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«11 THE PHILOSOPHY OF FILM AND FILM AS PHILOSOPHY Tom McClelland (University of Sussex) There are two key respects in which the medium of film and the ...»

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2.3 Meeting the Challenges Overall, the limitations of film mean that it can present a philosophically salient scenario but has no voice standing outside that narrative to guide us through the significance of that scenario. Though this is compatible with film making a contribution to philosophy through its narratives, it seems that their presentation in film is inevitably weaker than an equivalent presentation in an academic or literary text — a text that can provide that guiding voice. I think we should concede that for most philosophical purposes it is better to have the articulate guiding voice that film typically lacks. However, our task is to show that film has special advantages on at least some occasions, and this can still be achieved. I argue that the apparent disadvantages of film relative to academic or literary texts are actually potential advantages.

We followed Hunt in using Socrates’ exchange with the slave boy in Meno as an example of philosophy being done through narrative. Fittingly, it is to the central Cinema 2 thesis of that dialogue that we will now turn. The slave boy scenario was supposed to show that he could come to know something “without having been taught but only questioned, and find the knowledge within himself.”47 Though this model will not apply to empirical knowledge it does capture the process of reaching philosophical knowledge. Socrates also argues that repeating assertions made by others might constitute “true opinion”, but discovering that conclusion for ourselves will provide us with knowledge.48 Compare being told the answer to a maths problem with working out the answer for yourself. The epistemic superiority of the latter illustrates Socrates’ claim.

Strangely, in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is not very good at respecting his own epistemic claims. He tends to impose interpretations of a narrative on his interlocutors and to ask leading questions that give them little opportunity to work things out for themselves. This worry generalises to all philosophical texts. If a salient narrative is of philosophical significance, given the right prompts the audience should be able to work out that significance for themselves and, in doing so, be in a better epistemic position than if it had been spelled out to them.

What does this mean for the philosophical value of film? Film’s inability to express explicit reasoning or general conclusions actually makes it a suitable medium for prompting an audience into reaching philosophical conclusions for themselves, with the depth of understanding that process provides. Most of the time explicitness and generality will be integral to philosophical progress, but here we see the possible philosophical advantage of the inarticulate presentation of a narrative. On this Socratic Model a film can prompt its audience into greater philosophical understanding precisely by not making explicit philosophical claims about its narrative, but rather by inviting us to do some of the work for ourselves. Despite describing himself as a “midwife” to knowledge, Socrates often does act as an Cinema 2 articulate commentator. Ironically, film could then be considered more “Socratic” than Socrates.

So far, we have shown how the apparent weaknesses of filmic presentations of a philosophically salient narrative might actually be a source of strength. What we have not shown is how a film with these strengths might make a specifically filmic contribution. After all, a novel could easily present a narrative without providing the kind of commentary that we have just objected to. In fact, an academic text could conceivably do the same. We are yet to find something that film has a special ability to achieve.

I suggest that a philosophical contribution is specifically filmic precisely when the fact that the audience is watching a film is integral to its achievement. Obviously, no medium other than film can have an audience with that status. But when would that status ever be relevant to philosophy? I suggest it can be of special relevance when the film is contributing to the philosophy of film. Unlike an academic text on the philosophy of film, a film can stimulate its audience into a philosophical insight while they are watching. We will see how this might work shortly, but it is worth noting that the proposed contribution requires more than “reflexivity” in a film. The fact that a film is in some sense about film does not mean it is making any philosophical contribution to our understanding of film, nor any contribution that could not better have been achieved by an academic text.49 After all, there is a sense in which all art has reflexive significance, but it is implausible that all art makes a contribution to philosophy. We are looking for something more.

Philosophy of film is not the only area to which the audience’s status as viewers can be relevant. Wartenberg, for instance, provides an excellent account of how The Matrix reinforces the Cartesian deception hypothesis by deceiving the audience into believing that the world they perceive in the early sections of the film is (fictionally) real.50 This kind of perceptual deception takes advantage of the fact that the Cinema 2 audience is watching a film. However, too often it is only a film’s narrative that is philosophically salient, and the fact that the audience is experiencing that narrative through film is irrelevant. I suggest that the contribution of a film is most likely to be specifically filmic when it engages in philosophy of film. There are many plausible cases of film engaging in a critique of the conditions of its existence. For example, the experimental films Empire (1964) and The Flicker (1965) are explored by Wartenberg, Serene Velocity (1970) is considered by Carroll, and the art film The Five Obstructions (2003) is discussed by Hjort.51 These cases complement my stance, but it is worth noting that they are not popular films. Also, the question of the conditions of film is just one of a much wider range of possible issues in the philosophy of film on which a film can shed light. Rather than exploring further conceptual considerations, the time has come to consider an example of film-as-philosophy that promises to vindicate the various conclusions we have reached.



Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed 1954 film Rear Window grew to become his greatest box office success. Though one dissenting contemporary critic states “Mr Hitchcock’s film is not significant [and] is superficial and glib,” we will soon see that the opposite is the case.52 The protagonist of Rear Window, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, is a photographer bound to a wheelchair after sustaining a broken leg. Bored in his New York apartment, he begins to watch the lives of his various neighbours on the other side of the courtyard. Looking into the apartment of Lars Thorwald, Jeff starts to suspect that Thorwald has murdered his wife. With the help of his girlfriend Lisa and nurse Stella, his suspicions are confirmed, but in the process Thorwald Cinema 2 discovers Jeff’s surveillance. In a thrilling confrontation in Jeff’s apartment, Jeff survives a fall from his window before the police finally catch the killer.

