Philosophy of Film

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In one way, the philosophy of film is almost as old as the technology of film; in another way, it is a phenomenon that only emerges fully a century after the earliest screenings of films in 1895. Philosophizing about film has been with us for around a century in the form of the lively debates about the nature of the new medium that sprang up in the wake of its invention. As early as 1907 Henri Bergson had adopted the cinematographic illusion as a key metaphor of the scientific, and classical philosophical, conception of time and movement. And in 1916 we see the publication of the first extended philosophical treatise on film, as medium and art form, with the publication of Hugo Münsterberg's (18631916) The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (2002). So the two-way traffic between film and philosophythe new medium as a source of philosophical insight and the application of philosophy to the problems thrown up by itbegins.

The publication of Münsterberg's study inaugurated the tradition of film theory reflection on the nature of the medium of film, philosophical in all but name, but typically written by filmmakers, writers, art historians, and cultural critics rather than philosophers per se. Film theorists were preoccupied with the ontology of cinema and with the nature of representation and expression in film, and discussion of these matters typically revolved around the concept of medium specificity the notion, in Münsterberg's words, that the new technology constituted a "specific form of artistic endeavor" (Münsterberg 2002, p. 65) with specific properties and potentials, which demarcated it from the established arts. Münsterberg contrasted filmthe photoplay with the stage play, and argued that the key to the power of film was its ability to express human intentional states, such as attention, memory, imagination, and emotions. "The close-up," wrote Münsterberg of one of the key techniques of film, "has objectified in our world of perception our mental act of attention and by it has furnished art with a means which far transcends the power of any theater stage" (Münsterberg 2002, p. 87). This principle of contrast with established art forms, which was ubiquitous in discussions of film through at least its first half century, arose from the desire to demonstrate that film was not merely a technological curiosity, a fairground novelty, or a means of recording and reproduction that might serve to disseminate paintings or plays, but, precisely, a legitimate art form on a par with any of the established arts.

This emphasis on the specificity of film was a legacy of philosophical aesthetics and especially the attempts from the eighteenth century onward to establish a system of the arts. Two of the most significant theorists, for example, filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (18981948); and Rudolf Arnheim (1904, who would become best known as a psychologist of art, made significant allusions to G. E. Lessing's (17291781) Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766). Lessing had argued that poetry and painting each have their characteristic domains of representationthe temporal and the spatialand corresponding limits to what they can effectively represent. In his 1938 essay "A New Laocoön," Arnheim follows Lessing's example by arguing that theater and cinema, similarly, need to be understood as distinct media with distinct essential features and thus different aesthetic advantages and deficits. Without denying the existence of 'composite' artistic formssuch as opera, in which drama and music are combinedArnheim argues that, ultimately, theatre is the art of dialogue, while cinema is the art of the moving visual image. Formulating his ideas in the wake of the introduction of the talkie in the late 1920s, Arnheim argued that the addition of speech to the movies was a kind of contamination or corruption of the medium proper.

Eisenstein developed the notion of montage, which he regarded as the definitive feature of the art of film, through both his filmmaking practice and his theoretical writings, as well as in dialogue with other major filmmakers and theorists of the periodincluding Lev Kuleshov (18991970), V. I. Pudovkin (18931953), Dziga Vertov (18961954), and Béla Balázs (18841949). Initially referring narrowly to the editing of shots, Eisenstein widened the reference of montage to include any technique that involved the interaction of more basic elements: In this sense, one can speak of montage within a shot or between whole sections of a film as much as the montage between two shots literally cut together.

Eisenstein's essay on the Laocoön makes reference to Lessing's work in a manner quite different from Arnheim. Where Arnheim draws an analogy between painting and poetry, on the one hand, and cinema and theater, on the other, for Eisenstein, it is the substance of Lessing's claims about painting and poetry and the relationship of cinema to these two forms that is at stake. Cinemaor more particularly, montagesynthesizes the temporality of poetry with the spatiality of painting. Eisenstein ranges widely and generously across literature, painting, theater, and music, and where Arnheim and Münsterberg are concerned to distinguish the characteristics of theater and cinema, Eisenstein more often than not discerns protocinematic techniques in these other art forms. The specificity of cinema thus emerges for Eisenstein more in terms of the realization and culmination of techniques evident in older media and art forms rather than in the addition of a new medium of art, which stands alongside the traditional forms.

