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Cinema, Philosophy, BergmanReview - Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman
On Film as Philosophy
by Paisley Livingston
Oxford University Press, 2009
Review by Manuel Bremer
Nov 17th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 47)

In Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman Paisley Livingston asks whether films make their own contribution to deal with philosophical questions (Part I of the book). He defends an intentionalist stance towards film analysis (Part II of the book), and then illustrates this approach by analyzing films by the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (Part III of the book).

Using films as philosophical material has become an established method in the teaching of philosophy. In this way films are used to illustrate some problem or some perspective on the human condition. In this perspective films make no contribution on their own: all they show could be said in philosophical texts, but they convey the issue more lively and involve our emotional reactions. On a contrary perspective there is 'film as philosophizing'. Livingston is not unambiguous in supporting one of these theses. He denies that films confirm any philosophical thesis, thus they can only illustrate them. He challenges those who claim a genuine way of philosophizing here as facing the dilemma or either this philosophizing being inexpressible with texts (thus mysterious) or not genuine. That films have other means than texts is trivial: they use pictures, montages, combinations of music and scenery etc. Their main role seems to be probing options: 'In the absence of such empirically justified bridging assumptions, fiction-based reasoning should be viewed as a kind of hypothesis formation' (197). Seen this way films are useful -- as are other fictions -- in providing thought experiments or possible scenarios to probe our views or understanding of an issue. They serve as some 'context of discovery'. At the very end of the book Livingston claims that there are cases 'where the film-maker, or team of film-makers, has something genuinely valuable to express about a philosophical topic and has successfully done so with a film' (199), but neither criteria for 'something genuinely valuable' nor examples are given, even the Bergman films don't have to be seen as genuinely valuable. Earlier he had stressed: 'films may have a heuristic role in the context of ongoing investigations within a number of avenues of philosophical enquiry' (36).

In interpreting traditional philosophy one often distinguishes between a systematic (re-constructive) approach and an intentionalist approach. The systematic approach takes parts of the philosophical tradition and its texts as building blocks for current systematic theories. Texts are taken as having objective meaning mostly independent from their historical embedding. They are seen as (partial) contributions to state of the art theories. The intentionalist approach, on the other hand, focuses on the author's intention and the exact statement of his or her theses in light of his or her influences and other works etc. This may provide a proper understanding of the authors, but incorporates all mistakes, peculiarities and errors of their theoretical systems. In practice both approaches are -- ideally -- combined: one aims at state of the art theories using the tradition, which has to be understood properly to avoid neglecting important insights or routes of exploration. A similar distinction Livingston applies to the analysis of films. One may see them as having objective meaning or as the expression of the intentions of their main creator, which often are the script writer and the director (Bergman often doing both). Livingston prefers the intentionalist approach. Therefore he has to look at the influences of a director and his self-interpretative statements. Not all films have an individual author, but in Bergman's case the intentionalist approach can be followed. Bergman rarely commented on the interpretation of his work, but stated that he used film to communicate with people about some of life's fundamental topics. On one occasion Bergman said that he was deeply influenced by a book of the Finnish philosopher Kaila (a short remark quoted by Livingston several times to stress the connection). The book has not been translated into English, so Livingston sets out its main theses, which in itself is a service to everyone interested in Bergman. These theses, however, seem pretty shallow or general. They centre on the idea that desires are often uncontrollable and shape a person's life against his or her better knowledge or behind their back. Desires and needs conflict -- and so on. Kaila is anti-Freudian (allowing for genuine non-sexual desires, devaluing the unconscious etc.), but shares the idea of authentic vs. inauthentic desire formation (belabored also by the existentialists). Kaila's ideas, however, are so general that it is too easy to find fitting examples. Livingston claims 'some of Bergman's scenes and characterizations mesh beautifully with Kaila's central points about irrational behavior' (141). Livingston shows convincingly that scenes form Bergman films fit to Kaila's ideas, but several times he uses short passages (like in Wild Strawberries involving not the main character) where the whole movie deals with other topics (the main character explicitly reflecting on death and meaning)!

Linvingston's claims with respect to Bergman that he was not only inspired by Kaila, but 'stimulated and guided' philosophical reflection. This is spelled out as using film 'vividly to illustrate, and sometimes even inspire hypotheses about the springs of human behavior' (191), 'to challenge us to improve and apply our conceptual models of both irrationality and rationality' (192). Thus we seem to have no genuine contribution of 'film as philosophizing' but film as serving philosophy and means of teaching philosophy. The subtitle of the book 'Film as Philosophy' is not corroborated in establishing or outlining a genuine other way to do philosophy beyond what can be said in texts. That does not make the films less interesting, as the very medium of films involves more of our senses and emotions than a book: films may drive a philosophical point home forcefully; they just do not make points not available in philosophical texts.

With respect to Livingston's analysis of Bergman's films Bergman enthusiasts may take issue, too. Livingston makes a convincing case against Freudian readings of Bergman films. The desire theory by Kaila better explains some of the scenes and developments. On the other hand there are certainly existentialist topics and themes in Bergman's films, even if Bergman did not study the existentialist's books thoroughly. Death and the question of the meaning of life appear crucially in films like The Seventh Seal or Light in Winter. Even in several other movies Livingston looks at there is often a passage in which the question of meaning arises or is explicitly raised by a character (both in Wild Strawberry and in Persona). The constellation of characters in the movies (again Persona or The Silence) reminds on Sartre's famous slogan 'Hell are the others'. Bergman films in this respect capture at least existentialist topics ubiquitous in the 1950s and 1960s. As short as the Bergman statement on Kaila is, there are other statements where he explicitly expresses his existentialist attitude (life being void of meaning, man facing absurdity etc.), even quoted in the book (cf. p.184) or read as fictive philosophy in a film like Persona (also analyzed in the book). As there are passages that could be directly taken from Kaila, there are passages that could directly come out of a play or novel or essay by Sartre or Camus. Their theses are far from being as general as Kaila's; even Sartre's theory of the gaze may correspond to Bergman's explicit thesis of the centrality of a character's gaze in a film (quoted on p.149). It might be that one has to distinguish several groups of Bergman films: some more existentialist, some more psychologically approaching a constellation or character development. A seemingly most Kailaesque film is From the Life of the Marionettes. To read a movie like the Seventh Seal in Linvingston's way (as being about 'irrationality' in the knight and interpreting the witch burning scene as being concerned more with morality than the absence of God) seems to me a serious misinterpretation. What Livingston shows is that Bergman is not simply an illustrator of themes from Sartre or Camus. The ideas taken up from Kaila (that desires are beyond a characters control and shape his or her destiny) are anti-existentialist and supersede, for instance, Sartre's extreme thesis that one chooses one's desires and feelings. So Bergman films are -- in a sense -- more psychologically realistic than early existentialism. Therefore they make their own contribution beyond the existentialist's plays and novels.

Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman is a useful contribution to the debate around philosophy in film and methods of spreading philosophy. It extends the intentionalist stance in literary criticism to the analysis of film. The part on Bergman may motivate Bergman enthusiasts to take another look at their favourite Bergman films.


© 2009 Manuel Bremer


Manuel Bremer, Philosophisches Institut, Universität Düsseldorf


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