Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 47, December 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan French Overstreet

 

Irving Singer's Reality Revisited:

On _Three Philosophical Filmmakers_

 

 

Irving Singer

_Three Philosophical Filmmakers: Hitchcock, Welles and Renoir_

Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004

ISBN 0-262-19501-1

279 pp.

http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10072

 

The cinematic creations of the three filmmakers presented in Irving Singer's recent book are documentation of the ability these three artists had to capture 'human thought' on film. According to Singer, they are the 'philosophical' filmmakers -- directors who have mastered what Singer identifies as the interdependence of 'meaning and technique'. Singer's depiction of what Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Jean Renoir accomplished in their artistry -- in terms of the importance each artist placed on 'both the thematic meaningfulness of their work and the technical maneuvers that were instrumental in the expression of such meaning' -- is what is most compelling and original in Singer's perspective on film theory. While these three artists operate very differently in the methods they employ to present the essence of the human condition, Singer is able to juxtapose their diverse styles against one another to present a dialogue about the importance of film as art in the last century. Singer himself harnesses an artistry that at once describes filmmaking technique and at the same time draws on the philosophical meaning that permeates the specific films these artists produced. Though he declares that these three filmmakers are 'not placed in any order of rank', I contend there is a clear pattern in the positioning of the three artists, and that Singer would believe that Renoir best exemplifies the characteristics he describes as 'reality transformed' (256).

 

_Three Philosophical Filmmakers_ is a sequel to Singer's 1998 book _Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique_, where the author first presented his philosophical perspective that all art should be looked at as 'life-enhancement' and that in doing so we 'find the meanings and techniques in each work are internally related to one another'. [1] Singer wishes to move beyond the formalist and realist theories of film toward a new theory that incorporates both theories and synthesizes the technical with the meaningful. Realists 'emphasize that film records properties of the physical world' and the photographic process predominates in this film theory, while the formalists look toward the technical means by which a filmmaker goes beyond the real world to express artistic vision. [2] With Singer's new humanistic approach, ontology and aesthetics disintegrate, and reality is not just captured on film, 'reality is transformed'.

 

In _Three Philosophical Filmmakers_, Singer studies Hitchcock, Welles, and Renoir because of their diversity and because they are valued as masters of their craft (ix). The three filmmakers have also left behind writings on the making of films that provide insight into their craft that otherwise would not be known. These writings serve as 'windows into their individual existence', and are 'valuable clues' about the films they made and the times in which they lived (5). Although the concentration of the book is on these three, numerous other directors are brought in to compare and contrast their work to enhance the picture Singer presents.

 

Starting with Hitchcock, the most technical and the least improvisational of the three filmmakers, Singer describes scenes in detail that illuminate this fusion of technique and meaning. Hitchcock exemplifies this unique potential of film -- first recognized by Hugo Munsterberg in his ground-breaking book _The Photoplay: A Psychological Study_ -- to evoke emotions in the audience. [3] For example, Singer discusses Hitchcock's use of montage in _The Birds_, _Rear Window_, _Sabotage_, and _Psycho_ (10-16). In each scene Hitchcock uses the camera and its versatility to create a new context by linking and juxtaposing individual shots together to evoke a reaction in the audience: in _The Birds_, when Tippi Hedren is attacked in the attic; in _Rear Window_, when Jimmy Stewart watches the apartment across from his as Grace Kelly's struggles with the murderer; and in _Psycho_, when the detective walks up the staircase in the Bates house. All serve to demonstrate the unique freedom film allows the director. Rather than the traditional filming of a continuous scene, the director must conceive of the scene in advance and the emotions that scene will evoke in the audience (11). Thus, as Singer contends, the director 'imposes an interpretation' and a 'moral judgment' in their filmmaking (12). In this sense, these filmmakers are doing more than making movies, they are, as Singer implies, philosophizing. And while the definition of philosophy is given the most general meaning here, Hitchcock's ability to document the human condition is undeniable and Singer's choice of Hitchcock is bold and provocative.

 

But while Hitchcock admits wanting to evoke the most basic of responses in the audience, Welles is concerned with the 'myth of the past', and rejects montage in favor of deep focus and the long take of the realists' perspective. It would seem Welles strives for something higher in the realm of human emotions than Hitchcock sought in his psycho-thrillers and what Hitchcock admits he sought in orchestrating the 'sinister' (46). Indeed, Welles criticizes Hitchcock: 'his contrivances remain contrivances, no matter how marvellously they're conceived and executed' (25). Welles was a realist in that he wanted to 'hold a mirror up to nature', as Shakespeare sought to accomplish (145). Unlike the importance Hitchcock placed on the *angle* of the mirror (or camera), Welles was concerned with the moral, aesthetic, and ideological orientation of the filmmaker (145). Renoir also would bring moral and social aspects to his films, as Singer states, and in this way is 'overtly linked' to Welles in having a 'poetic view of cinema' (144). It is in these comparisons that Singer does rank these three filmmakers in the sense of being philosophical filmmakers.

