A timely answer releases spectators from the burden of doubt. Aristotle, who rightly understood the hedonistic nature of conflict, reduced drama to the representation of a single close conflict: «Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude… A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.»5 But single staged conflicts without attached subconflicts, lasts hardly ten minutes. The Greek philosopher longed for a unity that no tragedy-not even Oedipus Rex-fulfills satisfactorily. Any theater play is a warp of conflicts of greater or lesser importance.

Based on a short novel by Ernst Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock masterly wove two main close conflicts in Psycho (1960).

 Conflict I
           Marion Crane
Conflict II
           Norman Bates
Cause Marion steals $40,000 in Phoenix, Arizona Norman protects her dominant mother
Event She tries to escape to California His mother murders a woman
Aftermath She is murdered Norman is caught

The chronological structure of the script heightens dramatic tension. Joseph Stefano turned the discontinuous narration of Robert Bloch into a relentless story of survival: «When I first met with Hitchcock I pitched that whole opening sequence of the movie, the first 25 minutes or so. My idea was to base the film around the character of Marion Crane - you like her, you want her to get away from the highway patrol, you want her to steal the money, and then take it back.»6

Whereas the first chapter of the novel narrates the conflictive relationship between Norman Bates and his mother, Stefano opens with a hectic city landscape:


Above Midtown section of the city. It is early afternoon, a hot mid-summer day. The city is sun-blanched white and its drifted-up noises are muted in their own echoes. We fly low, heading in a downtown direction, passing over traffic-clogged streets, parking lots, white business buildings, neatly patterned residential districts. As we approach downtown section, the character of the city begins to change. It is darker and shabby with age and industry. We see railroad tracks, smokestacks, wholesale fruit-and-vegetable markets, old municipal buildings, empty lots. The very geography seems to give us a climate of nefariousness, of back-doorness, dark and shadowy. And secret

We fly lower and faster now, as if seeking out a specific location. A skinny, high old hotel comes into view… We move forward with purposefulness towards a certain window.7

Reflecting the Norman Bates' voyeurism, the viewer is introduced into a small hotel room, where Mary Crane and Sam Lewis discuss their future. Pressed by economic hardship, she succumbs to the temptation of forty thousand dollars entrusted to her boss by a client. For about forty minutes we accompany Mary in her desperate escape to California. After a series of paranoid encounters with a police officer, she stops for the night at an isolated motel ran by Norman Bates, a nervous young man dominated by her decrepit mother. Minutes later she is stabbed to death with a knife.

Robert Bloch introduces Marion Crane on the second chapter of his novel: «The rain had been falling steadily for several minutes before Mary notices it and switched on the windshield wiper… The worst part had come yesterday afternoon, when she stole the money.»8 Whereas the reader reconstructs the story through flashbacks and coincidences and memory recollections, Hitchcock's viewer is forced to experience chronologically her agony and death. As the identity of Marion's murderer is only revealed at the end of the film, Psycho was released with strict instructions that no one be allowed into the theater after the show had started. The elaborated close-conflict narrative of Psycho, prompted Hitchcock himself to described his masterpiece as 'using pure cinema to cause the audience to emote,'


4. Cryptic conflicts

A close conflict presented in a non-linear sequence is a cryptic conflict. As ordinary perception is challenged, the spectator picks up scattered pieces of information, which he/she reorganizes in his mind according to a chronological principle of beginning, middle and end.

Bertolucci make use of a cryptic conflict in 1900 (1976), in order to question the moral and cultural sympathies of the viewer. The film opens with the slaughter of a couple by a host of peasants. What appears to be an act of injustice is slowly turned into an act of revenge-dramatically justified by the abuses perpetrated by Donald Sutherland.

The most celebrated cryptic conflict in the history of cinema has been contrived by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941). A tycoon dies muttering the word 'rosebud'. A chronological newsreel on his life is screened in a small room. The newsreel director, visibly unsatisfied with his work, orders to one of his reporters to find out the relationship between 'rosebud' and Kane. He believes that by solving this puzzle the identity of Kane will come out to the light. As the rest of the film rolls, the audience reconstructs the life of Kane based on the recollections of five people who knew Kane closely. Although the reporter confesses his failure by the end of the film, a panning camera reveals the answer to the audience. As we watch the destruction of Kane's old furniture, we recognize the sled he had used as a boy. The sled is thrown into the furnace and the camera catches for a couple of seconds a word painted on its side: 'Rosebud'. The film concludes with the sign we saw at the beginning of the film: 'No Trespassing.'

