Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.