 

Borrowed from the auteur school of criticism that looks at the personal style and vision of the author, Singer creates another important dimension to his study. Each director protests against the pigeon-holing that film critics would like to place them. Welles 'hates self-conscious symbolism' and would never use 'shoddy symbolism' (80). However, Welles's films certainly contain elements of symbolism, and this is implied in Singer's book. Singer also gives extensive evidence that Welles's work is autobiographical, though Welles continually protested against this suggestion during his lifetime. Hitchcock, on the other hand, admits to the cheapest of tricks to avoid discussing deeper meaning in his films. Singer's use of the extensive writings and interviews left by the three filmmakers enhances the understanding of what they were trying to accomplish, but at the same time can add to the confusion, as they didn't always reveal their intentions. Like Hitchcock's MacGuffins and Welles 'search for the key to something', these two directors would never give away their secrets and that is what is most intriguing about their motion pictures (100).

 

Singer insists there is no order of rank and that he respects the differences of the three directors and their approaches. However, when first he presented his new perspective on film theory in _Reality Transformed_, Welles and Hitchcock are hardly mentioned. He mentions Renoir and describes _Rules of the Game_ in detail throughout the book. Since the other two filmmakers are here only mentioned in passing, this deference to Renoir would suggest Renoir's film helps to articulate the theory that Singer wishes to promote. In this earlier book _Rules of the Game_ is analyzed, along with the Woody Allen's _Purple Rose of Cairo_ and Luchino Visconti's _Death in Venice_. It is Renoir's dramatic comedy however, that harmonizes the formalist and realist theories best, and exemplifies Irving Singer's perspective on film. While I do not mean to imply that Hitchcock and Welles are an after-thought, I will suggest, nevertheless, that it was in other films, particularly Renoir's _Rules of the Game_, that Singer's synthesis of the formalist and realist theory is conceptualized. And, while he insists he 'sees no point in grading the three filmmakers as better or worse' (257), Singer has compared each filmmaker on several levels that makes necessary a critical eye to those qualities that served each filmmaker in his own right. Additionally, this critique, not admitted by Singer, provides the reader with a new appreciation of each filmmaker's unique qualities.

 

Furthermore, throughout the book Singer ranks the filmmakers in terms of their use of improvisation. Welles doesn't always know what he is seeking and by involving others in his search creates an improvisational and collaborative work. Welles 'encouraged all members of the crew to offer suggestions about whatever aspect of the film they were working on' (133). Unlike Hitchcock, who upheld a controlled environment on the set, Welles captured a less contrived effect than Hitchcock. Even more improvisational is the work of Renoir. Singer does seem to order the filmmakers, progressing from the tightly-controlling Hitchcock, to the more improvisational Welles, to the very free-form style of Renoir. Each director's use of improvisation is valued by Singer, because that is his preferred form of cinema, despite the vast differences in approach.

 

The films each artist created are also ranked in terms of their value in social and moral terms, although Singer would protest this assertion. Although Hitchcock had technical superiority, his films had more psychological than philosophical value. Welles and Renoir, on the other hand, went further with their statements on human thought, further than the primitive 'fear' Hitchcock was trying to orchestrate in his audience.

 

While the three portraits serve to identify the differences and similarities between these great filmmakers, the last chapter, entitled 'A Family Portrait', seems rather contrived and the points that were so eloquently presented earlier are now overstated. For example, Singer stresses that Renoir and Hitchcock are known for the conversation they establish with the audience, while for Welles 'film is not like that' (225). I would disagree: on numerous occasions Welles narrates to the audience and puts himself forward whether directing or acting, and while his engagement is quite different than that of Renoir or Hitchcock, it is nevertheless seeking to interact with the audience.

 

Rather than continuing to make comparisons in this last chapter, Singer would have served his theory better by accepting the progression of the three artists in terms of the theory he presents. While Hitchcock has amazing technical talents and certainly displays aspects of humanity in real terms, his 'transformation' is not as sophisticated as the attempts to transform reality by Renoir or Welles. This is not to say he isn't a genius in his own right, but Hitchcock himself would admit his modus operandi was to create a 'roller-coaster ride' and satisfy 'a deep and pervasive need to be frightened' (25). However, there is an intrinsic value in this type of film that cannot be denied, and the seductive quality of Hitchcock's films is based on this director's understanding of the human condition, although often of the sinister side. Indeed, Singer's inclusion of Hitchcock lends credence to the original power of film recognized by the formalists.

 

Like a good Hitchcock film, Singer's book leaves you wanting more. Critical analysis of other filmmakers who are less known could be educational. Singer tells us it is in the transformation of nature and reality, given to us by a great filmmaker who can use both technique and meaning, that we find a sense of the truth of humanity. His theory has possibilities, but the criteria he has fitted to Hitchcock, Welles, and Renoir must be more generally applied in order to more fully develop his theory of film.

 

Fairfax, Virginia, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Irving Singer, _Reality Transformed_ (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998), p. xii.

 

2. Ibid., p. 1.

 

3. Ira Konigsberg, 'Film Theory', _Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism_, <http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory>, 17 May 2004.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Susan French Overstreet, 'Irving Singer's Reality Revisited: On _Three Philosophical Filmmakers_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 47, December 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n47overstreet>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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