A Book Review Essay by John Duncan Talbird.
The multi-authored book is a misnomer. Although out in the world there is no taint to the word “anthology,” it seems that in academe, readers (or publishers?) want something more cohesive. And so we have introductions wherein an editor will mightily attempt to frame the various essays and articles within – all written by different writers, from varying theoretical lenses, sometimes even composed in widely different historical periods – so that they make some kind of traditional argument. Which is one reason why Bernd Herzogenrath’s new book, Film as Philosophy (U of Minnesota P), is such a satisfying read. Its fifteen authors, although they may have different approaches and support their shared thesis to a greater or lesser degree, really do seem to be collaborating on a book with a single argument, primarily that film is able to “do” philosophy. Herzogenrath quotes Stephen Mulhall, capturing a central thesis, concerning at least some films if not all:
I do not look at these films as handy or popular illustrations of views and arguments properly developed by philosophers; I see them rather as themselves reflecting on and evaluating such views and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the ways that philosophers do. Such films are not philosophy’s raw material, not a source for its ornamentation; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action – film as philosophizing. (xii)
Film as Philosophy begins by building an historical foundation of the philosophy of film, exploring works by some famous names in film studies (Sergei Eisenstein, André Bazin) and some who, even if familiar to readers, may be less familiar as innovators of thinking about film (Hugo Münsterberg, Antonin Artaud). By the final three essays, we are up to the present day and the philosopher-film theorists speak for themselves (Noël Carroll, Thomas E. Wartenberg, Murray Smith). Some of the authors use actual films to illustrate the philosopher-theorist’s ideas, some place the ideas in their historical contexts, quoting liberally from primary texts. Personally, I find the former approach more intellectually satisfying, although the other chapters do help to place specific theorists within their historical milieu and help readers understand how these writers were influenced by thinkers who came before and, in turn, influenced those after. More than one of the authors in Film as Philosophy points out that this hundred-plus-year-old project has a decidedly continental bent, those philosophers traced back through Nietzsche, Hegel, and Heidegger. As a result, several of the essays read as arguments directed at the Anglo-Saxon analytical school of philosophy, those scholars who might be (and apparently have been) skeptical at the claim that film can do philosophy.
In “This Is Your Brain on Cinema,” Gregory Flaxman surveys poet and critic Antonin Artaud’s early love for, and eventual rejection, of cinema. Ultimately, disappointed with the direction that most filmmakers were taking, Artaud wrote in the early thirties, “The cinema has the power of a poison that is harmless and direct, a subcutaneous injection of morphine” (72). Flaxman argues that the reference to a drug was not a metaphor and, as a drug addict himself, not necessarily a negative thing in the view of Artaud. Though Artaud was unhappy with the direction that cinema had historically taken, he was not against the medium per se. In response to recent film scholars who have depicted cinema as an interactive medium, Flaxman writes,
Far from endorsing this view, Artaud would have found it a betrayal of the cinema’s intrinsic power to formulate an automatism of moving images to which we submit…. Whatever we hope to say about the work of the spectator, however we want to cast the active mind of the viewer, the cinema consists in the experience of movement (in the image, of the image, between images) in the absence of our motor movement. (73)
At the center of this book – literally – Bernd Herzogenrath, in his own essay, analyzes Gilles Deleuze, whose ideas about film and philosophy radiate both backwards in time and up to the present day. In his essay, “Strange Topologies: Deleuze Takes a Ride Down David Lynch’s Lost Highway,” he makes connections between the French philosopher and American film director and, thus, between philosophy and film generally. He opens:
Cinema thinks. Film is a medium of philosophical investigation and exploration. Propositions such as these distinguish Gilles Deleuze from most other film philosophers, granting film an immanent power of thinking much at odds with the idea that film and philosophy are totally different (and sometimes opposed) disciplines, with one (film) at best able to illustrate the ideas and doctrines of the other (philosophy). (161)
Lost Highway (1997) is not easy to summarize. In a nutshell, a musician (Bill Pullman) is sentenced to jail for the murder of his wife (Patricia Arquette). In jail, he unaccountably becomes a teenager named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). (It should be said that the viewer doesn’t know if he has “become” Pete Dayton or whether they’ve simply exchanged places.) Later, in the desert, Pete turns back into the musician, Fred Madison. There is a lot more to the film, including the fact that Patricia Arquette plays two women: Renee Madison and Alice Wakefield, unrelated, never on-screen together, and identical except for the color of their hair. As Herzogenrath writes, “The enigmatic character of Lynch’s Lost Highway confronts us with the questions: What are we doing when we watch a film? How do we read films? Does the reality ‘on screen’ mimetically represent reality ‘out there,’ or is something different at stake?” (167). By offering us a noir, Lynch invites us to attempt to solve this mystery while at the very same time challenging our assumptions that a film is necessarily about something, something which can be solved.
Elisabeth Bronfen, in her contribution, “Hurray for Hollywood: Philosophy and Cinema According to Stanley Cavell,” analyzes Cavell’s books on classic Hollywood comedies (Pursuits of Happiness, 1981) and melodramas from the same period (Contesting Tears, 1996). Because the two books address several films, Bronfen focuses her attention on two examples, the comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940) and the melodrama Stella Dallas (1937). The first type of film is what Cavell calls the “comedy of remarriage” and the second is what he has labeled “films about the unknown woman” (182). Bronfen thematically links the two projects, asserting that both types of films “concerns the creation of a new woman who stands in for moral perfectibility.” In the case of Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) returning to her ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) in The Philadelphia Story, Cavell links Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on the idea that, in both, “the public world of day cannot resolve its conflicts apart from resolutions in the private forces of the night” (184, Cavell quoted by Bronfen). In Stella Dallas, the titular character spurns her beloved daughter (Anne Shirley) so that Laurel can enter into the world of wealth and privilege, a space where Stella has never been able to fit in and, in the logic of the film, cannot fit in. Bronfen provides a close reading of the final scene of that film in which Stella stands in the rain outside the house where her daughter is getting married. After the kiss, she’s urged by a police officer to move along and we see her striding off into the night with an enigmatic smile. “At issue,” writes Bronfen, “is less what her new life will look like than the fact that by turning away she proves she has an open future” (195). I wonder what Cavell writes about economic class in these two books (Bronfen doesn’t say). Both films fetishize wealth, as many classic Hollywood films do. Dallas, we are led to believe, is intrinsically incapable of being a part of the wealthy classes where her husband so naturally resides. And, therefore, she grooms her daughter to live in that world even though by doing so she will, as a consequence, lose her. The whole text of The Philadelphia Story acts as that window that Stella stares through in the conclusion of Stella Dallas. We are all Stella Dallas, these films at the tail end of the Great Depression are teaching us.
The last three chapters are some of the strongest of the book. In “Movie-Made Philosophy,” Noel Carroll presents several arguments against the film-as-philosophy thesis coming from the analytical wing of philosophy. He addresses each theorist’s argument and then dismantles it. In “‘Not Time’s Fool: Marriage as an Ethical Relationship in Michael Haneke’s Amour,” Thomas E. Wartenberg essentially offers an example of a cinematic text which does philosophy. In Haneke’s 2012 film, he tells the story of elderly married couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) who, after a stroke, is unable to care for herself. As Georges faces health issues of his own and increasingly finds himself unable to care for her either – spoiler alert – he kills her. Wartenberg argues that this mercy killing is not only acceptable, but ethically demanded, since, as Kant argued, dignity is “central to morality” (293). Since Anne has lost her dignity, the only ethical choice for Georges is to end her life. Finally, we end on Murray Smith’s “Experience and Explanation in the Cinema.” This essay begins with the provocative subtitle: “All over Again, What Is Cinema?” Smith focuses on films that challenge our assumptions about what cinema is by utilizing other forms of media. In the case of Citizen Kane (1941), he discusses the “News on the March” segment and, in the example of District 9 (2009), he writes about the newscasts, the surveillance footage, and the documentary within the film, all these various texts – along with the more traditional sci-fi action film that they’re a part of – creating a complex, satirical film that challenges our assumptions about what film is and can be. It strikes me that another film that falls under this category would be Haneke’s Caché (2005) which not only utilizes surveillance video, but does so in a way where we often don’t know if we’re watching surveillance or the “real” story, an innovation over the earlier Lost Highway where surveillance is mainly a plot point.
Film as Philosophy is an excellent introduction to those who don’t know the history of the overlapping and parallelisms between these two disciplines. There are also several detailed analyses of films from various eras and genres. I probably would have preferred a few more of these. And everyone with a foundation of film theory will probably chafe at this omission or that one. For instance, there is almost no mention of Slavoj Zizek, a strange exclusion since he has starred in and written screenplays for several films, including The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012) neither of which are true “guides,” but instead films using the medium of cinema to explore philosophical ideas. Likewise, I would have liked to read about Alain Robbe-Grillet as a writer/ filmmaker. One of Roland Barthes’ closest friends, Robbe-Grillet explored and challenged our ideas about what texts could be in his essays, fiction, and films. But these are cavils. Film as Philosophy is a big book, in more ways than one, and a strong contribution to the debate about whether film can actually do the work of philosophy.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.