Emotion and Cognition: About Some Key-Figures in Films by Alan Clarke

Framed in medium close shot, a young skinhead – head shaven, the tattoo of a swastika on his forehead – stands up abruptly and moves towards the camera. Sustained by the movement of the apparatus, his body appears to be projected forward as if smashing into the viewer’s face. The actor’s aggressive body language is reinforced by the slightly lingering camera and the discordant punk music creating a visual choc, a moment of characteristic high tension in this opening sequence.

In Made in Britain, directed by British filmmaker Alan Clarke in 1983 for Central Television, both the actor’s performance and the mise and scène determine the film‘s signification and engage the viewer in an affective and cognitive process which embraces perception, sensations, feelings, thoughts, understanding and memory.

Illusion and Reality

The first sequence of Made in Britain reminds us that film viewing is a complex experience made up of feelings, body reactions and thoughts. Although this essay is essentially analytical, it is developed within a theoretical framework which takes into consideration a broader context that questions emotional responses in film spectatorship within the network of production, representation and reception. By focusing on some specific aesthetic and stylistic figures in Clarke’s films, I intend to show how the spectator is inscribed within the filmic space, and how strategies of representation provide clues for orientation and eventually anticipate the spectator‘s reply. Emphasis is given to stylistic cues which demonstrate how emotions in an interplay with cognition are invested in the cinematographic text and texture.

Emotions are at the core of the film medium’s appeal and are embedded in the experience of its viewing. Until recently, the affective dimension of film reception has been largely ignored by critics and theorists. Taking into consideration strategies of emotional representation in film, contemporary scholars discuss how cinematic action activates both the body and the mind. According to the cognitive theorists, emotional states experienced while viewing films are similar to the emotions expressed in everyday situations. They are real emotions having “their roots in the same kinds of processes that generate real-world emotions.1 Such an assumption is opposed to theories which consider the cinema as the locus and producer of mere illusion. Indeed, the emotional products of both television and cinema are more than mere reflections of reality; they are an active part of the reality in which they exist.2

In the opening sequence of Made in Britain, the actor’s face and body cannot be reduced to a simple vector of the story. Expressing meaning in themselves, these physical features embody conventions and are charged with connotations. The young skinhead is a socially and culturally defined type whose aggressive body language and somewhat cynical and arrogant smile are exposed to the viewer’s fantasies and fears, provoking admiration or rejection. The visual tension within his body language affects the viewer‘s mind, generating emotion and encouraging engagement.

According to a cognitive approach to emotion developed within an interdisciplinary field of research, strong functional links connect the various human faculties. Feelings are considered close companions to other mental activities. Such an approach breaks down the Cartesian division between emotion and the mind. As film theorist Torben Grodal states, “Emotions and cognition are two aspects of the way our embodied brains function.”3 Recent research tries to show that emotion and cognition work together as emotions are closely linked to structures and processes in the brain and nervous system. In fact, cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists are increasingly investigating the question of how emotions are generated in the brain and where they are located. The cognitive perspective assumes that emotions are not unorganized or chaotic but correspond to well-structured states. By emphasizing the link between emotion and thought, cognitivists view emotions as motivational forces which direct the mind and the body.

The cognitive approach to emotion in film spectatorship considers how our engagement with characters, narrative structure, point of view and stylistic strategies encourages the play of cognition, desire and feeling that makes up an emotional response.”4 In doing so, it reveals an important aspect of the cognitive method that approaches its subjects by breaking them down into component processes, and proceeding in terms of goals, motivations, objects or characters.5I intend to examine some of Clarke‘s stylistic devices and consider their function within the subject of spectatorial engagement. By describing the stimuli for an emotional response, I will reveal the underlying structures that elicit emotions and arouse abstraction of thought.

