Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Dennis Rothermel

Forays into Philosophy and Film

 


 

 

_Film and Philosophy_

Edited by Kendall D'Andrade

Volume 1, 1994

Published by the Society for the Philosophic Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts

 

Given the long-standing efforts of philosophers writing about cinema, and the growing list of recent monographs and anthologies in this area, it is not thoroughly revolutionary, but rather what can only be welcomed as the natural outgrowth of a steady ferment of interest, to find in the last decade of cinema's first century a journal who's title boldly conjoins philosophy and film. Though the current state of this interest is not confined to the purview of aesthetics, but rather branches into the pervasively influential traditions of structuralism and its after-movements, the progress of philosophical treatment of cinema does surely still have its roots in the most influential of its recent authors: Dudley Andrew, Jean-Louis Baudry, Andre Bazin, Noel Carroll, Allan Casebier, Stanley Cavell, Gilles Deleuze, Fredric Jameson, Ian Jarvie, Martin Jay, Christian Metz, Tania Modlesky, William Rothman, Vivian Sobchack, and George Wilson. One finds traces of these roots in the sixteen essays collected in _Film and Philosophy_.

 

The inaugural volume commences with Berys Gaut's 'On Cinema and Perversion', a well-reasoned critique of structuralist and post-structuralist psychoanalysis of the cinematic apparatus, which in turn has identified pervasive sadism, masochism, fetishism, voyeurism and scopophilia as constitutive of common experience of the cinema. The primary originators of these efforts are Metz, Baudry, Lacan, their many followers and fellow-travellers, to include Gaylyn Studlar, Modlesky, and Laura Mulvey. Gaut's critique is very much in the manner of Carroll, and serves ironically as an introduction to some of the succeeding essays of the volume. Gaut attacks Metz's appropriation of Lacan's mirror stage as the primary metaphor of cinema as overextended. Similarly, though one can find perhaps numerous cases of cinema that may draw emotional power from the marginal voyeuristic, fetishistic, sadistic and masochistic proclivities of its audience, even the most exemplary cases simply to not suffice to warrant the precipitous generalization of such claims. _Rear Window_, for example, could not successfully foreground voyeurism if this were already the general nature of cinema.

 

On the other hand, one may wonder whether Alfred Hitchcock did not simultaneously foreground an important aspect of cinema while foregrounding the (initially idle and innocent but then engrossing and intrusive) voyeurism of his protagonists in that film -- going on to repeat this in different modes in _Vertigo_ and _Psycho_. Those windows overlooking the back courtyard of Jeffries's apartment building all do happen to have dimensions approximating the various standard aspect ratios of the medium, including the CinemaScope windows of Thorwald's apartment directly opposite. The terror accompanying the penultimate scene surely has something to do with the object of voyeur's scrutiny quite suddenly reversing that relationship, almost as soon as Lisa Fremont, one of the impromptu voyeurs/detectives, literally climbs into that distanced frame. The empathetic terror the audience feels at the moment Jeffries realizes his presence is seen is no doubt heightened by the close parallel of Jeffries's physical circumstance with the structure of cinematic experience: in a fixed position in the dark where one presumes to see all yet not be seen. The excess of the broad scope of the psychoanalytic/structuralist approach, however, no doubt lies in the propensity to generalize, and this is the thrust of Gaut's critique.

 

Stephanie Semler in her brief essay, 'Peter Greenaway and Nietzsche's Eternal Return', wonders what Friedrich Nietzsche 'would make of cinema', while drawing upon his doctrine of Eternal Recurrence to attempt an answer on Nietzsche's behalf. Eternal Recurrence levels upon us a distanced, aesthetic, and contemplative stance towards one's life, as if one had heard it all before, indeed, many times over, and certainly enough not to be engrossed any longer merely in the outcome. Semler identifies Greenaway as the one contemporary filmmaker capable of inducing in the viewer of his films the need freely to interpret each moment of the film, like life, as distanced from temporal fixations, fearlessly capable of dallying in the horrific, and yet beautiful.