Münsterberg, Eisenstein, and Arnheim were all rooted in the era of silent cinema. André Bazin (19181958) is widely regarded as the first major theorist of the sound era, and while he, like his precursors, was concerned with the specificity of cinema and often explored the nature of cinema by comparative examination of other media, his perspective on film marks a departure from those theories emerging from the silent era. In "The Ontology of the Photographic Image" (1945), Bazin argues that what is distinctive of and crucial to film is its ability to capture the phenomenal world, in the most literal sense; a film is like a fingerprint of reality. Bazin does not wish to deny that films are, like all works of art, the products of those who design them. Greta Garbo (19051990) may have been carefully groomed and lit for the camera, but it is still, in a strong sense, the real Garbo that we see in the film. Thus, in contrast to Münsterberg's focus on the rendering of intentional states in films, the distinctive capacity of film as an art for Bazin lies in the way in which human intentionality is bypassed at a certain vital moment in the production of a film, allowing reality to impress itself upon the film unmediated by human intentions or interests.

In Image and Mind, Gregory Currie terms this dimension of film and photography "natural counterfactual dependence," which contrasts with the "intentional counterfactual dependence" of painting (Currie 1995, p. 55): The properties of a photograph or a film depend directly on visible properties of the scene before the camera whereas the properties of a painting of the same scene are "mediated by the beliefs of the artist" (Currie 1995, p. 54). And this facet of film is something that filmmakers can facilitate, as in the practice of location shooting where the artifice of studio set construction and the control that such artifice brings with it is foregone in favor of the relative unruliness of real spaces. Such techniques bring out the special kind of realism that (on this account) is inherent in the medium as such.

Contemporary Philosophy of Film and the Problem of Specificity

Given the existence of a rich tradition of film theorythe surface of which is only scratched herein what sense is it true to say, that the philosophy of film only coalesced as a field of debate a century after the invention of the medium? Following Bergson, there have been other important contributions by professional philosophers, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty (19081961), Bazin's contemporary and an influence upon him. The American philosopher Stanley Cavell has made a distinctive contribution (to which we will return) by developing and elaborating an ontology of cinema incorporating Bazin's key insights. And there have been other isolated philosophical essays on film. But it is not until the 1990s that a continuous debate about film emerges among professional philosophers, eventually establishing itself as a subdomain within aesthetics and the philosophy of arta field of debate sufficiently developed to warrant a separate entry in this encyclopedia. Two rather divergent areas of debate have emerged that, for good or ill, generally fall in line with the division between modern analytic and Continental philosophy. In relation to the latter, there is a substantial literature around the work of Gilles Deleuze. Alongside the literature on and by Deleuze stands work by other contemporary Continental philosophers, such as Jean-François Lyotard, Paul Virilio (1932) and Slavoj Žižek (1949). Through much of this work, the influence of psychoanalysis is evident.

Deleuze's approach to cinema, as advanced in his two-volume Cinema (1992), is based on a fundamental revaluation of Bergson's remarks on the relationship between cinema, movement, and time. In Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson argued that both classical philosophical and modern scientific conceptions of movement in fact eliminated movement as an authentic phenomenon by representing motion as a series of immobile instants strung together. The mechanism of cinema realized this conception in literal terms: a succession of still frames which, when projected in sufficiently quick succession, generate an impression or illusion of movement. Deleuze argues, however, that the cinema also enables, and is a part of, the recognition of movement as an irreducible phenomenon. And as cinema evolves over the course of the twentieth century, it provides us not only with an image of movement but one of timein the Bergsonian sense of duration of time as a continuous, experiential whole.

The conception of the philosophy of film, and of philosophy more broadly embodied by Deleuze's approach to cinema, isat least on its own understandingin marked contrast to more widely accepted notions of philosophy. Rejecting the idea that the philosophy of film reflects on the phenomenon of film, Deleuze argues instead that the philosophy of filmlike philosophy more generallyis a creative activity and in this sense is parallel to the activity of filmmaking rather than standing above or outside it. Where filmmakers create through the medium of cinema, in the form of sequences of movement and duration, philosophers create concepts. Deleuze is thus eager not only to play up the creative character of philosophy as he understands it but to emphasize the conceptual value of filmmaking.

The growing literature on cinema within Anglo-American aesthetics comprises the second major branch of contemporary philosophy of film. The main intellectual reference points here are analytic philosophy of mind and language, cognitive psychology, and Wittgenstein. The two contemporary conversations on the philosophy of film are largely separate even if the participants in each can hear the other conversation and occasionally might even talk to each other. There are certainly points of connection: Deleuze's claim that the cinema provides us with an image of movement resonates with the debate in analytic philosophy of film concerning the sense in which the motion we see in a film is real (rather than merely illusory) while his claim that the postwar era witnesses the flourishing of a cinema that privileges time rather than movement echoes the claim within Anglo-American film theory that much art cinema liberates time and space from their traditional subordination to the demands of narrative.

Among the philosophers who have helped to establish the analytic strand of the philosophy of film, none have contributed more than Noël Carroll (1947); and among the many orthodoxies that Carroll has challenged is the very idea of medium specificity.