Although Citizen Kane emulates the theme, lighting and structure of William K. Howard's The Power and the Glory (1933,) Welles' Opera Prima is far more complex than its predecessor. As in The Trial (1969), Welles turns the structure of the film into a maze. As J.L. Borges rightly understood, the mystery of 'Rosebud' becomes a secondary conflict: Kane's sled is burnt as rubbish. Although the reporter confesses his failure to his director, he-as any spectator, becomes aware of the complexity of a man. Kane's betrayed childhood, his optimistic youth and his bereaved adulthood linger in the mind as traces of a more mysterious character. The fact that Kane is a selfish, a manipulating and a revengeful man, makes him even more interesting. By approaching life as a metaphysical subject, Welles-as Homer, as Cervantes, as Shakespeare, portrays a character out of his eternity.

The complexity of Citizen Kane contrasts with the artificiality of contemporary cinema. Films such as Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994), Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997,) Ritchie's Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Francois Girard's The Red Violin (1999) can be edited chronologically without altering their dramatic content.


5. Open conflicts

A prominent student of Kuleshov, Serguei Eisenstein, formulated his own editing principles in 1924. The 'Montage of Attractions' juxtaposes non-chronological images in order to produce a psychological impact. Anticipating the open manifestations of cinema, Eisenstein replaces the rigid laws of visual continuity for the almost unexplored principle of associate imagery. A celebrated sequence of Oktiabr (October, 1928) juxtaposes the images of Aleksandr Kerensky and a mechanical peacock. The head and open tail of the automata, interposed to Kerensky's wagging in the Winter Palace, produces one of the most fortunate cinematographic metaphors of bureaucracy. In spite of its originality, Oktiabr was coldly received by the Soviet Press. By directing a subjective, abstract and intellectual film, Eisenstein opened the negative dialectics of Bronenosets Potemkin:

Eisenstein's cinema is however a moderate example of his theory. The juxtaposition of a bird and a man in uniform is never manipulative, but didactic. True, by dissociating perception from understanding, viewers are compelled to reflect on the political conditions of pre-communists Russian, but their reflection is predetermined by parody by the exaggerated struts of Kerensky. Working under the stern creed of communism, Eisenstein was forced to caricaturize the main characters of his films.

Open conflicts are unfinished conflicts. In Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon long for Godot to show up to his appointment. By the end of the first act, when it has become clear that Godot won't come, they question Godot's intentions and their own existence. A warp of open conflicts, Waiting for Godot is widely perceived as a modern oracular play.9

A film with unresolved riddles is open to diverse and personal interpretations: «I think a good film is one that has a lasting power. That you start to reconstruct of deconstruct in your head when you leave the cinema»10. The screenwriter deliberately hides or blurs the main event of a given conflict, or its causes and/or effects. Buñuel's Le Chien Andaloux (1929) (An Andalusian Dog,) renders divergent interpretations. The shot of a man hauling a piano, two decaying donkeys and a couple of priests with a rope has been understood as a metaphor of the burden of morality, but also as a parable of the ennui generated by an absent morality. The main characters of Alan Resnais' L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (1961) (Last Year at Marienbad) are-like the comic characters of Ionesco's theatre play La cantatrice chauve (The Bald Soprano) (1949)-unable to recognize themselves. Alain Robbe-Grillet, its screenwriter, deliberately undermined the comprehensibility of his manuscript in order to emphasize style: «The spectator that looks to build a 'Cartesian' scheme, the more linear, the more rational; this spectator will find difficult this film… But who allows himself to be taken away by the extraordinary images he sees, by the voice of the actors, by the noises, by the music, by the rhythm of montage… he will find the story the more faithful to reality.»11

Gilles Deleuze formulated a cinema of time, opposed to a cinema of movement. Without underestimating his work, I content that Deleuze analyzed each film as a unity. As Aristotle, Deleuze failed to recognize each dramatic work as a blend of conflicts. As long as screenwriters wave open, cryptic and/or close conflicts in a screenplay, any absolute categorization of cinema would be doomed to failure.


6. Passive and active conflicts

All cryptic and open conflicts are passive. Close conflicts can be passive or active. Passive when they appeal primarily to our intellect, that is, when the require of the active participation of the viewer -as in the postcard sequence in Buñuel's Le Fantôme de la liberté (Phantom of Liberty, 1974), or as the retelling of the crime in Kurosawa's Rashamon (1950). Active conflicts appeal primarily to our senses-as in the rape sequence of Buñuel's Viridiana (1961), or as in the final battle in Kurosawa's Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954). The popularity of directors such as Buñuel and Kurosawa relies on their craft to contrive passive and active conflicts in a single film.