The cornerstone of Rear Window’s relevance to the philosophy of film is Jeff’s similarity to the cinema-goer. Belton explains that “Jeff serves as a surrogate for the spectator. Seated in his chair and unable to move, he looks, through a frame that resembles that of the screen, at events that take place in a semidistant space.”53 Barton Palmer adds that “to relieve his bordem” Jeff is “poised eagerly before the screen in hopes of a narrative which might become an object of pleasure.”54 The analogy is reinforced by the opening and closing of the apartment’s blind at the beginning and end of the film. Mid-way through the film there is even an “interval’ in which Lisa closes the blind saying “the show’s over for tonight.” This kind of content cleverly invites us to compare ourselves as spectators with Jeff. We can now consider to what philosophical use this comparison is put.

3.1. Voyeurism The film guides the audience through an exploration of the ethical status of voyeurism, with Stella and Lisa often challenging the morality of Jeff’s behaviour.

Our alignment with Jeff indicates that we too are voyeurs, so we are invited to consider the ethical status of viewing film.55 It would be simplistic to transfer our assessment of Jeff’s voyeurism onto ourselves since there are obvious respects in which we are not aligned.56 Nevertheless, the comparative exercise is valuable. In the film Jeff compares what he can see from his window with a photographic negative of the courtyard — perhaps this is a model of the kind of comparative exercise that the audience is supposed to perform. One of many illuminating points of contrast between Jeff and the spectator is that Jeff’s actions lead to the apprehension of a killer. This suggests that his voyeurism is excusable, but since we Cinema 2 have no such excuse we are prompted to consider how our voyeuristic gaze could be justifiable.

Jeff’s apparent preference for viewing life rather than living it also has ramifications for the cinema-goer. His choice to watch his neighbours rather than respond to Lisa’s advances indicates that “[h]e opts for a one-way relationship based on voyeurism instead of a two-way relationship rooted in mutual regard.”57 Lisa begins to form a judgement of Jeff that she says is “too frightful to utter,” indicating there is something perverse about his behaviour.58 Are we similarly perverse in our choice to watch a film, or does the fact we are viewing a fiction somehow make things better?

There are many other ways in which the film systematically prompts a philosophical moral assessment of ourselves as viewers of film. It is worth noting that an academic text presenting the same narrative could not catch us whilst we are engaged in the potentially voyeuristic act, so would inevitably put us a step further away from the object of investigation. When it comes to literature, conveniently we can compare Rear Window to the short story by Cornell Woolrich on which it is based. That story has little to say about voyeurism and the ethical status of our engagement with fiction, indicating that the philosophical value of Rear Window is specifically filmic.

3.2. The Epistemology of Film In Rear Window Jeff is not the passive recipient of information about events in his neighbouring apartments. He actively looks in order to acquire evidence — sometimes audio but primarily visual — then constructs hypothetical narratives to account for what he perceives. The film’s narrative is effectively the story of Jeff’s interpretations of what he sees.59 Since Jeff is presented as a surrogate of the cinemagoer, we are invited to regard our own engagement with the filmic audio-visual Cinema 2 display in a similar manner. This sheds light on how we form beliefs about a film’s fictional reality — something we might call the epistemology of film. We are prompted to notice the interpretive role that we play.

Interestingly, the narratives Jeff constructs often seem to reflect his own desires and anxieties.60 This invites the audience to consider what role their own psychological states might play in their interpretations. Furthermore, Jeff appears to interpret events according to the guidelines of specific genres: one apartment is a romance, another is a melodrama and Thorwald’s is clearly a murder-mystery. This invites us to assess the extent to which our interpretations are guided by our background understanding of genre rather than by the audio-visual evidence with which we are presented. Rear Window reinforces this invitation by toying with its own murder-mystery genre. In a contemporary review, Sondheim notes that suspense is achieved by the fact that “[h]alf way through Rear Window we are not certain there will be a murder, not sure that Hitchcock may not have a new gimmick, which is to let us think there’ll be a murder.”61 By threatening to defy our genre-based expectations, Rear Window highlights the presence of those expectations and the role that they play in our experience of film.

Jeff’s epistemic relationship to events may appear disanalogous to that of the cinema-goer when he starts to interfere with what he sees. Jeff sends Lisa to Thorwald’s apartment and watches as she posts a note under his door. Viewers of film cannot influence events on the screen — they can only form beliefs on the basis of what they are given. However, if we look at events in Rear Window more closely, their relevance to the cinema-goer becomes clearer. The note that Jeff sends reads “What have you done with her?”, but this question is never answered by Thorwald.

Furthermore, when Thorwald finally spots Jeff and becomes the viewer rather than the viewed, he invades Jeff’s apartment and says one thing — “What do you want from me?” This question also goes unanswered. In both cases, the “viewer” is Cinema 2 analogous to the cinema audience in that they can ask questions but can receive no direct answers. Film shows us a reality from a perceptual perspective but, unlike the novel, provides no flat statements of how things stand in that world. We have to make sense of the evidence ourselves. By contrast, in Woolrich’s story we simply have to take Jeff’s interpretations as gospel, since we are not given the perceptual evidence from which to construct our own hypotheses. The view of film encouraged by Rear Window complements our Socratic Model perfectly. Film makes no direct philosophical statements, but can provide audio-visual prompts that assist the audience’s philosophical inquiries.

At some points in the film, the perceptual evidence offered to the viewer differs from the perceptual evidence available to Jeff. For example, while Jeff is asleep, we see Thorwald leave his apartment with a woman we can only suppose is his stillliving wife.62 Here we recognise that Jeff’s interpretation of events is based on limited evidence. However, since Jeff is clearly a surrogate of the cinema-goer, we are invited to conclude that we too have limited access to the film’s reality. Perhaps we can never be certain of the “facts” of a filmic fictional world — we can only form more or less satisfactory interpretations based on the limited evidence we have.

Again, any sense that film fully discloses a world to us is cleverly frustrated by Rear Window.

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