To See, To Hear, To Feel: Cinema
by Alicia Sims
We live in a society where mediated emotions are a primary means of communication. Texting is supplemented with emojis, Facebook now asks for its users’ “mood” when posting statuses, advertisements use emotional appeals to sell products, and organizations frequently identify with emotional ideals to garner support. Every time someone engages with media, some dominant feeling is expressed, whether by the user or to the user. This interaction connects people more intimately with the media they consume, encouraging users to feel something. Based on each individual’s past experiences, these feelings will manifest in their own way. Emotions are never void of context. Media seeks to evoke specific emotional responses by setting up situations where certain emotions are expected, even if the end result is irrational.
In the world of cinema, the grounds for emotional interaction are even higher due to the realness of the cinematic story and the abandonment of one’s physical existence for the engagement in a virtual one. W. James Potter explains that filmmakers enhance reality with their work, utilizing familiar elements of everyday life but tweaking them to be more interesting (Potter, 216). In doing so, the filmmaker develops something almost real, an easily relatable atmosphere for viewers. This atmosphere spurs viewers to invest emotionally in the content of a ﬁlm, which then gives the ﬁlm power over what the audience feels. A ﬁlm’s visual and auditory material sets the mood for its audience, not only inﬂuencing what the audience feels but speaking to why they should feel that way. In this effort, cinema’s capacity to make viewers feel something makes it a platform for cultural commentary.
The way that cinema engages viewers of all kinds is through “transparency” which Scott Robert Olson deﬁnes as “the capability of certain texts to seem familiar regardless of their origin, to seem a part of one’s own culture, even though they have been crafted elsewhere” (Olson, 14). In terms of emotional content, transparent cinema employs emotions that all viewers commonly experience. Going beyond a ﬁlm’s tone or overall mood, the speciﬁc emotions exhibited by characters are common to the human experience. Regardless of what caused a character to feel a certain way, viewers can identify with these emotions and as a result can become more involved in the character’s story. Once a viewer is involved emotionally, cinema can convey different messages about why people feel certain things.
Lars von Trier’s ﬁlm Melancholia (2011) speaks about the inevitability of utter sorrow and unhappiness once it initially descends. This commentary parallels the ﬁlm’s storyline of the world’s end at the hand of a massive planet which will eventually engulf Earth. However, unless the viewer identiﬁes with the melancholia exhibited by Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in the ﬁlm––whether through personal experience or compassionate empathy––the commentary on depression’s inevitable nature will be lost.
This idea that melancholia is inevitable speaks to emotions on a larger scale. As much as our society tries to mold emotions, to suppress or to encourage them, each person will feel what they feel in their own unique way. Cinema can inﬂuence what someone feels if they engage in the fantasy of it all, but those who do so make that decision. True emotions cannot be artiﬁcially produced; they can only be inﬂuenced.
The signiﬁcance of inﬂuencing the way viewers perceive emotions is that it makes emotions a group experience. In general, people feel emotions uniquely - only you feel what you feel. Media offers the chance to express individual feelings in a way that others can comprehend. Cinema, speciﬁcally, gives context to emotion such that multiple viewers can more easily understand and relate to the depicted emotion. In this sense, cinema deﬁnes emotions for a group audience. These deﬁnitions are based on cultural perceptions of emotion, which can manifest through stereotypes and clichés. Nevertheless, the commentary on these emotions is visible to the critical eye, revealing that cinema plays a part in establishing what one should feel and why.
The relationship between cinema’s emotional power and that of melancholia is the intensity with which both operate. Cinema inﬂuences its viewers’ emotions because it brings to life the sounds, places, words, and activities to which viewers relate and hold in their memories. As viewers remember their experiences, nostalgia brings out the emotions cinema seeks to inﬂuence. This phenomenon often manifests itself at intense levels. For example, the Disney ﬁlm The Fox and the Hound (Berman, Rich & Stevens, 1981) evokes strong feelings from its audience because it draws on the common experiences of friendship and betrayal. Furthermore, cinema engages the viewer as they lose awareness of their physical self and literal reality. Once “lost” in the world of a ﬁlm, the viewer forgets about his or her physical environment, focusing solely on the reality of the screen. The emotions depicted and felt are more real than anything occurring while physically sitting in a theater or at home in front of a screen.