Mainstream filmmaking recreates active conflicts. Its themes are violence and copulation. Sex, revenge and gain are confronted with rejection, death and defeat. Their variations are predictable: a man or a family must punish his/their enemy, a youngster must win a sport contest, a hygienic model must seduce a bony girl. They are popularly recognized as happy or sad: happy when they conform to their predictability, that is, when the hero or the family succeeds; sad when they do not.

Commercial cinema is pointlessly entertaining. Our senses are enticed by the powers of the hero, the restless chases of monsters and paladins, and family misunderstandings. Spectators are enraptured by acts of survival that justify the selfishness and violence of the main characters. Our first concern is not the verisimilitude or the ideology of the film, but the salvation of the hero. We become hostages- as the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has pointed out: «There are films that nail you to your seat and overwhelmed you to the point that you forget about everything. Then you feel cheated.»12

Bertold Brecht longed for theatre audiences able to dissociate his ideas from the pleasant illusions of a play. The average spectator is, as a matter of fact, a victim of repetition. His/her senses are numbed by mainstream filmmaking and TV gossips on a daily basis. «Serious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness, and who must be glad if they can use time no spent at the production line just to keep going.»13


7. Films according to their structure

According to their structure, films can be organic, reiterative, episodic or disjunctive. A film is organic when its conflicts are correlated, e.g., John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) opens with the plain description of a legendary gem-incrusted golden bird. A new riddle comes out when a fragile woman hires Sam Spade, a private detective, to resolve a family dispute. Spade's partner undertakes the case and is swiftly murdered. The rough consummation of this mystery prompts a new conflict: Sam Spade attempts to elucidate the death of his colleague. New conflicts are outlined as new roles intervened. In the final sequence of The Maltese Falcon the solution to the mysteries of the metallic bird and the dead detective are related to the amorous deception of the main characters of the film.

A film is reiterative when its conflicts are mere variations of a single event, as in Buñuel's Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, where the actors present the variations of a meal: «[This film] shows lest a cycle of failed meals than the diverse versions of a the same meal under the influence of fashion and within irreducible worlds».14

«The Arabian Nights» presents an episodic structure, in which independent conflicts are tenuously related to a main conflict; such structure is manifest in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), a film that attaches diverse dramas from Babylon, Paris, Jerusalem and America to the image of a woman rocking a cradle. In a more subtle style, Ingmar Bergman's Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1956) refers a series of independent conflicts the survival of the jester's son, the infidelity of the peasant's wife and the cruelty of the friar, to the Knight's wager with Death. In the same vein, Fellini's Satyricon (1969) juxtaposes a series of rugged conflicts, such as the chop of the comedian's hands before an audience, or the agony of an albino seer in the desert to its main character's frustrated love.

Disjunctive films juxtapose conflicts strange to each other, as in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rubliov (1966), in which the story of a man who flies in a globe over a belfry is strange to Andrei Rubliov's pilgrimage, and to the efforts of a beardless man to forge a humongous bell.



[1] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, I, 1,4 (London, 1739.)

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Pudovkin, Film Direction (New York: Grove press, 1978) p. 74.

[4] 'Toutes les pièces qui ont été écrites, depuis l'Antiquité jusqu'à nos jours, n'ont jamais été que policières. Le théatre n'a jamais été que réaliste et policier (...) Il y a une énigme, qui nous est révélée à la dernière scène.' Ionesco, Eugène, Victimes du Devoir, in Théatre Complet. Édition par Emmanuel Jacquart (Paris: Gallimard, 1991.)

[5] Aristotle, Poetics, tr. by S. H. Butcher (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989) vii.

[6] Stefano, Joseph, interview with Marc Savlov, in The Austin Chronicle, October 15, 1999.

[7] Stephano, Joseph, Psycho, at at Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, p. 2.

[8] Bloch, Robert, Psycho (Mass Market, 1998) p. 13 - 14.

[9] Brook, Peter, The Empty Space (London: Touchstone Books, 1969) p 24 - 64.

[10] In 'Iranian Cinema.' English broadcast by ITV, 06/30/02. Produced and directed by Susan Shaw.

[11] Alain Robbe-Grillet, L'année dernière à Marienband (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1961), p. 17.

[12] In 'Iranian Cinema.' English broadcast by ITV, 06/30/02. Produced and directed by Susan Shaw.

[13] Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialektik der Aufklarung (Dialectic of Enlightenment), tr. John Cumming (London: Verso, 1973) p. 135.

[14] Deleuze, Gilles, L'Image-Temps, Cinema 2 (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985), p. 134 -135.


© Hugo N. Santander 2003
Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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