Thinking Through Film
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Thinking Through Film

Doing Philosophy, Watching Movies

Damian Cox, Michael Levine

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eBook - ePub

Thinking Through Film

Doing Philosophy, Watching Movies

Damian Cox, Michael Levine

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Thinking Through Film provides the best introduction available to the diverse relationships between film and philosophy. Clearly written and persuasively argued, it will benefit students of both film and philosophy.
Thomas E. Wartenberg, Mount Holyoke College, author of Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy

Cox and Levine's admirable Thinking Through Film picks up where Philosophy Goes to the Movies left off, arguing that films not only do philosophy but, in some cases, do it better than philosophers! The result is a rich and rewarding examination of films – from metaphysical thought experiments, personal identity puzzles, to reflections on the meaning of life – that shows, in bracing, no-nonsense fashion, how popular cinema can do serious philosophy. —Robert Sinnerbrink, Macquarie University

Thinking Through Film: Doing Philosophy, Watching Movies examines a broad range of philosophical issues though film, as well as issues about the nature of film itself. Using film as a means of philosophizing, it combines the experience of viewing films with the exploration of fundamental philosophical issues. It offers readers the opportunity to learn about philosophy and film together in an engaging way, and raises philosophical questions about films and the experience of films.

Film is an extremely valuable way of exploring and discussing topics in philosophy. Readers are introduced to a broad range of philosophical issues though film, as well as to issues about the nature of film itself – a blend missing in most recent books on philosophy and film. Cox and Levine bring a critical eye to philosophical-film discussions throughout.

