Beyond the Hero

How movies move us

Movies have an uncanny ability to evoke emotions within us, captivating our hearts and minds as we watch the stories unfold on the big screen. This intimate connection between movies and emotions is evident in the way we choose films based on our affective mood, seeking a good cry or a hearty laugh. While the notion of "identification" with characters is often considered the source of emotional engagement in movies, this concept proves ambiguous and limiting. Noel Caroll offers an alternative account based on rejecting identification and looking to philosophy for answers.


Movies have an uncanny ability to evoke emotions within us, captivating our hearts and minds as we watch the stories unfold on the big screen. Its often said that we relate to the characters on screen While the notion of "identification" with characters is often considered the source of emotional engagement in movies, this concept proves ambiguous and limited in explaining the diverse range of emotional responses we experience. Instead, a more comprehensive concept called "criterial prefocusing" emerges, emphasizing how filmmakers purposefully structure scenes, characters, music, and other cinematic elements to elicit specific emotional reactions from the audience. This approach not only sheds light on the phenomenon of emotional engagement in movies but also explores its potential for both positive transformation and manipulation in our affective culture.


In the course of everyday affairs, the emotions operate like spotlights.


Movies impart the impression of movement. But they also move us emotionally. Indeed, that may be one of the most, if not the most, important reasons that we head to the cinema. For movies enable us to undergo emotions without cost – to experience fear without the risk of danger, sadness without experiencing loss, anger without being harmed, and so forth.

Perhaps the intimate connection between movies and the emotions is borne out by the fact that many of the most popular movie genres are named after the emotion they promise to deliver, such as mystery, horror, suspense, tear-jerkers or weepers (a.k.a. melodramas), and thrillers. Often, we choose the movie that we want to see tonight on the basis of our affective mood – tonight I feel up for a good cry or, alternatively, in need of a hearty laugh.

Engaging our emotions is typically an essential element to our following a movie. If like Thomas Hobbes, you regard curiosity as an emotion, then the question of what comes next keeps us glued to the screen on a moment-to-moment basis. Moreover, the anger or even hatred that the movie engenders toward the villain shapes the way in which we eagerly track the story in anticipation of his downfall. And contrariwise, the admiration and attraction we feel for the hero leads to our anxiety when she is beset with obstacles and to our joy when the obstacles are overcome.

Given the centrality of arousing emotions in movies, offering an account of the phenomenon is unavoidable.

Probably if asked about the source of our emotional engagement with motion pictures, the average movie-lover is apt to answer “identification.” But this suggestion is unconvincing for several reasons.
First, it is ambiguous. “Identification” can mean many different things, including things that are contradictory. To assert that I identify with a character may indicate that I think, feel, and/or am inclined to behave exactly or identically as he or she does. Yet it may also suggest simply wishing to be like him or her in which case, unlike the first, I am not yet already like the character, but am different. In addition, identification may merely come down to being drawn to the character or even to that I am simply projecting my own thoughts and feelings onto the character. But neither of these states involves my being identical to him/her in any relevant way.

In addition to its ambiguity, the concept of identification also fails to account for the range of our emotional responses to movies. When the character foresees an enjoyable night with her friends, but we know that she is being stalked by a serial killer, we feel anxiety for her, whereas she is experiencing pleasurable anticipation. Our emotions are not identical because we know more than the character does, a common state of affairs in countless movies. Also, our emotions are often aroused by things like the environment, the musical score, the cinematography, and/or the editing – things that have no emotions themselves with which to identify.

Nor does it make much sense to say that we identify with the movie camera. Often the camera “resists” showing us what we want to see. For example, if the murderer is situated offscreen, blocking what we want to see, we feel frustrated, but the camera doesn’t.

In fact, what “identifying with the camera” seems to fundamentally come to is nothing more than the fact that what we see onscreen is just what the camera shows us. However, apart from showing us what we see, the camera has no feelings of the sort with which we could identify. When the camera shows us the serial killer, it is not afraid. What the camera shows may arouse fear in us but not by way of infecting us with its own affect; for that is something the camera has not got.

But if the concept of identification does not suggest a general account of movie-made emotion, let us try to construct a concept that does. To that end, let us begin by offering a brief account of the nature and function of the emotions in everyday life in order to draw a contrast between that and the way in which our emotions are elicited in movies.

The emotions are psychophysical processes involving mental states that give rise to internal bodily states of the sort that typically prime dispositions to act in various ways. The mental states in question are evaluative. They involve appraisals of our situations in terms of whether they will enhance or impede our vital human interests. For example, fear assesses our circumstances as dangerous and alerts us physically, by quickening our pulse physiologically and/or sending a chill down our spine phenomenologically.

Once this bodily alarm system is activated, we stand ready to fight, flee, or freeze. The emotions are a major way in which we assimilate the environment; they are fast mechanisms – in contrast to deliberation or reasoning – for sizing up our surroundings. They are mechanisms of selective attention. They organize our perception of our surroundings by picking out what will help or hinder us. In other words, they appraise the environment and, insofar as they evaluate it, they are governed by criteria or standards of evaluation. For fear to be an appropriate response, the situation must meet the criterion of being perceived as dangerous; for anger to be the appropriate response, it must be a reaction to what is perceived to be an unjust harm; and so on.

In the course of everyday affairs, the emotions operate like spotlights. They scan the environment in order to selectively pick out features of the situation that will enhance or impede our vital interests. These assessments or appraisals are made in accordance with certain criteria of appropriateness relative to the aforesaid concerns. Fear picks out the truck hurtling toward us at ninety miles an hour because it satisfies the criteria of perceived danger and disposes us to run for cover.

