Embodied Visual Meaning [in] Motion

Creator's Statement

This video essay is the result of a long search process of finding an appropriate alternate form to reveal in a visual way the underlying dynamic and embodied patterns of meaning-making in cinema (e.g., Coëgnarts and Kravanja 2012; Coëgnarts 2019, 2020; Coëgnarts and Slugan 2022). Over the last few decades our understanding of what meaning is has changed significantly due to recent developments in the cognitive sciences and neurosciences. Turning away from the propositional or linguistic view of meaning, a growing number of scholars today have come to embrace the embodied view that cognition and meaning-making processes emerge from organisms that are embedded and acting in the physical and cultural world (e.g., Claxton 2015; Gibbs 2006; Lakoff and Johnson 1999; Tversky 2019). Rather than emphasising formal and linguistic structures, they stress, among others, the conceptual significance of recurrent spatial patterns of bodily experience or 'image schemas', as Lakoff and Johnson (1999) coin them. They include such dynamic spatial configurations as the forced movement of an object into a container – a dynamic pattern which has been argued to structure our reasoning about concepts such as visual perception (e.g., 'He came into view') and emotional causality ('He brought her into tears').

Since image schemas are typically defined as cross-modal and pre-linguistic gestalts of bodily experience, the embodied view of meaning also comes together with the academic challenge of laying bare something that operates beneath our cognitive and conceptual (i.e., linguistic) awareness. This is where the format of the video-essay offers film scholars a potential useful resource as it provides a set of visual means (e.g., graphical forms and vectors) to diagram in a very abstract and schematic way the  hidden dynamic spatial patterns of sensory-motor experience (and thus the bodily sources of meaning-making).

Given an abstract dynamic pattern X in animated form and a concrete film excerpt Y, the practical question arises as to how to combine X and Y in the audio-visual format. There are at least three ways in which they can be spatially brought together: that is, (1) by assembling them in temporal sequence (X before Y or Y after X or vice versa), or by displaying them simultaneously either (2) side by side or (3) by merging them into one hybrid image (superimposition/overlay). The first option is the most feasible as it does not require any synchronisation between the motion of X and the motion of Y, a task which is technically demanding. In the video-essay I mainly opted for the first option while occasionally experimenting with the latter two possibilities. The first option has an important rhetorical benefit: as the viewers see the animation first, they are still able to construe their own story before observing how the pattern serves a more articulated function in the 'concrete' visual content of the filmic representation.

As thousands of songs are based on only a few possible structures or chords, so are a significant amount of meanings in cinema based on an exhaustive set of dynamic patterns of containment. As can be seen in the glossary at the end of the video-essay, these patterns, which we can label verbally as exit, entry, inclusion, exclusion, and so on, are composed of only a few spatial attributes (a container, an object, and a vector quality or directional movement).

Importantly, with these basic patterns it is possible to create, as the video-essay demonstrates, numerous dynamic combinations, some basic, others more complex, through which filmmakers are able to flesh out the often abstract motivational dynamics of the films’ narratives. These psychological dynamics are characterised by a change of state that occurs in a character or in a human relationship and which are carried metaphorically by the spatial dynamics of the film form. This is, how for instance, in the film Blonde (2022), the increase of emotional intensity inside the character of Marilyn Monroe ('a feeling of having no room to breathe') is cinematically fleshed out by having the distance between the camera and Marilyn’s face gradually decreased by the end of the shot; an 'increase of substance inside the container' (i.e., we move from establishing shot to close-up) which is triggered by a playful interplay of enclosures and entries. In the same way we can assign social meaning and animacy to the spatial dynamics of, for example, Close (2022), which embody the negative change that has befallen their friendship (from unity we move on to exclusion).

Thus, the video-essay shows how filmmakers are communicators of meaning. Through their mastery of the cinematic form, they are able to transcend its merely reproductional quality. Like all great artists they are able to tell us something about the human condition. The dynamic patterns, as revealed in this video-essay, illustrate only a section of the embodied chords through which they fulfill this expressive function.

Cited works

Claxton, G. 2015. Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than it Thinks, Yale University Press, Yale, USA.
Coëgnarts, M. 2019. Film as Embodied Art: Bodily Meaning in the Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. Academic Studies Press, Boston, USA.
Coëgnarts, M. 2020. 'How motion shapes thought in cinema: The embodied film style of Éric Rohmer'. Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 14(2), 26-47.
Coëgnarts, M., & Kravanja, P. 2012. Embodied visual meaning: Image schemas in film. Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 6(2), 84-101.
Coëgnarts, M., and Slugan, M. 2022. 'Embodying meaning visually: From perceptual dynamics to motion kinematics'. Art & Perception, 10(2), 137-158.
Gibbs Jr., R. W. 2006. Embodiment and Cognitive Science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York, USA.
Tversky, B. 2019. Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, Basic Books, New York, USA.


Maarten Coëgnarts is Assistant Professor in Film Studies at the University of Antwerp and fellow of SCSMI. His research on embodied cognition, metaphor and cinema has been widely published in various international peer-reviewed journals including Art & Perception, Cinéma & Cie, Metaphor and Symbol, New Review of Film and Television Studies, Palgrave Communications and Projections. He is co-editor of the book Embodied Cognition and Cinema (Leuven University Press, 2015) and author of the book Film as Embodied Art: Bodily Meaning in the Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (Academic Studies Press, 2019). He has presented at several international conferences and has recently been appointed research fellow at the Department of Art History and Image Studies at the University of the Free State. He is currently involved in the FilmEU_RIT pilot project 'Artistic Research and Cognitive Film Studies' which aims at furthering transdisciplinary collaboration between artistic researchers and cognitive film scholars.

I know the author and highly value his scholarship – on embodied cognition, image schemas, and Conceptual Metaphor Theory in film –, therefore, to avoid any suspicion of a biased review, I won’t comment on the content of this publication, and, instead, devote my observations to assess the qualities of the submission as a videographic endeavor. This might be more useful, because, as far as I know, this is the first video Coëgnarts has ever ambitioned to publish.

The primary yardstick to my assessment (of any kind of videographic work) is to consider the value of the audiovisual treatment over the traditional textual conduct, that is, to gauge whether an audiovisually augmented communication of someone’s research findings adds to the point in the make. Assuming the research itself wasn’t conducted audiovisually by design, I see the videographic rendition fully justified. Imagine how difficult it would be to describe what’s presented here; how challenging it would be to argue for the functioning of abstract dynamic patterns as fundamentals for representing a variety of cinematic drama (something, in fact, Coëgnarts frequently attempts in his written work).

While I feel some bits could be shorter (like the Godard scenes between 10:51 and 12:31) or perhaps faster (although these remarks might be misguided by my repeated viewing), I love the smoothly changing presentation style, also for the sake of maintaining audience attention during a relatively long video. Through either putting side-by-side (as in the treatment of Dhont’s Close at 10:14) or even mixing the abstract visualizations with the actual film illustrations – resulting in dots representing characters moving in and out of moving rectangles filled with film scenes that occasionally also move within the videoessay’s own frame, representing camera movements (like in the analysis of Renoir’s Nana at 04:37 or Wong’s In the Mood for Love at 5:00) –, the video remains engaging. Of course, such stripping down of film scenes to their very essential abstractions makes truly sense only to those who know the cited films and the actual dramaturgic contexts within which these scenes operate and actors co-operate: for example, the abstraction of a dot entering and insistently re-entering a gradually shrinking frame (at from 01:35) can easily be seen as a primary ‘dynamic moving image schema’ for an abusive ‘daddy’ (in Dominik’s Blonde) who is gradually breaking into Monroe’s more and more intimate spaces (at from 02:04). The occasional quotes, the ‘interpretive’ recaps and the visual glossary at the end of the video, all bring a welcome clarity on this respect.

Knowing the creator’s earlier written work, especially his meticulous efforts of visualizations as illustrations of his unfolding theories (tailor made charts and flow diagrams, series of screenshots breaking down complex scenes, etc.), his transition to videographic scholarship is a natural move. It certainly is a logical one for a conscientiously rigorous scholar so closely reading film texts and so richly illustrating theories by a wide variety of film examples. That laconic Rohmer-quote at the beginning is a wonderful choice as it, perhaps unintentionally but for this viewer rather effectively, both refers to Rohmer’s filmmaking and Coëgnarts’ own ambition and method to illustrate such filmmaking at the same time.

I would only consider myself as having dipped about two toes into the pool of videographic essays, mostly through this journal and the work of some of my colleagues and students. I am a huge fan of the work of Philip Józef Brubaker and Catherine Grant, both of whom fully display the deep love of movies and for close analysis of visual style which I find most inviting in videographic essays, and whose technical skills display a maturity to the form they have helped to pioneer.

This videographic essay is an important contribution to the field, especially for its animated representations of camera and character movement, particularly as they relate to off-screen space. Coëgnarts has clearly thought about this problem of how to represent space and movement a lot, and his diagrams have evolved since the sometimes harder to follow versions in his Kubrick book. Here, the drawings are elegantly simple but quite meaningful, something along the lines of Edward Tufte's aesthetic. Coëgnarts also presents them with the film scenes he is charting, so the value of these representations becomes immediately evident. (And it doesn't hurt that the movements in his diagrams are accompanied by an extremely deep Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois track which fits quite nicely).

There's a whole seminar or two that could be found in going through the examples here and their representations. After a couple of viewings, I felt that Coëgnarts was actually doing a bit of experimenting, both in terms of how to combine the diagrams with the shots they represent, and in the choices of film-makers. Mostly we get the masters, which is fine by me, along with certain quirky choices (Blonde, Close, Birth) that I think are admirable to include as well. I'd say no one should have a complaint about shots from Renoir, Ophuls, Kubrick (three), Antonioni (two), Godard (two), Rohmer (two), Scorsese, Sirk, and Bresson. Great films are rich with significant movements of the camera and use of off-screen space, and exploring these rather than charting a taxonomy of typical examples seems much the way to go. While occasionally he'll show more than one film employing a similar strategy, most of his choices are more daringly original and very rarely seen in the work of other film-makers. Famous examples like Barbara Bel Geddes walking back and forth between James Mason and Robert Ryan in Ophuls' Caught, or Scorsese moving away from DeNiro on the phone in Taxi Driver to an empty hallway are very much worth exploring in their own right, and not as part of an argument about typical film grammar.

Coëgnarts dresses up his approach by saying it's about embodiment and aligning with certain authors outside of film studies, but I don't think what he's doing needs to be posed that way. He does bring up Bordwell and Burch enough to suggest that he's interested mostly in traditional issues like camera movement and off-screen space. What's interesting about his approach is that animated graphic representations could be in service of a range of arguments. While he presents a couple of screens of drawings at the end and labels them a glossary, I think his approach is best looked at as a first set of possibilities that are far from complete. Pick your film and you could come up with some variation of the options he presents, and you could give a try to following his lead, in service of any number of issues.

So compelling is his approach that I felt each time like I wanted to converse about this specific choice and how it's represented. Mostly, it made me hungry for more examples along the same lines. When he shows one great shot from Nana and then a quote from Theory of Film Practice about it, I could envision a whole video essay devoted to Burch's six zones of off-screen space, something that Coëgnarts began to lay out in the Kubrick book. (Incidentally, the book is available online). This video essay is a very nice step for him from the printed page (besides Kubrick, he's written about Rohmer too) to the comforts of showing actual examples. The Kubrick book sometimes has as many as 24 still frames on one page from a single sequence (Paths of Glory is the prizewinner), when an actual video excerpt does the job so much better.

I would view as experimental as well his laying out the final sequence of Mouchette as his last example, which requires seven rectangles, and quarter screen images which move around, and the rectangles repeated again after the sequence. It's a well chosen and challenging example, and it's followed by a general comment about transcendental style from Paul Schrader's book. He could as well have chosen Pickpocket or just about any Bresson, but to me it then felt, if you're really going after this, why not Ozu and Dreyer too. Again, there's another whole essay in pursuing this single example, and I suspect Coëgnarts is quite aware that his one here opens the door to an inviting line of inquiry.

While his drawings are basic and quite effective, interesting options pop up, such as whether different characters require distinctive shadings, and how to represent movements of the camera by moving the rectangles and also by altered distances. (Sometimes the circles get smaller to indicate they are moving away from the camera). He is still tempted occasionally to add text to the drawings, which he did even more extensively on the printed page, and which I think is a mistake. The elegance of purely visual representation which he brings to most of his drawings is a welcome constraint. These are of course issues of infographics, and Coëgnarts here certainly sets a high and imaginative standard.