Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 24, August 2001



Robert E. Wood

Toward an Ontology of Film

A Phenomenological Approach




Though as esteemed a philosopher as Stanley Cavell has disputed it, it seems clear to me as to many others that film is *the* contemporary artform. [1] Erwin Panofsky notes that 'it is the movies that mold, more than any other single force, the opinions, the taste, the language, the dress, the behavior, and even the physical appearance of a public comprising more than 60 percent of the population of the earth'. [2]


Film is a new artform that came into being through 'the wonders of modern technology'. Like opera in the 19th century and the cathedral in the 13th, film is, indeed, the contemporary Gesamtkunst. Ingmar Bergman remarked that film is the contemporary equivalent of the medieval cathedral which drew together artists and artisans of all sorts: architects, stain-glass designers, sculptors, mural painters, liturgists, composers and musicians, along with masons and hod-carriers. [3] Film draws together script writers, directors, actors, cameramen, lighting specialists, set and costume designers, musicians, special effects experts, and stage hands. [4] Its peculiarity is that it has the power to make us universal voyeurs, to make us present, in a way impossible in real life, to every mode of human action and to expand our vicarious experience to any real or fictitious visual and audile space.


Our intention is to focus attention upon the nature of the film medium and the peculiar possibilities that it affords. We will approach the study by a double method: a phenomenological inventory, and a comparison with other cognate artforms. The comparison with other artforms, most especially painting, theater, and the novel, will show the peculiarities of film.


* * *


All artforms appear in the space carved out by the general structure of the field of human awareness. That field is bipolar. At the most obvious pole there is the component of sensation as a realm of immediate appearance, the limited manifestation of things in the environment of our own bodies. It rises out of the relationship between the various sense organs and the largely hidden causal impacts of the environment, and is tied in with the solicitation of those desires, themselves arising from the hidden realm of our own physiology, that serve the ends of the organism. At the less obvious counter-pole of the field of awareness there is an initially empty reference to the All, to whatever is and to all there is about each. This reference to the All poses the question of what underlies the limited manifestation of the sensory surface, both on the object and the subject sides. Beyond that, reference to the All poses the question of our place in the scheme of things, 'the meaning of it all', tied to the choices we humans make from the possibilities afforded by our understanding and experience. The distance of the primordial reference to the whole pries us loose from immediacy and condemns us to choose our way in the light of how we understand our place in the overall scheme of things. Out of settled dispositions passed on to others there emerges a cultural world laying out ahead of time (for the individuals born into it) paths for thinking, acting, and feeling. [5]


Over time the fine arts settle into various sub-spaces within that world, grounded in the articulation of various aspects of the sensory field. Set within the field of the senses, fine art opens up a sense of the whole; it gathers a world of inhabitance. Such inhabitance inclines us in a spontaneous way to certain lines of thinking and acting. It brings certain things closer to us and sets other things at a distance. Among the fine arts, film is the latest arrival. It shares visual space with painting, sculpture, and architecture; it shares audile space with theater, poetry, and music; it shares the space of action with literature and theater.


Some theorists claim that the medium of film is light in motion, but we would have to take 'light' in the wide sense of that which contains light and dark as well as all the colors, the field occupied by the visual arts in general. [6] Alexander Sesonske claims that the medium of film is the complex formed by space, time, and motion. [7] Following Aristotle's terminology, we might call that complex opened by light the remote matter of film. [8] The proximate matter is human action visually depicted, while the form that gives it specificity is the mythos, that which joins all the visual features into a single, organic whole. However, Aristotle himself considered the visual spectacle, the field now utilized by film itself, inessential to the work. [9] This is linked to the Platonic view that human completeness involves some 'turn within' away from the sensory, the more disembodied the better -- a view carried on in medieval monasticism and in the Aristotelianism absorbed by Thomas Aquinas. [10] What film underscores is embodiment, although, as in the arts generally, only from the contemplative, non-tactual and therefore paradoxically disembodied viewpoint. [11] It is the seeing eye rather than the active and reactive embodied subject that contemplates the objects of film.