 

Somewhat in contrast to Semler, and somewhat providing an object for Gaut's critique, Elizabeth Jones ('A Freudian Solution to the Attraction-Repulsion Response Evoked by _The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover_') finds in the Greenaway film a study of repulsion and universal sadism, an analysis informed by Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and contrary to the Aristotlean assumption of psychological distance in the explanation of our pleasure in the sorrow and pain of tragedy.

 

Kevin Sweeney summarizes the perennially persistent though never yet stampeding interest in the phenomenological approach to cinema, in 'The Persistence of Vision: The Re-Emergence of Phenomenological Theories of Film'. This particular segment of the philosophical study of cinema is granted such updating summaries in the journals every ten years or so, which will attest to its not being moribund. The monographs of Casebier and Sobchack demonstrate a recent surge in the approach, and also its intellectual vibrancy, while underscoring the tradition of phenomenological research generally -- one with such an intense investigation of the method as to foreshorten the advent of its application. One remembers here what Hegel once said about Ficthe, that the entrance to the temple was built so large and magnificently ornate that one was spared the need to enter the temple itself. The very best straight-forward phenomenological descriptions have come from Cavell and Deleuze, the former being not at all easily associated with the appropriate philosophical legacy of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Deleuze (in _Cinema 1_ and _Cinema 2_) quite probably offers the right balance of methodological concerns and rich, detailed, insightful descriptions of actual cinema.

 

Of all the many contrasts one may find between Lawrence Olivier's _Henry V_ and Kenneth Branagh's more recent version -- e.g., Branagh's low-budget-imposed constraint of needing to accomplish the St. Crispin's Day speech in montage rather than emulate the slow, continuous, ascending, enveloping crane shot that Olivier could afford -- Julia Houston ('The Camera as a Muse of Fire in _Henry V_') finds the right cipher to be the comparative treatments of the play's opening lines of the chorus, which beseech the audience to extend its imagination beyond the confines of the 'unworthy scaffold' of the Globe Theatre. Olivier uses that same crane to let his camera escape his makeshift Globe in the first scene, which his film only momentarily asks its audience to imagine before it, while Branagh's Spartan restraint both returns the drama to the relative mundaneity of the modern theatrical stage while enforcing upon the chorus the role of 'TV war correspondent at the front'.

 

Graham Parkes ('Phantasy Projections of the Multiple Psyche in _8 1/2_ and _Last Year at Marienbad_') offers Nietzschean reflections upon the ontological status of the diegetic world of cinema, whose coherence the viewer is in need of creating. This pertains especially to these two films by Alain Resnais and Federico Fellini. The sombre, befuddling, dramatically, spatially and temporally non-linear _Last Year at Marienbad_ offers challenges to that need for projected coherence that are likewise at play in the hilarious, frivolous, dramatically nonlinear though spatially and temporally strictly linear _8 1/2_. In the need to create coherence in these two films there arises nevertheless a greater conceptual coherence, which would only be precluded by the usual conventional linearity.

 

Sander Lee ('Sartrean Themes in Woody Allen's _Husbands and Wives_') offers a Sartrean exposition of the Allen film, which he takes as exemplary of Allen's 'films of hopelessness (e.g., _Stardust Memories_, _The Purple Rose of Cairo_, _September_, and _Husbands and Wives_)'. Sartre's 'self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted . . . [which] we shall call authenticity' illuminates Gabe's romantic indecision and Sally's 'submerging herself in sexual desire'.

