‘Fight Club’: Celebrity and Re-Building Capitalism

A recent revisit of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) revealed two standout philosophical points: celebrity is an illusion and a re-thinking of consumerism is in order. Over a decade after its release, and with all the pro-violence fuss now a distant memory, Fight Club reveals it is hardly just a ‘film about fighting’ as much as Raging Bull is hardly just a ‘film about boxing’.

Many found casting Brad Pitt (as ‘half’ of the Tyler Durden character) condescending due to his anti-consumerist dialogue such as, “The things you own end up owning you”. It does sound rich coming from one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, but that is exactly the point. Casting Pitt in the role is a master class in irony. The entire point of Pitt’s presence is for his intense aura of celebrity. Even if Pitt had no dialogue, there would be few actors, if any, that could evoke such a brash statement of ‘this is celebrity’. Of course, the ironic genius of casting is because Pitt’s character does not actually exist. Pitt is an illusion. Celebrity is an illusion, so by extension, celebrity worship and our desire for ‘things’ is an illusion.

The other philosophical argument Fight Club presents is the end of capitalist consumerism is nigh. The film questions our desire for ‘things’ and in particular posits that these ‘things’ no longer make us happy, are driving us insane, and our relationship towards them needs to be re-thought/re-built from the ground up. The film provides an intense rejection of capitalist values such as when the Protagonist (Edward Norton) finds his IKEA-filled apartment has exploded or shortly afterwards when he loses his job after furiously bashing himself before the stunned boss. Ultimately, the final shot of the collapsing capitalist buildings demonstrates a nihilistic, Nietzschean outlook of some extreme and desperate need to clear the slate and rebuild again, hopefully in a much better way.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Case Study 2 – Fight Club’, Lecture 21 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Nietzsche and the Ethics of Memory in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’

Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind questions the ethics and morality of memory manipulation that tie into Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of how memory existentially affirms and ethically tests the moral positions of eternal recurrence.

The following deleted scene is a mock advertisement for Lacuna, provider of the memory erasure service:

Nietzsche argues the importance of forgetting. If one were to remember every single detail, every day of our lives, one would go mad. Eternal Sunshine acknowledges an importance in forgetting: the two main characters, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet), have both willingly had their memories of each other erased by the Lacuna procedure. Both want to forget the pain they inflicted on each other.

However, Nietzsche also argues the importance of remembering. To remember is to acknowledge all elements of one’s life both pleasurable and painful. Nietzsche argues embracing all memories is the only way to live an authentic life. In the film, Joel and Clementine have failed to respect the importance of remembering that Nietzsche argues as they both decide to have the memories of each other removed. Therefore, by Nietzsche’s account, they live in self-deception and do not lead an authentic life.

Additionally, Nietzsche considers the various elements that make up a memory of some major life event to be inseparable from each other. In other words, memory is holistic. In the film, a major life event occurs when Joel and Clementine lie on the ice and fall in love for the first time. But, if Joel has only Clementine removed from this memory, how much of the experience is truly removed considering Joel would still have many other elements in his memory of that experience independent of Clementine being there or not: himself laying down on the ice, the starry sky, the passing cars, and the background noises. Traces of the experience still exist. Joel breaks the holistic memory bond that Nietzsche describes and therefore the film again questions Joel’s ethics and morality in partaking in this self-deceptive act.

Finally, Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal recurrence’ questions one’s attitude towards the idea of one’s life infinitely and exactly repeating itself. How we respond to this ‘tells us about our attitudes about ourselves and the lives we live’ (Jollimore 2009 p. 55). The end of the film presents an ‘eternal recurrence’ of Joel and Clementine who decide to live their love affair again, even though they know it will be both good and bad.

Their decision may suggest a happy conclusion, but moreover, it questions if this is ethically the right thing to do considering they both know the likely outcome is only going to cause each other pain.

Eternal Sunshine is a complex film on many levels. This Nietzschean approach to the way the film questions the ethics and morals of memory and its erasure provides only one reading of a rich text that will surely be analysed and debated for a long time to come.

 

Reference Sources

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Case Study 1 – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, Lecture 19 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Troy Jollimore 2009, ‘Miserably Ever After: Forgetting, Repeating and Affirming Love’, in Christopher Grau (ed.), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Philosophers on Film, Routledge, London, pp. 31-61.

Can Film ‘Do’ Philosophy? Perhaps Eisenstein’s ‘October’ Does

Aaron Smuts defends a milder version of the ‘bold’ thesis of Film as Philosophy (FaP): that film can make an original, innovative philosophical contribution by cinematic means. The very idea that film can ‘do’ philosophy creates heated debate. Although many disagree with the FaP thesis (Paisley Livingston), some sit somewhere in-between (Thomas Wartenberg) while others strongly defend it (Stephen Mulhall).

Smuts argues the ‘For God and Country’ montage sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) does provide a philosophical argument; that it does do philosophy.

This montage sequence alternates between traditionally Christian and demonically pagan artefacts. The comparison suggests that the ‘familiar, respected’ ideas of Christianity help produce a ‘fear and ignorance’ in other ‘suspect religions’, yet the ‘visual similarity’ between both forms of images suggests that ‘Christian artifacts [sic] are no better than [the] pagan statuary’ (Smuts 2009, pp. 415-416). In other words, all religious worship is futile. Additionally, the montage sequence then compares religion alongside nationalism with images that include the general’s costume paraphernalia and the imposing statue as objects of worship.

Overall, the clash of images suggests an analogical argument: the idolisation of both religion and nationalism is illusionary. Furthermore, this philosophical argument only exists in visual terms. Nevertheless, the question remains how any given film can truly philosophise considering its multiplicity of interpretation and impossibility to provide a counter-argument.

 

Reference Sources

Aaron Smuts 2009, ‘In Defence of a Bold Thesis’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 67, no. 4, pp. 409-420.

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Film as Philosophy – Pro and Contra’, Lectures 16 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Stanley Cavell’s Ontological Philosophy of Film

In his book The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell asks the perplexing philosophical question of just what is the human ‘presence’ that appears on the silver screen.

Cavell suggests, as did the realist Bazin, the photographic image is a captured moment in time. A machine (the camera) captures the image objectively in a way unlike say a painting that always includes human subjectivity in its representation. Cavell (1979, p. 26) argues these objective photographic images of actors are ‘a human something’, not just a look or representation of something human as occurs in painting. Of course, the manipulation of photographic images such as editing and digital special effects abounds in film. Nevertheless, a machine still directly captures the reality of what is present in the moment and at some specific time and place.

But, this presence of the image is also not of something human as well. It is illusionary. It does not exist.

Consider the following scene where Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars (1977).

Guinness obviously exists in these images. He plays the role of the Obi-Wan character that George Lucas shot on some hot Tunisian day back in the mid-1970s. That is Alec Guinness on the screen.

But, Guinness has since passed away, the shooting of the scene occurred a long time ago, and the images do not ‘live’ in any present moment in a biological sense. Therefore, it is not Alec Guinness as well.

Considering this ambiguous ontology, why do we even enjoy films? Cavell (1979, p. 21) suggests humans have become so disassociated from the real world (living inside our own subjectivity) that a deep human need arises to create and view these objective images as a way of seeking an escape from the isolating subjectivity and to ‘reach this world’ again.

In other words, through photographic images, we try to humanise our world again by attempting to reconnect with reality, and photographic images achieve this connection because machines mechanically and objectively capture the images of our real world.

 

Reference Sources

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Stanley Cavell’s Philosophy of Film’, Lectures 14 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Stanley Cavell 1979, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Harvard University Press, London.

The Practicality of Deleuze’s Philosophy of Film

This week I was introduced to the work of French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. The extracts from his books Cinema 1 and 2 philosophise concepts of movement-image and time-image. They were the most complex and perplexing theory this undergraduate film student has come across. Consider the following extract from Cinema 1:

The frame is therefore sometimes conceived of as a spatial composition of parallels and diagonals, the constitution of a receptacle such that the blocs [masses] and the lines of the image which come to occupy it will find an equilibrium and their movements will find an invariant (Deleuze 1986, p. 13).

It is perhaps not surprising Deleuze’s theories have gained a reputation for being notoriously difficult to comprehend. Following is a more approachable explanation of Deleuze’s ideas, yet it still demonstrates the inherent complexity of his concepts [warning: contains nudity]:

In summary, (I think) it all ends up meaning something like this:

  • movement-image = canonical/classical film era narrative that evokes a more ‘humanist’/positive emotional flow
  • time-image = postmodern/fragmented film era narrative (from WWII/Italian Neo-Realism onwards) that evokes a more ‘disenfranchised’/negative emotional flow

However, the question remains of what point, what real-world practical use, this type of impenetrable philosophical musing proposes. I am very interested in, and open to, all kinds of film theory from psychoanalytical ‘Grand Theory’ to newer cognitivist approaches. But, this kind of overtly scientific, physics-like approach to film and art leaves me a little cold and confused.

 

Reference Sources

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Gilles Deleuze Philosophy of Film’, Lectures 12, 13, and 13a to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Gilles Deleuze 1986, ‘Frame and Shot, Framing and Cutting’ in Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis pp. 12-28.

Gilles Deleuze 1989, ‘Recapitulation of Images and Signs’ in Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 34-43.

Complexities of Sympathy: Fritz Lang’s ‘M’

From the perspective of cinematic ethics and morality, Fritz Lang’s M (1931) presents a perplexing and confronting site of analysis for sympathy towards the character Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre), a child murderer. Professor of Film Studies Murray Smith suggests the ‘structure of sympathy’ is more complicated than the traditional model of character identification provides.

Murray Smith’s Model of Sympathy

1. Recognition: simply the spectator’s acknowledgement of a particular character

  • acknowledgement the character Hans Beckert is a child murderer

2. Alignment: the (objective) perspective presented to the spectator by the camera

  • in the scene, we see both Beckert’s own subjective perspective (the camera looks out to the crowd during his plea) and an objective perspective (medium-close up shots of Beckert pleading to the vigilante crowd and their reactions)

3. Allegiance: the (subjective) position of the spectator’s moral approval of the character’s actions; the spectator weighs up pros and cons of the character’s moral traits

  • most would agree what Beckert has done is reprehensible, but the scene does not present him as cold and antagonistic, on the contrary the emotional close-ups of his desperate pleading suggest his psychological agony in the acknowledgement of his sickness, and goes some way to form a sympathetic spectator allegiance to a morally dubious character

M presents an unusual moral dilemma. The film guides the spectator’s sympathies towards a morally detestable character. The spectator recognises Beckert as a child murder, then the camera presents both Beckert’s subjective perspective (he looks out to the crowd) and an objective perspective (we view Beckert’s emotional reactions) in combination with the spectator’s moral standing to form a complicated site of ethical allegiance. Does Beckert’s sickness make us sympathise with him? Are we unequivocally unsympathetic? Do we sit somewhere in between?

Murray Smith’s model presents a more intricate analysis of sympathy that combines character recognition, filmic alignment, and moral allegiances. It demonstrates ways filmmakers can guide our sympathies and emotional reactions to even the most evil, immoral characters.

 

Reference Sources
Carl Plantinga 2010, ‘“I Followed the Rules, and They All Loved You More”: Moral Judgment and Attitudes toward Fictional Characters in Film’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 34, pp. 34-51.

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Cinematic Ethics’, Lectures 11, 11a to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Cognitivism Goes to the Movies with ‘Vertigo’

The cognitivist approach led by Bordwell and Carroll goes against the grain of psychoanalytic Film Theory (or ‘Grand Theory’) that began in the 1970s. So what better film to apply cognitivism to than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): a complex narrative of obsession that psychoanalytically explores the subconscious human mind, so the opposite of cognitivist theory.

The scene occurs when Scottie (James Stewart) saves Madeline (Kim Novak) from drowning in the ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Principles of the Cognitivist Approach

Movies elicit the same cognitive responses as ordinary perception

How we see in real life is not that different to what we see in the movies. Scottie sees a woman jump into the ocean, makes a decision to act, and he jumps in to save her. The spectator does not need an understanding of psychoanalytic theory to understand what they have just seen.

Consciousness is constructivist

Humans use practical reasoning to construct and make sense of the world. We do not just passively sense something and leave it at that. If I see a ball coming towards my head, I duck; if I hear a loud explosion outside, I go to investigate. In a similar way, Scottie watches Madeline jump into the ocean, then through practical reasoning makes a decision to jump in and save her. In the real world, the same situation would (hopefully!) prompt the same response through practical reasoning. The cognitivist approach has a strong emphasis on practical reasoning rather than sensations and moods.

Movies are not as ideologically manipulative as ‘Grand Theorists’ have assumed

Spectators are not being manipulated by some form of Hollywood influenced ideology such as sexism if they use their own comprehension and judgement when watching a film. Scottie saves Madeline not because she seen as some objectified woman in constant need of saving; he simply her because Madeline is a person who will die if he does act to save her.

Do we really need more questionable entities to explain movies?

For the male spectator, the ‘male gaze’ objectifies women and identifies with men, but arguably, this psychoanalytic process is an intangible entity (much like the Oedipus complex and the unconscious). The cognitivist approach rejects this intangibility and focuses on methods that are more empirical. Madeline is not a helpless, weak object that Scottie receives perverse pleasure from saving to boost his ego. The cognitivist approach considers questions such as why Madeline jumped into the ocean and what made Scottie decide to save her.

Cognition plays a key role in perception and emotional responses through questions and answers, and therefore proposes a different approach to the more subconscious and intangible psychoanalytic analysis of film narrative.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Cognitivism Goes to the Movies’, Lectures 6, 6a & 7 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Understanding Film Narratives: Carroll’s Cognitivist Approach

Noel Carroll adheres to the cognitive psychology position of film narrative; a position that leans towards the empirical and demonstrable aspects of film narrative not concerned with subjectivity or exploration of psychoanalytical theories of the subconscious. Thereby, an unconventional way to look at Carroll’s approach is to apply his theories to a standout film of subjective narrative: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).

Key Points of Carroll’s Cognitivist Approach:

The scene analysed here occurs at the Club Silencio, where the two main characters (and those of us watching) realise they have taken part in an illusion, a dream.

Cinema intensifies/transforms our realism by focusing and directing our attention

The use of extreme close-ups on the singer’s face forces the viewer to witness every strain of her emotional pain. All other surrounding visual information is bracketed out: the sheer scale of her face intensifies the realism much more than how it would occur in real life. These close-up shots assist in producing a raw, passionate power by the inability to direct our attention to anything else.

We comprehend images directly

Even the ‘untutored’ spectator can at least understand movie narrative without learning any kind of language. For example, film scholars or children can comprehend that the woman is singing a song. Her strained facial expressions and sad eyes tell us it is sombre. Nobody could watch this scene and see, say, an action packed adventure shot because we comprehend (see) the images directly for what they are.

Movies do not depend on conventions to be intelligible – all viewers use the same cognitive processes

Many would be familiar with the melody of the Roy Orbison song ‘Crying’. The woman’s rendition of Orbison’s song in Spanish is still familiar and comprehensible to anyone who has heard the original song. Regardless of the language (convention) sung in, the cognitive process of seeing (a signer on a stage) and hearing (the familiar ‘Crying’ melody) tell us she is singing the song ‘Crying’.

Overall, Carroll’s objective cognitivist approach can also be applied to subjective narratives because to order cognitive processes, movies use both comprehension (what you see) and interpretation (what you think).

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Understanding Film Narrative’, Lectures 4 & 5 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

Ontologies of the Moving Image: Bazin’s Realism

One way to look at the ontology (the nature of what something is) of the moving image is from a realist perspective.

Founder of the Cahiers du Cinema, influential French film philosopher Andre Bazin paved the way for filmmakers of the nouvelle vague. Bazin also championed cinematic realism: the unity of time and place with authentic realist style that produces aesthetic realism. Furthermore, Bazin claimed the real situations and locations used by the Italian neo-realists such as Rossellini and de Sica best exemplified the aesthetics of cinematic realism.

Some cinematic techniques used to attain aesthetic realism include the use of:

Outdoor Settings & Natural Light

Real People/Non-Professional Actors (provide ‘rawness’)

Long Takes & Minimal Quick Editing/Montages (provide a space to watch time unfold)

Deep Focus (allow spectators to gaze anywhere in the scene)

Unanticipated/Unscripted Footage

Some critics, such as Noel Carroll, disagree with Bazin’s realism, and argue:

  • Photography always requires at least some subjective human intervention (e.g. framing a shot)
  • Bazin’s ‘medium essentialism’ considers technology to dictate style, yet mediums are hard to define and often change
  • Photographs are not prosthetic images: I can’t orient my body towards that which the image depicts

Furthermore, some films question the ontology of cinematic realism:

Is a film made entirely of still photographs still a ‘film’?

Is a documentary film shot in 3D still an example of cinematic realism?

However, in Bazin’s defence, because he claims a human psychological and anthropological desire to preserve cinematic images against time exists; he is not claiming cinematic images are independent of human intervention. Bazin’s realism is aesthetic, psychological and ethical, and therefore not strictly ontological.

 

Reference Source

Dr Robert Sinnerbrink 2013, ‘Ontologies of the Moving Image’, Lectures 2 & 3 to third-year students, PHI350, Macquarie University, Sydney.

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968): The Match-Cut

Film Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Year: 1968

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Film Form Main Category: Editing

Film Form Sub Category: Spatial and Temporal Discontinuity

Terms Discussed: Match-Cut, Binary Oppositions, Manipulation of Space, Manipulation of Time

Kubrick provides the match-cut to end all match-cuts in 2001: A Space Odyssey’s bone-to-space station sequence in perhaps the most enigmatic sci-fi film of all time. What makes this simple match-cut so effective at manipulating space and time? How does it evoke the evolution of humankind over millions of years in just a split second? Perhaps the sequence’s effectiveness lies within the distinct contrasts of the onscreen binary oppositions that combine with what the match-cut eliminates from the story (i.e. millions of years of human evolution).

Most films cover days or weeks of plot duration, some cover centuries, but rarely does a film cover millions of years of story duration in a few seconds – and so effectively. The message in the temporal effect is more obvious: over millions of years, the bone (and humankind) has evolved to the machine (and space travel). However, spatial distances in binary oppositions are also profound. For example, two spatial constructs (represented onscreen by before and after the match-cut) include the great physical distance and thereby division between the terrestrial and outer space. Likewise, an opposition of light (the white bone/daylight) and dark (outer space), and the natural (the bone/landscape) and the manufactured (technology/space station) occurs. The continuum between each of these binary oppositions provides an almost infinite number of possibilities. For example, the infinite shades between light and dark, the virtually infinite evolutionary events between nature and industrial progress, and so on. The accumulation of the infinite possibilities within the continuum of binary oppositions creates a cumulative effect. The viewer’s imagination subjected to the endless possibilities and occurrences between the time of human-as-ape and human-as-space traveller.

Just after the match-cut, the instant the shot changes to the spaceship – time appears to stop as the vessel floats in space. This sedative pause provides an opportunity for the viewer to reflect on the passing of millions of years that have just occurred. Construction of the Pyramids. The Crusades. Man stepping on the moon. Anything that has ever occurred in human evolution. Few, if any, films ever achieve this level of contemplation – let alone through a simple match-cut.

In conclusion, it is probably worth mentioning my avoidance of research and seeking information when it comes to 2001. Implied meanings, exegetical or otherwise, would be to spoil its enigma. I could never read Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey. The magic of 2001 lies in my own imagination and the things I do not know or understand about it. Much of the enigma stems from imagined events that occurred in the space and time between the pre-human existence and human space travel.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) on IMDb