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Seeing Fictions in Film: The Epistemology of Movies by George Wilson is an attempt to answer the question "How do movie viewers see the fictions in the movies they view?" In other words, how is it that the average movie viewer sees a robot piloting a spacecraft in Prometheus when what they actually see is the actor Michael Fassbender waving his hands at cleverly made props on a soundstage. Wilson proposes an answer consisting of two hypotheses; the Fictional Showing Hypothesis and the Imagined Seeing Hypothesis. The former is an account of how the images and sounds presented by a movie form a narrator which shows the fiction of the movie, while the latter is an explanation of how we imagine seeing those fictional events as if they were real. Together these hypotheses form an account of the audio visual narration which allows us to see the film's fiction.
In the first section of the book, Wilson addresses certain objections to the sense of imagined seeing that he is proposing. For example, Gregory Currie (1995) asks; if we imagine seeing the events in a movie, then from what perspective do we imagine seeing them? Does a movie viewer imagine floating around the spacecraft Prometheus? Or do movie viewers imagine a camera following the robot on his duties? And what gives us license to imagine these strange mechanisms in the first place? Noël Carroll (2005) takes Currie's objection a step further arguing that an ordinary movie viewer doesn't imagine themselves to be in jeopardy while watching a gunfight nor do imagine themselves to be in any danger of getting wet when watching a film showing heavy rain. How can a movie viewer imagine seeing these events and yet not be compelled to imagine any of the event's consequences? Wilson cuts through these objections by declaring that, for the ordinary movie viewer, they do not arise as serious concerns. It is fictionally indeterminate for the movie viewer what kind of mechanism caused the shots which constitute the narrative of the movie to be produced and assembled. The shots of a movie fictionally show the events of a movie's story while they actually show the actions and events which make the fiction possible.
At the same time, the imagined seeing that Wilson is arguing for has less to do with any analogy between the movie viewing experience and the perspective offered by the camera than it has with the act of seeing that the movie viewer performs. The movie viewers imagines themselves seeing the fiction as if it were real but they do not necessarily imagine themselves implicated in the world of the fiction. Wilson argues that a fiction is prescribed to movie viewers through images and sounds, and they imagine seeing that as if it were real. They need not imagine any further perspective, point of view or consequence for the imagined seeing of those fictions.
Wilson's most compelling argument against these objections is the analogy of a movie with a radio play. If the intuitions which ground the objections of Currie and Carroll were accurate, how would they account for the experience of a radio play? Does the listener of a radio play imagine themselves being, for example, in front and to the left of a certain narrative event? Wilson argues that it makes no sense for the radio play listener to imagine themselves being in any particular position within the fictional space of the radio play and that the same should hold for the movie viewer. The questions do not arise for the viewer and the listener; they simply get on with the action of following the narrative as it is fictionally presented.
In the second section of the book, Wilson proposes that if these hypotheses are correct and movie viewers see fictions via audio visual narration then narrators must be ubiquitous, or almost ubiquitous to use Wilson's qualification, in classical narrative movies. Wilson carefully considers the nature of this narrator as an effaced narrator, or minimal narrating agent, by contrasting it with objections to such positions raised by Carroll (2005), Kania (2005), and Gaut (2004). Wilson offers robust defences against these objections however; I find Wilson's most compelling argument to be his analysis of the metaphoric sense of 'the camera' often used by movie viewers, critics and theorists. The attribution of the act of showing to 'the camera' is a short hand for the fictional showing of the movie in general. It is this act of showing that Wilson argues is actually performed by the narrating agent of the movie and metaphorically attributed to 'the camera'.
This final clarification of the narrating power of movies and how it facilitates our seeing of fictions, leads Wilson to the last section of the book. This is a critical analysis of certain movies which employ interesting or noteworthy narrative strategies. For me, this is the weakest section of the book. The films chosen (Fight Club, The Scarlet Empress, The Man Who Wasn't There, and others) make interesting use of narratives and narration but they are critiqued by Wilson in such a broad and general manner as to make their connection with the hypotheses put forward in the first parts of the book questionable. Each film is thoroughly discussed and enlightening points are raised about their narration but I did not feel their discussion to be exemplary of the Imagined Seeing Hypothesis nor of the Fictional Showing Hypothesis. It is unfortunate as the final three chapters do not offer the same satisfaction as the preceding six.
Overall, Wilson presents a clear and well thought out entry into the debate of fiction in films. His argument is offered amidst a sweeping survey of relevant contemporary literature making it a helpful introductory text as well as a fine account of his own position.
© 2012 Stephen Cadwell
Stephen Cadwell, Ph.D., University College Dublin