 

One also wonders how well _Crimes and Misdemeanors_ might fit the 'hopelessness' mould, and the particularly Sartrean existentialist moment of that film's conclusion, when side-by-side on a piano bench, the nebbish filmmaker wallows in romantic rejection and his own minor sins in life while the non-repentant murderer revels in his freedom from guilt. The nebbish rejects the latter's own true story of getting away with murder, fobbed off as fictional, as too lacking in compassion to be a plausible film treatment, while, of course the steadily successful filmmaker of the film, rather than the struggling documentary filmmaker he plays in the film, must think otherwise. Meanwhile, the suicide philosopher/humanist in a concluding posthumous voice-over celebrates the joyous moments of life (including moments from the nebbish's own portrayed events in the film) as redeeming its miseries, while the blind rabbi, who had been unable to see into the soul of his ophthamalogist (the non-repentant murderer), dances gingerly with his daughter at her wedding. Allen weaves four life-strands of authenticity into an inextricable Gordian knot of contingency, thus suspending it indeed 'forever . . . beyond our grasp', a thought which Lee avers more easily derives from the philosophical/biographical studies of Isaiah Berlin (Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy) than the ultimately rigid moral program of _Being and Nothingness_.

 

Wheeler Winston Dixon, drawing upon Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Lacan, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and most eminently, Elaine Scarry's study of Edgar Allen Poe, explores the seemingly ever-growing crescendo of 'graphic specificity' and fantasy of violence in recent decades of Hollywood cinema: 'The Site of the Body in Torture/the Sight of the Tortured Body: Contemporary Incarnations of Graphic Violence in the Cinema and the Vision of Edgar Allen Poe'. One recalls Sam Peckinpah's simple assessment, that the American audience had become so inured to violence in the cinema that he needed to 'rub their nose in it'. In effect, putting that thought into a broader theoretical framework, Dixon concludes: 'The fantasy of torture, the torture of the flesh and of the mind through the flesh, inscribes the body and psyche of the torturer upon the victim, and creates a fantasy of corporeal reintegration in which that which is born separate becomes momentarily transmogrified into an artificial whole'.

 

Thomas Leitch's study of violence in American film ('Nobody Here But Us Killers: The Disavowal of Violence in Recent American Films') focuses upon the 'primary tool whereby movies engage their audiences' ambivalence', i.e., 'disavowal, the presentation of a belief in terms that simultaneously expose that belief as fallacious'. Of course, long since Louis Lumiere first frightened viewers with _Arrival of a Train_, audiences have learned that there is no real cause to duck for cover at that arrival, or even to blink. 'The baby who accepts a favorite doll as a substitute for its mother's breast, the fetishist whose sexual pleasure is focused on high-heeled shoes or lace lingerie, the audience which willingly suspends its disbelief in a movie . . . all these people share an attitude of disbelief masquerading as belief'. Freud, Lacan, and Metz inform this study. Leitch finds, though, significant inversion of the Hollywood tendency in both Hitchcock's _Psycho_, and Clint Eastwood's _Unforgiven_, which he identifies as 'anti-western', which Andrew Sarris also once pronounced of Fred Zinnemann's _High Noon_. In _Psycho_ and _Unforgiven_, 'an equally merciless anatomy of the human agencies of violence underlies [the films]', while the latter in particular 'emphasizes at every point the absurd costs of personal violence and the fallacies of its usual justifications even as it proceeds to a conclusion that gives the audience exactly the cathartic violence they came for, but without the comfortable disavowals they're used to'.

 

One may add that in contrast to the incipient pacifism of Will Kane, _Unforgiven_'s anti-hero, Will Munney, is pure, brutal killer, who is only tenuously and provisionally masked, Himmler-like, as a gentle, benign, god-fearing and upright erstwhile pig farmer and later dry-goods dealer. When Kane rides off with Amy into the vast beyond of the American West, one imagines a heroic soul finally rewarded and relieved with quiet anonymity and the peace and joy of love and family, whereas the retreat of Munney is a disappearance of not just an evil man, but an evil greater than the man who bears it, a disappearance into the firmament of 20th Century American culture, there to fester unseen and undetected, waiting to stride forth again in sudden relentless and emotionless fury at some randomly determined time.

