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Is the Balcony Closed? Philosophy of Film sans Film
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Jinhee Choi

Philosophy of film, broadly construed, has emerged as one of the important areas in aesthetics in the last two decades. But I am starting to wonder whether philosophy of film has lived up to its expectations, jeopardizing a once close – albeit not always friendly – relationship between the two disciplines of philosophy and film studies. Philosophers, of course, are interested in films for different reasons. Some are interested in films for pedagogical purposes. Some of the recently released Hollywood cinema attracts students to philosophy or at least can help them understand philosophical issues as something more plausible and concrete, as opposed to something otherworldly. The release of The Matrix – however inconsistent the film itself is regarding the distinction between a virtual vs. the real world – has definitely made it a lot easier to manage a philosophy class. Students who used to dismiss the question of whether we are dreaming as silly, each reporting, “I know I am not dreaming!” now, thanks to The Matrix, quickly grasp Descartes’ skepticism in First Meditation. Similarly, Minority Report can offer a good starting point for a discussion of the compatibility between determinism and free will. Some philosophers appropriate films to illustrate or test their philosophical theories. And of course, some philosophers just like to watch films during their spare time to refresh their mind.

What I am interested in, however, is ‘philosophy of film,’ narrowly construed, especially its relation and possible contribution to film studies. Philosophy of film, often contrasted with ‘philosophy and film’ and ‘philosophy in film,’ concerns itself with theorizing films in general, examining our conceptions about film as a cognitive or aesthetic medium. There is a great overlap between classical film theories and the philosophical study of film. They are set out to answer a similar set of questions: What is film? Is film an art? What aesthetic features are unique to the film medium? Both classical film scholars and analytic philosophers who attempt to answer these questions converge, knowingly or unknowingly, on the reasons why film can or cannot be an art. Philosophy of film in the analytic tradition proposes an alternative methodology to psychoanalysis-imbued film studies, by recourse to cognitive psychology. Moreover, philosophers of film alerted film scholars to the necessity of attaining conceptual clarity and rigor in their arguments. The relation between philosophy and film was once more interactive, with the two fields influencing each other, regardless of whether or not they necessarily came to any agreement. There still are many Cavellian genre theorists in film studies. Similarly, we find many descendents of André Bazin among philosophers of film in their discussion of film as a photographic medium.

The conversation (or meaningful debate) between film studies and philosophy of film, however, has come to a halt: neither side seems to care much about what the other has to say about films. I must confess that the questions mentioned above no longer preoccupy many contemporary film scholars. Contemporary film scholars, especially those who are more media-cultural studies inclined, prioritize a different set of issues in emerging areas of inquiry. To name a few: queer study, globalization, cultural identity politics, and new media. And I must add that students are effortlessly attracted to such topics.

I speculate that there are several reasons film scholars stopped listening to what philosophers have to say about films. First, a philosophical approach to film or genre can be empirically inadequate and can fail to explain the relevant phenomena. I was once involved in a discussion regarding definitions of documentary. A philosophical approach to documentary illuminates some of the inconsistencies or confusions that are found in postmodern skeptics about the possibility of whether a documentary can or cannot be a vehicle to objectivity. To tell the truth, postmodern skeptics give up objectivity and the reliability of documentary films all too easily. However, one of my points was that some of the definitions of documentary do not adequately explain an important documentary movement in the 80s and 90s: performative documentary. Philosophy, as a meta-discipline – which is often characterized as philosophy of X – demands both logical/conceptual consistency and empirical adequacy. It may be unreasonable to demand that philosophers be film scholars but at least philosophers should be familiar with the domain of their theoretical interests. Otherwise, film scholars will have no interest in contributing to philosophical discussions or in refuting philosophical claims about films.

Perhaps another reason film scholars no longer attend to the work of philosophers of film is that philosophers of film tend to be a bit behind the times in their interests in film. In film studies, there are few who would deny that film is an art form or whether there is a cinematic author. Film scholars would say, yes, film can be an art form, and, yes, there exists a cinematic author. Maybe, what interests film scholars is not what makes film an art, but rather how and when film becomes an art or achieves the status of art. Film scholars are not as much obsessed with ‘medium specificity’ as they once were. The focus of cinematic art has shifted from ‘film as art’ to ‘art cinema,’ the practice of which has been established with the arrival of certain types of film criticisms – Cahiers du Cinema critics – and the rise of film festivals. If so, maybe what philosophers should answer is this: exactly what does ‘art’ cinema refer to or amount to, and what is the relation between ‘art ‘cinema and other types of ‘art’?

At the American Society of Aesthetics national meeting which was held in October 2003, some of the papers inquired into the aesthetics and the ontology of film, techniques or special effects such as digitalization, lens flare, and motion capture; such inquiries are very informative and intriguing. Film scholars themselves neglect to define the ontological status of such techniques. Of course, there is a tendency to underline the ‘newness’ of technical renovation in film studies. I firmly believe that philosophers can contribute to a discussion of the significance of newly developed film technologies by carefully examining the consistency or rigorousness of an argument for or against it.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine (1) addresses how DVD can affect the ontological status of film. Although it is a journalistic piece, the author brought up some interesting issues, which might intrigue some philosophers of film. The author claims that the interactive nature of DVDs and the commercial allure of so called “alternate” versions or “director’s cut” have changed our normal viewing experience of a film. We can start a movie wherever we want or stop wherever we want, thanks to “chapter” breakdowns in a DVD, and we can choose an ending that you prefer. We may have a better access to the directors’ intentions by watching deleted footage and interviews that often accompany a DVD. The author, to my surprise, laments the fact that we, as viewers, have “too much control” because of the features of DVD just mentioned. The author expresses concerns over whether digital technology would lead to a practice of “sampling” of movies, pulling bits and pieces from various movies. These changes, in turn, would distort our normal viewing experiences of films, which involve sitting in a dark theatre for 90-120 minutes with no power to change the story, no matter how much we yearn to save the heroine.

The author raises a good point about how we should discern legitimate versions of a film and the authenticity of a digitally restored print: is the director’s cut more authentic than a theatrically released version? However, his concerns over whether DVD will change the ontological status of a film are rather tenuous. Film, like other type-arts such as novels or prints, has multiple copies. There are ways in which we can decide whether a print is an authentic, legitimate one by examining its relation to the original negative. Film historians who are involved in film restoration inform us how they track down and compare many prints of a film. I doubt whether such a practice is so much different from that in the publishing industry. We talk about different editions of a book. When there remains an original manuscript available, we can postulate or discern the original intention of a writer to certain extent. Does an alternate ending create a new film, then? A further examination of such an issue is in order, but for now, I’ll say that I do not believe so. For a DVD release of a film, aesthetically and ontologically, still depends upon the original – by conforming and diverging from it – and in that sense it is derivative. Furthermore, audiences do not have as much control as the author of the article wants us to believe. Alternate versions are finite – usually two – and in neither case is it we who create a new narrative or story; it is filmmakers who do so. Should we worry that audiences nowadays can start a film wherever they want? Well, can’t readers start reading a book from the back, and stop reading in the middle, if they want? I’m sure that’s not what readers are mandated or intended to do, but they still can. I remember some philosophy books warn us about the technicality of philosophical arguments in the introduction of their books and give us the freedom to skip first one or two chapters, if such debates don’t interest the reader. But does that change the ontological status of that particular book? I don’t believe so. If so, different tokens of viewing experiences will not change the ontology of film, yet.

Until and after philosophers reintroduce themselves to the contemporary film scholars (and vice versa), let’s hope the balcony remains open. Philosophers should pay more attention to films, the work of film scholars, and perhaps (as the NYT Magazine article suggests) the ways in which cultural products such as film are circulated and consumed.



1. Terrence Rafferty, “Everybody Gets a Cut: DVD’s give viewers dozens of choices – and that’s the problem,” New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2003: 58-61. Noël Carroll brought this article to my attention.


2004 © Jinhee Choi

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