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The Philosophy of Motion PicturesReview - The Philosophy of Motion Pictures
by NoŽl Carroll
Blackwell, 2008
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D.
Apr 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 18)

Any art form needs a philosophy; something that can begin to articulate its nature and value in representing and understanding our world. Hopefully, through the publication of this scholarly, detailed and thoroughly-argued book Carroll will finally put to rest the debate about whether or not films (aka motion pictures or moving images) can be seen as works of art. He makes the case persuasively that they can, and in the process exposes the limitations and narrowness of view of the opposing argument. Although the eponymous term moving pictures is not Carroll's preferred label (he would rather talk about the moving image and therefore it is a bit of a puzzle why he titled the book as he did) he does not waste undue time in making arcane arguments about whether we should be talking about films or cinema or whatever. We all pretty much know what we mean and we know what we sitting down to watch.

Film-makers create and present a point of view that while it may be recorded is nevertheless created and imbued with choice. So, Carroll begins a careful and scholarly examination of the history of the philosophy of film, beginning with Munsterberg's 1916 exposition of what he called photoplays, through the traditional theorists such as Arnheim, Eisenstein, Bazin and Kracauer among others, to the period cultural studies to his own preferred and simplified position in which a pluralistic approach is applied and a functional definition is more important than any specificity of medium (that is to say, videotape, podcasting, CGI and new media can all be considered under the rubric of the moving image).

Carroll lays out his thesis in clear, concise and well-defined chapters. He first looks at the question of whether film can be considered art, and outlines the major arguments which have maintained that by definition it cannot be. These refer, in the main, to issues of control and intentionality. It seems pointless to suggest that all handmade pictorial representations, to use the sort of careful circumlocutions that Carroll is forced to employ, are good art, just as Glen or Glenda may not have the same qualities or appeal as L'Atalante. However, while clearly an image is captured, there is intentionality in what and how it is captured and it is clearly possible to present a unique understanding or perspective on the world.

He moves through questions of medium specificity (do images actually have to move to be considered a movie? Look at Andy Warhol's Empire for example). And again he concludes that the traditional debate, both for film as art and against it, have been too narrow in their focus and have not been able to account for the development of modern media.

He quotes Andre Bazin in asking, "What is Cinema?" in his next chapter, and again chides the traditional debate of causing so much philosophical mischief with empty argument over what it is we are watching. We know a film when we see one just as we know a zipper when we pull on one.

In the fourth and fifth chapters he looks at concepts of the shot and editing in the creation of a product. He shows simply how films such as Chris Marker's La Jetée, which is essentially a sequence of still frames, is nonetheless a film and not a disconnected series of photographs.

He begins to conclude his arguments by looking at affect and especially the way an audience reacts through mirror reflexes (an idea that remains as relevant now as it was for Eisenstein).

The final chapter discusses the tricky problem of evaluation -- what is good and what is not so good. And it seems here that he uses a concept of Gilbert Ryle and argues that most often the various value judgments are muddied by category mistakes. That is to say it is not possible or reasonable to compare Hitchcock with Looney Tunes. They are different, they are meant to be different. They have different intentionality and different criteria, so we really should put an end to all this silliness once and for all. It may be possible to speak of a favorite, but not the best film.

This book is a very welcome addition to the literature and nicely complements Carroll and Choi's edited anthology of 2005. It is possible to suggest that some areas were not explored as much as they might have been. For example, there is little mention of Denzin's ideas of a developing cinematic society and public cinematic imagination which is shaped by the media we watch. He does not devote much space to the use of film in propaganda which was such a powerful force in the 1930s. Nor does he really look at consciously referential cinema such as the opening of Olivier's Henry V which begins as a recording of a stage play and then takes us in some magical way into a cinematic world.

It may be difficult from time to time for non-film enthusiasts to keep up with the numerous citations of this film and that, many of which are long gone or were always somewhat obscure, and that is a little bit of a shame because there is much to the philosophical discussion that is pertinent to an understanding of ourselves and media saturated world. But non-scholars or non-cinephiles should not be deterred. It is a fine book. It is scholarly and erudite, persuasive and informative and will undoubtedly become a key text in cinematic studies, no matter what they are called.

© 2008 Mark Welch

Mark Welch, British Columbia.

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