If we consider the relation of film to other visual artforms, note that painting, apart from every other artform, is present all at once, though held in the tension between aesthetic form and reference, between the immediacy of sensory presence and (whether directly representational or not) the mediation of gathering a world. [12] Film breaks through the total presence of the painting to move us into its active temporal context. Sculpture, being three dimensional, requires the viewer to move around the object to gain a sense of the transitions between the indeterminate number of profiles presented for viewing (or, as in Calder's mobiles, the sculptural piece moves for the viewer). The camera carries us around the three-dimensional objects virtually present on the screen. Architecture, as the art of creating functional space, adds to this the three-dimensional interior as well as the transformations rendered by differing natural and artificial lighting conditions. [13] Contrasted with sculpture and architecture, painting is all there at once and available but from a single perspective, namely direct frontal viewing. Furthermore, even in realistic painting, being all there at once precludes questioning beyond the frame or behind the figures presented. By contrast, in photography such questioning makes perfectly good sense insofar as the photograph presents the real world which we know to extend beyond the frame of the picture. [14] Though, just as with the painting, what makes a good photograph involves the balance of the forms (the play of dark and light and colors within the frame), the frame of the painting, unlike that of the photo, establishes its own enclosed world.


Film shares with painting and still photography the two dimensional surface which affords frontal viewing from a fixed perspective and presents us with a virtual three-dimensional world. [15] But these 'motion pictures' are like Calder's mobiles in relation to the viewer. Furthermore, film is able to replicate our ability to move around sculptural pieces and through architectural works. However, as in theater, it sets its own pace and drags us along when we might prefer to linger. It may zero in on a painting, but as viewers we can attend to it only in terms of the time of viewing determined by the film. Hence the temporality involved in the viewing of film is significantly other than that involved in viewing the plastic arts. It is actually someone else's -- the cameraman's, and ultimately the director's -- viewing of the plastic work that we are enabled to experience through the film. One might say that the plastic arts leave us free to pace our own viewing, while film dominates our viewing by giving us a surrogate point of view. Even though we use our own eyes, we see through the eyes of someone else and as dictated by some else's pace. [16] However, we must add that technological developments make possible freezing a frame and treating it as a still photograph.


Film is a subspecies of photography. At the level of mechanism, the traditional film is a matter of still photographs. Composed on the reel of a series of stills, the proximate ground of the work of art emerges with the rapid sequential projection of these stills on a two-dimensional screen. Film as viewed sets the photographs in motion to produce the illusion of three-dimensions that is the artwork. But the illusion exists as such only as it is perceived. The projection on the screen is still not the full work of art. As Dewey noted, the work of art is what it does to constitute perception, how it works upon us; the art-product, here light on the screen, is what does the work. [17]


Film's ability to preserve what it 'sees' allows for both filming in segments and retakes. This involves a enormous difference in time-frame between the time of filming and the time of viewing. Between the two is the cutting room where the composition comes into being. As Eisenstein noted, the real work of art only comes to be in assembling the segments into an integral whole: cutting, splicing, reassembling. [18] The finished product is indeed a collage. All the takes are only the materials that have to be reduced and assembled to form the coherent whole that eventually comes to be the final art-product ready to come to life in the perceptions of the viewers. [19] The director commands both actor and camera angle, by directing the cameraman (or functioning as cameraman himself or herself), and through what he or she finally allows to appear from a given scene in the cutting room. The director oversees the shooting angles, manipulates the actors scene by scene, then cuts and splices until the parts come into an integral whole. Though guided by an overall interpretation of the script, the way the filming and editing occurs leaves immense room for playing with possibilities in each scene.