 

Fabian Worsham's study of _Home Alone_ and its critical reaction ('_Home Alone_: American Dream/American Nightmare') begins with the summary plot elements of family dysfunction; heavy borrowing from the slapstick violence meted out to Wiley Coyote in Road Runner cartoons; and the hopelessly forced, saccharine Hollywood 'happy' ending of refurbished love and reconciliation. 'As envisioned here, our systems of communication, transportation, security, and social services, as well as our neighborhoods, communities, and families are often overtaxed and unreliable . . . Kate and Peter discover this, and realize they are lucky to still have their child. Kevin discovers it as he wheels a seemingly gigantic buggy through the grocery store, buying milk, fabric softener and a macaroni dinner'.

 

Stephen Mulhall's careful, thoughtful reading of Ridley Scott's _Blade Runner_ very effectively shows the influence of Stanley Cavell, both explicitly and in terms of the accomplished nature of philosophical commentary on film. The film is 'explicitly concerned with the question of what it is to be a human being'. Roy Baty easily brings to mind Zarathustran themes, namely, living with compassion beyond the determinations of good and evil, and 'dancing through life . . . invested with lightness and grace'. The film challenges 'the Cartesian perspective of an immaterial substance contained within a material one . . . The film presents us with entities whose bodies resemble those of human beings in their form and flexibility, entities who manifest behavior of a complexity and range which matches that of a human being -- and on this basis alone, the viewer is brought to apply to those entities all the psychological concepts which together constitute the logical space of the mental'. Deckard's relationship with Rachel progresses from the stultifying administering of the Voight-Kampff test (which we can recognize as loosely but clearly inspired by the Turing Test), through his brutal dispelling of her illusions and precious dreams and memories, to their eventual, silent escape together. The penultimate sequence of the chase of Deckard and Roy Baty, in which Roy brings Deckard through the lesson of suffering and grace by not just saving Deckard but sparing him, so that he might be better prepared to listen to Roy's dying existentialist haiku, is what finalizes Deckard's attainment of the love of Rachel. At this point, we may wonder indeed how much of a challenge this poses to Descartes' view of mind.

 

Mulhall makes nothing of the controversy among some enthusiasts of the film concerning whether Deckard is himself a replicant. This is the right interpretation, not because there isn't evidence to that assertion -- specifically the otherwise non-syntagmatic image of the unicorn -- but because whether Deckard might be himself a replicant is a philosophical red herring. The film is richer in its philosophical depth if we ignore that issue. Deckard takes himself to be human, he receives his philosophical lesson from Roy Baty as a human coming to understand a replicant, and his redemption in his love for Rachel is as human to human, regardless of physical origin.

 

Mulhall takes the film as reflexive moral philosophy about film-making, as well. The large, slowly turning ventilation fan that dominates the next-to-last scene might easily signal the filmmaker's suggestion of this turn in the significance of the film. Mulhall concludes on this point that the film establishes two points about film-making: 'first, that to preserve the humanity of the camera's subjects is an achievement of human flourishing in itself; and secondly, that a failure to do so -- a failure to make a film which is a work of art -- is a failure of humanity in the director'. The former thought we might easily associate with the intent of Jean Rouch's original notion of cinema verite, while both points can be attributed to the what was the French nouvelle vague at the height of its verve.

 

The reception of Blade Runner isn't nearly so profound nor praising in Robert Crooks's essay, 'Retro noir, Future noir: _Body Heat_, _Blade Runner_, and Neo-Conservative Paranoia', in which he develops a brief comparison of this film with one other example of the 'neo-noir' of the 1980s: Lawrence Kasdan's _Body Heat_. Intertwined in this comparison are perceptions of the cultural influence of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Presidencies in the US, as well as broad assertions about the meaning of 1940s film noir versus 1980s, etc. The costumes in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity 'could pass almost as well in a 40s film as in one from the 80s. As Fredric Jameson has pointed out with only slight exaggeration, 'Everything in this film . . . conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and to make it possible for you to receive the narrative as though it were set in some eternal Thirties [I would say Forties -- RC], beyond historical time''. Crooks's intent is to build 'a critique of neo-conservatism that will not reproduce its own central discursive structures', i.e., 'not to construct neo-conservatives as a 'them', because that is precisely what neo-conservative rhetoric does so persistently'.

