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Philosophical Twist

Thomas Wartenberg tells us his hunch about a cunning plan to market DVDs. Is turning epistemology into showbiz a good thing or a bad thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why philosophers have been paying so much attention to film and popular culture recently. It’s not that philosophers were oblivious to film before the last decade. After all, probably the first academic study of film – The Photoplay by Hugo Münsterberg in 1916 – was written by a philosopher, and there have been a number of impressive philosophical works to do with film. It’s just that the philosophy of film remained a minor subfield in aesthetics, subordinate to the more traditional concern with the fine arts such as painting and music. But nowadays, film and its cognate visual artforms – video, television, DVD, etc – have become a much more active field of philosophical discussion. In my own mind I roughly date this change as taking place around 1999, the year the first Matrix film hit the screen.

This film has attracted more philosophical attention than any film I know. There are at least two single-author books and three essay collections by philosophers dealing with it. And that doesn’t count the one-off essays (including mine) which appear in philosophy journals. So this film stands as a symbol of the burst of interest in film exhibited by philosophers.

What accounts for this burst? On the one hand, it has to be the result of a change in the sensibilities of students. Having grown up in what is increasingly recognized as a visual, even digital culture, students are now more at home looking at images than they are reading complex texts. Since Western philosophy generally resides in a series of such texts, it has become harder and harder to get students to resonate with the problems, issues, and theories contained there. But just mention the name of a Hollywood film or commercial TV show and most students come alive with funds of knowledge just waiting to be tapped.

Faced with students with such a visual focus, it is natural that professors have begun seeking ways to use this focus to infuse their students with enthusiasm about their subjects. Philosophy is no different in this regard. Why not use students’ interest in film to get them to take Cartesian skepticism or moral relativism seriously?

But are films really capable of bearing this intellectual burden? That seems to me a really interesting question. There are certain classic films, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, that, to coin a phrase, screen philosophy. Since its release in 1950, this film has been seen as a Film Studies textbook example of epistemological relativism – the doctrine that all knowledge is ultimately dependent on perspective. Even though I disagree with this interpretation of the film, it’s clear that this film is capable of bearing a philosophical burden. Indeed, the film cries out for a philosophical explanation of its unusual narrative structure, in which four contradictory versions of the same series of events are presented, one even by a dead man.

But while films like Rashomon, which call for a philosophical explanation, were rare during film’s first century, they seem more and more commonplace today. Not only is there the Matrix trilogy, but films as diverse as Ground Hog Day, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind demand a philosophical accounting.

It may be good for Philosophy of Film departments, but why this sudden upsurge in philosophically-minded films? There are many factors which play a role in explaining this change, but I want to focus on the differences in the nature of film viewing and, as a result, filmmaking, which stem from the digital revolution.

For nearly a hundred years, film had a single dominant technology, namely the photographic recording of images on celluloid. (I’m ignoring an important tradition of filmmaking: animation.) There were significant developments in this technology – synchronous sound, color film, lighter cameras etc – but the basic technology remained the same: films were made of a series of photographic images on celluloid. This meant that films had to be seen in venues capable of projecting celluloid images onto a screen. The technology for doing this was expensive and bulky, so that generally, films – especially 35 millimeter ones – could only be seen in public venues: movie theaters. As a result, films were mostly viewed by their audiences just once, for it cost a fair bit of money to go to a theater.

During this era – ‘the celluloid era’? – filmmakers produced films that were appropriate to these circumstances in one way or another. For many commercial films, this meant that they had to be intelligible to viewers on their first viewing. After all, why should someone pay good money to watch something that merely confused them, when what they expected was entertainment and a good story? The art film tradition thrived on subverting just such expectations, but the transgression itself attests to the presence of the dominant mode of filmmaking.

In our digital era things are very different. Films can be viewed not just in theaters, but also in our living rooms and bedrooms, thanks to the availability of cheap and portable means for viewing, most centrally now DVDs. The change is attested to, for example, by the film sections of newspapers detailing the latest DVD releases. These days, as we watch films, we are aware that we will be able to see them soon again in our own homes, and once we own a copy of the film, we will be able to watch it as many times as we want.

How might this at-will repeatability of film viewing affect films themselves? Again, there are many ways, but I shall discuss only one here: the fact that films can be brought to be seen again on DVD provides an incentive to filmmakers to specifically create films that repay such re-viewings. After all, if seeing a film just once was enough, there would be no sensible reason for viewers to purchase DVDs, and this huge commercial market would remain untapped.

One proven strategy for making a film that repays re-viewing is to include an epistemological twist: a revelation that requires viewers to reinterpret what they had taken to be true up to that point in the film. Consider The Sixth Sense, for instance. Another good example is The Matrix: what viewers had taken to be real was actually a huge intersubjective computer projection. Yet as soon as a viewer has had such a realization, she has a reason and perhaps a desire to re-view the portion of the film about which she had been mistaken on first viewing. The presence of an epistemological twist such as this makes a film not only repay re-viewing, but often even makes a re-viewing necessary to have a complete experience of the film.

We can understand then why films have come to rely increasingly on such epistemological twists: they make for brisk DVD sales. But how does this knowledge help our initial attempt to understand the new-found popularity of film among philosophers? My suggestion is that epistemological twist films are generally suitable for philosophical interpretation. Again, think of The Matrix. Revealing what viewers had taken to be the real world of the film as merely an appearance produced by some other, different reality calls to mind the metaphysics of Plato (‘the real world is the world of the Forms’) or the epistemology of Descartes (‘How can I know it’s not all an illusion?’). Indeed, the film has already become an iconic way of teaching the First Meditation of Descartes.

My contention is that this ‘epistemological twist’ type of film – not a new genre, but a newly vibrant genre, recall Sunset Blvd – is generally one that raises philosophical questions, from the nature of personal identity to the validity of utilitarianism. Although the increasing frequency of this type of film does not explain all the recent attention philosophers have paid to film, it does help us see how changes in the nature of ‘moving image’ technology have a role in influencing which films get made, and also in shaping the recent philosophical fascination with film.

©Thomas Wartenberg 2006

Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview), and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches Philosophy and Film Studies at Mount Hollyoke College in Massachusetts.

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