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Parallels in Opposition: Examining Duality in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and The Birds

by Rekha Sharma

Alfred Hitchcock’s films are renowned for their accessibility as well as their complexity. Audiences enjoy them as entertainment, while scholars and critics study them as layered works of cinematic artistry. Similarly, the director himself created a public persona that served him well during interviews with the press and enticed the masses toward his empire of movies, television shows, and books. But Hitchcock was also a private man who guarded his personal life carefully.

This sense of multifaceted intricacy within an entity pervades Hitchcock’s films and is exemplified in Shadow of a Doubt (Skirball & Hitchcock, 1943) and The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963). Duality is a recurring theme in most of his work, on visual and narrative levels. He sets up parallels that underscore similarities and differences that exist simultaneously in events, societies, and individuals. As film critic Bosley Crowther (1999) commented:

Yes, the way Mr. Hitchcock folds suggestions very casually into the furrows of his film, the way he can make a torn newspaper or the sharpened inflection of a person’s voice send ticklish roots down to the subsoil of a customer’s anxiety is a wondrous, enviable accomplishment.

Hitchcock uses sets and props to mimic scenes, creates characters who are alike and yet pitted against one another, and highlights emotions that occur in contradiction. Thus, his films force audiences to confront their own multiplicity.

Both Shadow of a Doubt and The Birds are set in quiet California towns invaded by agents of malice (McDonald, 1962). In both movies, Hitchcock uses establishing shots of the protagonists’ homes to familiarize the audience with a safe place that will be violated. Film scholar Kevin Jack Hagopian said Hitchcock “slaughtered everything prosaic” in his Capra-esque vision of the American small town in Shadow of a Doubt. “Hitchcock made the home a place where exotic terror lives uneasily with domesticity,” he wrote, citing the insinuation of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), a.k.a. the “Merry Widow Murderer,” into an average family. Likewise, audiences are introduced to Bodega Bay and the white house between two trees along with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), the spoiled socialite from San Francisco who has been hungry for home and family. Her safe harbor comes under attack during an inexplicable “bird war,” and the gilded cage to which Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) alludes during his first meeting with Melanie translates to her later entrapment, first in the phone booth and then in the upstairs room.

Individual scenes also set up meaningful comparisons and contrasts, sometimes by foreshadowing scenes through repetition or through the use of props and staging. In the opening scenes of The Birds, the layout of the bird shop mimics the two-story house where the climactic siege takes place. Also, while Melanie plays the piano, the camera captures a white sculpture of a woman who resembles Melanie later in the film as she sits on a bench outside the school, unaware of the murder of crows flocking ominously behind her.

The opening scene of Shadow of a Doubt evokes the funeral that ends the film. Uncle Charlie lies on his bed, his hands folded over his chest. His spirit is lifeless, as he later suggests to his niece — nicknamed Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) —, indicating that he had been contemplating suicide. The train from which he falls to his death parallels the funeral procession through Santa Rosa, as the cars follow one another in grim locomotion in the same fashion as the railway cars sped single file down the tracks.

The ring Young Charlie receives from her uncle is not only an important piece of evidence of his crimes, but also symbolic. Although the movie is filmed in black and white, Hitchcock makes sure the audience knows the stone is an emerald. “Good emeralds are the most beautiful things in the world,” Uncle Charlie says as he slips the jewel on Young Charlie’s finger. A dualistic color according to Western culture, green can represent the vibrancy of life and nature, but it can also stand for negative concepts such as illness, jealousy, or deceit. Hitchcock made use of the color green as a thematic clue in Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) by incorporating it into the sash of Kim Novak’s character when she is pretending to be Madeleine and into her sweater when she is the equally false Judy. The green light of the hotel sign creates a ghostly glow as Judy transcends the boundary between life and death by transforming herself into the object of Scottie’s (James Stewart) obsessive love.

Hitchcock also conveys dualism through his characters. In Shadow of a Doubt, a dejected Young Charlie lies in her bed in nearly the same position as her uncle. Her pose reinforces the idea that she resembles him greatly. The point is driven home several times through dialogue about telepathy and the girl’s belief that she and her uncle are like twins. When Uncle Charlie pauses in front of his niece’s photograph, his face is reflected in the glass, superimposed on her image.

Despite these overt comparisons, the characters do differ in significant ways. The uncle is a cynical, psychologically damaged murderer while the niece is a wholesome, idealistic young lady. Even as the audience comes to realize this dichotomy, the tables turn when Young Charlie is forced to destroy her uncle. “She is the instrument by which he falls in front of the train,” Hitchcock said in a 1963 interview. “It comes under the heading that all villains are not black and all heroes are not white. There are grays everywhere” (as cited in Bogdanovich, 1963).

Even Melanie, the protagonist of The Birds, is momentarily painted as evil when the hysterical woman in the restaurant blames her for the attacks. Mitch’s mother doubts Melanie’s suitability for her son, questioning her wild past. But the stoic Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy) cracks under pressure while Melanie remains strong. When Melanie collapses after the final attack, Lydia takes care of her. So ultimately neither character can be called a hero nor a villain. The two characters resemble each other physically with similar hairstyles and body types, but they possess different personalities and shortcomings. Still, they share a connection to Mitch and finally to each other as they develop a mother-daughter relationship.

The humans in the movie switch places with the birds as well. Although normally the predators, the people, in this case, become the prey. The seemingly innocuous birds transform into a threatening mass taking revenge for eons of torture and destruction. Audiences feel discomfort from this imbalance because they are forced to consider the culpability of both parties. Do the birds represent “the classical Furies that were supposed to pursue the wicked on this earth,” as Crowther suggested in his 1963 review of the film? This premise is intriguing but doubtful, as viewers are naturally sympathetic toward the humans. This reaction may simply be an example of emotion overriding reason, however, as Hitchcock unmistakably comments on human cruelty and animal rights by including images of lobster traps and fried-chicken entrees.

Hitchcock forces audiences to deal with the discontinuity between their natural impulses and their intellect. His films also evoke emotional dualism in viewers by underscoring the conflicting emotions experienced by the characters. In movies such as Rope (Bernstein & Hitchcock, 1948) and Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), viewers watch in horror as the main characters commit murders but also fear that the murderers will be caught. This ambivalence occurs when the two killers in Rope falter under their mentor’s questioning and in Psycho when the murderer tries to sink a car containing his victim’s body, only to pause panic-stricken when it fails to submerge immediately. As Gallagher (2003) explained, “Hitchcock wants us moviegoers to calculate who we are as, robot-like, we construct ourselves in relation to what we experience. What is the morality of our own voyeurism? Are we entertained watching murder? At watching someone go insane and suffer?”

This identification of audiences with a charismatic killer is especially apparent in Shadow of a Doubt; viewers know that Uncle Charlie is a murderer but still have a fondness for him. They know what Young Charlie does not, but they still want to believe in her vision of him as the beloved family savior. For example, when Young Charlie confronts her uncle, the once-charming Charlie turns menacing when he grabs her arm. The audience experiences this moment in a point-of-view shot from the girl’s perspective. Young Charlie’s adoration of her uncle turns to hatred at the revelation of his guilt, and she tells him so. But having worn his ring, she symbolically becomes his widow, mourning his death as much as she would have if her illusion of his perfection had remained intact.

Hitchcock portrays Uncle Charlie as a dark angel. Uncle Charlie believes he has avenged the dead husbands of greedy widows but ignores his own moral hypocrisy. When he is eating his breakfast in bed, the shot is crafted to make the headboard behind him suggest black wings. As Uncle Charlie puffs smoke rings, they float upward and disappear—his halo is an ephemeral disguise. The shadows of the window frames create an upside-down cross as Uncle Charlie is shown in low-angle at the top of the stairs, a man who has sinned so gravely that he has fallen from the grace of God. Yet during the funeral, the townspeople mourn for the man who donated money, and the detective tells Young Charlie that her uncle wasn’t all bad. Traces of the eulogy drift back in a voice-over, reminding the townspeople that though Uncle Charlie has died, his good reputation will live on.

The surface-level simplicity of Hitchcock’s films has made them popular with audiences, but he provoked emotional dialogues within them as well. Because humans contradict themselves, Hitchcock made them realize it by incorporating that duality into his movies. As film critic Vincent Canby (1980) noted:

Hitchcock transformed things given into things unknown, the commonplace experience into the exotic breakthrough. The world just outside the Hitchcock frame, and sometimes inside it, is dark indeed, and this awareness fuels not despair but an insatiable and amused curiosity about what else can possibly go wrong.