Because filming can start and stop and because the resultant can be cut and recomposed, our ordinary relations to space and time can be altered. The final composition can not only shift within the time-frame of the story from present to past and future, but by superimposition can bring back the past and anticipate the future within the spatial confines of the present action. Composition can also juxtapose on the screen two spatially separated events. Of course one can also do that in the novel, but only in the alienative distance of the reconstructive imagination. It can be done much less successfully on the stage which suffers from its extreme spatial confinement. [20]


In the production of the stills, the camera narrows and expands the frame by close-ups and fade-backs. It focuses attention within the frame by zeroing-in and fading-out, selecting now one, now the other figure in focus, relegating the rest to fringe. The camera moves the frame itself to include, in principle, all that could be seen without the camera. Of course, what one sees is not simply 'the real world', since what one films may be elaborately staged, like in Eisenstein's _Battleship Potemkin_, or any typical studio set, or it may be a blow up of a miniaturized set, or a matter of elaborate technical special effects, especially those made possible by the computer.


Time-lapse photography, as the extreme of the distinction between the time of filming and the time of viewing, allows the audience to see things otherwise unseen. Fixed at a given point, time-lapse filming creates a series of stills separated from each other by a given and constant interval of time. Put together and projected rapidly onto a screen, the resultant of such stills performs the task of temporal synthesis, inexactly performed in everyday life by psychological retention. [21] Since we live in the flowing Now, the unity of observed processes is ordinarily only a matter of necessarily inexact recollective thought. Moreover, we never focus, the way a camera can, upon a single process over a long period of time, so that what our retentive capacity gathers for us is, rather than a single given thing observed over a long period of time, only a series of discrete observations pulled out from the multiple contents that have impinged upon our awareness while we were doing and observing other things.


Since film presents exactly a two-dimensional view of the physical reality filmed, [22] the line between fictional and real in what is presented through film is easily crossed and the two confused. The possibilities afforded by computer manipulation makes possible the insertion of fictional characters into scenes with real characters, as in _Forrest Gump_ or Woody Allen's _Zelig_. Though this affords interesting viewing, it also makes increasingly questionable the reliability of filming and of photographic evidence in general for testimonial purposes.


What is filmed is ordinarily guided by an antecedent script. The script employs a visual medium whose powers, like those of the written medium generally, can only present the vague outline of an actual visual world, involving what Roman Ingarden called 'spots of indeterminacy' and 'schematized aspects' that have to be filled in by the reader's imagination. [23] The script, so to speak, provides the recipe for a performance in a series of entirely different media, first in the imagination of the reader, then in the acting out on site or on the set, in reduction and assembly in the cutting room, in projection upon the screen, and finally in the act of viewing.


Contrast the written page of a novel with the script of a play or a screen script. One has to consider here the radical difference between the silently read, the orally interpreted, and the enacted. Silent reading, the domain of academics, provides a second-order sensibility, a lifeworld performed in the interior of the reader's imagination, filling out the world through the necessarily limited description provided by the text. The orally interpreted adds a whole new dimension of audile dynamics. It gives body to the purely interior domain of the imaginatively reconstructed; it locates interiority on the earth. The word that is heard brings sound into prominence, and, in the case of poetic diction, constitutes an essential component of the meaning conveyed. Part of the joy in reading Shakespeare stems from the sheer sonorousness of his lines, 'giving airy nothing a local habitat'.  Enactment takes this one step further by adding the full explicitness of the visual world, which in reading has to remain only in outline, even in the reconstructions of a reader possessed of a particularly vivid imagination. Imagination in the three cases of silent reading, oral interpretation, and visual enactment involves an attempted entry into the life of the characters referred to in the script, but it also involves the construction of a visual world. In the first two cases imaginative construction also involves the look of the characters in action as well as of the general visual ambiance. That look is made explicit by film.


There is an increasing importance of the visual ambiance as we move from the novel to the stage to the film, and that's not always for the better. Compare the verbal suggestions of Kundera's novel, _The Unbearable Lightness of Being_, to the explicit display of nudity and sexual activity in the film version. In the book nudity and sexuality are submerged in the larger context of the novel and positioned by the Preface in the largest possible framework. The Preface locates the themes of Being and Lightness in a discussion of Parmenides and Nietzsche. From the beginning the novel is set within the framework of the most comprehensive reflectiveness. The film version does not directly attend to that framework; nudity and sexuality jut into prominence and threaten to overwhelm the level of deeper and of deepest significance. The power of visual immediacy tends to block rather than stimulate the reflective awareness intended and achieved by the novel.


