Dan Shaw, Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously (Wallflower Press, 2008)
In what is, to some, a surprising development, the study of film has become one of the liveliest branches of scholarship in philosophical aesthetics. For the longest time, philosophers were unable (or unwilling) to pursue their intellectual interest in film in print, because films were thought of as entertaining expressions of popular culture and not instances of high art (like tragedy or absolute music). The academic study of film took root at American universities in English departments, and so academic film theory was naturally dominated by critical theory. Film theorists were addressing some of the questions of traditional aesthetics (What is the nature of the filmic medium? What are its unique strengths and weaknesses? How do we define the various genres? and so forth), but their answers were typically grounded in procrustean beds of Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiology and/or gender theory.
Times have changed. Philosophers are now producing a plethora of books and articles about film, and many of them are seeing the light of day. The print journal Film and Philosophy is now well into its second decade of publication, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism has recently dedicated a special edition to the topic of film as philosophy. Textbooks which integrate film into the study of philosophy at the introductory level have sprung up all over the place, and are doing well. The sub-discipline has attained a certain degree of intellectual respectability, although I am sure that some philosophers are still appalled at the thought of their colleagues showing films in class.
Hence, many of us who pursue the philosophical study of film are still concerned to legitimate our endeavour, and one of the ways to do so is to get clear on precisely what we are up to. What distinguishes philosophy of film from the enterprise of film theory, which has a long and distinguished history? What does it mean to talk about a film philosophically, as opposed, say, to talking about it psychologically or sociologically? Is this even a fruitful way to approach the subject? Are such disciplinary distinctions not merely artificial? Can transitory artefacts of popular culture carry such philosophical baggage?
Most of us began writing about film by applying one of our favourite philosophers to one of our favourite movies, establishing parallels between the two and suggesting that one could better understand and appreciate the film by seeing it from this perspective. The majority of the submissions to Film and Philosophy are still of this nature. Despite the objections of Stephen Mulhall and others, I believe that films that either intentionally or unintentionally parallel major philosophies are themselves philosophical, and that readings of such films which point out these parallels are also appropriately so called. While this type of article might not be the most philosophical that writing about film can get, it is at least minimally so.
The philosophical study of literature has been considered intellectually respectable since Aristotle’s Poetics, perhaps because of the widespread acceptance of serious literature as high art. The centre-piece of my dissertation on tragedy (written over a quarter century ago) was a Heideggerean reading of Moby Dick, which wielded Martin Heidegger’s pivotal concepts of authenticity and resoluteness in my argument that Captain Ahab is one of the greatest tragic protagonists in the history of literature. While the merits of that hypothesis may be debated, no one on my dissertation committee questioned whether what I was doing was legitimate aesthetic philosophy. If it was not, then, by parity of reasoning, neither was Aristotle’s seminal interpretation of Oedipus Rex in Poetics, nor Friedrich Nietzsche’s stunning reading of The Bacchae in The Birth of Tragedy.
So, as a first, tentative and commonsensical hypothesis, philosophising about films is to be distinguished from traditional film theory and criticism by analyzing the terms in which films are being discussed. If you are talking about repression, the etiology of neuroses and/or the primary cathexis of instinctual drives, you are psychoanalyzing films; if you are discussing how they reflect the values of a particular culture or subculture at a particular time, you are doing sociology; if you are concerned with unpacking the semiological ‘language’ of film, you are doing linguistics, and so on. If, on the other hand, you are talking about nihilism and the meaning of life (in Bergman’s Winter Light (Bergman, 1962)), or Kant’s good will in action (in Hotel Rwanda (George, 2004)), or Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence (in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)), or the catharsis of pity and fear (in An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981)), then you are doing philosophy of film.
In the special JAAC edition on the Philosophy of Film and Film Theory referred to above, I argued that, in regards to the issue of whether a particular film can be considered philosophical, the property in question admits of degrees (Shaw 2006: 111 – 18). I guess philosophising about films admits of degrees as well. For example, it seems more philosophical to recognise an unintended parallel between a film and a philosophy than to highlight an intended one.
At a higher level of generality discussions of the nature of the filmic medium, and about the definition of genres, are even more philosophical. For example, there is no question in my mind that Sergei Eisenstein was doing film-philosophy in the best sense of the term in his seminal essay ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’ (1949). His argument that the essence of the medium is montage was convincingly grounded in Marxist philosophy.
At the highest level, the study of film can lead one to achieve fundamentally new insights about the nature of reality and human existence. This, of course, is very rare, but I will argue in chapter 2 that it was the study of film, and its integral incorporation into his theorising, that led Stanley Cavell to frame his own unique philosophical perspective. Truly inspired films, like Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999), can make genuinely creative contributions to ongoing philosophical inquiries about what it means to be human and what gives our lives purpose and value.
As might be expected of such a fledgling enterprise, there is no consensus on how philosophizing about film should proceed. Just like criticism of the arts in general, film-philosophy is pluralistic, and lacks a univocal paradigm for what constitutes philosophizing about film. Deborah Knight, another SPSCVA panelist, thinks this is all to the good. Identifying several core controversies concerning how philosophy of film should proceed, she argues that it is premature to try to settle these at this time.
Consensus is lacking, even among analytic film-philosophers. On the one hand there is the Bordwell-Carroll camp, which thinks that we should proceed in a piecemeal fashion and without any supervening “Grand Theory”. On the other, such figures as Berys Gaut and Gregory Currie believe that formulating such a comprehensive theory is the proper ambition for an analytic philosophy of film. What most cognitivists do seem to agree on is that phenomenologists, existentialists, and those in the grips of psychoanalysis and/or Critical Theory are not engaged in a truly philosophical (or even truly rational) discourse about film.
From my point of view, the search for a univocal paradigm of philosophizing about film is inappropriate at this early stage in the sub-discipline’s development. I agree with Knight:
I am not clear that systematicity is a desideratum. Indeed, perhaps there is another step to be taken, which would be to move towards the philosophies of film. Here I am encouraging a multi-level set of research projects into topics that may well not cohere if grouped together. (Knight, 2004: 151-52)
This is a healthier model with which to go forward.
Let me conclude by summarizing what film-philosophers have achieved thus far. The concerted attack on the hegemony of psychoanalysis and Critical Theory has largely been successful. Cognitive philosophers have raised legitimate questions about the fruitfulness and objectivity of these models, and professionals of various stripes have generated philosophical readings of films that rival the best psychoanalytic or structuralist criticism.
Philosophers have had a lot to say about our emotional response to films, contributing to the development of a more adequate overall philosophy of the emotions. Genre theorists have made a good deal of headway, especially in regards to horror, romantic comedy and drama, and documentary. Existentialist readings of films, especially of so-called “art” films, have been a rich resource for decades, and the existential problematic has been found to be particularly relevant to the nihilism of popular films, a trend which has become increasingly evident in recent years. Cognitivists, for their part, have amply demonstrated that discoveries in the cognitive sciences are indeed relevant to the realm of film aesthetics, while phenomenologists have made some progress in describing the cinematic experience in terms that transcend the received opinion that we are only passive observers of the moving image.
To my mind, the most exciting development in the sub-discipline has been the shift in philosophical attention from so called “art films” to more popular Hollywood fare. Mainstream movies are now widely considered to be worthy of such attention, in no small measure because of how deeply compelling the writings of Cavell, Wartenberg, Freeland, Mulhall and the like have turned out to be. Considering the impact of movies on our consciousness, it is philosophically irresponsible not to attend to these works seriously.
© Dan Shaw