Featured Minds: Steven Willemsen

Steven Willemsen is a PhD Researcher and Junior Lecturer in Film and Literary Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and currently a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara.  During his time at UCSB, he has shared his work on narrative complexity in cinema, including the newly published monograph,  Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Complex Cinema (Edinburgh University Press), which he co-authored with Dr. Miklós Kiss.  His work can also be found in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, ACTA Film and Media Studies, and other publications.  

The works of David Lynch are a prime example of the complex narratives that Steven studies: set up as “puzzles” with no apparent solution that nevertheless draw viewers in, these films tempt some viewers to map out these impossible worlds, or lead other viewers simply to return to films that elude understanding.

What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?

I’m interested in the way in which our minds interact with complex stories. Particularly in film and television, it seems that complexity in storytelling and story structures is currently more popular than ever. Audiences are fascinated by all sorts of non-chronological, multi-layered, metaleptic, impossible, paradoxical and puzzling stories. The aim of my project is to explore the aesthetic experience that we get from such narratives. We usually tend to think about stories as being ‘mimetic’ conductors – things we engage with for their content, like the characters, actions, emotions, or immersive storyworlds. But a confusing story seems to block our access to these dimensions somewhat. Apparently there is something particularly engaging about narrative complexity in itself, and I hope to find the key to that in the particular cognitive and hermeneutic mental activities that such stories cue us to perform.

How did you become interested in this field?

The project grew out of a more general interest in cognitive film theory. Cognitive film studies is a vivid, still developing field where film scholars and psychologists meet and draw on ideas from cognitive sciences to understand how films ‘work’ on viewers – in terms of perception, comprehension, or emotion. There is still something quite magical to me about the way in which a series of 2D images and sounds can result in such lifelike and intense experiencs. Cinema taps into all kinds of traits of the human cognitive and perceptual systems to involve us emotionally, perceptually, intellectually, and on a bodily level, and to create a smooth sense of continuity, narrative coherence, and even of presence. I’m excited about the idea of getting a grip on how this works, because I believe it is something that is very elementary to culture: using media to create, or re-create, simulated experience, which in turn allows us to reflect on actual experience. For me, cognitive approaches to art and narrative are all about mapping those intersections: between our minds and our artworks, and the way these shape each other.

What unique contributions are narrative scholars positioned to make to the interdisciplinary field of mind studies?

In any case, narrative theorists have developed quite an understanding of one of the key tools that the human mind has to integrate information, experience and impressions in a coherent and intelligible form. The idea that narrativity is in some ways ingrained in our cognitive make-up seems quite accepted now, across a range of fields. But actual two-way dialogues between the humanities and the ‘mind-sciences’ (like cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists) can remain difficult – because of our different vocabularies, and the different stances towards empiricism. Ultimately, however, I think that both perspectives could work to illuminate and correct each other. It seems to be increasingly acknowledged how strictly naturalistic perspectives on the mind also leave explanatory gaps, in terms of the full phenomenological richness involved in experience and sense making. It is my hope that as a result, multi-perspectival takes on the topics of mind and cognition will be increasingly valued, and that the humanities’ and sciences’ approaches to the mind might be able to meet somewhere in the middle.

What does narrative do for minds (whether through film or literature)?

That is a really complex question –  perhaps even the underlying mystery of all art! One of the things I hope to gain a better understanding of is the simple question why we engage with fictional stories at all, including excessively complex ones. Why should we enjoy – or require – stories that are not about the real world, or that confuse us? One of the reasons, I think, is that complex narrative artworks allow us to draw on our whole range of everyday experiences – from very basic, ‘low-level’ sensations and emotions, like the feeling of being under a threat or in love, to very sophisticated ‘higher-order’ frames of knowledge, like understanding complex socio-political situations or philosophical ideas. Making sense of a complex artwork allows us to ‘activate’ and recombine all these levels of knowledge at the same, because it has the ability to evoke and simulate all that mental and bodily experience. I think that that process, of putting our real world knowledge and experience to new, interpretive use, is inherently enjoyable and creative, and can be potentially revealing about ourselves and our relation to the world.

Selections from Steven’s Work:

Steven’s latest project is Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, co-authored with Miklos Kiss.  Here you will find a description of the book’s primary questions and interventions; and for a free preview of the first chapters of the book, click here.

“Narrative complexity is a trend in contemporary cinema. Since the late 1990s there has been a palpable increase in complex storytelling in movies. But how and why do complex movies create perplexity and confusion? How do we engage with these challenges? And what makes complex stories so attractive? By blending film studies, narrative theory and cognitive sciences, Kiss and Willemsen look into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind. Analysing the effects that different complex narratives have on viewers, the book addresses how films like Donnie DarkoMulholland Drive or Primer strategically create complexity and confusion, and, by using the specific category of the ‘impossible puzzle film’, it examines movies that use baffling paradoxes, impossible loops, and unresolved ambiguities in their stories and storytelling. By looking at how these films play on our mind’s blind spots, this innovative book explains their viewing effects in terms of the mental state of cognitive dissonance that they evoke.”

  • Analyses the effects of complex narratives on viewers, including the psychological experience of puzzlement and perplexity
  • Explores impossible puzzle films as a specific set of highly complex popular films
  • Introduces cognitive dissonance as a key feature of these films
  • Brings together literary theory, cognitive narratology and film studies
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