 

Crooks's reading of _Blade Runner_ betrays a treatment of the 1983 theatrical release, rather than the re-issue of the Director's Cut in 1993, which most commentators praised for the removal of Deckard's voice-over narration: 'Harrison Ford's deadpan past-tense voice-over, so reminiscent of those in the classic noirs . . . adds to that sensation that the story occupies the past as well as the future'. Further, '[o]ne-upping _Body Heat_ in this sense, then, _Blade Runner_ posits noir as both original sin *and* the promised end. There is really little difference, however, for the point is that noir becomes detached from history altogether, forming a kind of perpetual gloom infecting the present'. Moreover, '[w]ithout a sense of history and historical causation, social problems become inexplicable plagues that can only be contained or eradicated in the form of alien groups . . . As ideological analysis, therefore, both films offer only symptomologies, not diagnoses'. The connection with 1980s American politics is thus established: '[b]y denying the collective economic and ideological forces that constitute historical narratives -- as opposed to heroic narratives -- neo-conservatism and neo-noir effectively deny the possibility of radical, qualitative social change'.

 

David Owen's essay, 'Imagining America: Reflections on Politics and Time in Three Forms of Popular Film', provides a brief treatment of 'epical modernism' (Oliver Stone's _Born on the Fourth of July_ and _JFK_), 'originary anti-modernism' (_Field of Dreams_ and _Dances With Wolves_), and 'ironic post-modernism' (_Back to the Future 3_ and _Thelma and Louise_). The generally modernist tenor of all three groups is marked by this facet of post-Kantian philosophy: 'contemporary thought locates itself through it's thinking of both the becoming of it's present and it's present's becoming'. The two Stone films concern 'the authentic identity of America'. Since this appears as idealist essentialism in the first film, which is then 'negated by the corruption of the entrenched interests of the political and economic establishment' in _JFK_, Owen offers this paraphrase of Marx's famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: 'Where _Born on the Fourth of July_ simply interprets America, _JFK_ seeks to change it'. It is a 'new sincerity' that 'discloses an originary anti-modernism in which an implicit or explicit conception of the present as lack is juxtaposed to the plenitude of a mythical past, an originary America'. _Field of Dreams_ 'repeats the politics of recuperation which characterizes _Dances with Wolves_ and similarly defines its originary America by reference to the primacy of the affectual over the rational, that is, by reference to an ethic of care'. The central feature of ironic postmodernism, by contrast, 'is its self-referentiality, that is, its thinking of the present of the film thorough its relation to the history of cinema', i.e., 'a hyperconscious eclecticism'. Finally, 'modernist and anti-modernist positions elaborate a focus on imagining an authentic America through a politics of legislation in which submission to the authority of the film as reason (modernism) or affect (anti-modernism) is the condition of recognizing the authentic identity of America'. Postmodern film 'reveals itself as a site in which an agonistic politics of irony discloses the imagination of difference in the difference of imagination'.

 

In 'Hollywood Mediated Reaganism', James W. Newcomb connects the tenor of the American republic under Reagan with four films from the mid-1980s: _The Karate Kid_, _Back to the Future_, _Peggy Sue Got Married_, and _The Best of Times_. Ostensibly, Hollywood responded to how well one of its own was playing nationally to foster a 'group of films more subtly reflecting and championing one of the more bizarre Reaganist modes of thinking: the idea that the desirably idyllic Norman Rockwell-like work envisioned by the president could be realized not by looking ahead with a plan to create that world but by a slight tinkering with a past that was all Norman Rockwell with a few paint smudges needing fixing . . . The Reagan administration shared with these films the notion that a basically good world had been flawed by errors in the past, errors which required not new measures but rather some sort of magical undoing of them'.

