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Popular Film & Emotional Response: Understanding Emotional Responses

Viki Walden | Monday March 25, 2013

Categories: A Level, WJEC A Level, WJEC A2, FM4, Analysis, Film Analysis, Films & Case Studies, Hollywood Films, Schindler's List, Non-Hollywood Films, World Cinema, La Vita è Bella, Genres & Case Studies, Action, Biography, Comedy, Crime, Drama, History, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller, Key Concepts, Audience, Film Language, Representation

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Students can find studying spectatorship challenging.  There are many theories of spectatorship, but starting with the theory can lead students to list theoretical ideas rather than engage with the texts. Let’s not forget this A2 Film Studies unit is about “emotional responses” more than critical ones.

This is a good place to start with students. What is “emotion”? What is “popular film”? And what elements of the film experience trigger emotional responses?

Emotion and Popular Film

The term emotion, as commonly used today, has French linguistic origins, adapted from the word émouvoir which means “to stir up”.  This connotes the idea that emotion has external triggers which “stir up” a response in us.

Discussion Point

Encourage students to consider times when they have laughed, cried, felt scared or felt excited. What were the external triggers that caused them to react in this way?

It is important to differentiate between popular film and experimental or avant-garde film because the latter is often focused on modernist or postmodernist techniques which playfully manipulate the conventions of the medium to make audiences overtly aware of their emotional response. Experimental films question the idea of a fixed subjectivity: identifying with a character or narrative point-of-view; they prioritise a critical response.

We can define popular film as mainstream cinema: Hollywood movies, genre films (Horror, comedy, melodrama, musical etc.) and other international productions which have received global recognition, ergo, become “popular”.  Such films are character and narrative-centric. Film scholar Tom Gunning criticises that idea of film as solely a storytelling medium: 

“...One can unite [non-narrative and narrative film] in a conception that sees cinema less as a way of telling stories than as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience, fascinating...


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