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.
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.