In comparison with cinema’s effect on the human’s senses, melancholia is a powerful emotion that Julia Kristeva explains as both despondency and exhilaration. A melancholiac mourns the loss of something loved while simultaneously hating it (Krisreva, 9 & 12). The sense of longing melancholia produces is so great that it is concurrently painful and sweet. While many viewers of Lars von Trier’s ﬁlm may have never experienced melancholia to the depth that Justine exhibits it, they can understand her emotions in part by drawing on what they have experienced of sadness and longing. Justine’s particular situation is unique, as is everyone’s individual emotional life, but the cinematic screen conveys it in such a way that the audience can relate to some degree. Viewers may even watch the ﬁlm and feel deeply sad, unsure as to exactly why. They are perhaps sharing in Justine’s melancholia, taking on her burdens because the ﬁlm portrays her as a real person with human emotion. Even though she isn’t real, but an imagined character in a ﬁctional story, she is real to the viewer and her emotions are real. The viewer’s empathy is of course real, although it is the product of a ﬁction. This experience is not atypical––ﬁlms that successfully establish an alternate reality can pull in viewers so strongly that their emotional investment is real while its basis is fabricated. While this may seem like a paradox, many ﬁlmmakers strive to achieve it. Just as the melancholiac may be unable to identify what it is that sparked their uncontrollable feelings of loss and longing, a viewer of cinema may not be able to pinpoint what about a ﬁlm made him or her feel so intensely (Freud, 245).
The ideology represented here is that emotion doesn’t have to be rational to be true. In fact, this speaks to the larger cultural idea that emotion is never rational, but, in contrast to the cultural view, it is not necessarily bad for emotion to be irrational. It would seem that culture stigmatizes emotion, making people seem weaker for feeling emotions and especially if they are overcome by emotion. The message of cinema, and more speciﬁcally von Trier’s Melancholia, is that humans are meant to feel emotion. Feeling nothing means that a ﬁlm has failed to be effective. Perhaps the story is not captivating enough to produce an emotional response or the actors did not convey their emotions in a believable way. Truly great ﬁlms pull deep emotions out of their audiences, achieving what the Western cultural ideology may criticize. Indeed, cinema’s effect is powerful when carried out masterfully. In a world where emotion is practically a universal language, it is surprising that Western culture still condemns it as "feminine" and a product of weakness. There is nothing shameful in being moved by a story or brought to tears by viewing someone else’s anguish. Every person experiences life differently and responds with different emotions, but those very responses are part of what makes each person an individual. Without happiness, sadness, anger, pain, loneliness, ecstasy, etc., humans would be nothing more than machines. The ability to feel separates humans from basic life forms and lifeless robots. It’s no wonder that cinema seeks to engage with this unique facet of human existence.
Furthermore, the relationship between cinema and emotion is characteristic of any art form and emotion: cinema is an outlet. Lars von Trier, for example, is himself a melancholiac and his ﬁlm is an exposition on the inner workings of those sufferings. For von Trier, it appears that making a ﬁlm that deals so heavily with emotion was probably an artistic outlet for his own emotional pain. For the viewer, such an intense ﬁlm is a source of knowledge, exposing those unfamiliar with melancholia to its intensity and unfortunate reality. Viewers who understand such intense sadness, or some form of it, may also ﬁnd the ﬁlm to be an outlet. Watching someone else experience similar emotions, although the character is not actually real, lessens the feeling of being alone. Especially concerning sadness or depression, people feel a sense of complete loneliness, as if they are the only ones having that experience. Cinema brings people together and reveals that people do in fact share common emotions. Depression and melancholia are not sufferings inﬂicted on only one person. Many struggle with these negative emotions. Von Trier’s ﬁlm is a testament to this fact, and perhaps a few viewers felt less alone as they watched it.
All in all, cinema can only make people feel what they have felt before. Its ability to invoke an emotional response is dependent on the viewer’s past experiences and emotional makeup. However, since cinema utilizes sound and visuals together in a generally realistic way, people easily relate to the characters and situations presented in ﬁlms. Even when the situations depicted are dramatized or not quite realistic, the basis for their stories are in the human experience. People of all ages and cultures can relate to raw emotions, for they are a deﬁning human characteristic. Cinema expresses emotions, inﬂuences viewers to engage in those emotions, and exposes the reality of human feelings. It encourages viewers to look inward at themselves, to evaluate what makes them feel the way they do. Von Trier’s character Justine longs for the end of the world because it possesses a ﬁrm sense of ﬁnality. Cinema, on the other hand, commands a ﬁrm sense of humanity. To see, to hear, to feel. Only cinema can mimic reality so poignantly.
Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete
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Movement, Papers on Metapsychology, and Other Works 14 (1917): 243-258.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
Olson, Scott Robert. Hollywood Planet: Global Media and the Competitive Advantage of
Narrative Transparency. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.
Potter, W. James. Arguing for a General Framework for Mass Media Scholarship. Thousand
Oaks: SAGE Publications: 2009.
von Trier, Lars. “Longing for the End of All.” http://www.melancholiathemovie.com/#_interview.
By Nils Thorsen.