Life is Beautiful (1997)

A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.

Despite their accessible, often humorous prose, the authors never quite escape the constraints of the dreaded undergraduate textbook.”

Why do some viewers flock to the latest gorefest horror movie, while others wouldn’t go if you paid them? What exactly happens in our brains when we watch a film? Can a film have genuine, long-term effects on its viewers? These are just some of the questions posed, if not answered, in Ashton D. Trice and Hunter W. Greer’s The Psychology of Moviegoing: Choosing, Viewing and Being Influenced by Films (McFarland, 2019). Despite their accessible, often humorous prose, the authors never quite escape the constraints of the dreaded undergraduate textbook. Psychology isn’t deployed to help us better understand film; rather, film analyses are used to help us better understand psychology. Consequently, this release will likely not appeal to readers outside the classroom.

Trice and Greer neatly divide the book into three sections, the first of which, “Choosing a Movie,” examines the psychological factors (personality, emotion, mood, social context) at play when we decide what (and with whom) to watch. While some of their observations are fairly predictable (thrill-seekers are more drawn to horror movies than non-thrill-seekers), others provoke. A fascinating example of the latter is their coverage of “Snuggle Theory,” which posits “that horror movies can serve a function in the development of sex-role behavior…young men learn to display protectiveness and bravery, while young women learn to display protective need and fearfulness” (62). However, the study’s datedness (the initial research occurred in 1986) is obvious; I can’t help but suspect (and hope) that the experiment, if repeated today, would yield much different results.

Psychology isn’t deployed to help us better understand film; rather, film analyses are used to help us better understand psychology.

Part Two, “Experiencing the Movie,” focuses on the physical sensations (perception, attention, etc.) behind the filmgoing experience. Standout chapter “Learning from the Screen,” for instance, examines how Jaws (1975)elicits – as a result of its opening death scene – a Pavlovian response from many viewers, who can’t help but feel a sense of dread whenever Spielberg’s submerged camera looks up at those flailing legs in the water (98). On the other hand, this second section also showcases the authors’ occasionally-patronizing tone. It’s bad enough that they feel the need to explain “foreshadowing,” but their perplexing definition (“Material in a movie, often music, that happens immediately before a scene and sets up the scene” [95]) misleads; foreshadowing, after all, can occur long before that which is foreshadowed. Elsewhere, their analysis of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) includes a definition for “shot”; imagine a critical analysis of literature defining “sentence” or “paragraph.” Unless your purpose is to radically rethink such pervasive terminology, why bother?

The book ends on a high note, though, with the final section: “After the Movie.” The penultimate chapter, the coyly-titled “Selling Watches, Changing Hearts and Minds,” addresses the effectiveness of product placement as well as whether or not portrayals of sex, drugs, suicide, and violence have any genuine psychological impact on viewers. The results, as is often the case with such broad questions, point in many conflicting directions; regarding suicide, the authors cite prior studies which illustrate how “movies could have a negative, positive or maybe even a neutral effect on suicide rates” (145). Their level-headed approach is a reminder that research can be found to support almost any theory and that sweeping statements about cinema’s dangers (that on-screen violence inspires real-life crimes, for instance) are dubious at best. The final chapter concerns how films portray (and often distort) both therapists and the mentally ill, but the authors (psychiatrists themselves) reserve judgment and acknowledge that “Hollywood – or any other producer of movies – has no clear obligation to present mental illness in an accurate way” (163).

As the above synopsis indicates, the book very much follows the structure and style of an educational text; this fact would be a non-issue if it wasn’t for the authors’ clearly-stated intentions that it should be considered more than that: “with the exception of key terms listed at the end of the chapters, the book has few of the trappings of a textbook” (1). The Psychology of Moviegoing, however, exhibits perhaps the most fundamental trapping of the genre: an overreliance on summarizing previous findings rather than presenting its own. The list of areas for further study suggested in the conclusion (another trapping) presents a range of questions – such as, “Why do we find mental illness entertaining?” (192) – which could have made for more provocative entries in the text itself.

Since the book is first and foremost a psychology text, its film analyses are largely superficial (1954’s Rear Window as a self-reflexive commentary on moviegoing, for example), its choices uninspired (Casablanca, 1942; Psycho, 1960; Life is Beautiful, 1997). While even the most frequently-analyzed films can yield new and engaging analyses – I thought all that could be said about Rear Window had been said, until I reviewed Robert B. Pippin’s luminous explication in Filmed Thought – Trice and Greer don’t present any substantial insights into such well-trod territory. Perhaps due to the age of the prior studies to which they prefer, their film choices are sometimes awkwardly out of touch. Why else would they, in addressing race, refer to the bland Remember the Titans (2000) rather than to any number of contemporary works made about (and by) people of color? Indeed, few of their references venture beyond the late twentieth century or outside the United States; it’s almost as if the authors placed the final draft in a drawer twenty years ago and haven’t bothered to update it since. As a tool for students, The Psychology of Moviegoing may very well prove beneficial and occasionally entertaining, but it offers little to entice others.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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