In what ways is watching Film/TV an active process of interpretation, rather than a passive process of ‘assimilating’ information?

There are many ways in which an audience of Film or Television actively interpret what they see on screen rather than simply absorbing it, we as viewers, at least to a certain degree, are active in constructing meaning rather than, so to speak, just letting it go over our heads. Fundamentally it is important to note that, no matter how strong a debate may be for an audience being passive, we are still undertaking some process of cognitive activity just to merely comprehend a TV programme or film.

When we visually perceive something, an image on screen say, there is a basic cognitive process already in action, which is, that we compare what we see, to what we already know, and to what we expect. However, there are those who criticise TV and the moving image as being a passive and mundane leisure past time. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright described TV as ‘chewing gum for the eyes’ and Ernie Kovacs called TV ‘a medium, so called because it is neither rare nor well done’.

Although, Ien Ang, for example, concludes that the TV audience as a whole is stereotyped and labelled as ‘couch potatoes’, but they should not be, as ‘the ordinary viewers’ perspective is almost always ignored… ‘ and ‘living with television involves… interpretations’ (Ang 1991: 2). Indeed, what can be argued against the pessimist theorists is that we need to understand what we see, and comprehension requires a schema.

Schemas provide us with mental structures on how to cope with future experiences, and therefore how to be able to change our knowledge of what unfolds before us, in this sense, on screen. Changing our perceptual frameworks like this, converts meaning into a context. What most people do not realise is that we are far more interpretative than we think, just as visual images are far more ambiguous and open to interpretation than is thought.

For instance, take the Gestalt psychologists, such as Hermann von Helmholtz, who connected thinking to perception as he thought of ‘visual perceptions as unconscious inferences’ (Gregory 1998:4). Gregory agrees with this concept on making inferences, by ‘going beyond the immediately given evidence of the senses’ (Gross & McIlveen 2000:412), we are making indirect processes, meaning that our visual system is drawing on all kinds of factors, such as past experience and expectations. Look at the well known image of Rubin’s Vase (1915) below:

This is a Gestalt psychological example of how perception is an active process. This ambiguous illustration displays how our brain is continuously switching from deciding whether we see a vase, or two faces, because of the figure-ground reversal, generating more than one perception. The main Gestalt psychologists, Wertheimer, Kohler and Koffka, stated that there are ‘universal features in visual perception which in semiotic terms can be seen as constituting a perceptual code’ (http://www. ber. ac. uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem08. html), and there is a need to separate shape/figure (in this sense, what we see on TV) to current concerns/background (our past experience and knowledge of TV programmes). However, that we search for meanings from representations on TV by actively drawing on such visual factors may be more difficult to prove because we all interpret differently what a TV programme or film means to us, resulting in various conclusions.

But on the other hand, the same Gestalt concept that different interpretations can be made of an image, can be applied to watching on screen images. Just because the image is not static does not mean it cannot be so readily analysed by a viewer, it is more so that it depends upon the viewers’ outside factors and influences, therefore if responses are altered by such factors, then we are more than assimilating (see my analysis of an advertisement). We take the initiative to effectively interpret and make meaning of what we see.

Nevertheless, generally audiences are often seen in the media as either falling into the Active or Passive category, rather than on the whole being forever active. This though does in part make sense, as the passive are labelled as experiencing the effect of the ‘hypodermic syringe’ theory (e. g. getting their fix of entertainment) and being told how to think as they uncritically absorb the messages presented to them, instead of being forced to explore cues, making the media therefore look negative.

Now, this does not mean that we are not active audiences, it just means how lazy responses can be generalised and normally such viewers do not like the programme they criticise, so why should they offer evidence for viewers being stimulated by what is on screen? The fact that people like this still basically criticise, must be a signal that they have still interpreted what they saw. Still, if there are such two separate categories of audiences, then the active audience are maintained as been active in the sense of making meanings.

As related to before, meanings that are created will depend upon an individual’s age, gender, race, education, sexuality, class, religion, environment and past experiences. This involves Uses and Gratifications theory, which assumes that the viewer makes a conscious choice, and these viewers are seen as ‘using’ the media to bring them pleasure, rather than letting it manipulate them. For instance, soap operas could be seen as bringing families together and allow multiple responses and educational values or issues. Soap operas are helpful examples of showing how people read such texts and derive meaning from what happens.