By making the given unknown, Hitchcock engaged audiences in a journey of self-discovery. Perhaps they squirmed when the movies awakened facets of themselves they rather would not have confronted, but the viewers were entertained by Hitchcock’s treatment of dualism as a philosophy on screen and as a reality of the universe.


Bernstein, S. (Producer), & Hitchcock, A. (Producer/Director). (1948). Rope [Motion Picture]. U.S.A.: Warner Bros.

Bogdanovich, P. (1963). 1963 Interview [of Alfred Hitchcock]. The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art. Retrieved from (

Canby, V. (1980, April 30). Film maker transformed commonplace into exotic. The New York Times. Retrieved from (

Crowther, B. (1963, April 1). ‘The Birds’: Hitchcock’s feathered fiends are chilling. The New York Times. Retrieved from (

Crowther, B. (1999). Shadow of a Doubt [Film Review]. In P. M. Nichols (Ed.), The New York Times guide to the best 1,000 movies ever made (pp. 768-769). New York, NY: The New York Times Company.

Gallagher, T. (2003). Hitchcock, machines, and us. Senses of Cinema. Retrieved from (

Hagopian, K. J. 10 shades of noir: ‘Shadow of a Doubt.’ Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture. Retrieved from (

Hitchcock, A. (Producer/Director). (1963). The Birds [Motion Picture]. U.S.A.: Universal Pictures.

Hitchcock, A. (Producer/Director). (1960). Psycho [Motion Picture]. U.S.A.: Paramount Pictures.

Hitchcock, A. (Producer/Director). (1958). Vertigo [Motion Picture]. U.S.A.: Paramount Pictures.

McDonald, T. (1962, April 1). Watching ‘Birds’: Happy Hitchcock films terror-ridden tale. The New York Times. Retrieved from (

Skirball, J. H. (Producer), & Hitchcock, A. (Director). (1943). Shadow of a Doubt [Motion Picture]. U.S.A.: Universal Pictures.

About the Author:

Rekha Sharma (M.A., M.S., Kent State University) is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University. Her research interests address the uses and effects of media as well as the political impact of news and popular culture texts. She has published research on articulations of South Asian identity in diasporic film, the political effects of infotainment, war-related messages in animated cartoons, and YouTube use in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.

Gazette Summer 2012

by Mary Behrman

Welcome to the Summer 2012 Edition of the Gazette. When we think of summer, our thoughts usually turn to the manifold outdoor activities we can enjoy in this glorious and, for those in the northeast, ephemeral season. We plan picnics, beach outings, and bike rides that take advantage of summer’s lengthy days. As temperatures soar into the nineties and beyond, however, our dreams of days in the sun begin to wane, and we turn instead to the dark comfort of the movie theater in an attempt to escape the summer sun and its unforgiving heat.

This edition of The Mid-Atlantic Gazette focuses on summer’s coolest pastime with Rekha Sharma’s essay “Parallels in Opposition: Examining Duality in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and The Birds.” If, as you peruse the newspaper or, you find little to entice you in this season’s roster of films, we invite you instead to sit back in a darkened and, hopefully, air-conditioned room in your home and read about the works of one of film’s greatest and and most chilling masters.

We hope you enjoy this latest edition of The Gazette, and we encourage all members to submit their work for publication!

Parallels in Opposition: Examining Duality in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and The Birds.” by Rekha Sharma

The Impact of Transformational Technology: Does Changing the Medium Change the Message?

by John C. Hepler

In April 2011, I attended a concert at the Pittsburgh Philharmonic with friends from my university. The program that evening included Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, “Rhenish,” written in 1851; Franz Liszt’s Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra in A major, Op. 23, written in 1839 and 1849; and Richard Strauss’s Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59, written between 1909-1910. The orchestra was conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

Between the Liszt and Strauss performances, the guest pianist, Jorge Federico Osorio performed a solo, Spanish Dance No. 2, by Pablo Sarasate. Seated in the balcony, I was enthralled, remembering my own years of piano lessons and how much I enjoyed listening to recorded piano performances. Yet, I realized that at some point over the years I had stopped enjoying them, for some ill-defined reason. I found piano performances to be distant, flat, stripped of emotion; to me they seemed cold and devoid of color.

But this performance was different; the piano sounded “alive.” I felt each note vibrating on my skin; it seemed as if shimmering threads of gold filled the air in the concert hall. When the pianist finished, I was surprised, thrilled, and a little confused. I had reacted emotionally to the music. Why was my experience this time so different?

The next day, while perusing my music collection, I realized that my love affair with the piano had stopped when I started listening to recordings of piano concerts on compact disc. Then it hit me—the digital recording was the problem. The sound no longer seemed natural, in the sense that it no longer was delivered in an analog format. In the conversion of the music from the analog wavelengths to a binary series of 1’s and 0’s, the auditory values remained, but for me at least, the tactile and visual reactions had been stripped away. Being deprived of that additional sensory nourishment, my connection to the music was rendered unfulfilled, withered. Listening to full orchestrations concealed the loss, but since I had a tactile connection to the piano from my years of lessons, it was the keyboard that heightened my sensitivity to the difference in the recording medium.

Pondering the conversion of analog sound waves to digital bits, I began to think about musical artists’ original intentions and the instruments they used to share their intentions with the audience. The piano and other musical instruments were meant to be heard by live audiences; analog recordings (e.g., on shellac, acetate, vinyl, etc.) were faithful reproductions because they preserved the original format of the sounds as they were played. Did changing the distribution medium (analog vs. digital) affect how the listener responded to the music?

Since the mid-1980’s, a fiery debate has raged in the world of music between the analog and digital recording factions (Partyka, 1999). My interest has focused more on the experience as a whole, based on George Lakoff’s experientialist concept of cognition. His view was based on “the premise that thought and language are fundamentally motivated by bodily experience” (Buckland, 2000, p. 39). My experience at the Philharmonic was an example of Lakoff’s theory that cognition is built on sensory experience, as I not only heard the music, but also felt it and visualized it.

I expanded my musings to consider motion pictures and television shows. Television producers and directors have created movies and programs taking into consideration the spatial and temporal constraints of the broadcast medium. Audiences were intended to experience, some would say “to consume,” the finished product in a specific way. The questions that unfurled in my mind were, “If the distribution medium of a piece of music, a motion picture, or a television program were changed, would it change the audience’s cognitive consumption of the artistic product? Would the audience experience the musical piece, film, or TV program as it was meant to be experienced?”

McLuhan’s (1964/2003) famous maxim, “The medium is the message,” posited that a distribution medium such as a vinyl LP or CD affects the listener not only by the music recorded on the medium, but by the properties of the medium itself. To explain his theory, he used the incandescent bulb as an example. While the light bulb did not deliver any content itself, it transformed personal and public spaces, allowing people to pursue daytime activities, such as reading, at night. He noted, “A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence” (p. 8). More controversially, he maintained that the medium was in fact more important than the content it delivered. Strate (2008) elaborates this point, stating “…it is the medium that has the greatest impact on human affairs, not the specific messages we send or receive” (p. 130).

Gibson (2008), paraphrasing McLuhan, answered my question regarding cognition and media change. “The ‘message’ is therefore the consequences of the medium—that is, the ‘total configurational awareness’ that ‘results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves or by any new technology’” (p. 149). Changes in the music, motion picture, and television industries support this statement; these changes have affected the general public in ways that many have not yet fully comprehended.

In the case of the message and music, trends in how musical recordings have been marketed and distributed over the past decades have affected how they have been consumed by the listening public. In the heyday of the medium known today as the vinyl LP, musical artists produced collections of songs, known as “albums,” which were meant to be enjoyed together. The sequencing of songs was deliberate, based on the physical limits of the vinyl disc: each side could only hold approximately twenty-four minutes of recorded material (e.g., music, spoken word, sound effects, etc.). Based on this “flip-side” technology (Edmunds, 2008), several generations of music lovers grew up with this spatial and temporal organization of music. Taking advantage of this medium, artists often organized songs on a vinyl LP around a theme, i.e., a “fast” side of up-tempo songs paired with a “slow” side of ballads.

Vinyl LPs were meant to be listened to socially; stereo systems became almost as important in the American teenager’s life as cars. An expensive stereo system was a prestige item, similar today to flat screen televisions (Plambeck, 2010). Album covers became art; covers that opened to twice their width (or more) were known as “gatefold covers,” and a music-industry award for the cover art, such as a Grammy, became as important a distinction as an award for the music itself. Artists included lyrics and additional information on the inside sleeve. These “liner notes” often included the artist’s thoughts behind the meaning of the lyrics, the lyrics themselves, and any other information the artist thought was relevant to the listening experience.

With the advent of the compact disc in the mid-1980’s, capacity almost doubled; in comparison to the forty-eight minute limitation of the vinyl LP, CDs held up to seventy-eight minutes of digital recordings (McCourt, 2005). Since CDs were smaller, the CD cover, or “jewel case,” became smaller too. As a result, cover art became less “art” and more “packaging.” Liner notes were printed so small that they became difficult to read, and lengthy notes were printed on cumbersome folded paper. The combination of the two physical limitations of the new medium effectively diminished the scope of the message conveyed by the artist. McCourt (2005) elaborates on the differences between vinyl LPs and CDs, describing how the total sensory experience has been transformed:

CDs have a physical presence of plastic and metal, enhanced by packaging. They retain ‘‘aura,’’ although this aura is diminished. Browsing a record collection is emotionally gratifying; it is visual and tactile at the same time. We pore over the jacket art and liner notes. We determine the value of the recording by gauging the wear on the jacket and disc. Browsing a CD collection, on the other hand, is less satisfying. The medium’s size limits its visual appeal, and the plastic of the jewel box degrades the tactile sensation (pp. 249-250).

What became especially problematic for the music aficionado was the transfer of older recordings from vinyl LPs to compact discs. Sonically, the two halves of the album were fused together on one side of the CD. While it was convenient not to have to flip the CD halfway through the album, the union of the two sides affected concept albums featuring sonically and tonally different sides. The change in distribution medium directly changed the way the listener experienced the artist’s work. Williams (2008) noted, “With vinyl, listeners cede control to the artist. They let the music wash over them, in the original order of songs, at the original pace” (p. ST1). With CDs, the listener could randomly play the songs using the “shuffle” feature present on most CD players, thus defeating the artist’s intentions.

More recently, music has been transformed again with advent of MP3s and file sharing services. The influence of the technology-driven concepts of “portability” and “personalization” has invaded the music industry. As a result, music has become less of a physical product and more of a service (Styvén, 2007). Today fans of musical artists frequently download individual songs, eroding the concept of the collection of songs distributed in the form of a vinyl LP or CD. With music as a service with no distinguishable physical property, the value of cover art and liner notes has diminished dramatically.

While it can be argued that the social aspect of appreciating music continues in the form of file sharing on Internet websites, the communal listening experience has been disarticulated. Friends share music online, yet listen to it individually through portable devices and miniaturized headphones called “earphones” or “earbuds.” Beer (2008) writes, “A sight that has become increasingly common is the ubiquitous white earphone, the indicator, perhaps unreliably, that situated somewhere on the body is an Apple iPod MP3 player” (p. 74). But there is a downside to portability: by using earbuds to transport music outside the confines of the home, the listener is stripping away the sensory experience of feeling the sound waves on his/her skin. Thus, a cognitive experience has been lost, and potentially, a level of understanding has been compromised.

Furthermore, with the ephemeral nature of downloaded files, the desire to collect music is less strong among young listeners. Today music is more consumable than collectible. McCourt (2005) notes the disastrous impact downloaded music files have had on artists’ copyrights. He explains, “Diminished or nonexistent physical property undermines the notion of intellectual property—hence the widespread illicit copying of software and public support of file sharing” (p. 250).

Compact discs and MP3 files are examples of new technology and the unforeseen changes in society this technology enacts. Most people have been so caught up in the new technology, in acquiring it, that they haven’t realized how it has affected their interactions with the music itself. McLuhan (2003) describes this as the “numbing or narcotic effect of new technology that lulls attention while the new form slams the gates of judgment and perception” (p. 63). While music has become more portable (Beer, 2008; Plambeck, 2010), how people interact with music has changed. According to audiophile Michael Fremer, founder of, “People used to sit and listen to music. It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to” (Plambeck, 2010, para. 13). Today, music is listened to while doing other things, such as exercising or commuting to and from work.

Similar to the migration of music from vinyl LPs to CDs and MP3 files, the presentation of motion pictures also has been affected by changes in distribution medium. This change in medium has led to as impassioned an outcry against the changes as that which exploded in the music industry.

One of the most contentious issues in filmmaking over the past three decades has been the technique of modifying the dimensions of a film for broadcast on standard televisions. Labeled as “pan and scan,” this practice is brought about by the different screen dimensions, expressed as “aspect ratios” of many films in comparison to that of the standard television screen. This ratio, expressed as width-by-height, was standardized early in the development of the film industry as 4:3, or 1.33:1, where the image was only slightly wider than its height.

Ironically, it was the advent of television in the 1950s that prompted the film industry to develop wider aspect ratios. The popularity of television had seriously damaged box-office revenue; experimenting with the size of the screen image was just one of many attempts to lure audiences back into the movie theatres. Different solutions were developed throughout the 1950s, including Cinerama, Todd-AO, and CinemaScope. Adopted by 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Disney, CinemaScope had an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, where the image was 2.35 times as wide as it was high (Neuendorf, Lieberman, Ying, & Lindmark, 2009).

By the early 1960s, the film studios realized that they couldn’t out-compete television and decided instead to profit from it by selling motion pictures for network broadcast. The problem was that television screens had been developed with the 1.33:1 aspect ratio used in the earlier era of filmmaking. This difference was addressed with the development of the “pan and scan” technique: an optical printing process that used a “finder frame” to track the important action occurring in each frame of the film (Belton, 1992). When copies, called “prints,” of the film were being processed, the printer could either cut off the left and right sides of the image or pan within the frame to follow the action.

This technique has drawn the ire of film purists and famous directors, including Martin Scorsese and the late Sydney Pollack. In a Turner Classic Movies (TCM) documentary on “letterboxing” (where the original aspect ratio is maintained with the appearance of black bars above and below the full image), Scorsese lamented the use of pan and scan, stating that it was, “In a sense, technically, redirecting the movie” (TCM, 2007). In the documentary, director and screenwriter Curtis Hanson explained:

There are many things that go into the making of a movie. One of those things is the shape of the movie, how wide is the screen, and how does that impact the shots that make up the movie? Every shot in a movie is thoughtfully composed. And the composition of that shot is approached the same way that a painter approaches the composition of a painting. And when a technician takes a completed movie and pans and scans, he’s moving the camera defensively rather than artistically, and violating all the creativity that went into composing that shot (TCM, 2007).

The majority of complaints about pan and scan have been voiced by the innovative minds that created film history, and while they referenced the film viewer, they have been focused on the viewpoints of the filmmaker rather than on the experience of the viewer. As making a connection with the audience has been the goal of directors and producers since the advent of film, how the viewer cognitively reacted to the motion picture should have been the primary concern of the filmmakers.

Deleuze (1986) maintained that film was not a series of discrete images, but instead was composed of what he called movement-images, where the contents of the image were defined by their continuity of movement (p. 5). Deleuze proposed that there were three different kinds of movement-images: the perception-image; the affection-image; and the action-image. He associated the perception-image with the concept of the wide or establishing shot, where characters were established in their surroundings. The affection-image was tied to emotion and its focus on the face to express it, i.e., the “close up.” The action-image was associated with the duration of the scene, used to propel the story line while still affording full view of the characters’ ranges of expression.

If we apply Lakoff’s cognitive theory (Buckland, 2000) to the issue of pan and scan in film, viewers gain their understanding of a motion picture through the experience of watching the sounds and images projected on the screen. Yet, if a film is panned and scanned, thus changing perception-images into action-images, or action-images into affection-images, the filmmaker’s intended viewer-experience has been altered. Characters, movements, and sounds now are effectively excluded from the frame, changing the scene’s impact on the audience. Director, producer, and sometimes actor, Sydney Pollack, explained:

Images collectively add up to something. They add up to something when one frame contains many elements. Your eye sees all of them, some of them peripherally and some of them as a point of focus, and collectively it creates a mood” (TCM, 2007).

If a film is modified in such a way that viewers do not experience all of it, the change compromises their ability to cognitively process what their senses (sight and hearing) have processed individually. However, in a recent study, half the participants stated they preferred the pan and scan versions of the films screened, primarily because they didn’t like the “black bars at the top and bottom of the screen” (Neuendorf, Lieberman, Ying, & Lindmark, 2009). Distracted by the black space on the screen, the participants mistakenly believed they were not seeing the entire image when viewing a wide screen film in its original aspect ratio. Instead they favored the truncated visuals disseminated in the pan and scan edits, which effectively limited their cognitive experience.

Advances in television technology have not resolved the issue. With the proliferation of reasonably-priced flat screen TVs in the first decade of the 21st century, viewers expecting their widescreen issues to be resolved were still surprised by “black bars” across the top of their rectangular screens. This is because the aspect ratios of flat screen TVs vary, depending on the manufacturer. As in other hi-tech industries, competition and innovation have further confused the matter. Aspect ratio is frequently included in the product information included in promotional materials, but few consumers pay attention to what the dimensions mean. Retail prices frequently trump technical specifications.

Changes in the medium of television also have impacted how today’s viewer experiences episodic television, but ironically in the opposite direction from audio recordings. Indirectly referencing McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” Buckland (2008) notes, “It is quite reasonable to argue that all film and TV images are embodied with their technological mode of production, which binds each to an historical space and time” (p. 71). However, the biggest change in the past decade to television programs has been how they have been distributed, both physically (i.e., space) and temporally (i.e., time).

Since the 1970’s, the major broadcasting networks have reduced their seasonal orders of television programs from twenty-six to twenty-two episodes. While the number of episodes may have changed, little else has been altered in the temporal organization of television. Episodes are broadcast weekly, on the same day at the same time (offering predictability for the viewer to build a television-viewing habit), with the traditional television viewing season starting in September and finishing in May (timed to coincide with the academic year). Breaks in scheduling the episodes are built into the television schedule around holidays and sporting events.

In the U.S. and Canada, episodic one-hour television programs are organized much like traditional stage plays. Each episode opens with a “teaser” or preview of the broadcast, followed by the main credits. Often, programs show a brief review, or “recap,” of past episodes to help the viewer understand the plot in the event an episode was missed. The actual scripted performance consists of a forty-four minute broadcast. The broadcast is divided into four eight-minute segments, similar to the acts in a play, which are separated by commercial breaks lasting one to two minutes. The plot is written to build up to each of these breaks, often with musical accompaniment to heighten viewer tension or investment in the events depicted in the episode. At the end of each episode, a brief resolution of the plot is followed by the end credits. Frequently to heighten and sustain viewer interest, previews of the following week’s episode are broadcast before the end credits.

This temporal organization of the television program can be seen as its distribution medium, timed from the broadcast season down to the episodic minute. The television program was produced to be watched in this format, conforming to Deleuze’s concept of the time-image. Deleuze defined the time-image as “where the cinema—having abandoned the sensory-motor schema of the action-image—is finally able to unleash pure duration” (Restivo, 2000, p. 175). Reflecting on the temporal organization of the time-image in film, Restivo states:

The cinema, that is, always posits a virtual wholeness or continuum of the world … while at the same time necessarily—by the very requirement of the motion-picture camera—subjecting the whole to discontinuity, dissemination. This idea is central to Deleuze’s project, for it is what allows the cinema to function in the way that consciousness does—dividing things up, reassembling things into sets, framing its interests, forming wholes (p. 176).

With the advent of the DVD, and subsequently the DVR, Deleuze’s time-image has been eradicated. This is especially true in the case of the DVD, where there are no commercial advertisements interspersed between the eight-minute acts and frequently the recaps have been omitted. Rather than having to wait for the next broadcast, the viewer can watch all of the episodes over a shorter amount of time, such as a weekend. Within each episode, the plot still builds, the music still swells, but the episode immediately “jumps” to the next act.

While many people consider the lack of commercial breaks beneficial, the temporal compression disrupts Deleuze’s time-image and limits the viewer’s opportunity to reflect on the events depicted in the episode. Without the time to reflect on, or cognitively process, the events presented on the television screen, the viewer is less likely to develop a long-term emotional attachment, or “investment,” in the characters and plotline.

When technological changes in distribution media affect original artistic output in film, television, and music, measurable, and largely unnoticed, changes in cognitive processing occur. As Federman (2004) observed:

Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation—be it an invention or a new idea—many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects “unintended consequences,” although “unanticipated consequences” might be a more accurate description (p. 1).

The social component of listening to music with friends and studying the accompanying materials distributed with the vinyl LP (e.g., the cover art and liner notes), has been lost. The visual storytelling in Deleuze’s movement-images has been amputated by the pan and scan technique of film editing. The cultural impact of episodic television’s temporal schedule, making viewers wait—building anticipation—has been eroded through DVDs and the DVR’s negation of Deleuze’s time-images. These cultural shifts—some might say cultural losses—become apparent when existing artistic works including music, film, and television programs are redistributed via a new media. Strate (2008) summarizes the effect:

McLuhan’s goal was the liberation of the human mind and spirit from its subjugation to symbol systems, media, and technologies. This can only begin with a call to pay attention to the medium, because it is the medium that has the greatest impact on human affairs, not the specific messages we send or receive (p. 130).

What remains to be seen is if media transfers have a physiological impact on the human brain. With today’s MRI imaging capabilities, it would be interesting to investigate if the brain does react differently when content such as motion pictures, episodic television, and music are transferred to different media. Studies conducted at New York University of brain activity while watching television (Hasson, Furman, Clark, Dudai, & Davachi, 2007) demonstrate we have the technology to “watch what happens when we watch TV.” The next step would be to compare brain activity when watching broadcast TV in comparison to episodic TV on DVD, or to compare the reaction to watching a film in widescreen versus pan and scan formats.

On his website, Moulton Laboratories, Dr. David Moulton at the Berklee College of Music in Boston reported on a Japanese study conducted in the early 1990s that compared analog and digital frequencies and brain activity. Using a blind study of listeners, the results indicated that digital music’s reduction of frequency range lessened “both measurable brain activity and the listener’s conscious awareness of interest, satisfaction, and beauty” (Partyka, 1999, para. 10). Moulton posted his original article in 1993; he subsequently revisited it in 2005 and appended it, noting that improvements in technology had mitigated many of the technical differences between audio and digital recordings. He added that, although his digital-preferring peers had discounted the Japanese study in the intervening years, he himself (although also a digital audiophile) still stood by the report’s conclusions. Even more intriguing, he called attention to the fact that up until that time, the study had never been repeated. Perhaps it is time to revisit the issue, benefiting from the advances made in medical technology over the past seven years.

Opportunities to reduce production costs while increasing corporate profits will continue to dictate the distribution media selected by the film and music industries, regardless of the cognitive impact the changes in media have on the consumer. Only when armed with measurable scientific proof will film, television, and music aficionados have the ability to liberate themselves, as McLuhan described it, from the technological subjugation imposed upon them by motion picture, television, and music studios. For me, a live performance of classical music illuminated the issue of media transfer on cognition and creativity. With more empirical research devoted to studying media transfer’s impact, perhaps new dissemination processes will be developed that will be better able to honor the creative and cognitive intentions of artists and audiences alike.


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Gazette Spring 2012

by Mary Behrman

This edition—the first to be featured on MAPACA’s new website—features two articles, both of which offer incisive commentary on the effects of living in societies buffeted by the often harsh winds of change. Mary Grennen’s essay, “The Nature/Nurture Dichotomy of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer,” focuses on Nora’s evolution in Ibsen’s A Doll House, from a flighty, shallow woman—an embodiment of the Victorian stereotype—to one boldly willing to forsake her marriage in an attempt to satisfy her deep-seated desire for autonomy. John Hepler’s essay, “The Impact of Transformational Technology: Does Changing the Medium Change the Message?,” analyzes the ramifications of recent sea-changes to the music, film and television industries in the ways in which they deliver their products. He contends that the new methods of delivery alter—perhaps for the worse—our perception of these artistic creations. Thus, his essay represents an elegy for an earlier method, one that, he contends, successfully diminished the distance between the artistic production and its audience, a feat that modern delivery systems fail to accomplish.

We hope that you enjoy this edition of The Gazette and that you consider submitting your own essays, reflections, reviews, or artistic endeavors to the magazine. You may find information regarding submissions on our website. Thank you, and enjoy reading our two featured articles!

The Nature/Nurture Dichotomy of Ibsen’s Nora Helmer” by Mary Grennen

The Impact of Transformational Technology: Does Changing the Medium Change the Message?” by John C. Hepler


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