Opinion or fact?

The Artist has been wowing audiences across the world. The film has already won some awards, and is hotly tipped for many more. It has also been attracting much interest in the press, and film scholars have been roped into this.

In an interview with the BBC, silent film expert Bryony Dixon of the BFI made a series of statements that are worth reflecting upon:

  1. watching silent films is more rewarding than watching contemporary Hollywood action blockbusters
  2. watching a silent film requires more work on the part of the viewer
  3. slower edited films require greater concentration than rapidly edited films

You can view the video of the interview here. The text on this web page includes the following sentence:

Bryony Dixon, a silent film expert from the BFI, told BBC News that because silent films require more concentration, the rewards of watching them are richer than action blockbusters.

So let’s take these three statements in turn:

1. Watching silent films are more rewarding that watching contemporary Hollywood films

I am aware of no research that compares the viewing pleasures derived from silent films to sound films, and I have not been able to find any such research. In fact, what viewers find rewarding about the film experience is an under-researched area of film studies. If anyone knows of any research in this area please feel free to add a comment to this post listing the appropriate references.

This is just Dixon’s opinion, and we should not be surprised that an expert on silent films should prefer silent films. Other people will have their own opinions, tastes, and preferences. The difference is that other people will not have the opportunity to express them in the BBC under the heading ‘Expert on the rewards of silent film.’ This is problematic because it presents Dixon’s opinion as fact (‘An expert says …’). This may be the fault of the BBC and the way it has presented the interview, but from watching the video I doubt it.

Of course, a factor here  is that there has not been much in the way of silent film since 1930 and so research on what viewers think about silent films has inevitably been extremely limited. The Artist provides an excellent opportunity for researchers to engage with this topic.

2.Watching a silent film requires the viewer to work harder

There is no research that I can find looking at the cognitive load of silent cinema (probably for reasons noted above), and the literature on cognitive load in film viewing is somewhat limited in general.  An interesting place to start is this paper from Nitzan Ben-Shaul:

Ben-Shaul N 2003 Split attention problems in interactive moving audiovisual texts, Fifth International Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Melbourne, Australia, 19-23 May, 2003.

It is also worth reading Julian Hochberg and Virginia Brooks’s work on film viewing and visual momentum as it gives a general description of how observers attend to images (both moving and still) and how we cognitively process this information:

Hochberg J and Brooks V 1978 Film cutting and visual momentum, in JW Senders, DF Fisher, and RA Monty (eds.) Eye-movements and the Higher Psychological Functions. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum: 293-313.

Hochberg J and Brooks V 1996 Movies in the mind’s eye, in D Bordwell and N Carroll (eds.) Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison, WI: UNiversity of Wisconsin Press: 368-387.

Cognitive load theory (CLT) might support the opposite conclusion to Dixon’s assertion. According to CLT, we have only a limited amount of working memory and the cognitive load of a task is determined by the number and complexity of the steps involved that use up those resources. The following example is from Gutashaw WE and Brigham FJ 2005 Instructional support employing spatial abilities: using complimentary cognitive pathways to support learning in students with achievement deficits, in TE Scruggs, MA Mastropieri (eds.) Cognition and Learning in Diverse Settings: Amsterdam: Elsevier: 47-70.

Watching a film in a language one does not understand but with subtitles is an example of an increased cognitive load over watching the same film in one’s own language. Now image watching a subtitled film with poor reading skills. The cognitive load increases dramatically (66).

Thinking along similar lines, we might think that because we do not have to attend to dialogue as well as images that the cognitive load in watching a silent film is lower than that when watching a film with synchronised dialogue that requires attention to multiple sensory modalities.

There has been no direct research on cognitive load that could answer this question, and so I make this argument as a hypothesis only, but as we see in relation to the next point the evidence indicates it is faster editing that increases the cognitive load on the viewer.

Cognitive load theory does play an important role in the media theory of Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno, and you can find an introduction their research here: Mayer RE and Moreno R 1998 A cognitive theory of multimedia learning: implications for design principles, ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 18-23 April 1998, Los Angeles.

Dixon’s statement sound plausible, but without supporting research it is nothing more than a hypothesis and there are other hypotheses to be made and tested on this point. Of course, it may be that I just haven’t been looking for research in the right places and so if anyone knows of research demonstrating if this statement is true or not then please let me know.

3. Films edited more slowly require more concentration than rapidly cut films

There are a couple of things to consider here. First, contemporary film audiences are less likely to be familiar with silent films than they are with modern action blockbusters. Therefore, they may concentrate¬† more on something unfamiliar than something commonplace and this would account for a difference in viewers’ experience. We may find that with increasing experience viewing habits may change so that viewers familiar with both silent films and contemporary cinema watch them in the same way. Again, this relates to the cognitive load placed in the viewer. This sounds plausible, but as noted above I have been able to find no research in this topic. In fact I can find no research on viewers’ ‘concentration’ in the cinema, and this leads us to our second problem: what is meant by ‘concentration?’ Dixon never defines the terms she uses, and it may mean the number of times a viewer looks at the screen, the length of time the viewer looks at a screen, the focus of the viewer’s attention when looking at the screen, etc.

