Reviewed by James O. Young
Film and Philosophy is a new journal published under the auspices of the Society for the Philosophic Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts. It is edited by Kendall D’Andrade with the assistance of eleven associate editors. In their instructions to authors, the editors state that they “welcome submissions from every perspective.” They tell potential contributors that their “only requirement is that your paper use film in a significant way and that it make a philosophically interesting point.” At a time when film is one of the most influential and dynamic areas of creative endeavour, and when film studies programs are increasingly common, a journal devoted to the philosophical examination of film is desirable. Unfortunately, with a notable exception, the papers in this volume do not contribute a great deal to the philosophy of film. Still, this journal is a welcome development. As philosophy of film matures as a field of inquiry, Film and Philosophy will provide a forum for discussion, and it may even promote the process of maturation.
The first volume of this journal contains sixteen diverse essays. Most of the essays (which are produced in approximately equal numbers by denizens of philosophy and English departments, with a smattering from scholars in other disciplines) are not particularly philosophical. Compared to articles in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, many of the essays here are closer to the art criticism end of the spectrum. Some of the criticism is quite good. Noteworthy is an essay by Stephen Mulhall on Blade Runner, although one cannot help but wonder whether this movie is a sufficiently realized work of art to sustain a project of criticism. The “philosophically interesting point” of many of the critical essays consists in the use of philosophical positions in interpreting films. We find, for example, a Sartrean interpretation of Woody Allen, Freudian and Nietzschean approaches to Peter Greenaway, and a Jungian reading of Fellini. Other essays are contributions to the sociology or psychology of film. Some essays attempt to demonstrate that certain films show something about contemporary (American) society, while others attempt to reveal what some film, or film in general, tells us about the psychology of film makers or their audiences. The journal contains little philosophical analysis.
Film and Philosophy does get off to an auspicious start with a fine essay, “On Cinema and Perversion,” by Berys Gaut. Gaut discusses the frequently-heard suggestion that viewing or directing any film is a perversion, either sadistic voyeurism, masochism or fetishistic scopophilia. Gaut’s argument is, as Hume said in another context, as “strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of serious refutation.” Gaut patiently exposes the implausible premises and the equivocations, hasty generalizations and other fallacies on which the view that all movie-goers and directors are perverted is based. There is probably something a little weird about the director and admirers of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but viewers of Mary Poppins are not necessarily perverts.
Few of the essays here treat films as objects of aesthetic contemplation. Words like ‘beauty,’ ‘aesthetic value,’ and even ‘art’ seldom, if ever, appear in these essays. This is, perhaps, not surprising, since many of the films discussed, including Back to the Future, Home Alone, Terminator II and slasher movies, have little or no aesthetic value. (One cannot help but feel sorry for the authors who have sat through so many bad movies so many times.) Faced with films with little value qua works of art, the authors of many of these essays study movies qua revealers of social norms or of psychological dysfunction. Unfortunately, much of the investigation of social and psychological matters is unsupported speculation. The relationship between films and social trends or psychological states does not seem to be a matter for armchair investigation. Sociologists and psychologists are better qualified to study the relationship between films and social and psychological states of affairs than are philosophers or literary critics.
Part of the trouble with many of these essays is that the contributors to the journal did not have the opportunity to read Gaut’s article before they submitted their essays. Many of the dubious views which Gaut exposes are treated in subsequent essays as received wisdom. Quite a number of the essays uncritically accept controversial and even discredited theories. In particular, many of the contributors to Film and Philosophy display a remarkable credulity when it comes to the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan. Elizabeth Jones, for example, writes, as if it were plainest common sense, that “the Marquis de Sade knew that we are all sadists at heart. So did Freud” (23). Tony Williams tells us that Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove presents a sadomasochistic narrative trajectory of desire and phantasy based upon the infant’s exclusion from the mother’s body under patriarchal edict” (124). (I had always thought that it is a satire on the arms race.) Nothing in the journal would indicate that, long ago, Popper provided some reasons to doubt that psychoanalysis can contribute much to our understanding of psychology. Readers who share Popper’s skepticism will have a low estimate of the value of some of the contributions to this journal. Readers with qualms about post-modernism will have similar doubts about the value of some of the essays.
There are many interesting and important philosophical questions about film: Is film an art form? If so, what sort of art form is it? In what can the aesthetic value of a film consist? Are some films artworks, while other are just entertainment? If so, what is the difference? (Questions about the relationship between art and entertainment are particularly pressing for philosophy of film.) What is the relation between film and other arts such as drama and the visual arts? How is the aesthetic value of a film to be evaluated? Film can be regarded as a composite of other arts, including literature, drama, visual art and music, and questions about the nature of cinematic art and how it is to be evaluated are extremely complex. These are, however, questions which we can reasonably hope to answer by means of philosophical analysis. Unfortunately, the essays in the first volume of Film and Philosophy make little progress towards answering them. Even the best of the essays here, Gaut’s, just removes some of the rubbish that lies in the way of answers to the questions.
It is fair to say that philosophy of film is in its infancy compared, for example, to philosophy of music. If the papers in this journal are a representative sample, the contrast between philosophy of film and philosophy of music is striking. Philosophers of music primarily concern themselves with musical masterpieces. In this journal, some of the worst films are among the most discussed. Music is of supreme importance to most writers on philosophy of music. Some of the contributors to this journal seem not to like film at all. Most strikingly, of course, philosophers of music engage in philosophical analysis more than sociology and armchair abnormal psychology. Perhaps all of these differences between philosophy of music and philosophy of film have a common root: philosophy of music, unlike philosophy of film, has a canon of supreme art to analyze. Perhaps philosophy of film will only mature when a body of important cinematic art is available for analysis. It is worth bearing in mind cinema is, by the standard of the arts, a callow youth, a mere one hundred years old. The novel was almost exactly a century old when Austen produced the first masterpieces of the genre.
The copy editing of the first volume of this journal is dreadful. The spelling errors are bad enough, but several essays are butchered by omissions or repetitions of text. Sometimes chunks of paragraphs are missing or repeated. In one case, whole pages of text are repeated and two pages of endnotes are mysteriously duplicated in the middle of an essay.
1996 © James O. Young