Aesthetic illusion and the ways in which viewer engagement can be induced in a film, with reference to Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004)

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Aesthetic illusion is a mental state induced by the reception of many representational texts, artefacts or performances. What differentiates this mental state from real-life hallucinations and dreams is the fact that it is induced by the perception of these concrete representational artefacts, texts or performances. Thus, in the term aesthetic illusion, aesthetic refers to the awareness that illusion is triggered by an artefact. Essentially aesthetic illusion consists primarily of a feeling, with variable intensity, of being imaginatively and emotionally immersed in a represented world and of experiencing this world in a way similar (but not identical) to real life. At the same time, however, this immersion is counterbalanced by a latent rational distance resulting from a culturally acquired awarenessof the difference between representation and reality.

In this article I endeavour to examine comprehensively the viewer engagement experience (immersion) during the viewing of a film. I will highlight certain facets of the immersive experience in order to answer my primary research question, which is: What are the ways in which viewer engagement is created and what is the function of aesthetic illusion in the film Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004)? My sub-question, given that I am a screenwriter, is: What narrative techniques and devices contribute to the aesthetic illusion induced in the viewer by a film?

Depending on the primary system of signs used in each specific medium, mode or genre, the viewing experience will differ greatly because the signs are cognitively experienced differently and therefore result in different emotional responses and perceptions (Kroeber 2006:46). The immersive experience is categorised by Kroeber according to the age of the viewer or reader (a distinction is made between adult and childlike immersion) as well as the medium of communication (a distinction is made between verbal and visual immersion).

Besides aesthetic illusion, which serves as the main theoretical model of this article, several other theoretical models and concepts are employed to explain spectatorship. Although these theories stem mainly from research in cognitive studies, predominantly the PECMA flow model (Grodal 2006:5) and simulation theory (Currie 1995:145), the article also addresses certain psychoanalytical Lacanian notions of “the intrapsychic orders” (Lacan 1949 [1999]:2) and narratological concepts with regard to aesthetic illusion and film narratology which is foregrounded by Werner Wolf (2011), David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson (2004), Dióg O'Connell (2010) and Taehyun Cho (2014). The characteristic features of illusion-inducing and illusion-breaking narrative devices in verbal and visual illusionist texts are also addressed by referring to specific illusionist prototypes in film and literature. In the literary tradition the 19th-century realist novel and the modernist novel are examined for their illusionist capabilities because they both possess significant illusionary qualities. Similarly with regard to film the classical Hollywood narrative mode and alternative narrative modes are examined.

Throughout the article the focus will remain mainly on spectatorship as it pertains to film, but I will conduct this comparative study between film and literature throughout for several reasons which coincide with the following purposes of this study. First, it is imperative for me as a screenwriter to have a thorough understanding of the narrative devices that induce an illusionist effect in both the visual and the verbal mediums (which includes literature). After all, a screenwriter is required to induce an immersive effect in both mediums, since not only do the producers have to become engaged with the written story in order to invest in the film, but the script also guides the director to produce the final product which is projected on to the screen. Secondly, a knowledge of the characteristic features of illusion-inducing and illusion-breaking narrative devices in verbal and visual illusionist texts will enhance a filmmaker’s ability to transpose a script into a film, because it instils an awareness of the communicative strengths and weaknesses of the verbal and visual illusionist mediums. Thirdly, there are similarities between verbal aesthetic illusion and some more abstract alternative narrative-mode films in terms of their language-like arbitrary use of symbols and their requirement of the imaginative capabilities of the viewers and readers.

I also suggest the inclusion of derealisation, a psychological disorder, into the field of spectatorship studies because this expansion will prove to be invaluable. The immersive experience and the use of imagination in it will also be foregrounded by explicating the construction of a “readable film” and a reality behind the text as theorised by Werner Wolf.

The cult film Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004) is critically interpreted and discussed as a comment on the nature of aesthetic illusion in this regard (Wolf 2011).

Ultimately, I use the information retrieved from this research to differentiate between the different types of viewer engagements that can be generated in a viewer through the characterisation of each illusionist prototype. Any storyteller would benefit a great deal by being aware of the type of aesthetic illusion that he/she aims to induce in his/her specific audience at the onset of the writing process. This could direct the storyteller more effectively regarding the narrative devices that can and should be used to induce an illusionist effect.

Keywords: aesthetic illusion; Amy Coplan; cognitive studies; David Bordwell; David Zweig; derealisation; Dióg O'Connell; Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind; Frederick Burwick; immersion; Jacques Lacan; Karl Kroeber; simulation theory; Taehyun Cho; Torban Grodal; viewer engagement; Walter Pape; Werner Wolf

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Estetiese illusie en die wyses waarop kykerbetrokkenheid in ’n film geskep kan word, met verwysing na Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (2004)

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