If we take concentration to mean something similar to attention, then there is some research on this topic and it contradicts Dixon’s assertion that slower films require more concentration than fast edited films. Research on the limited capacity model of viewership has shown that rapid pacing in motion pictures requires increased allocation of perceptual resources. The research can be read in this paper:

Lang A, Bolls P, Potter RF, and Kawahara K 1999 The effects of production pacing and arousing content on the information processing of television messages, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 43 (4): 451-475.

The limited capacity model defines the viewer as an information processor faced with a variably redundant ongoing stream of audio-visual information, in the message content is the topic, genre, and information contained in a message. Therefore, ‘viewing is the continuous allocation of a limited pool of processing resources to the cognitive process required for viewers to make sense of a message.’ (I don’t like this definition of message content – it seems somewhat circular to me).

This research looked at the effect of production pacing and content on attention in the cinema, testing the hypothesis that both pacing and arousing content should increase the level of resources automatically allocated to processing the message. The results showed this is indeed the case: arousing content and fast pace increased self-reported arousal in television viewers, and that both factors increase the allocation of resources to processing messages.

This is also discussed in a subsequent paper (below), which showed that faster pacing resulted in the allocation of greater resources by viewers in attending to a television message and that self-reported arousal also increased with editing pace.

Lang A, Zhou S, Schwartz N, Bolls PD, and Potter RF 2000 The effects of edits on arousal, attention, and memory for television messages: when an edit is an edit can an edit be too much?, Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 44 (1): 94-109.

In summary, there is no evidence that slower films require greater concentration by film viewers but there is evidence that faster paced films – such as (but obviously not limited to) action blockbusters – do elicit greater allocation of information processing resources (including attention).

A final point to make is that we do not yet know what the distribution of shot lengths in The Artist, and so comparing its pace to other films is not yet possible. It will be interesting when the film comes out on DVD and we can look at it frame-by-frame to see whether its editing style is compatible with contemporary cinema or with silent films of the 1920s. However, as yet we cannot make any empirical statement about the contribution of editing to the pace of this film.

Dixon’s comments raise some interesting questions about the nature of film viewing and silent cinema, but in the absence of supporting evidence they are opinions and not facts. The danger comes when we accept the former as the latter without asking questions or referring to the existing research in this area. Empirical research leads us to reject incorrect and empty opinions by establishing the nature of those facts. This is what film studies is supposed to be for.

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About Nick Redfern

I graduated from the University of Kent in 1998 with a degree in Film Studies and History, and was awarded an MA by the same institution in 2002. I received my Ph.D. from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2006 for a thesis title 'Regionalism and the Cinema in the United Kingdom, 1992 to 2002.' I have taught at Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Central Lancashire. My research interests include regional film cultures and industries in the United Kingdom; cognition and communication in the cinema; anxiety in contemporary Hollywood cinema; cinemetrics; and film style and film form. My work has been published in Entertext, the International Journal of Regional and Local Studies, the New Review of Film and Television Studies, Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal, and the Journal of British Cinema and Television.

Posted on December 15, 2011, in Cognitive Film Theory, Film Analysis, Film Studies, Film Style, Silent cinema and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. My first reaction when watching the clip with Bryony Dixon was to bristle. There’s a lot of qualitative statements there – far too many to present anything as “fact” by my measure.

    “More rewarding” is a matter of personal preference. I certainly find silents “more rewarding” but I know a lot of people – even some that I like and respect and who live in my house – who categorically do not find silents more rewarding. That’s a matter of taste.

    As for increased cognitive load… maybe? It’s certainly a different demand than one a viewer of a contemporary film may be used to. I myself find that to be the case for foreign films, i.e. topics that are incongruous with my own cultural experience. Though an L.A. Time piece from last week, “This is Your Brain on Silent Cinema” notes a study using fMRI scans on viewers of silent video clips. That study found an increased engagement of the auditory cortex over those who are watching clips with sound. So maybe there’s an increased cognitive load, but not necessarily in the qualitatively positive way Dixon suggests. Not better, just different.

    As for “more concentration” – that seems pretty baseless as well. Again, watching a Swedish film from 2010 probably requires more concentration for me than watching an American film from 2010. It’s neither better nor worse, just different. Personally, I also find that rapid-cut editing ala Guy Ritchie requires immense concentration on my part, just to keep up. Without defining how we derive pleasure from film viewing, there’s nothing to say that more concentration is preferable.

    I agree with your assessment that presenting opinion as fact is a slippery slope. Dixon’s statements are at heart pure opinion. Once you’re implied that “concentration” is “more rewarding” you’ve already moved far beyond the border of provable, quantitative facts.

