Film-Philosophy

Salon Review

 


 

Brian K. Aurand

 

Survey of a Field?

 


 

 

 

_Philosophy and Film_

Edited and with an Introduction by Cynthia A. Freeland and Thomas E. Wartenberg

New York and London: Routledge, 1995

ISBN 0-415-90921-X

258 pages

 

I would like to begin this review by setting its context in a narrative. My desire to investigate Freeland and Wartenberg's collection was prompted by my interest in teaching an introductory course on film and philosophy. My hope was that this book would provide, if not a primary text for discussions in the class meetings, then at least a secondary source to recommend to students as a survey of contemporary writings in the field. In the end _Philosophy and Film_ has sometimes satisfied but more often disappointed me. This disappointment, however, may not be solely in response to the book but to the field, *if this book represents a serious survey of that field*. Despite my hopes of not sounding too adversarial, it is at this point of dissatisfaction that I would begin any discussion with students or colleagues engaged with this book. It is possibly for this reason that _Philosophy and Film_ calls for engagement.

 

In their preface and introduction Freeland and Wartenberg cite their own interests in 'the philosophic study of film' (i) as the inspiration for this collection, the premise of which is that philosophy 'has its own unique perspective to bring to the exploration of film' (1). Actually this seems, in the long run, to be the major sticking point of _Philosophy and Film_, for as much as the editors go on to assert that film can 'challenge philosophy to think of itself and its questions in new ways' (2), the return in the majority of the essays is to see what philosophy can say about film and not what film can say to philosophy.

 

Freeland and Wartenberg have drawn together essayists from several different perspectives and schools of thought -- such as analytical, 'Continental', Marxist, feminist, pragmatist, postmodern, anti-postmodern, cognitivist, and classical. They have done well to present an introduction to the growing impact of cultural studies, as well as issues surrounding race, class, and gender incorporated into philosophy. bell hooks and Cornell West, in addition to Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan, speak alongside Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. This is, indeed, the book's strength, especially for the classroom, as _Philosophy and Film_ provides a view of the field as involved in a conversation with at least one end of the table of film studies. What it achieves much less fully is to sit at the other end -- the end occupied by the films themselves, and close textual analyses of the visual and audio elements that make film texts different from their novel or screenplay versions. Too often the essays fall into discussions of films *as* novels or screenplays, emphasizing narrative summaries (story and plot) and subordinating (or sometimes completely avoiding) investigation of the relationships between formal elements and their meanings, and the ways in which these elements make meaning.

 

The thirteen essays compiled in _Philosophy and Film_ are divided into three sections: General Perspectives, Genres and Tropes, and Specific Interpretations. Essays by Stanley Cavell, Karen Hanson, George M. Wilson, and Noel Carroll make up the first section. All of them are concerned with certain ontological questions, as well as considerations of how films make meaning. They posit the worth of studying films and make comparisons across genres to demonstrate film's aesthetic value. They review in brief the formation of film theory and question the relationship between theoretical debates and scientific approaches. They examine the narrative patterns and structures of film, such as point-of-view and characterization, in order to ask about spectatorship and epistemology. In short, this first section, very influenced by the work of Cavell and Carroll, attempts to address the very nature of the moving image.

 

In the second section Naomi Scheman, Nicholas Pappas, Cynthia A. Freeland, Robert Gooding-Williams, and Thomas E. Wartenberg work more with a focus toward film categories and categorization. Their goal lies in describing and questioning film genres and their significance. These essays apply genre descriptions to films and question these descriptions by showing how certain films do not fall easily into traditional genres for analysis. The essays focus on representational or ideological concerns and practices as they assess larger patterns of film and film language. In this section the essays move between reading films as illustrations or tests of philosophic theories, and reading films through different philosophical approaches.

 

The final section of the book contains essays aimed most specifically at individual films or directors with a concern for delineating ideological, psychological, gendered, aesthetic, and moral patterns in their objects of study. Harvey Cormier, Douglas Kellner, Julie Inness, and Kelly Oliver respectively contribute articles on: modernism and _2001_, Brechtian morality tales and Spike Lee, the trauma of passing in _Europa, Europa_, and ideology and patriarchal economies in _Persona_.

 

When the essays engage philosophically with the possibility of a Marxist Kantian aesthetic of Modernism, or of Hegelian thought in regard to identity and recognition, they speak succinctly and clearly to an audience that may not be deeply familiar with such issues. Thus, this collection would make a suitable introductory textbook for discussions of such thinking. However, just as often the mention of a jump-cut or a pan leads to no further discussion of the implications of such editing or cinematography. *Mise en scene*, soundtrack, costuming, or character gesture -- the meanings of which are at least as difficult to articulate as many recognized philosophical concepts -- are too often left unaddressed. Thus, _Philosophy and Film_ would very often call for a supplementary text or discussion in the classroom.