In "Forget the Medium!" (2003), Carroll questions both the coherence of the concept the medium of film as well as the prescriptivism that typically follows on from the positing of specific qualities that are thought to be distinctive of the medium. He points out that if we think of the medium in terms of the tools and materials of an artistic practice, few, if any, art forms will be defined by a single, fixed medium of expression (and, more radically, he suggests that some art forms may not have a medium at all). Painting really encompasses a whole range of possible means of marking a surface in order to create a visual design, just as the creation of music encompasses a vast array of instruments for shaping sound. We can, however, understand why earlier film theorists may have focused on the idea of a new medium since the technology of film ushered in a type of depiction that was different in kind, and not merely in degree, from anything that preceded it: moving, photographic depiction. The developments in the basic technology of film were, for the first thirty years of cinema, all refinements of this technology, and so it could appear to have an underlying stability and unity that made it apt to think of in terms of a single medium.

Later technological developments, however, begin to strain the concept of a single and stable mediumArnheim's alarm at the coming of synchronous sound was shared by many filmmakers and theorists of the time. The advent of television and video raises equally difficult questionsif film is a unique and distinctive medium, should we posit still another new medium of the electronic moving image? And still another one for the digital moving image? Many have answered these questions in the affirmative, erecting boundaries between the various types of moving image. The emergence of new moving image technologies has often led to attempts at distinguishing the specificity of each of these mediasuch specificity usually taking account not only of the material nature of the technology but of its institutional and social deployment: Thus, television is said to have its own specificity, distinct from that of film, not only because of the electronic basis of broadcasting but the corporate nature of most television output; its continuous flow ; and the small-screen, domestic context of television viewing. Video, in turn, has been defined dialectically against television, focussing on the portability, immediacy, capacity for instant replay and live feedback, and nonnarrative experimentation characterizing video art and activist video.

Carroll, however, contends that the positing of a succession of media specificities only compounds the error of thinking of film as a medium and proposes, instead, that we engage in some conceptual pruning and relandscaping. In place of the medium of film, we should think in terms of the art form of the moving image. This superordinate category captures what was new when cinema first emerged and what continues to mark works of this type off from paintings, photographs, operas, novels, and so forth, but it does so without tying it to any particular technology.

From another angle, the emergence of computer-generated imagery as a pervasive feature of mainstream narrative filmmaking has led some theorists to argue that there really was something importantly distinctive about the prototypical live action, photographic film characteristic of the first century of cinema but that that distinctiveness is now disappearing. As the computerized rendering of moving picture settings and characters becomes commonplacewhether through the modification of a live action source or through digital creation from the ground upthe Bazinian idea of film as an imprint of reality is weakened. As we watch The Lord of the Rings, we really cannot be sure which parts of the image were created through the act of photographic recording (of a set, a real location, a performer) and which were generated digitally; all we can be confident of is that the film as a whole represents a blending of these methods. As a consequence, according to Lev Manovich (1960) in The Language of New Media : "cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation." Far from being distinct from painting, by virtue of the direct causal relationship between image and referent, cinema in the digital age has become, instead, "a subgenre of painting" (Manovich, p. 295). Manovich's view of digital media forms the mirror image of and complement to the realist ontology of film favored by Currie, for whom both animation and abstract film are, at best, marginal instances of film.

Other Debates

So we find in contemporary philosophy of film a continued debate about the very idea of film, as a unified phenomenon and coherent field of study. However, there are a multitude of other debates underway, intersecting at various angles with arguments about the ontology of the medium. The themes and questions being addressed include the following:

(1) The perception of moving images. What do we see when we look at a moving photographic image? Do we see a representation? Or is such a moving image transparent, in the sense that we see the objects depicted through the moving image, as Kendall Walton (1939) has argued? Do we imagine seeing that which is depicted, or do we engage in perceptual imagining, as Currie contends, in which we imagine that certain things are true, based on the moving images we see, but we do not imagine seeing those things? To what extent is our ability to comprehend moving pictures dependent on certain natural perceptual capacities and to what extent on learned conventions?

(2) Identification, emotional response and ethics. In what sense and to what extent might we be said to identify with the characters, or the camera, when we watch a film? Do we typically empathize or sympathize with characters? Are we subject, in any sense, to an illusion ? Are our emotional responses to film largely irrational and paradoxical, or is there a kind of rationality to them? Do these emotions have a significant relationship to the ethical value of cinemaits ability, in small or large ways, either to corrupt or to educate? Does the medium of film, or particular forms of filmmaking, embody ideological values and beliefs, such as those bearing on gender or ethnic identity?

(3) Authorship, intention, and expression. Given the collective basis of almost all film production, can a film be authored in just the same way as a poem or a painting? Does the fact of multiple authorship affect the expressive capacities of film, relative to other art forms, or the way in which we interpret and appreciate films?.

(4) Fiction and nonfiction. How does the psychology of watching fiction differ from the psychology of watching documentaries? Does a filmic fiction share more with a novel than a documentary film; does a documentary share more with written history or reportage than it does with a fiction film? Is there a sense in which all films have a documentary dimension?.