    And what precisely makes someone an “expert” on silent films? Watching a lot of them? Writing about them? Espousing firmly held opinions to others? Hey what do you know… I’m an expert!

    • The paper you refer to is Meyer K, Kaplan JT, Essex R, Webber C, Damasio H, and Damasio A 2010 Predicting visual stimuli on the basis of activity in auditory cortices, Nature Neuroscience 13: 667-668. The paper can be accessed here. The LA Times article can be found here.

      The research paper shows that when presented with a visual stimuli there is some activity in auditory cortices and is careful to note that this is very different from experienceing actual sounds, but there is nothing in this paper to support the interpretation that silent cinema requires more perceptual effort than sound cinema or that the experience is more rewarding. The point made above about viewers’ unfamiliarity with silent cinema also needs to be considered.

      A further point to bear in mind is that the experiment is not comparable to silent cinema becasue there was no sound at all presented to the subjects, whereas we all know that silent films aren’t really silent. This research tells us nothing of how viewers fill in the missing sounds when subject to an auditory stimuli (music). Nor does it tell us what sound memories viewers use to fill in the gaps: everybody has heard a dog bark so filling the gap in here is very simple, but if you haven’t heard Chaplin speak what do you use to plug the gap?

      • Thanks for the link to the paper. I only read the reference and in The L.A. TImes and let my mind fill in the gaps, if you will. I appreciated the implications, mostly because I watched cartoons on a b&w television as a child, but I absolutely saw them (and remember them) in color.

        All of your points about that particular study are relevant. However, not that one, or any one, has or probably can address the underlying precept that Dixon was espousing. Is it somehow “better” or more beneficial to engage your auditory cortex? That’s a silly statement to assert as expert fact. My brain may in fact behave very differently when watching silents as opposed to talkies, but so what? My brain may also behave very differently when listening to Chuck Berry as opposed listening to Bach, but I wouldn’t trade either experience.

  2. Quick question: why is actual research needed for one to understand common-sensical ideas put forth by an ‘expert’ of a highly subjective field to begin with; film studies? And if those ideas are merely opinions, is that a bad thing?

    With regard to the concept that viewing a silent film is more ‘rewarding’, this again is highly subjective to the particular viewer’s idea of reward. However, I do believe that any one person who has the predisposition to enjoy a silent film and feel rewarded by viewing it feels this way because more attention had to be given to the narrative.

    I have sat in far too many auditoriums where new CGI-packed action films were being shown, laden with loud explosions and overbearing dialogue (often profane)…and at the same time have seen theater patrons talking to one another and only giving half of their attention to the narrative. Somehow they still “get” the meaning of the film. I have also viewed silent films with some of the same kinds of individuals who prefer the new action movies mentioned previously who again spoke and diverted their attention during the screening and were then completely at a loss by the end of the film; for they had missed key points put forth in the film that require unabated optical attention.

    Did theater-goers regularly distract themselves during film screenings in the silent-era? Probably. I do, however, think it says more for someone nowadays to give his or her full attention to a silent film screening when we all have grown up in the era of films that really do not require 100% attention in order to glean the general storyline of a film. Will everyone who commits a higher level of attention to a silent film screening today enjoy it and feel rewarded? Of course not, to each his own. My point is to not read Dixon’s statement as a black-and-white one (pun not intended).

    • If film studies is going to be a serious field of research then there are two reasons.

      First, we do not accept arguments from authority as a valid justification of statements. The fact that an ‘expert’ says something does not mean it is true. Only evidence counts, and what seems to be common sense often turns out to be wrong. Appeals to ‘common sense’ or ‘common beliefs’ are characteristic of fallacious arguments, and are certaintly not appropriate in an area (perception and media texts) in which there is a body of available research that could be consulted.

      Second, the real problem with statements like this in academic fields like film studies is they become repeated ad nausuem as a fact that everyone just ‘knows’ it is true. It is best to stamp out such opinions before they become widely accpeted. The best way to do this is to ask to see what evidence someone has for their statements or to look at the existing reserch to see if it can support such statements. Again, only evidence counts: can you support your statements? If you cannot, then at best you have a hypothesis and at worst an opinion masquerading as fact.

      Look at what happened with the myth of persistence of vision, and you can find Joseph Anderson and Barbara Anderson’s second paper on the subject here: http://academic.evergreen.edu/curricular/emergingorder/seminar/week_1_anderson.pdf. The fact that this is their second paper on this topic tells you a great deal about film studies.

      Dixon could have said ‘in my opinion,’ or she could have referred to research to support her argument. In fact, she took the only unaccpetable route and made a statement without support that was not qualified as opinion. I would argue that this is not a responsible approach for a researcher and educator to adopt.

      Research is not about expressing opinions – it is about the production of knowledge. There is nothing wrong with expressing opinions, provided we do not present them as facts.

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