Vicious Circles

In the opening sequence of Made in Britain the steadicam holds on the skinhead Trevor, the film’s protagonist, who is facing the camera. Trevor’s status as the main focal point is underlined by the framing (close-ups and medium close-ups) and the shots in which the mobile camera accompanies him on his long walks in streets, in halls or through tunnels. Throughout, the steadicam is extremely closely attached to the character.6 This technique inscribes the audience within the aesthetic and emotional spaces of film; “The viewer is borne along helplessly as Trevor marches on his rounds: whether he’s destroying a job centre or smashing windows of the Asian homes, the viewer becomes his accomplice.7 “ Accomplice or not, the viewer’s eye is oriented by the camera, which involves him perceptually and emotionally. Whether it is Christine walking down the empty streets of an anonymous suburb (Christine [1987]8 ), the British soldiers patrolling at the border between the Irish Republic and the British territory of Northern Ireland (Contact [1985]9 ), or the inhabitants in the streets of the decayed housing estate somewhere in the North of England (Road [1987]10 ), the viewer cannot escape these characters as filmed by Clarke. Their movements, feelings, and grievances all impact the viewing experience. Moreover, audience members are absorbed by repetition to the extent that they enter the emptyness of Christine’s life, which is reduced to the ceaseless delivery and consumption of drugs. In Contact the viewer confronts the terror soldiers undergo as they fear a sniper behind each tree and yet are themselves capable of extreme brutality. Similarly, in Road, the viewer is exposed to the despair of the inhabitants of a housing estate waiting to be destroyed.

Films such as Christine, Road or Made in Britain create multiple emotional spaces for identification, allowing the audience to align with the characters. These films offer opportunities for admiration. To those who share his racist purposes and worship his capacity to resist, Trevor is a sympathetic figure. Such identification is represented within the film by Errol, the usual target of Trevor’s racist attitudes. Trevor is Errol’s hero whom he starts to imitate. Indeed, Made in Britain develops a rich portrait of the protagonist through his actions and attitudes. The characters in Contact or Elephant (1989)11, on the other hand, are less developed or remain anonymous. What Clarke’s films investigate is not so much identification with the protagonists but rather identification with the situations the characters are developed within. His films offer possibilities for alignment “by which spectators are placed in relation to characters in terms of access to their actions and to what they know and feel”12 and enable the audience to apprehend situations arising from the action.

The narrative structures of Clarke’s films are permeated by violence. Violence is a means of expression for Trevor in Made in Britain and for the killers in Elephant. It is inscribed on the architecture in Road and disturbs the apparently idyllic Irish landscape in Contact. Violence is distributed and endured by the fictional characters. Centrifugal and centripetal, it seems to be contagious. The viewer is confronted by a feeling of permanent tension lingering beneath the films’ surface. Clarke’s films create space-time figures in which violence emerges as an ongoing sensation depicted as a phenomenon of daily routine. In his films action does not necessarily develop towards a climax. Generated by banality and monotony, violence, rather than being spectacular, becomes latent. Christine, Contact or Elephant are built around the idea of repetition with slight variations of the same movement and situation. Christine is shown four times in identical situations: at her dealer’s flat where she injects herself with heroin before delivering the drugs to her clients. Contact is structured around three narrative situations: the border patrol and the search for terrorists, the moment of rest after the patrol, the preparation for the next activity. In Elephant, eighteen killings take place in the thirty-eight minutes of the film’s length. The camera accompanies the killers on their way to their victims, exposes the spectator to the killings and remains for a few interminable seconds on the dead bodies.

Clarke’s films illustrate Gilles Deleuze’s theory that filmic images tell the audience only what the movement and times of the images allow. Moreover, the director’s approach to time by the use of repetition produces strong affective states. His films make the viewer feel the violent expressions of the films. According to Susan L. Feagan, one must consider that “it is also plausible to think that durational factors can influence affective responses directly, without producing cognitive intermediaries.”13 But she also admits that it is difficult to separate cognitive and noncognitive sources of affective replies because of the strong interplay between them.14 Clarke’s stylistic approach underlines the supposition that durational factors generate thoughts which could be integrated in the emotional response in which affective and cognitive factors tend to reinforce each other. The emotional responses created by his films are linked to the symbolic production of meaning and the way they problematize and evaluate violence. Without explaining the motivations of the characters or the reasons of the conflict in Northern Ireland, the films and the spectatorial engagement they encourage help us, the viewers, to face and to understand the nature and mechanisms of individual and collective violence. The emotional cues of the time-space configuration function here as representations of cognitive evaluations drawing attention to the occurence and meaning presented on the screen.

