ERC-Projekt CATNEMI gestartet

Das vom European Research Council geförderte Vorhaben beschäftigt sich mit dem Atmosphärischen im Film. Wir haben Gastprofessor Dr. Steffen Hven, dem Leiter des Projekts, ein paar Fragen gestellt und wollen verstehen, worum es unter dem Akronym CATNEMI in den nächsten fünf Jahren gehen soll.

Zwei Filmstills aus Ida Lupinos "The Hitch Hiker" (1953) (öffnet Vergrößerung des Bildes)
Rko Radio Pictures, Young, C., Lupino, I., Lovejoy, F., O'Brien, E. & Talman, W. (1953) The Hitch-Hiker. [Video] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, RKO Pictures, Lupino, I. (1953) The Hitch-Hiker. [Video] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Dafür haben wir uns etwas mehr Raum genommen, denn schon der zentrale Begriff des Atmosphärischen ist konzeptionell schwierig zu fassen, auch oder gerade wenn wir das Phänomen selbst – die Atmosphäre in einer konkreten Situation – unmittelbar spüren. Das Gespräch wurde in Englisch, der Arbeitssprache des Projekts, geführt und wird hier auch so wiedergegeben – denn nicht nur die Förderung, auch die Relevanz des Themas ist international.

For most film viewers, atmosphere is rather a elusive, emotional quality; a research project like CATNEMI, on the other hand, needs a definition. What might this be? Can you explain it with an example?

In simple terms, the notion of atmosphere describes how spaces, situations, things, or interpersonal relations can be said to be suggestive of a mood or feeling tone. Dark thunder clouds hanging over a rocky cliff has a different sentiment than the calming sounds of waves latching on to the beach on a sunny day. The notion of atmosphere helps us articulate the idea that the natural environment can be expressive of mood in a way that is different to one’s own personal feeling state. This is also what differentiates atmospheres from mood, since only the latter can be ascribed to the personal level: we cannot talk about ‘my atmosphere’ as we can of ‘my mood’. Atmospheres do not just belong to the natural world but can be actively produced through the arrangement of the environment in such a way as to affect people’s moods and guide their perceptions and actions for reasons that can be aesthetic, artistic, commercial, or ideological. The notion of atmosphere seems to be straightforward to accept and understand on an intuitive level. After all we often speak about the atmosphere of a restaurant, at a football match, or during a particular tense political period. Atmosphere is also something that we don’t necessarily attend to but which we notice with a staggering effect once it is not there, as when the pandemic caused sporting events to be televised without the buzzing atmosphere of the cheering crowd.

Our ability to sense atmospheres belongs to our most important social and cultural competences; and we can spur atmospheres without having to find ourselves in the corresponding mood. On a day where we feel especially uplifted, we are nonetheless able to spur the depressing atmosphere that fills the room at the funeral of a distant relative. Our ability to perceive the atmosphere is what allows us to engage in an appropriate way that pays respect to the overall sentiment or atmosphere of the ritual we are partaking in. Atmospheres communicate by arousing sensations, feelings, and sentiments.  However, even an abstract system such as language does not escape the atmospheric realm, as evidenced in how different the fonds such as ‘comic sans’ and ‘times new roman’, with one being more suitable for the birthday invitation of a six years old the other for formal communication. It is therefore important need only to be able to spur the atmosphere of one’s immediate surroundings but also to be aware of what we transmit back into the atmospheric circuit. A news speaker’s facial expression must be adjusted to the overall mood of the message being read out. Our ability to spur atmospheres is then like a ‘sixth sense’ and it underlines basic survival mechanism as well as our ability to socially interact.

I think it is important to state that in our everyday lives, atmosphere never baffles us, and their existence is not the cause of mystery or great confusion. This is quite differently when we start to define them. When we engage in this kind of activity, we often start with the basic question of whether the phenomenon is subjective such as thoughts and ideas or objective such as chairs and tables. In relation to film, we could pose this question differently; does the dark atmosphere of a film-noir film belong to the film itself or is it something we produce inside our minds? Atmosphere seems to belong neither to the individual nor to the world. Or, perhaps it is more precise to say that it belongs to both at a time before any meaningful division between them can be drawn. The notion of atmosphere, as is the case with related terms such as ‘Umwelt’, ‘environment’, and ‘ecology’, imply the surrounding environment as it is perceived by a living organism. In both philosophical and theoretical terms, I think there is a lot to gain from accepting this fact, even if it comes with the drawback that it makes atmosphere hard to properly define. However, instead of trying to give an abstract definition, this project proposes that we look at the basic features used to produce atmospheres within the aesthetic context of filmic storytelling.  

In the broadest sense, film studies is about understanding how films produce meaning. Why is atmosphere an important category in this process?

Especially with a medium like the cinema, which communicates through moving images and sound, atmospheres are important for how we understand the stories of the films and the world in which they take place. Let us take a simple example. Imagine a scene playing out at a lake in the depths of a big forest. Six or seven children are playing loudly variously jumping into the water from an old wooden bathing bridge. Now the ‘meaning’ of this scene can be changed completely according to a few atmospheric devices such as the musical score. If the scene is accompanied with joyful pop music, it can be taken to reflect the bliss and innocence of juvenile summers. If we change the music, into an asymmetric and dissonant score often used in horror films, the scene becomes charged with uneasiness, danger, eeriness, and the anticipation of a tragic turn of events. Atmospheres might not change what the film depicts in a very literal sense (the children, the bathing bridge, the forest) but they frame and organize how we perceive, think, and feel about it.

Do you talk about atmoshphere or atmosopheres?

The project tackles the question of atmosphere in cinema in broad terms, which means that we will be dealing with the plurality of ‘atmospheres’ in many ways. First of all, cinematic atmospheres come in a plentitude of different varieties as related to genres, styles, national forms of filmmaking, directors and filmmakers, and so forth. Secondly, the expressive means that cinema has at its disposal vary from different styles of camera movements over prop design and make-up to sound, editing and coloration. And with this we haven’t even unpacked how complex a term the atmosphere concept is in itself!

The term was originally invented around the 17th century as a translation of the Dutch word dampcloot (literally meaning ‘vapor-ball’) to designate the sphere of vapor or air surrounding a planet corresponding to the meteorological use of the atmosphere term today. Implied in this notion is a long tradition of understanding air and other translucent substances as life-sustaining media that form the often unnoticed, yet essential preconditions for our sensual perception. Once these conditions are changed, for instance when the clear air becomes misty and foggy or when we try to talk to one another under water, perception is changed. We speak here of a change of the atmosphere through which the world is perceived. The multifaceted nature of the atmosphere concept makes very bedazzling and difficult to work with. I want to show that there is also a great strength to the versatility of the atmosphere concept that might help us draw connections between areas of interest that otherwise have little contact with each other. The scientific meaning of the term as the celestial body of air surrounding the planet connects both to the idea of the atmosphere as a life-giving medium and the long tradition of relating climatic factors with human sentiments.

I believe that all the various uses of the atmosphere concept is connected to the notion of the medium in the sense that predates, yet also overlaps in exiting ways, with the current use of the term as having to do with media of mass communication such as newspapers, radio, television, and cinema. Medium just as atmosphere refers to that which operates ‘in-between’ or to that through which something is sensed, perceived, or experienced. The connections between the concepts of atmosphere and medium has been extremely important to me because it has allowed me to frame the question of cinematic atmospheres not just according to the aesthetic means whereby cinema produces atmospheric worlds, but also to think of cinema itself, and its collection of expressive means and techniques, as the ‘atmosphere’ through which much of today’s moving image culture is mediated. Editing, framing, camera movement, slow and fast motion, freeze frames are no longer reserved the telling of a dramatic story for the cinematic audience but have become integral tools that most digital natives know how to operate themselves. Cinematic means for the production of atmospheres have then become part of our cultural repertoire of communication and self-expression; a development amplified by the advent of social media. While cinema might not enjoy the cultural dominance of its heyday as the storytelling medium, its aesthetic means for telling its stories and for embedding them in atmospheres have never been more influential on how we think, feel, and perceive the world.

Your project is supported with considerable European, i.e. public funding, so this question may be allowed: is there a societal benefit to this insight into cinematic atmospheres? Or even a current relevance?      

Although cinema as an ‘emotional machine’ has been studied for a long time, I think there has been a tendency to think of cinematic stylists as means for telling a story. The novel take of this project is to look at these operations, techniques, or expressive as ways for cinema to create worlds that are heavily suggestive of atmosphere and feeling tones. Cinema here draws on its unique ability to capture us at the level of bodily arousal before we are able to distance ourselves from it on rational, critical, or moral grounds. Filmmakers are aware of this and recent television shows such as Sopranos or Breaking Bad experiment with how long we are willing to sympathize with a character acting morally depraved if these deeds are presented in attractive aesthetic terms. This was also the recurring topic of the cinema of Hitchcock, who with great joy took upon himself the task to educate the public of just how much he could manipulate with them by using the tools of the cinematic medium. Today, the techniques and devices that Hitchcock and so many other great filmmakers have mastered – with all the ideological implications that this has had throughout the history of cinema – has become ‘democratized’ and free to use for the general population. It is important to understand what happens when cinema’s atmospheric means are no longer reserved the task of storytelling but has become widespread in our moving image culture as part of our toolbox for shaping the way we think and feel about the world outside of the cinematic theatre.

Why did you choose the Filmuniversität as the right place to conduct this research?

This project addresses the question of cinematic atmosphere and its many implications from a perspective that is largely conceptual and theoretical. The Filmuniversity really stands out for its excellence in this area having become the hub for advanced film and media theoretical thinking. For me, the connection to the “Cinepoetics: Center for Advanced Film Studies” (co-organized with the Freie Universität), where I have been so fortunate to be a fellow along with an illustrious list of the most esteemed colleagues of my field, was a big factor for my decision. But there is so much excellent research going on here and I am eager to learn from all my new colleagues. Added to this, the Filmuniversity Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF offers the unique opportunity for me to work alongside and to observe, discuss, and learn from the ones who engage practically with the cinematic production of atmospheres – be it in the area of sound design, scenography, editing, visual effects, acting, or screen writing. This opportunity is really exceptional and I aim to take full advantage of it.   

We hope you wil! Thank you very much for this insightful conversation.

Mehr Informationen zum Projekt finden sich hier.