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Skip Dine Young Ph.D.

Movies as Equipment for Living

The Psychology of Movies, Movie-Makers and Movie Viewers

Joss Whedon with Scarlett Johansson

“All movies are psychologically alive, exploding with human drama. This drama can be seen from many different angles-in the movies themselves, in the people who make them, and in the people who watch them.” These lines are a thumbnail sketch of my book Psychology at the Movies, and they also describe this blog, “Movies and the Mind.”

Psychologists have often written about movies to make observation about different aspects of psychology—social behavior, psychological disorders, psychotherapy, etc. Movies serve this purpose well. The medium is vibrant, emotionally powerful and accessible. Psychology is definitely in the movies, and an insightful commentator can identify these elements. A number of the Psychology Today blogs effectively utilize this approach.

“Movies and the Mind” also looks for psychology in the movies, but it seeks to put the movies into a broader context. Movies do not emerge out of a void. People make them, and these filmmakers leave parts of themselves in their movies. Sometimes moviemakers are perfectly aware of this. For example in numerous interviews, the writer/director of The Avengers, Joss Whedon, reveals that he has thought extensively about the psychology of his super-hero characters—Captain America is disillusioned and the Hulk is afraid of his own rage. Moviemakers do not have to be aware of what they are doing however; even the most “thoughtless” horror movie or gross-out comedy can be seen as the unconscious reflection of personalities and cultural biases of the people who create them.

The Avengers

Movies are also watched by people. When it comes to a current blockbuster like The Avengers, we are talking about billions of people actually. There is a lot going on in the mind of every one of these viewers that is of interest to psychologists. Viewers have to process visual information in order to identify objects and colors. They have to organize many bits of information into a coherent story with distinct characters. Sometimes viewers takes the images, characters and stories as having deeper meaning beyond the film itself; it is interpreted symbolically as revealing insights about human nature and society (for example, The Avengers could be interpreted as an example of how people can overcome their individual shortcomings by belonging to a group that is greater than the sum of its parts).

Clues about what may be going on in the audience can be found in movies themselves, but this textual approach is never enough. A few moments spent perusing the comments on internet discussion boards (such as those on IMDB.com) make it clear that not everyone processes movies in the same way. A movie that provokes the “most powerful emotional experience ever” by one viewer can be experienced as simply boring to another. A viewer who believes that a particular movie takes us to the “deepest depths of the human soul” may be countered by another who dismisses it as pretentious nonsense. This variation is expanded exponentially if one considers the reception of movies in many different societies across the world. Because of differences in personality and culture, one viewer’s experience of a movie is not the same as the next.

As I write about the psychologically interesting aspects of movies, I will not forget the people involved—the filmmakers and especially the viewers. I continually return to a phenomenon I call “movies as equipment for living” (a turn of the phrase “literature as equipment for living” coined by the rhetorician, Kenneth Burke). I personally am a fan of movies, and I assume that this is true of most of the people who might read this blog. It is possible for psychologists (not to mention sociologists, philosophers, critics, etc.) to talk about film in ways that are highly abstracted and intellectualized. Ultimately though, I am most interested in how movies really matter to people--the ways that movies become a part of our lives. I believe that people have the capacity to consciously reflect on movies and bring parts of the films (images, lines of dialogue, characters, etc.) inside us. Furthermore, as a clinical psychologist, I am interested in the ways that people change their lives for the better; as we will see, movies can be a part of that journey.

(Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770)

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About the Author

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.