Contrasted with a play, film so increases the power of the visual that one could have long scenes of action or extended moments of visual exploration without any word being spoken. Indeed, in the early silent films action and visual exploration were clearly the focal elements, with diction playing an extremely subordinate role in the subtitles. Hence the need for exaggerated gestures. [24] By contrast, diction is the heart of stage. [25] So much is that the case that Aristotle claimed reading without enactment, either audile or visual, is sufficient to take in the power of tragedy. [26] As Sesonske noted, 'the fundamental categories of drama are nothing like space, time, and motion [the primary formal categories of cinema], but are rather character and action'. [27] The move from silent film to 'talkies' allowed subtlety of character to emerge from the stereotypes required by speechless moving pictures. [28]


The novel, the play, and the film have in common the focus upon human action. The real center of a play lies in the action that the diction mediates, the kind of character it displays, and the sense of inhabiting a world it exhibits. Here the word heard is the primary action, closely related to gesture and requiring more or less in costuming and set. As we already noted, the visual spectacle takes on greater prominence in the case of film. It is precisely the power of that peculiar prominence that has the deepest effect upon contemporary life, drawing in the masses of people and moving and shaping our dispositions, especially when music is added to the action. It is almost a requirement of the majority of today's films that they must weave in sufficient amounts of sex and violence to grip the audience viscerally. It is precisely those elements that ancient Greek theater considered best only alluded verbally in place of appearing on stage, thus, according to one etymological suggestion, as ob-scene. It would surely be in keeping with the ancient Greek sensibility in Plato and Aristotle to maintain that such depiction would so arouse the passions as to disallow reflective judgment. Without the discipline of reflectiveness film can pander, as no other artform can, to the immediate evocation of desire and more involve the viewers in their passions than stimulate reflection.


Like and unlike the novel, film can compress action into its essential features. [29] In a relatively short period of time film can give the essential dramatic features of a significantly longer segment of real action. The stage is significantly hampered by not being able to make the kind of temporal compression possible in the film. Film contrasts with the novel here and realizes with painting the adage that a picture in worth a thousand words. [30]


Once again, enactment adds in the visual domain the dimension of gesture, the expressivity of bodily comportment which brings it close to portrait painting as far as expressivity is concerned. But unlike theater and like painting, film can bring us close up to capture facial comportment. However, in this respect film is not so limited as painting to a frozen moment, for it can replicate and focus a whole gestural style. It intensifies the viewer's capacity to focus upon the full concreteness of the character impossible in ordinary life, for in film we can see up close characters who cannot see us. The latter is true for theater but the close-up is not.


Film does not exactly give us a 'God's eye view' since a hypothetical giver of total being has no point of view: everything would stand absolutely transparent within and not before such a being. But film does give us a kind of human omnipresence, hindered only by the limited receptivity of the human eye and the necessary perspectivity of human viewing. Film satisfies the voyeur's instinct without encroachment upon the privacy of others. [31] One becomes the perennially fancied 'fly on the wall'. Certainly that is virtually the case in theater, although both we and the actors know that we are seeing and being seen. Film completely absents the actors from the viewing audience. And by the zoom-in it allows the viewers to come up close in a way impossible in the theater and not at all in real life, even for the fly on the wall, without disturbing the action.