A range of decoding skills and strategies are deployed depending upon the degree of knowledge on the genre, and the amount of familiarity of the particular soap. For instance, audiences are active in interpreting soaps through, learning about a range of contemporary problems, which can be developed through discussions, and having a sense of relationship with the fictional characters. Identification can increase when the characters are going through trauma, and the experience of catharsis can occur. Viewers can even use soaps as an aid to social interactions, involving family viewing rituals.

Of course there is the issue of how the plot itself requires cognitive activity, even when certain viewing (in this case soaps) is meant to be a relaxation, still ‘viewers must keep track of plots, characters and motivations to understand even the most mindless programme’ (Shapiro 1995). Indeed, when we predict what happens next in the narrative, we are actively setting up expectations from knowledge encountered from what we have already seen. For example, take the popular soap Eastenders, and the recent scenario of Janine helping out Barry over the loss of his father.

Although on screen there was nothing to prove that Janine had a different agenda for helping Barry through his depression, from past episodes of this soap the viewer knew that she was being manipulative. Thus, past knowledge (memory itself being a cognitive procedure) of this particular soap creates expectations and we perceive new meanings of the future experiences. This essential comprehension of the plot thus involves ‘making certain inferences about the characters and scenes… separated in time’ (Condry 1989:159).

David Bordwell claimed ‘at the barest perceptual level, narration will jolt the viewer’ (Staiger 1992:66). Soaps therefore have the capacity to create forms of involvement on a cognitive level with its viewers, or as Langer et al call it, ‘mindfulness’ of the individual, not the mass (Condry 1989:49). It is also worth noting that John Condry discusses how children and adults make different interpretations over TV programmes, as children’s cognitive ability has not fully developed to be able to make inferences about implicit events, unless maybe an adult questions them about the programme.

This backs up the claim for need of interpretative skills and active decoding, as well as the perceptual concept of ‘we see things better if we know what we are looking for’. Another psychological theory in perception, that coincides with the ruling out of passive assimilation of information in the human brain as it ages, is the Information Processing approach. This basically claims that we receive data, process it and then respond to it, like a computer. These theorists see us as ‘symbol manipulators’ (Gross&McIlveen 2000:469).

Though we may not be computers we do respond to what we see, even simply watching an advertisement for instance. I have analysed a short advert from TV to display how I actively processed it, (it is a Crowns Odourless Paint advertisement) and for simple analysis I have split my interpretations under headings of its micro aspects: Camera movement All camera movements are slow and the ad starts off with a long shot of a group of sailors walking along a street, cut to them walking past the camera, as this happens I notice one of the men is oblivious to blue paint all over his white uniform.

Next appears a long shot of what seems like a wedding reception, as the couple get out of their limo, it cuts to a front view of them mid shot, cut to a view of behind and as they walk I realise that the bride has purple paint stained all over the back of her dress. Consequently it cuts to another scenario, a young woman leaving a smart building (bank or hotel maybe), and as the camera slow pans I have already anticipated that her bright orange coat is smothered with paint. Her oblivious nature amuses a man watching from inside, a distant over the shoulder angle.

As she gets into a cab, slowly the man moves away from the window with a smirk on his face, and as he moves across the screen in mid shot, the words ‘careful’ appear and fade, just before I notice his shoulder is covered in green paint – the same colour of the walls. Finally as he disappears out of shot, the words ‘virtually odour free paint’ roll out, faded out to the Paint Company’s crown logo. Before the final scene I had observed and expected more unaware paint stained people, and thus predicted the ad to be on paint. Editing/Special Effects

Throughout the ad the scenes are done in slow motion, with simple clean quick transitions of cuts, and the simple wipe of titles at the end. This gives an image of simple business like sophistication. Mis-en-scene The sets and locations are mature and urban but business like. For example, the lighting is artificial giving a glossy appearance, and the dress design of the actors are stylish and modern. Sound There is non diegetic music throughout; it is slow and peaceful in beat with the slow footsteps of the actors. This suits the all the mentioned editing conventions, and the smart elegance of it all.

Indeed the ‘smartness’ of it all implies to me that the ad is targeted at people who care for their home or business’s appearance and the practicality of odourless paint. What is important to note is that, the advert would assume ‘active’ viewers – as it follows the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Audiences of this TV programme can hardly be seen as passive, in that viewers openly shout out answers at their TV screens, ‘Adverts continue this interpretation… and connections to the programme’ (http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Students/kka9601. html).

However, the way in which I have read this short segment of TV could have been influenced by outside factors. Did I make certain interpretations because they were not my typical viewing habits? (i. e. I was alone and watching it because I had to study it). In other words, I had a stronger concentration span and I do not usually focus in on adverts. As Daniel Chandler discusses in his guide to analysing your interpretation of TV, (http://www. aber. ac. uk/media/Modules/MC10220/analyse. html)the kind of situation your viewing environment is in will affect the ways in which you interpret.

What was most significant in the ad was the editing and production conventions, my being a Film student therefore played a part. I perceive adverts; in general, to be frequently covert on what they are selling, by using elements in shot that the target audience can aspire to, thus past knowledge has set up my expectations. Overall as I interpreted this ad, I predicted it was some form of paint even though it was never confirmed until the very end of the ad; this ambiguous imagery is an exact example of the ways in which we can interpret TV or film.

It is hard to say whether I picked up on the wanted interpretation, as I do not think I was the target audience. But, viewers definitely have their preferred interpretations, as the optical illusion shows below: The above illustration asks us to decide what do we see first, a hare or a duck? An individual will have their own preferred interpretation of such images like this, similar to images shown on the big screen. Here is an example of this in film, look at the picture (next page), a still from Un chien andalou (Luis Bui??uel, 1928). What does this image represent to us?

At least what it seems to represent is that the man, tied to and dragging two grand pianos laden with dead mules and attached to some priests, is against the forced control by the strict Catholic Spanish regime (combined with its culture), which he feels is dead and heavy. We can interpret the piano as symbolical of the bourgeois, and the mans lust is repressed as he is stopped from chasing the woman. This interpretation relates to another famous psychologist – Freud, who believed in reading what we see, his analysis of dreams is similar to many interpretations of on screen images.

For instance in this specific film, the film makers ‘recombined their materials until what resulted struck them as arbitrary’ (Carroll 1998:187), so that the viewers would have to work out the codes and cues of significance. The repetition of such signs in basic editing conventions allows the films structure to be construed. We need to interpret these (Bui??uels) nonsensical images, even if there are various interpretations offered, (some within a similar concept of the directors, others not) otherwise the film would just be meaningless.

Either way, we are actively stimulated into questioning these images, frequently we hear people ask out loud during films, ‘but what does that mean? ‘ or ‘what is the point of that (being in shot)? ‘ allowing for a discussion afterwards. Similarly, why would people bother to discuss what they thought things meant in the film if they had not been actively processing and thinking about what they had just seen? Film makers have often been known to use ‘attractions’, a visual image showed to shock or provoke the viewer into thinking about what he or she is watching.

Eisenstein was one of the first to invent this useful tool in forcing the audience to explore the on screen cues. For example, in Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), the Odessa steps sequence which portrays the slaughter of innocent civilians or images of the maggot infested meat were ‘attractions’, as Birgit Beumers says, ‘attractions challenge the spectator to take action and defend the unjustly treated’ (Forbes&Street 2000:61), this was what the film makers wanted – for the audience to actively perceive upon the montage, and not watch passively. ‘Montage is the source of stimuli producing perceptive and cognitive responses’ -Eisenstein). Overall films like this (e. g. surrealist), force unconscious thoughts and interpretations, therefore relating to the fact that we frequently infer but are not always consciously aware of it. Other film genres are just as mind provoking, for instance the war genre, the relation to history and knowledge of culture helps us to interpret the underlying moral message that are so often woven into these films.

Genre affects our interpretation and perception of the film. For example, Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Ford Coppola, 2001), through its re-edited version allows for different and new meanings than before. But through its mis-en-scene, the war category it falls into becomes mixed in with conventions of the horror genre too. This makes us interpret and visually realise the repeated quote of “the horror, the horror” of Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

As Munsterberg said ‘films must have a meaning for us… they must awaken the remnants of earlier experiences… ‘ (Staiger 1992:56), Bordwell agrees with the concept that involuntary perception takes place when viewing on screen images. Indeed it should, for the more one interprets on screen signs, there will be a better understanding of it, as ‘connotations attach to even the simplest statements in film’ (Monaco 2000:163).

Remembering what scenes went before, and how they compare with the images that went after, is a natural way of interpreting a films connotations. Finally, theorists such as Bordwell, realise that these range of discourses on the subject of active interpretation of film and TV are incomplete, but that us, the audience, will continue to make inferences and process ’cause effect schemas … to interpret the narrative’s set of cues’ (Buckland 2000:30) ultimately creating mental meaning, and not passively assimilating it.

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