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Part I: Philosophy and Film
Part I has two chapters. The first chapter discusses the relationship between philosophy and film. The primary issue here is also preliminary. Is film a credible philosophical medium? Can films do philosophy? What should we expect from films philosophically speaking? The second chapter looks at some of the philosophical issues that are either specific to film or applicable to particular films as aesthetic objects (or works of art). What can be said, philosophically speaking, about films’ ability to evoke strong emotion and to evoke and even satisfy, at least transiently, phantasies of revenge and narcissistic, even perverse, desires?
In part I objections on the part of philosophers to the philosophical possibilities of film are considered. Various ways in which film and philosophical theory are allegedly related are explained and queried. We make it clear that film can be much more than simply a test or illustration of a piece of philosophical theory. Instead of casting the philosophical possibilities of film in terms of film as servicing philosophy, we turn the tables and view film (or some film) as inherently or naturally philosophical. Various philosophical issues raised by film are discussed alongside relevant narrative and filmic techniques.
Part I constitutes both a background to and a resource for parts II–IV in which central epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical problems are analyzed in relation to specific films.
Why Film and Philosophy?
This book examines a broad range of philosophical issues though film, as well as issues about the nature of film itself. There are two rather distinct parts to philosophy and film. One part seeks to examine philosophical issues raised in films. For example, films may question a particular ethical point of view or raise questions about skepticism or the nature of personal identity. The other part pertains to issues raised by film understood as an art form. What, if anything, is distinctive about film or cinematic depiction as an art form? What is the philosophical significance of the technique and technology film employs? What is the philosophical significance of audience responses to film? What special benefits or dangers does film harbor given its mass appeal and ability to evoke strong emotion?
One issue that seems to relate to both aspects of film and philosophy is the question of film as a philosophical medium. More than simply illustrating philosophical ideas, can films actually do philosophy? Can films be vehicles of philosophical investigation?1 The present chapter addresses this question. The second aspect of film and philosophy – philosophical discussion of film itself – is introduced in the following chapter. Before launching on the topic of the relation between film and philosophy, let us briefly review some features of film that make it such an attractive basis for philosophy.
The Reach and Power of Film
Academicians sometimes refer to “the canon.” This is supposedly a core body of literature (“classics”) that people in successive generations refer to. The canon is supposed to transmit meaning and modes of conceptualization from one generation to another, as well as form a common body of work for those within a single generation. In theory, canonical works serve to individuate and characterize particular epochs and generations – their views on family, on love, duty to country, and ideals (or alleged ideals), for example. The canon is supposed to be a common source of reference no matter how different people within a particular culture may be. There are questions about whether there really is or ever was such a canon; what it consists in (the Bible; other scripture; Shakespeare; J. D. Salinger?) and also what its status should be. How should it be used? In what ways and for what purposes might it be authoritative?
Arguably, narrative film – and we include in this category feature films and series shown on television and available in numerous other formats – furnishes a canon, something that may even be the first real canon. If so, it is because of the popular and non-elitist status of film art. More people see and discuss films than read – certainly more people see the same films than read the same books – and films cut across socio-economic and other audience barriers in ways that the classic western canon never could do. In developed nations virtually everyone sees and talks about films on occasion. With the availability of films in inexpensive formats, many people in economically deprived circumstances also often see films. For many, films constitute a common core of reference in which values, moral issues, philosophical and other questions are examined. The way these things are presented in films is distinctive. Films are accessible, and often aesthetically engaging and entertaining in ways that make them emotionally and intellectually or ideationally powerful (see Carroll: 2004). They are generally neither obtuse nor inaccessible in the ways that philosophical texts or formal arguments often are. Films are popular, accessible, ubiquitous, and emotionally engaging.
Film frequently employs other art forms (music, visual arts, literature) and their ability to affect us is integrated into film’s power. The ability of film to influence and emotionally affect us is not a straightforward sum of its component art forms, however. There is after all much music, literature, poetry, and visual art that on its own may affect us far more than when taken up in film. Nevertheless, the fact that a feature film can convey so much to so many in such a relatively short time (generally less than two hours, almost always less than three) is one of its most remarkable features. It is also something that has worried many philosophers and film theorists. Adorno and Horkheimer (1990), for example, were concerned with the possible negative influence of mass art on passive and uncritical audiences. (Why not also on active and critical audiences? Is an active and critical attitude enough to dispel the charm of film?) Alfred Hitchcock was alleged to have said “all actors are cattle.” However, he didn’t quite say this: “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.” One wonders what he must have thought of audiences.
On the other hand, other philosophers, for example Walter Benjamin, are optimistic about the powers of film to enhance social and political freedom and creative thought.2 Who is more likely right on balance: pessimists such as Adorno or optimists like Benjamin? This turns out to be a very difficult question to answer. Think of a particular case: the power of political speech versus the political power of film. Is a spoken political argument more or less likely to change attitudes than a political film? Chaplin’s political speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) is an interesting case in point. It has considerable power, and many people fondly remember it after watching the film. But the film’s overt aim in 1940 was to turn its audience off any residual appeal that Adolf Hitler and nationalistic fascism in general might have had for them and it achieves this quite independently of the speech. Much of the real work is done when Chaplin, playing Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania, bounces an inflated globe of the world off his rear. This is a marvelously effective way of satirizing dreams of world domination. Whether that amounts to a philosophically robust critique of fascism is another story.