Film as Philosophy

One important question that has become a focus of debate asks: To what extent might film be a vehicle of philosophy as opposed to its subject? Can film serve as a distinct medium through which the act of philosophy might be undertaken as opposed to a phenomenon to which philosophy is applied? Can film philosophize? Eisenstein was one of the most forthright and ambitious defenders of the idea that film might act as philosophy, with plans for a film version of Karl Marx's Das Kapital and a host of arguments in support of intellectual cinema. But Eisenstein was not alone. According to Deleuze, the cinema creates new concepts by its own distinctive means. And Cavell has argued that certain key cinematic genres, such as the "Comedy of Remarriage" discussed in Pursuits of Happiness (1981), give expression to the philosophical problem of skepticism, insofar as they dramatize, within the intimate arena of romance, the difficulty of knowing the thoughts and feelings of others. Moreover, in the hands of some writers, the film as philosophy thesis is very much akin to the treatment of literature as a kind of philosophy, a proposal advanced most explicitly by Martha Nussbaum.

To a considerable degree, the plausibility of the proposal depends on the conception of philosophy that is assumed within it; so the debate is ultimately driven onto the terrain of metaphilosophy. On the one hand, to the extent that one conceives of philosophy as a professional discipline whose central goals are the posing of questions and the making of arguments in a reasonably robust and formalized sense, then the idea that film might act as an effective medium for such goals looks strained. On the other hand, to the extent that one thinks of philosophy more broadly as a form of self-conscious reflection on any aspect of life that we usually accept unthinkingly, then filmalong with art in generallooks much more promising as a means of engaging in such reflection and thus as a form that philosophy might take.

Among the proponents of the film as philosophy thesis are Stephen Mulhall (1962) and Thomas Wartenberg. Where Cavell focusses on classical Hollywood films (especially screwball comedies and melodramas), Mulhall has developed and extended Cavell's approach to encompass contemporary Hollywood filmmaking through studies of the Alien tetralogy and the Mission: Impossible films. For Mulhall the series of Alien films embody philosophical reflection not only on the overt themes of the films, such as human embodiment and the process of reproduction, but on various aspects of the nature of commercial filmmaking itself, including stardom, authorship, and sequeldom. Mulhall is emphatic about the strength of his claims, stating that certain films should be seen "as thinking seriously and systematically about [philosophical views and arguments] in just the ways that philosophers do" (Mulhall 2002, p. 2).

Wartenberg has emphasized the various ways in which films might make genuine contributions to philosophy even if they cannot be construed as making arguments in any conventional sense, including the creation of thought experiments that challenge habitual assumptions and the provision of illustrations that are integral to a philosophical claim, and thus cannot be discarded without damage to the claim in question. Wartenberg has argued that the first Matrix film engages us philosophically by creating a thought experiment resembling René Descartes's image of the evil demon, challenging our confidence in the knowledge we gain from sense experience. In other work Wartenberg has emphasized the insights that films may proffer on the terrain of social, political, and moral philosophy. Other authors have made parallel claims about the philosophical significance of various art and avant-garde films, but what unites Cavell, Mulhall, and Wartenberg and makes them distinctive is their emphasis on popular filmmaking, the type of filmmaking that might seem the least congenialand thus offering the greatest challengeto the film as philosophy hypothesis.

Counterarguments to these proposals stress the special nature of philosophical knowledge (in normative, if not descriptive terms); the central role of explicit reasoning and argument within it; and the distinctness of philosophy from cognition, self-reflection, and knowledge considered more generally. Paisley Livingston (1951) has argued that proponents of the bold version of the thesis, for whom films can make original philosophical contributions exploiting the specific properties of the medium, are faced with a disabling dilemma: If the contribution can be paraphrased, then any uniqueness premised on medium specificity disappears; if it cannot be paraphrased, then it is difficult to see how a contribution is being made to philosophy proper, when conceived as a discursive discipline. Murray Smith (1962) has made the complementary point that the nonparaphrasability of art is one of its most significant values, and one that brings it into tension with the widely accepted philosophical goals of clarity and explicitness.

Wherever one stands on this issue, and on the question of specificity, the emergence of a debate on the idea of film as philosophy, alongside the diversity of other questions and debates described here, testifies to the seriousness with which the moving image is now taken by philosophers and the consolidation of the philosophy of film at the outset of cinema's second century.

See also Aesthetic Qualities; Art, Expression in; Art, Formalism in; Art, Interpretation of; Art, Ontology of; Art, Performance in; Art, Representation in; Cavell, Stanley; Continental Philosophy; Deleuze, Gilles; Descartes, René; Lyotard, Jean François; Marx, Karl; Nussbaum, Martha; Visual Arts, Theory of the.


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