 

Tony Williams's reading of Stanley Kubrick's _Full Metal Jacket_, 'In a World of Shit -- _Full Metal Jacket_'s Excremental Vision', draws clearly from the structuralist psychoanalytic tradition of Metz, Modleski, as well as Kristeva. The focus of the analysis is upon the scatological concentration of the verbal abuse that drill instructor Hartmann utilizes to desensitize recruits, subjugate independent identity into obedience, and nurture a willingness to kill. Sadism, masochism, emasculation, fetishism and anal fixations are dominant elements in the recruits' indoctrination during boot camp. Williams marks and dissects six seminal moments of violence in the film, each punctuated by Kubrick with a fade-out. Williams is further able to draw upon the literature on Kubrick to corroborate thematic connections with the Kubrick corpus, in particular, films about war in which the psychopathology of male aggression reverberates to extreme in the absence of women; a concluding reminder of the pacifying presence of women; and 'the theme of primitive forces [such as anality] lurking beneath humanity's civilized facade'. As properly noted, the concluding scene from _Paths of Glory_ speaks to the tensions and subject of _Full Metal Jacket_ nearly as well. In the former a young girl tames an aggressively raucous crowd of soldiers, destined to return soon to the terror and slaughter of the front lines, by singing a gentle, sad song of lost love. Their animalistic grimaces and shouts give way to humming and weeping as they all recognize the tune, and the reminder it brings of what has been lost to their lives. But how different this is in _Full Metal Jacket_, where the penultimate confrontation of soldiers with a young girl is marked mutually by brutal aggression and unfeeling violence. As the sniper lies dying, she petitions for release from life rather than sing gently the persuasion into love and peace. The soldiers move from fear and apprehension to mocking aggression, mutilation and inhumanity. By way of comparison, Kubrick's vision is considerably more pessimistic in _Full Metal Jacket_ than the much earlier -- both in his career and in historical subject -- _Paths of Glory_.

 

One could also note the clear borrowing that _Full Metal Jacket_ owes to Lewis Milestone's _All Quiet on the Western Front_, specifically in the broad structure of a first act in training camp, and second and third acts in combat. Significant elements of the boot camp segment are repeated from _All Quiet_: the institutionally sanctioned petty sadism of the drill instructor; the subjugation of youthful enthusiasm to the monotonous demands of soldiering; immersion of the recruits in filth and mud; brutal, humiliating aggression of the group against a single individual, who is ambushed and tied down to facilitate the communal beating; and the drill instructor's gaining not respect but fear and resentment from the recruits. Also present in the Milestone film is what becomes the cinematic leitmotif of the first half of _Full Metal Jacket_: the long, slow, steady, leading tracking shot that repeatedly traverses the interior of the barracks and the exterior parade grounds, demarcating the drill instructor's domain and reiterating with every turn his absolute dominance over every inch of that physical and psychological space and the men whose lives and psyches are confined within it.

 

This first volume of _Film and Philosophy_ concludes with Fred Siddon's tribute and commentary on _Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould_. Siddon's essay replicates the film's structure exactly: 'After all, if Francois Girard can base an entire movie on the structure of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, why not a movie essay?' The remarks on each segment are suitably as sparse and minimalist as the segments of the film.

 

This collection of sixteen essays offers a fair selection of the extant traditions of contemporary philosophical writing about film. The major schools have their representations, and there is also inclusion of a variety of voices, rather than the familiar major figures. There is with that, though, some variance in the quality of accounts, though certainly the variety of subjects is quite broad. It does continue to puzzle -- though perhaps it shouldn't -- that philosophical treatment of cinema does not consistently quite measure up to the parallel corpus of philosophical writings about, say, music. There are many contributions to the former that lack a theoretical and technical understanding of the medium, whereas one would be hard pressed to find philosophers writing about music who are not knowledgeable about music theory. Perhaps it is the easy familiarity of cinema that helps to preclude greater depth of understanding of the medium and what constitutes its art, and helps legitimize trivializing and frivolous readings. Certainly the very best of philosophical treatments of cinema do not fail in this regard, as can be said of the majority of this collection. The journal and the subdiscipline, however, will no doubt better itself the more this general competence with the medium becomes the standard.

 

California State University, Chico, USA

 

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Dennis Rothermel, 'Forays into Philosophy and Film',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 27, September 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n27rothermel>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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