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A Reflection on the Philosophical Use of Movies Mar. 14th, 2009 @ 01:56 pm
From Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews - 2009-03-10
Dan Flory, Philosophy, Black Film, Film Noir, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008, 348pp., $65.00 (hbk), ISBN 9780271033440. Reviewed by Angela Curran, Carleton College

There is also a question as to whether this critical philosophical reflection is detachable from the viewer's experience of the film -- something she may or may not do -- or if Flory thinks that this reflection is part of every thoughtful viewer's experience of the film, properly understood. Is philosophical reflection something that the film or the viewer does, and is some special sort of philosophical background or knowledge of philosophical methods required for the viewer to philosophize? These are questions Flory briefly touches on, but does not examine in any detail.

Flory argues that black film noir philosophizes, "in just the ways that philosophers do" (175). There has been a great deal of fruitful debate recently on whether films can philosophize and if so, how. Flory, for the most part, seems to opt for the model of how films philosophize provided by Stanley Cavell and Stephen Mulhall. According to this view, films can philosophize because they can prompt viewers to "serious reflection" about fundamental questions of human existence, such as the nature of humanity. Other philosophers have argued that for film to philosophize, it must make use of some specific philosophical methods, such as counter-examples, thought-experiments or perhaps even arguments. Flory gives little attention to the specific philosophical methods that the films he discusses employ. Most often he just says that the film prompts "reflection" and a re-examination of beliefs (316) without considering the specific methods -- counter-examples, thought-experiments, and so on -- that each film uses. Some interesting differences might emerge between these films -- which all seem to become a bit alike in Flory's treatment of them -- if he had examined the different philosophical strategies that each film uses to imaginatively engage viewers in reflection on philosophical issues.

Flory's main argument -- that sympathizing or empathizing with marginalized black characters can prompt philosophizing on the nature of black humanity -- leads me to wonder about the role that emotional engagement with characters can play in prompting philosophical reflection. Flory argues that sympathy or empathy with characters in black film noir makes possible a kind of imaginative access to a new point of view outside the white viewer's experience. Is this method of prompting viewers to re-examine their everyday practices and the moral and epistemic norms that guide them comparable to the traditional methods contained in a philosophical work on race? Or is there something different about the way film prompts philosophizing precisely because it does this through emotional engagement rather than philosophical argumentation? These are interesting questions raised by Flory's treatment of black film<

Flory's book opens up many new lines of inquiry for philosophers interested in examining how films can philosophize and the role that the emotions play in prompting such reflection. Because of Flory's extensive knowledge of contemporary film aesthetics and critical race theory, there is much we can learn about these areas from reading his book. It is a work suitable for use in mid-level and advanced undergraduate classes as well as graduate classes on aesthetics, philosophy of film, and critical race theory.



The idea that film in general (or some films more than others) are inherently philosophical has always struck me as special pleading. At most films can be used for philosophical purposes, but beyond that they must be taken on their own aesthetic grounds. The same, of course, can be said for all artifacts of the human hand and imagination. So my question is "Why philosophy & film?" Why is there no movement for philosophy and poetry? There is plenty of writing about philosophy and poetry, but no special pleading and no academic movement?

Let's call those who encounter works of art through hearing, viewing, reading, etc. "auditors," avoiding, among other mistakes, the silly idea that movie watchers "read" the films they view.

Any strong work of art can prompt or spark "deep thought" and self-reflection in an auditor. But it is necessary for the auditor to be more than merely thoughtful. She also must be knowledgeable, both self-regarding and other regarding, and willing to work with herself in relation to the artifact she experiences. But more than the above the auditor must also be "open" -- receptive, playful, empathetic, wondering -- to the art-work she experiences.

All of the above are necessary. but not sufficient, conditions for a work of art to provoke philosophy. What further must be added to this mix is a desire to draw fundamental conclusions through reasoned thought and/or discussion, and to put the work of art to use as a means (or medium) of philosophical thought.

Is film special? Is film more effective than Greek or Elizabethan drama in provoking philosophical thought? True, for its own aesthetic reasons film is different than other media, but is it more particularly philosophical than say a Grecian urn or Keat's poem "Ode to a Grecian Urn". Didn't Keat's use the Grecian urn as a means of philosophical reflection in poetry? And is this any more unusual than using any other visual or popular art as a philosophical spark? Is it particularly easier or more inherent to the medium to use movies as a means or spark to philosophical work than "Anna Karenina" or "Bleak House" or "Lolita" or "Absalom, Absalom", to name four novels I believe give special access to philosophical wonderings and wanderings? One can argue whether Marcel Duchamp or Michaelangelo is better suited for philosophical prompting, but is sculpture less useful than painting, or painting less useful than moving pictures? I doubt it.