By its very nature, film is an extremely valuable way of introducing and discussing topics in philosophy. But it is important to realize the dangers inherent in this. Films can obfuscate and confuse through the way they are framed and filmed, through the way they play on the emotions, or pander to various desires. Keeping track of these obfuscations is an important part of any approach to thinking through film. Many films cater to and pray on unconscious or unwelcome desires, wish-fulfillments, and prejudices. Arguably, the success of a film often depends on its success in catering to these things. (Consider revenge films such as Harry Brown (2009), Death Wish (1974), and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).) Just as we often believe what we want (or would like) to believe rather that what we have good reason to believe, we often believe things because we feel a certain way. Emotions influence belief, as do desires. This is a fact that cinema often exploits, and one that largely accounts for its ability to engage an audience. This is why films so often misinform and mislead us philosophically, just as they often inform and deepen us philosophically.
As we have been at pains to point out, one of cinema’s great virtues is its capacity to engage and entertain. It certainly has this virtue by comparison with most philosophical writing, which is often as dry as a desert. At the same time, the accessibility of film (and mass media generally) to audiences, its power to engage and affect, to emotionally and intellectually manipulate and “do a job” on us, is at the core of ethical concerns over mass media we mentioned earlier, for instance those raised by Adorno and Horkeheimer (1990) and others. Philosophical engagement with film is not always positive. Nonetheless, as Freud noted, art can provide the path from fantasy back to reality. Film is useful in examining a great many, albeit not all, of the areas that philosophy covers. Particular films address topics in ethics, metaphysics, religion, and aesthetics, as well as in social and political philosophy. One area perhaps stands out among all others. Like novels, films often depict and philosophically explore aspects of the multitude of human relations – especially love and friendship. This is no surprise given the extent to which we are generally absorbed most with those things which engage us emotionally.
What is the Relation between Philosophy and Film?
Philosophy and film has burgeoned into a field of its own – and it is growing. This is part of a trend of broadening the range of topics considered suitable for serious philosophical scrutiny. The broadening of philosophical subject matter has been coupled with the recognition that film and other forms of media and entertainment can be powerful vehicles for ideas. Many of these ideas are philosophically interesting and are ingrained in ordinary life – just as friendship, love, death, purpose, and meaning are. It is not exactly a new discovery that everyday life is a philosophical resource. Ancient philosophers knew it, though the twentieth-century professionalization of philosophy may have sometimes obscured such focus on the everyday. There has been a proliferation of books and journal articles not only on philosophy and film, but more generally on philosophy and culture. Some of these focus on philosophy and everyday concerns as they feature in television (a form of film) and contemporary music. Others consider more classic philosophical issues – ethical, political, epistemological, social, psychological – as they feature in mainstream movies.
Film, especially in its narrative component, provides philosophy with material (scenarios, case studies, stories, hypotheses, and arguments) to scrutinize. Films tell stories, make assertions, and state or intimate hypotheses that give people, and by extension philosophers, material to critically assess. Films can be objects of direct philosophical scrutiny. For example, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), a film recording the 1934 Nuremberg congress of the Nazi Party, provides us with material for a good deal of philosophical reflection. This includes reflection on the relation between aesthetic and moral value. (Riefenstahl’s film is often considered to be an aesthetic masterpiece and moral failure.) Watching Triumph of the Will inevitably brings out questions about artists’ moral responsibility for their artistic productions. However, films don’t become especially philosophical simply in virtue of their being objects of philosophical scrutiny. After all, anything and everything can be an object of philosophical scrutiny (a table, a pen, a cloud, a cathedral). Usually something becomes an object of philosophical scrutiny by representing a certain type of thing, or certain type of experience or phenomenon, that philosophically puzzles and challenges us. Films become philosophical in a more interesting and thoroughgoing sense when they do more than this. They become philosophical by engaging us philosophically as we watch them.
What is the best way to understand the relationship between film (filmmaking) and philosophy (philosophizing)? Can a film be a philosophical text, rather than just a resource for philosophers? Can filmmaking be philosophizing? Can film-watching be philosophizing? Perhaps it simply depends on how expansive and inclusive our conception of philosophy is.3 One theorist of philosophy and film, Murray Smith (2006: 33), says “I take it to be relatively uncontentious that, in some broad sense, a film can be philosophical. This is hardly surprising if we regard both film (as an art form) and philosophy as extensions of the human capacity for self-consciousness, that is, of our capacity for reflection on ourselves.” If we think of philosophy as simply an expression of the human capacity for reflection, then films obviously share this capacity. But there is more to the issue than this.
How should we understand the philosophical potential of film? Paisley Livingston (2008: 3) usefully frames the question in what he terms the bold thesis.
[Can films] make independent, innovative and significant contributions to philosophy by means unique to the cinematic medium (such as montage and sound–image relations), where such contributions are independent in the sense that they are inherent in the film and not based on verbally articulated philosophizing, such as a commentary or paraphrase? Films, it is often claimed in the large literature inspired by Gilles Deleuze’s speculative writings on film, do indeed engage in creative philosophical thinking and in the formation of new philosophical concepts.
The bold the...