Through repetition, Clarke’s films describe a vicious circle in which many of the protagonists are caught. Visual factors as well as narrative structures translate this idea. Trevor’s itinerary guides him from arrest to escape and to a new arrest. After a violent attack in the assessment centre in which he is confined, the skinhead is locked in a room where he is shown walking round and round like an animal in a cage. A police inspector forecasts Trevor’s future on the blackboard: a life as a chain of violence between crime and prison; a life without a future. The visual arrangements themselves generate the very idea of isolation and alienation to which Trevor and Christine are exposed. The multiplication of visual closures by means of mise en scène makes it overt: narrow spaces, gloomy colours, shadows or visual obstacles such as iron bars, doors or windows. This is reinforced by the frequent use of close-up and medium-close shots, which contribute to a feeling of claustrophobia. Trevor’s alienation and social exclusion are revealed in several situations: in his contemplation of the four showroom dummies, the imitation of the ideal of family life; in his observation of the apparently happy family at the home of the social worker who is embarrassed by the intruder and calls the police. Trevor, Christine or the inhabitants of the housing estate (Road) are people without jobs and perspectives. They belong to the excluded and the victims of modern society. Clarke depicts the failure of a social and educational system through palpable emotional and visual states. These arouse thoughts about social conditions and the state of British society, thoughts that are blended with emotional participation.

Both Trevor and the soldiers in Contact are equally culprits and victims. The viewer is encouraged to engage the characters but also to question them and become aware of the characters‘ contradictions. By visually expressing Trevor’s energy and aggressivity, the first sequences in Made in Britain reveal the main character‘s ambivalent position. With his large movements Trevor seems to determine the action’s pace and to control space. This first impression is corrected by the information acquired about him. The skinhead does not decide for himself, the adults–police officers, social workers, and judges–make decisions for him. The film depicts the character as contradictory developing him within a margin made of fear and fascination. Trevor’s rage might be impotent but it makes him an individual. At the end of Made in Britain, one of the police agents replies to the young man’s continuous provocations by brutalizing him. The last shot shows Trevor on the floor of his cell, a triumphant smile on his face. He is knocked down but he has not been broken. The spiral of violence will continue in a society in which the skinhead’s behavior is determined by aggressivity and the adults are not able to offer him real perspectives for the future. Similarly, the protagonists of Road live in a state of hopelessness but a shrill grim humour unifies them. The film’s closing shots express the energy of the poor and the marginalized.

Clarke delivers portraits of fragmented and destroyed social units and of a powerless society without giving further explanations or suggesting an alternative. The filmic and visual structures move from action to inaction, from dynamism to stagnation. The abrupt shifts correspond to the position of the audience placed between attachment and detachment. The formal distance created by the attachment/detachment-configuration makes its stylistic devices overt and creates the distance of a self-reflexive dimension in which the spectator confronts his or her own status as that of the voyeur. He can enter the other, viewed scene constructed of violence, loss and tension in which visual and sound spaces become spaces of meaning and affection. The moments of tension in Clarke’s films are fragile moments of heterogeneity that lead the viewer towards an emotional participation in which feelings, sensations, and cognition converge.



  1. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (eds.),“Introduction,” Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion. (Baltimore/London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999): 6.
  2. Today, Alan Clarke’s films are presented within the framework of festivals. Initially, most of them have been produced for television, to be watched in a perceptual situation somewhat different from that for cinema. The pictures shown on television have an immediate access to our private spaces. They have produced rites and a familiarity differing from those screened in the cinema. Television has contributed to making cinematographic conventions overt while it has also created conventions and illusions of its own, which viewers continue to engage.
  3. “Emotions, Cognitions, and Narrative Patterns in Film” C. Plantinga and G.M. Smith, op.cit., 127.
  4. Carl Plantinga, ‘Spectacles of Death: Clint Eastwood and Violence in Unforgiven’, Cinema Journal, 37, 2 (Winter 1998): 66.
  5. Cf. C. Plantinga and G.M. Smith, (eds.), «Introduction», op. cit., 3.
  6. Since Made in Britain, Clarke made increasing use of the steadicam, which became his stylistic label.
  7. Howard Schuman, “Alan Clarke: In It For Life,” Sight and Sound (September 1998): 20.
  8. Produced for BBC , 1984.
  9. Produced for BBC Northern Ireland, 1985.
  10. Produced for BBC, 1987.
  11. Produced for BBC Northern Ireland, 1988.
  12. Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995): 123.
  13. Susan L. Feagan, ‘Time and Timing’ in: C. Plantinga and G.M. Smith (eds.), op. cit., 177.
  14. Cf. ibid.