When such caveats and cut-outs begin to unravel these academic practices (because such "movements" as Philosophy & Film, Law & Literature, Art & Perception, etc., are practically exclusively practiced on university campuses) the whole project begins to seem constructed on the ground of academic politics or, perhaps, as a means of escape from the boredom of the major subject as constituted by the Department of Philosophy or the School of Law. There is nothing inherently dispositive in this but it causes me to wonder: If there were no academic departments would there be any need for these "movements," which are largely a rebellion against the artificial departmental separations of specialized philosophy, law, art, etc.?

And this brings me to other artificial separations that we assume before any of our inquiries begin. Take the separations of genre and the problems of authorship. For some reason, in the Philosophy & Film movement, genre films are more often used for philosophical reflection than other kinds of films. So the movement begins with work on Screwball comedies and film noir and on such auteur directors as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Why is this? I think this is because there are rules and boundaries that can be derived from these movies and directors and such rules and boundaries establish a baseline around which trends and outliers can define the nuances of "philosophical argument." Also the establishment of a genre to investigate or a director to operate upon with one's philosophizing, allows the philosopher to both talk about and avoid the philosophical issues of "sets" of genre and construction of authorship (and the hidden issues of ones own academic life that such "sets" and "constructions" displace). But more than that, I am not sure on the face of it why Hitchcock is so often written about by movie philosophers but Bugs Bunny and Warner Brother's cartoons are largely ignored, except by post-modern types.

Or to bring it another step: Why is there no movement around "Philosophy and Rock & Roll" or "Law and Rock & Roll". Potentially, Elvis Costello's albums "Armed Forces" and "This Year's Model" or Radiohead's "O.K. Computer" are as ripe for philosophical and legal riffing as Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve" or Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." Elvis Costello and Radiohead are left to those academics who "do" popular culture (and again are often labeled pomo) mostly because the stodgy Departments of Philosophy and Schools of Law can only take so much of this kind of unserious rambling from the main purpose of their disciplines. Unfortunately, the pomo types who work on popular culture are more likely to "do" Madonna than Elvis Costello. From this point of view the special pleading for movies behind the "Philosophy & Film" movement and for literature by the "Law & Literature" movement is exclusive of other art forms and genres not because film is especially philosophical or novels and plays are especially legal, but because exclusivity increases the chances of being taken seriously. Radiohead's song "Paranoid Android" is not less philosophical than any particular scene from Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" and Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army" is not less legally profound than any particular passage from Bertolt Brecht's "The Threepenny Opera." But a philosopher or law professor is more likely to win the battle of academic recognition by conferring "high seriousness" upon "Twelve Monkeys" or "The Threepenny Opera" than on "O.K. Computer" or "Armed Forces". It is the battle over creditability that is foremost in the academic struggle and "seriousness" is necessary to insure survival in academic politics.

There is something amusing here. Why is there no Philosophy & Poetry movement? Because there is no need. Philosophy and poetry have been intertwined from the birth of philosophy as a separate social practice. This is partially because both poetry and philosophy find their roots in religion and myth. But no philosopher has to first argue that he is serious when he takes poetry seriously as a philosophical practice or a spark for philosophical reflection. The interpenetration of philosophy and poetry is either considered a blessing or a curse by philosophers, but no one has to start a movement to recognize that poetry can do philosophy and philosophers can reflect on poetry. It is only when confronting "modern" art genres, practices and media that a philosopher has to make special arguments over the seriousness of her philosophical reflections upon the resulting art works. Why is this? Because most of the modern art genres are either more popular or more democratic or both. And here is the one successful argument for the "Philosophy & Film" movement. Movies are a part of a broad shared culture and they provide a set of references easily recognizable by many. At the same time "film" as an art medium has been recognized by most intellectuals as a potentially serious endeavor.

What I would like the "Philosophy & Film" writers to do is recognize that there is nothing exclusive about their methods and that all art can be used as a spark for philosophy and all art media can be created for philosophical ends, especially if the philosopher-auditor has the wit and the wisdom. As for the rest, all the universe can be turned into poetry, if the poet has not only wit and but the wide writ of the imagination.
music: IOT: The Library at Alexandria
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