A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
It’s hard to make the mental jump from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to, say, Douglas Sirk, but Robert B. Pippin pulls off such connections in his thoroughly-researched Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Though film criticism frequently incorporates philosophical theory, these references often feel supplemental – or worse, tacked-on. Pippin’s essays, on the other hand, are steeped in dense philosophical inquiry. Filmed Thought reads just as much like a philosophy book as it does a cinema studies book, and this serious integration of thinkers ranging from Nietzsche to Cavell distinguishes the author’s interpretations.
Pippin asserts that cinema can be a legitimate form of philosophy in and of itself (5). Since “many of the films discussed deal with the relation between self-knowledge and our attempt to understand others” (13), his approach is largely Hegelian. Besides a few modern exceptions (Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar, the Dardennes), he applies this perspective to mid-twentieth century Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray receive the most attention; entries dedicated solely to their work comprise four of the ten chapters. These choices may seem myopic (no female directors are featured, for example), but Pippin clearly intends his collection to be a springboard to further analyses rather than a definitive compendium.
Given its concentration on viewing and being viewed, Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a perfect entrypoint for appreciating Pippin’s approach. Its dialectic of involvement/non-involvement illustrates how “the truth of our world…is a result of…allowing our presence to it, not just its presence to us” (42). Jeff (James Stewart) cannot simply watch the world through his binoculars; he also has to actively engage with it (as he is forced to, once Raymond Burr comes knocking). Most importantly, this lesson applies not only to Jeff, but also to film viewers and, more generally, all lived interpersonal relationships (37). The second Hitchcock piece focuses on Shadow of a Doubt and its sly questioning of moral absolutes, family duty versus civic duty, and the “ordinariness” of small-town America. Through his analysis, Pippin identifies a recurring theme in the filmmaker’s oeuvre: “unknowingness” of both oneself and others (69-70).
Unknowingness is also this text’s central theme, as Pippin mentions and explores in nearly every chapter: “Devils & Angels in Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her” questions the validity of judging an objectively heinous crime without considering subjective context (52); “Cinematic Tone in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown” considers the ultimate unintelligibility of the world itself, as exemplified in the film’s enigmatic title (101); “Vernacular Metaphysics” asserts that The Thin Red Line’s diffuse narrative and indistinguishable characters redirect the viewer’s attention to deeper issues regarding death (222). In these entries, he seamlessly interweaves cinematic with philosophical interpretations because, for him, they are often one and the same.
One of the longest chapters delves into Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (a still from the film adorns the book’s front cover) and explores another of Pippin’s crucial themes: cinematic irony, particularly its role in melodrama. Sirk’s irony is not mean-spirited because, despite his notoriously garish lighting, conspicuously fake sets, etc., his tale of doomed love still manages to elicit a genuine emotional response from the viewer (119). Sirk’s extravagances underline how America’s very conception of itself is a sort of staged authenticity; yes, Cary’s (Jane Wyman) middle-class, conformist lifestyle is vapid and superficial, but so is Ron’s (Rock Hudson) “Thoreauvian” life of rugged independence (129-130). Neither the “norm” nor the “alternative” are genuine, and that’s the real tragedy.
Chapters on Ray’s Johnny Guitar and In a Lonely Place similarly focus on cinematic irony, specifically on how the director revises western and film noir genre expectations. In the former, two strong, outspoken female leads share the spotlight instead of the archetypal cowboy (152); in the latter, romantic love is earnestly grappled with instead of being reduced to a weapon for the requisite femme fatale (171). The In a Lonely Place piece stands out for Pippin’s discussion of active and passive skepticism and their roles in romantic relationships. While active skepticism regards the difficulty of truly knowing another, passive skepticism “is a concern, or an anxiety, about whether I am ever truly known (‘as I really am’) by an other. And the two modalities [active and passive] are interconnected” (183).
The above quote captures how accessible and lucid the author’s prose can be, even to those with minimal background knowledge. Nevertheless, his explanations are occasionally long winded. Consider the following sentence: “Sometimes my very attempt to question another’s self-representation alters what one might have understood about such a person before any such interrogation or expression of skepticism” (184). Why not just say something like, “My questioning how another presents himself may affect how others see him”? A complex thought need not be further complicated through its form of expression. If Pippin’s goal is to encourage the maxim that everyone can and should be a philosopher of sorts, such verbiage may alienate readers.
Even so, I suspect I will often return to Filmed Thought. Each chapter is packed with observations which cast an academically well-worn movie in a whole new light. When I read Pippin’s remark that we never see Jeff from Rear Window take an actual picture (or even load any of his cameras), I wanted to smack my head for never having noticed something so simple, yet so fascinating in its implications. Such small, strange details illustrate how the best films demand both multiple viewings and constant reassessment. Hopefully, Pippin’s analytical framework will inspire similar pieces on more diverse films.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.