 

In the context of my search for an introductory textbook, I found two essays in the collection that best deal with film *and* philosophy. Such studies as Oliver's final piece, which is a very well written explanation of the difference between a Hegel-Lacan economy of identity of antagonism and a possible Kristeva-Irigaray counter economy, and Cormier's essay, which provides a well-wrought and succinct discussion of modernism and director Stanley Kubrick's difficult relationship with non-representational aesthetics, go a very long way in their philosophical aspects. However, although these and other essays are philosophically acute and well-stated, the essays by Wilson and Freeland may best address both the philosophic and filmic elements, showing how 'philosophers have interesting things to say about films, and that films can be used as a means of addressing issues within philosophy' (10).

 

George M. Wilson's 'Morals for Method' concentrates on issues of narration, spectatorship, and epistemology in trying to engage realist theories (especially Colin MacCabe's 'classic realist text') in thinking further about 'the actual and potential illusions of spectatorship at the cinema' (49). Concentrating on point-of-view as a narrational device, Wilson points out the differences between literary point-of-view and film point-of-view, questioning any quick adaptation of the former to the study of the latter. Emphasizing that analyses of point-of-view in both literature and film are crucial, Wilson warns that the issues surrounding each are in no way identical, 'since verbal telling and cinematic showing are such very different narrational procedures' (64). If point-of-view is taken seriously in film studies, then what must be further discussed is the 'fictional activities of showing and their relations to the shown' (64). Although Wilson does not indicate what such a close reading of this relationship might look like (and I wish that he had), his argument is especially crucial in considering that narrative summary alone will not suffice in discussion of film because who is looking, showing, and seeing must always be put into question in discussions of filmic texts.

 

'Realist Horror' is Cynthia A. Freeland's dialogue with Plato, Aristotle, and Carroll about the ways in which classical theories of tragedy and horror will not suffice in considerations of 'realist horror' (127). This genre (and her specific consideration of the details of one example: _Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer_) lead her into considerations of postmodern theories of representation and realist horror's possible ability to 'lead audience members to question their own fascination with the monstrousness of the serial killer and to query associated icons of male heroism' (137). In this way Freeland's essay closely examines the tropes and icons of realist horror in an ideological critique. Although a genre study, Freeland's piece does provide examinations of shot arrangements, *mise en scene*, specific dialogue, and the possible meaning of 'amateur camera' shots in the film (129), thus moving to a closer reading of the details of at least one film. In fact, part of Freeland's essay is specifically focused on the point that plot summary and narrative analysis of realist horror may fail precisely due to the randomness and repetitive nature of serial killings and films about them.

 

Overall, the issues raised by _Philosophy and Film_ demand a certain recognition and reconsideration. As these previously distant fields of inquiry come closer together it is crucial, as regards my way of understanding interdisciplinary work, that neither side-step the other along the way. Philosophy and film can teach each other a good deal; each can act as gadfly or guide to the other in certain respects. However, in its present state, as represented by this collection, there is very little *film* in philosophy and film. Of course, this raises the question of what the target of such a critique might ultimately become. If this collection provides a survey of the field (the question which haunts my reading), then we in the field are forced to ask ourselves just what our intentions are.

 

The essays in this collection could serve as a starting place from which to begin to address just these concerns. As a textbook _Philosophy and Film_ provides a good range of approaches and films -- in short, readable essays. However, without further dealing with the filmic aspects of film, the essays may leave students wondering why they were asked to attend screenings or rent video tapes in the first place. There is a certain leaving-behind of film here.

 

The good of film studies today is that it has begun to open-up the definition of 'cinema' to include consideration of reception theory, audience analysis, distribution and exposition analysis, and new film history discussion. And this collection has followed along these trajectories quite well. However, many of these broader moves have led to the neglect of the audiovisual aspects of film texts -- a path this collection has also walked down. My quest for a textbook leads me to search further for a volume which might bring the two together.

 

 

University of Maryland at College Park, USA

 

***

 

Brian K. Aurand, 'Survey of a Field?'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 12, May 1998

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n12aurand

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

ISSN 1466-4615

 

 

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

  

Join the Film-Philosophy salon,

and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact: editor@film-philosophy.com

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage