Skip to main content
Kent Academic Repository

Faces Places: Cognition, Culture, and the Human Face in Narrative Cinema

Brown, David W R (2020) Faces Places: Cognition, Culture, and the Human Face in Narrative Cinema. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.85887) (KAR id:85887)


Perhaps no other art form relies upon the expressive and communicative potential of the human face quite as much as narrative cinema. It comes as no surprise then that the face - especially as it appears in the close-up - has been a subject of fascination for film theory for over a century now. The past thirty years have seen the face once again return to the fore in theorising about film. In particular, the human face has occupied a special place of interest for the field of cognitive film theory. Cognitive film theory has examined various aspects of the face in recent years: how viewers come to recognise emotions from facial expressions, how cinema can aesthetically 'sculpt' ordinary forms of human expression, and how cinema may elicit empathetic responses through representations of the face are but a few of the topics that have been addressed.

Despite the long history of scholarship on the face in film and the recent work within cognitive film theory, there remain numerous unexplored avenues of research. For example, one of the biggest controversies in the scientific study of facial expression is the matter of universality and cultural difference. Are the faces people make the same the world over? Are people equally adept at recognising facial expressions of individuals from cultures beyond their own? And from where do cultural differences in facial expression arise? Although these questions pertain to scientific research on facial expression in everyday life, I argue that the answers to these problems are nonetheless highly significant for our understanding of cinema. This thesis thus responds to two central questions that have hitherto not been addressed in detail in film theory: how do cultural differences shape the representation of faces in narrative cinema? And do film viewers across different cultures recognise and understand faces and facial expressions in substantially different ways? To respond to these questions, this thesis makes the case that we should adopt a 'cognitive cultural' approach. Carl Plantinga has recently proposed that such an approach can account for the mixture of dispositions at work in the viewer's experience of faces in film, since the cognitive cultural approach is explicitly interested in both the universal and the culturally specific. As Lisa Zunshine puts it, the goal of the cognitive cultural project is to make sense of the ever-changing relationship between two highly complex and historically situated systems: cultural artefacts and the human mind. This thesis takes Plantinga's proposal further and aims to show the benefits of adopting a cognitive cultural approach to faces in film. To this end, the first half of the thesis examines the dominant views of facial expression within psychology, explores the implications of cultural differences for understanding film viewership, and presents a general account of how faces and facial expression are represented in film. The second half builds upon this theoretical groundwork and works through three different case studies that demonstrate what is gained from a cognitive cultural approach to faces in film. Ultimately, this thesis advocates for a middle way through the unproductive dichotomies between nature and nurture, universality and cultural difference, and (perhaps above all) cognitivist studies and cultural studies.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Smith, Murray
Thesis advisor: Vaage, Margrethe Bruun
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.85887
Uncontrolled keywords: Film Studies; Cognition; Culture; Faces; Facial Expression; Emotion; Cognitive Film Theory
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of Arts
Funders: Organisations -1 not found.
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 05 Feb 2021 17:10 UTC
Last Modified: 01 Dec 2023 00:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Brown, David W R.

Creator's ORCID:
CReDIT Contributor Roles:
  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.