Steven Willemsen: On the Cognitive and Hermeneutic Dynamics of Complex Film Narratives

Steven Willemsen | University of Groningen, Dept. Arts, Culture & Media | Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Liesbeth Korthals Altes, Dr. Miklos Kiss | Project date: 2014-2018 | s[dot]p[dot]m[dot]willemsen[at]rug[dot]nl

Challenging, perplexing or confusing movies pervade the history of narrative cinema – from modernist art films to contemporary blockbusters. Yet especially over the last two decades, one can see a striking increase in complex storytelling in audiovisual media, with abundant examples across mainstream film and serialized television.

In Film Studies too, narrative complexity gathered considerable attention. Recent works have offered formal inventories of so-called ‘puzzle,’ ‘mind game,’ ‘modular,’ or ‘multiform’ narratives. What remains lacking, however, is research that aims at an understanding of narrative complexity in terms of its different viewing effects. After all, what makes a story feel complex, and why would viewers be attracted to this?

My project aims to address these questions by developing a reception-oriented approach to complex narration in film. Defining complexity as a felt confusion in the viewing experience, the analysis focuses on (1) the cognitive level, asking on what cognitive-psychological processes and sense-making routines films can play to create a perceived complexity; and (2) ‘meta-hermeneutic’ questions regarding viewers’ interpretive strategies to make meaning of complex narrative situations. The goal is to provide an understanding of the widespread viewer interest in complex story structures. Do such narratives expand the self-reflexive functions of modernist experimentations to mainstream media? Or are they perhaps challenging cognitive puzzles that offer ‘brain candy’ for viewers used to more (inter-)active participation in media? By examining the cognitive and interpretive underpinnings active in comprehending complex stories, the project should innovatively address the viewership connected to the rich history of complex storytelling in cinema