But things are different when we turn to the movies. In nature, so to say, the emotions have the function of organizing situations relative to our human interests. But in movies, the environment and its inhabitants are already depicted in such a way that makes certain emotional themes – such as danger or injustice – stand forth perspicuously.


Given the centrality of arousing emotions in movies, offering an account of the phenomenon is unavoidable.  


Whereas in our ordinary experiences outside the cinema, the emotions shape our attention, in movies the director and the rest of the artistic crew literally control and sculpt our attention insofar as we can only attend to what they choose to depict or imply, and we can only attend to that in terms of the ways in which they depict it.

That is, in what we can call nature, our emotions do the filtering while in movies, the scenes and sequences have always already been predigested or prefiltered by the creative team. This filtering guides our attention irresistibly to the features on the scene that call for the specific emotional response that the director has already primed by selecting and prominently framing them in terms of the criteria appropriate to the affective state she means to elicit.

Suppose you are directing a movie entitled Zombie Apocalypse. You will compose and shoot scenes with an eye toward engendering certain preordained affective responses by bringing the audience’s attention to the elements of the representation that are criterially appropriate to the desired emotional state.
With zombies, of course, that state is disgust. So, the director will focus attention on the suppurating bodies of the undead, their decay, and fragmentation. The camera will zero in on the detached jaw and the empty eye socket of the zombie rather than, for example, its designer T-shirt, because that is what is likely to provoke disgust in the audience.

We can call this process criterial prefocusing. It is a matter of prefocusing because the director and his crew have depicted the relevant scenes and characters by saliently emphasizing certain elements rather than others that are relevant to the emotions the moviemakers intend to arouse. This prefocusing, furthermore, is criterial because the objects, events, and characters – and those of their properties that have been selected for our attention – are those that are appropriate or essential to or definitory of the intended emotional state. That is, by being nauseating, they satisfy the criteria for the pertinent emotion type which in the case of our Zombie Apocalypse is disgust whose criterion of appropriateness is impurity.

It is our hypothesis that criterial refocusing is the concept that best helps to account in general for our emotional engagement with movies. Unlike the concept of identification, it is not limited to our engagement with characters. The environment can be criterially prefocused in order to trigger a reaction of apprehension in us by stressing, for example, the scale, apparent violence, inclemency, and darkness of an awesome storm at night. Likewise, music can criterially prefocus our intended emotional response to a scene; the cadence of the tune can suggest the appropriate mood.

Indeed, criterial prefocusing can be realized by every creative lever at the filmmaker’s disposal. The narrative sets out the situation and the desires of the characters as well as encourages our alignment with some of them and our aversion to others. This gives us an emotional basis for reacting to the way in which the action unfolds. As Ethan Hunt, for whom no mission seems truly impossible, is enveloped by a seemingly boundless gang of villains, the camera criterially prefocuses his apparently inescapable encirclement, thereby abetting our mandated feelings of suspense on his behalf.

Every dimension of the actor’s art can also be mobilized to criterially prefocus our appropriate affective response to her situation. The anxious look on her face, her cowering intonation, and her defensive stance all conspire to alert us to her sense of endangerment and to solicit our concern for her.

Of course, cinematic devices, like editing, are also key factors in securing emotional uptake by means of criterial prefocusing. Point-of-viewing editing is particularly illustrative in this regard. For instance, first, there is a close-up of the admired protagonist smiling and looking offscreen followed by a shot of her long-lost partner returning home. Thus, we are encouraged to share her joy.

As the preceding example shows, criterial prefocusing often relies upon activating recurring social scripts, like the reunion script just rehearsed. The philosopher Ronald de Sousa calls these “paradigm scenarios.” These social scripts or paradigm scenarios function like criteria in that they exemplify the appropriate grounds for specific emotional responses. However, to the extent that these paradigm scenarios are already entrenched in a culture, the question arises of whether they predetermine or restrict our emotional development to, so to speak, an affective status quo. For example, if the culture’s emotional schema for a certain minority configures their behavior as categorically animalistic and subhuman, thereby eliciting reactions of disgust, is that reaction irremediable?

Not necessarily. For it may be possible to recategorize that group in terms of an alternate set of behaviors and social relations that will elicit a positive emotional response, where once the response was negative. Narratives, including movies, can be especially effective in this regard.

For example, at a time when gay behavior was still regarded unsavory by many heterosexuals, the film Philadelphia (1993) presented the character, Andrew Beckett, who was dying of AIDS, as being a beloved member of an estimable family, thereby re-categorizing him under a different cultural script than that of the licentiously reckless homosexual. Thus reclassified, in a manner of speaking, as a cherished son and sibling, he was introduced as a person to whom the appropriate emotional response to his situation was sympathy.

That is, by prefocusing Andrew Beckett under an alternative, but nevertheless still already existing cultural criterion – namely that of a beloved member of an admirable family – the movie was able to make a contribution to changing, for at least receptive viewers, the affective culture’s stereotypical reaction to gay men from disgust to sympathy.

This use of criterial refocusing to changing the affective status quo relies upon appealing to emotional criteria, including criterial social scripts and paradigm scenarios, that pre-exist in a culture’s emotive repertoire. One criterion is recruited in order to trump another. This should procedure come as no surprise. After all, the impulse to change has to come from somewhere. And typically a culture has the resources to support emotional change for the better.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the same strategies, such as criterial prefocusing, that can promote positive affective transformation can also be dragooned to do harm. And that too should be expected, since every mode of persuasion, including movies, that can be enlisted for good can also be coopted for evil.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation