Noël Carroll, Jinhee Choi, eds, Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2005)
Reviewed by Aaron Meskin
This is one of two new classroom anthologies on the philosophy of film that have been published by Blackwell in the last two years. (The other is The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Text and Readings edited by Thomas E. Wartenberg and Angela Curran.) The recent publication of two introductory anthologies on the same sub-branch of philosophical aesthetics by the same publisher invites comment. In short, the options for philosophers teaching on the topic have been rather thin up until now. And philosophy of film is a growing area within the university curriculum (with good reason – it is an interesting subject, it’s fun to teach, and it fills the seats). There is, then, a need for teaching resources appropriate to the subject. So Blackwell is to be commended for making the decision to publish both of these books. And while a number of authors appear in both volumes (viz., Carroll, Cavell, Currie, Kupfer, Walton, and Wilson), only one piece can be found in both – George Wilson’s “Le Grand Imagier Steps Out,” which is excerpted in the Wartenberg/Curran volume. So there is not a lot of duplication between them.
The two books also invite comparison, especially as regards their use as teaching resources. All in all, the Carroll/Choi volume is the more successful. It’s longer, and at just over 400 pages (as compared to around 300 pages for the Wartenberg/Curran volume), it has better coverage than the latter. This allows for a fairly high degree of flexibility; the instructor is free to choose from 27 articles and some very extensive introductions, most of which are quite philosophically robust. Perhaps more importantly, Carroll and Choi have done a very good job of selecting much of the best recent scholarship on the philosophy of film. Many of the articles – all but three of which have been previously published – are, or should be, canonical. The book as a whole makes a strong case for the robustness of research in the area. I find the Wartenberg/Curran selections somewhat more idiosyncratic. But that volume does contain some classic film theory – articles by Arnheim, Bazin, and Munsterberg – as well some important and interesting non-philosophical pieces on film authorship by Truffaut, Sarris and Kael. On the other hand, the Carroll/Choi volume focuses almost exclusively on philosophical work published after 1970 and includes no important examples of classic film theory. Only Suzanne Langer’s “A Note on the Film” which explores the film/dream analogy was published prior to 1970, and I do not think of this as an important piece of classic film theory. This is one area where the Wartenberg/Curran volume may be more pedagogically useful. Contemporary debate about cinematic representation, realism, the status of film as art, medium essentialism, and the definition of film are all prefigured in classic film theory, and that work is eminently teachable. Why not include some? Perhaps Carroll and Choi would have been wise to take a page from another recently successful Blackwell anthology – Philosophy of Literature: Contemporary and Classic Readings – which begins with a useful “Classic Sources” section. Surely the addition of a section composed of articles and/or excerpts by figures such as Bazin, Arnheim, Kracauer, Panofsky, and Perkins wouldn’t have overwhelmed the book, and I do think it would have made it considerably richer and more useful in the classroom.
But I suppose that would be another book. This book is divided into eight sections, which cover many of the central issues in the contemporary philosophy of film. Part I investigates the status of film as art. Part II: “What Is Film?” addresses broadly metaphysical issues about the nature of film and the moving image. Part III deals with film documentary and non-fiction film more generally. Part IV investigates cinematic narrative. Part V tackles our emotional engagement with film. Part VI “Topics in Film Criticism” addresses a range of issues: the nature of film criticism and the concepts used by contemporary film theorists, cinematic authorship, and the idea of national cinema. Part VII addresses ethical issues having to do with film. And Part VIII, somewhat deceptively titled “Film and Knowledge” focuses exclusively on the relationship between film and philosophy. Other important topics are also addressed along the way – the nature of film genres is discussed at length in Parts II and V, cinematic and photographic realism are addressed in Part II, film representation more generally is discussed in the first four sections of the book, and film interpretation is touched on in a number of different sections. As mentioned above, then, coverage is fairly good. And the authors chosen are generally well-known figures in the field. Aside from the ones mentioned above, other notable contributors are Choi, Danto, Devereaux, Gaut, Hanson, Hunt, Livingston, Lopes, Neill, Scruton, Sparshott, and the film critic Terrence Rafferty.
Unsurprisingly, some of the sections are a bit more successful than others. The sections on documentary and narrative function quite well, since each pairs high quality articles by leading figures in the field who have contrasting views of a central issue raised by film – a sort of ‘debates in contemporary philosophy of film’ approach if you like. The section on film as art also works this way – it pairs Roger Scruton’s classic dismissal of the photographic and cinematographic media with a recent response by Dominic Lopes – but it also includes the only non-philosophical piece in the whole book (Rafferty’s essay on the effects of DVD production on film art). The “What is Film?” section contains a range of work (on the film/dream analogy, the ‘film as language’ hypothesis, and the essence of film) that is interesting and should engage students. Part V covers the issue of film and emotional engagement very effectively. And the final section of the book provides an excellent basis for exploring the philosophical potential of film. While I am a bit sceptical of whether there are ultimately significant and distinctive issues here – and not convinced by the articles included – this seems like a topic that might go over well in the classroom. The “Topics in Film Criticism” section, however, is a bit of a grab bag, since it is composed of three essays on three very different topics. It might have been helped by the inclusion of a few more pieces related to different aspects of film criticism (e.g., on topics such as style, evaluation, interpretation, form, expression, etc.) or simply a few more articles on the topics that it does address. Similarly, the articles in the section on film and ethics are something of a hodgepodge. One essay focuses on popular film and virtue ethics, another essay explores the relationship of beauty and evil in Triumph of the Will (and other works of art), and the third focuses on the question of whether pornography in any medium can count as the subordination of women. While Carroll makes some attempt to tie these articles together in his helpful introduction, it is not obvious to me how well they work together. Perhaps this isn’t a serious difficulty, but I was looking for the sort of connections that can be found in some of the earlier sections.
As mentioned above, each section begins with an introduction written by one of the editors. These vary substantially in length and philosophical substance. Most noticeably, the introductions to Parts I, II, IV and VII (all written by Carroll) are quite length and extremely substantive, whereas the other introductions are significantly shorter and much thinner with respect to argument. I’m not sure this is a problem – I learned a heck of a lot about the philosophy of film just by reading Carroll’s introductions in this book. (So that’s what Cavell is up to!) But I would think instructors would want to be careful about this. Providing students with very thorough and rather polemical introductory materials can undercut their willingness to engage critically and creatively with assigned readings. I can think of at least one brilliantly written introductory philosophy text that is more likely to be used as the basis for instructors’ lecture notes than as a required text.
All in all though, this is a very good anthology. Despite my frustration with its lack of any classical film theory, I do plan on using it for my philosophy of film class in the spring. In one reasonably priced, eminently teachable, and well put together volume it contains much of the best work in the area and much of what I want to teach.
2007 © Aaron Meskin