In the play, setting along with costuming plays a role; but setting is fixed and the time of viewing allows for comparatively very little by way of change of scenery between acts. In film, the segmentation of the scenes which allows separation of the time and place of filming from the time and space of viewing brings the whole world, real and artificially simulated, to function as setting. This is the basis for the title of Stanley Cavell's major work on film, _The World Viewed_. The camera can follow the action indefinitely beyond the immediate space to which a stage setting is confined, leading on in principle into the entire surrounding world. [32] We can see this contrast most clearly if we compare the straight filming of opera performance, where the filming is governed by the stage (reaching its high point in the work of Ingmar Bergman), and when the filming is set free to follow the action beyond any given setting, as in the performance of _Carmen_ featuring Placido Domingo.


Stage is live, film is not. Bogart and Cooper and Dietrich live on in their films. The stage performance, like any life sequence, disappears when it ends, though it may live on in memory and in the effects it had on the audience. Appearing before a live audience, stage actors feed upon the audience response. Actors in a film are more the director's creation insofar as the director controls the takes and the cutting room. [33] Following out the immense difference between the time of viewing and the time of filming, actors in film do not necessarily go through the same sequence as the final viewers. A director may shoot at the same time all parts of a film which take place in a single setting, no matter how far apart they will be separated in the time of viewing. Actors in a movie thus have a very different relation to the overall performance than stage actors. As a result of the possibility of multiple takes and chronological segmentation and mixing in filming time, the actors only need memorize relatively short portions of the script for a given filming time. The stage actors, by contrast, need to have command over the whole script and have relative freedom in how they perform at a given time. Though the director may control the actors before and after a given performance, during the performance the actors are on their own. In film they are never on their own -- or if they are, it is only by the allowance of the director. [34]


Though stage might have musical accompaniment when the play is not a musical, it is not common, whereas it would be rare to have a film without musical accompaniment. There is, of course, a significant difference in the role of music in film than there is in opera: in opera music is focal, in film it is subsidiary -- unless we have a filmed opera or a musical. Music, as Aristotle remarks, produces emotional dispositions (ethos) like those evoked under real conditions. That makes it, in his estimation, the most imitative of the artforms, for real conditions and their surface imitation in painting can at best give us signs of inner disposition: music gives the disposition by reproducing it in us. [35] Moving the pictures gives us increased expressivity through gestural style, but music greatly enhances the re-creation of the disposition. In accompanying film performance, music accentuates the disposition proper to the action and draws us more powerfully into it than acting alone could ordinarily do. A PBS tribute to John Williams presented two viewings of a scene from _Jaws_, one with and one without Williams's accompaniment. The difference in emotional impact was amazing. Good filming requires a rhythmic pacing of the transformations of spatial relation that covers the same domain of temporal pacing belonging to music. Hence from the very beginning film and music were bonded. [36] Music, together with the emotional possibilities of the visual, affords the possibility of an emotional manipulation -- for better and for worse -- that is unlike any other medium.


In the beginning we remarked that film is the contemporary equivalent of nineteenth-century opera and the medieval cathedral. Each is a matter of collaborative effort on the part of different kinds of artists and technicians. However, each is controlled by a single person: in the case of opera, the composer, but mediated through the director; in the case of the cathedral, the architect. Though the effect of a collective effort on the part of several different artists and technicians, film is finally the work of the director-editor who fashions the parts and brings the whole into being by collage. Through his or her artistry the film medium establishes in a two-dimensional projection the creation of a three-dimensional virtual reality of sight and sound. By its alignment with music, film is able to create powerful emotional effects tied to the action 'mooded' by the music. It allows the audience to become omnipresent voyeurs, to experience vicariously an indeterminately expansive set of possibilities of action and setting, and to be emotionally drawn into the world depicted in a mode unrivaled by any other medium. As such, it allows us to be emotionally manipulated in an unrivaled way, but it also gives us an enriched and expanded experience and thus furnishes materials for a more comprehensive reflective life.


University of Dallas, Texas, USA





1. Cavell, _The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film_ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 14. It was the study of Cavell's book that touched off these reflections by affording many suggestive lines of exploration.


2. Erwin Panofsky, 'Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures' (1934), in George Dickie and Richard Sclafani, eds, _Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology_ (New York: St Martin's Press, 1977), p. 352.


3. Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 8. Panofsky made the comparison earlier; see 'Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures', p. 363.


4. See Paul Weiss, _Cinematics_ (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975), for a treatment of each of these contributions.


5. For a more extended treatment of the field of experience see my _Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition_ (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), Chapter 1, and _A Path into Metaphysics: Phenomenological, Hermeneutical, and Dialogical Studies_ (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), Chapters 1-5.


6. See Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 165.


7. Alexander Sesonske, 'Aesthetics of Film, or a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Movies', Sclafani and Dickie, eds, _Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology_, p. 586.


8. Aristotle, _Metaphysics_, IX, 7, 1049a-1049b.


9. Aristotle, _Poetics_, 1450a, 12; 1450b, 28.


10. Thomas Aquinas, _Summa theologiae_, I-II, 57, 3, ad 3.


11. See Noel Carroll, 'Towards an Ontology of the Moving Image', in Cynthia Freeland and Thomas Wartenberg, eds, _Philosophy and Film_ (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 71. The concocters of virtual reality are working to remedy that by linking the visual with the tactual.


12. See Martin Heidegger, 'The Origin of the Work of Art', _Poetry, Language, and Thought_, trans. A Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), pp. 48-49.


13. Cf. Paul Weiss, _Nine Basic Arts_ (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961), pp. 67-84. See also my 'Architecture: The Confluence of Technology, Art, Politics, and Nature', _Philosophy of Technology_, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 1996.


14. Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 23.


15. See Suzanne Langer, _Feeling and Form_ (New York: Scribners, 1953), pp. 69-103.


16. Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 25; Sesonske, 'Aesthetics of the Film', p. 588.


17. John Dewey, _Art as Experience_ (New York: Capricon, 1974), pp. 162ff, 106-9, 139. This is a central theme in Mikel Dufrenne, _The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience_, trans. E. Casey et al. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 15, 24ff.


18. Sergei Eisenstein, 'The Cinema as an Outgrowth of Theater: Through Theater to Cinema', in Sclafani and Dickie, eds, _Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology_, pp. 345-350.


19. Alexander Sesonske, 'The World Viewed', _The Georgia Review_, 1974, p. 564.


20. Panofsky, 'Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures', p. 354.


21. On the notion of retention, see Edmund Husserl, _Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness_.


22. Panofsky, 'Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures', p. 365.


23. Roman Ingarden, _The Literary Work of Art_, trans. G. Grabowicz, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), pp. 246-287, 331-356.


24. Panofsky, 'Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures', p. 360.


25. Carroll, 'Towards an Ontology of the Moving Image', p. 76.


26. Like Aristotle, Sesonske claims that a play can be 'fully experienced and understood' merely by reading ('Aesthetics of Film', p. 586). Such a claim turns upon what 'experienced' and 'understood' mean. It obviously fails with regard to experience. And there is an 'understanding' involved in completed presence that is not there in the absence involved in reading. Of course, film also is a mode of presence in absence since the viewer and the actors are absent from one another.


27. Sesonske, 'Aesthetics of Film', p. 586.


28. Sesonske, 'The World Viewed', p. 567.


29. Sesonske, 'Aesthetics of Film', p. 588.


30. This holds only with respect to visual description. With respect to thoughts, only words are adequate; for example, no picture is adequate to the theoretical elaboration of film that we are attempting here.


31. See Cavell, _The World Viewed_, p. 40. Cavell compares the viewer with Plato's Gyges in the _Republic_, II, 358.


32. Sesonske, 'Aesthetics of Film', p. 587.


33. Sesonske, 'The World Viewed', p. 568.


34. Sesonske, 'The World Viewed', p. 567-569.


35. Aristotle, _Politics_, VIII, 5, 1340a, 1ff.


36. Roman Ingarden, _Ontology of the Work of Art_, trans. R. Meyer and J. Goldthwait (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989), pp. 332-339.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Robert E. Wood, 'Toward an Ontology of Film: A Phenomenological Approach', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 24, August 2001 <>.



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



Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage