Thomas Wartenberg, Angela Curran, eds, Philosophy of Film: Introductory Text and Readings (Blackwell, 2005)
Reviewed by Amy Coplan
Thomas Wartenberg and Angela Curran have put together an excellent and much needed anthology to introduce students to the philosophy of film. It has much to recommend it, including an extremely impressive list of contributors from philosophy, film theory, and film criticism, coverage of a broad range of topics in philosophy of film, and extremely helpful editorial material.
The anthology comprises twenty-seven essays organized into seven sections, each of which addresses a key question about the nature and significance of film as an artistic and cultural medium. These sections focus on the method of film theory, the nature of film, the auteur theory, emotional engagement with film, film narration, films as vehicles for social critique, and what we can learn from films. Because the individual sections are self-contained, instructors will have no problem assigning them out of order or skipping some.
One of the many strengths of this anthology is the clear and helpful editorial material. Each of the seven sections begins with an introduction that explains the major themes and arguments of the section’s essays and identifies connections among them. Following each introduction is a series of study questions. It is difficult to overstate the value of the section introductions and study questions. Much of the scholarship in philosophy of film and film theory is very difficult to read. Wartenberg’s and Curran’s discussions and study questions, on the other hand, are all clear and systematic. They provide a context for the essays and help to frame the debates and problems so as to make them more accessible to students. This is especially important for sections two, three, and five, which focus on the nature of film, auteur theory, and film narration. In addition to the introductory essays and study questions, there is a helpful list of suggestions for further reading on each section and an excellent index.
The anthology begins with a section of essays by Noel Carroll, Malcom Turvey, and Giles Deleuze on how film should be theorized and the relationship between film and philosophy. This is an excellent starting point. The essays in this section concern the very idea of philosophy of film and ask questions about how we ought to develop and evaluate theories. Sections two, three, and five cover traditional topics in philosophy of film and film theory and contain an impressive number of extremely influential writings by thinkers such as Hugo Mustenberg, Rudolf Arnheim, Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, Kendall Walton, David Bordwell, and George Wilson. While there can be no question about the significance of these thinkers and their respective contributions to philosophy of film, film theory, and film criticism, these sections are the least accessible in the anthology (though there are a few essays, such as Bazin’s and Sarris’s, that are exceptions). Students should be familiar with the debates on the nature of film, auteur theory, and film narration but many of the essays here will be challenging for them.
Sections four, six, and seven will be more appealing to most students. These sections assemble some of the best recent work in philosophy of film, most of which will be relatively accessible to students. In section four, which focuses on how films engage spectators’ emotions, Carl Plantinga’s essay “Spectator Emotion and Ideological Film Criticism” addresses the moral and ideological import of our experience of films. Plantinga fairly characterizes the received view regarding the problems with emotional responses to film and then identifies the problems with this view through a clear and intelligent discussion of the cognitivist approach to film theory. His essay provides an overview of a central debate in philosophy of film, while simultaneously developing a careful argument about the meanings of spectators’ emotional responses. Also in section four is an essay by Noel Carroll on the paradox of horror. In it Carroll discusses his theory of horror, which explains why so many spectators take pleasure in horror films and why so many are fascinated by monsters. Students love Carroll’s work on horror (I know this because I have taught it several times) and it can be taught in conjunction with any number of recent horror films.
The essays in section six consider whether or not films can be socially critical. All three are excellent and would work well not only in philosophy and film courses but also in gender studies, cultural studies, or media studies courses. Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner’s essay “The Politics of Representation” does an excellent job of using philosophical analyses and evaluations of Nashville (1975) and Missing (1985) to reveal the relationship of the aesthetic elements of films to their social and political effects. Ryan and Kellner critique the widely held view that all popular film is inherently ideological and discuss the limitations of avant garde cinema. Angela Curran, in her essay on Stella Dallas (1937), develops a convincing reading of the film’s narrative strategies and explains why and how the film encourages audience members to take up a critical attitude regarding the desirability of class ascent.
The final section of the anthology focuses on whether or not we can learn from films. Although the first essay in the section by Stanley Cavell on It Happened One Night (1934) is important and interesting, it will be challenging for many students, Cynthia Freeland’s essay on realist horror, Thomas Wartenberg’s essay on The Matrix (1999), and Joseph Kupfer’s essay on Groundhog Day are all clear and engaging. In her essay, Freeland argues that Carroll’s account of horror (which is discussed in his essay on the paradox of horror) will not work for realist horror, which requires us to rethink the moral assessment of film because of its “postmodern reweaving of the relation between reality and art.” Wartenberg’s essay is one of the best in the anthology. He argues that we need a better understanding of the relationship between philosophy and film and critically evaluates the recent trend in philosophy of using films to illustrate philosophical concepts and theories. Through a discussion and interpretation of The Matrix, he argues that films can genuinely philosophize and that films is a philosophical medium but he insists that film’s contributions to philosophy must be carefully articulate and not assumed.
Another strength of this anthology is its showcasing of several debates and critical exchanges in the scholarly literature. Wartenberg and Curran have paired several essays together that either critically engage one another or focus on the same issue or problem. These pairings include the essays by Carroll and Turvey in section one, Arnheim and Bazin in section two, Sarris and Kael in section three, and Bordwell and Chatman in section four. By grouping these essays together, Wartenberg and Curran provide students with a sense of how the debates have evolved and how key problems are approached by different scholars.
Wartenberg and Curran should be commended for including essays from multiple traditions and that employ very different approaches. Very few collections have this much breadth. Cognitive film theory may be a bit over-represented and feminist and psychoanalytic film theory may be a bit underrepresented but this is still the most inclusive anthology of its kind.
2007 © Amy Coplan