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TAKING MOVIES SERIOUSLY

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By Daniel Shaw

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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 Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously by Daniel Shaw (Wallflower Press, 2008)

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"This lucid and lively book introduces virtually all key topics at the intersection of film and philosophy. After a sympathetic overview of film theory, it discusses the work of a surprisingly wide range of film-philosophers (with a chapter each devoted to Stanley Cavell and Noël Carroll), makes a strong case for the philosophical study of film and gives a thorough overview of topics including philosophical film genres, cinematic emotions, movies and morality, and the question of whether films can actually do philosophy."

- Deborah Knight, Queen's University, Canada

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Let me begin by thanking the editor of The Montreal Review for this occasion to reflect on my work in the philosophy of film, in connection with its feature on my second book Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously, a 2008 entry in the "Short Cuts" series on cinema published by Wallflower Press. I began my career as an aesthetician and Nietzsche scholar, and my dissertation proposed a Heideggerean theory of tragedy that saw Captain Ahab in Moby Dick as the archetypal tragic hero. But my main research interests soon shifted from literature and theater to the cinema, for several reasons.

For one thing, as a married man with young children teaching in central Pennsylvania in the mid-1990's, I got into New York far less often, and could no longer keep track of the best theater productions. Keeping up with films became a whole lot easier in the video age. Secondly, I used to introduce my students to philosophical issues by reading excerpts from literature, but they read less and less literature in recent decades, and hence it no longer provides a more accessible bridge to philosophy. Finally, talking about films has become more philosophically respectable in the 20+ years since Noel Carroll's treatise on The Philosophy of Horror was first published in 1990, and I have always been crazy about the movies.

My first (unpublished) attempt at a book on the subject focused on Freudian theory, feminism and the American democratic ideology, and their effect on film making and film criticism. My earliest presentations were on Thelma and Louise (which I argued was regressive rather than liberating), Jules and Jim (and the powerful femme fatale Catherine), and on my Freudian reading of Dead Ringers . By then I was hooked, and almost all of my scholarship since has revolved around the philosophy of film.

Thanks to a Presidential Initiative grant from Craig Willis at Lock Haven University, I (along with my colleagues in the Society for the Philosophic Study of the Visual Arts [SPSCVA] ) resurrected the moribund print journal Film and Philosophy in 2000 with a volume on Woody Allen edited by Sander Lee, and put together a special interest edition on the Philosophy of Horror in 2001. I was beginning to find my own voice, proposing a Nietzschean theory of horror pleasure based on his notion of the Will to Power. I have always been a horror movie buff, and the chance to discuss this disreputable genre in intellectually respectable terms was irresistible. I subsequently teamed up with Steven Schneider (now co-producer of the Paranormal Activity series of supernatural horror flicks) to co-edit a collection of essays called Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror (Scarecrow Press, 2003), which hopefully contributed to the philosophical conversation about the nature and effects of horror.

There are several themes on which I have consistently focused my efforts as a philosopher of film. I have always had a deep concern for the ethical content of films. My first publication (Journal of Value Inquiry, 1996) offered a reading of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat that praised the film for condemning vengeance and vendettas. I continue to be interested in the feminist ideological critique of the images of women depicted in films, as shown in my later article on Isabel Archer as pitiable victim in Portrait of a Lady. Those ethical concerns have culminated in a forthcoming introductory Ethics textbook called Morality and the Movies: Reading Ethics through Film (Continuum Books, 2012). Films can provide detailed and concrete examples of ethics in action, and ethical analysis has become one of the most fruitful areas of film-philosophy.

As a fledgling sub-discipline of philosophical aesthetics, the philosophy of film is engaged in a lively debate about the value and methodology of such inquiries. These metatheoretical debates are of great interest to me, and I have taken the position that films can do philosophy, by which I mean they can (on extremely rare occasions) actually make unique and positive contributions to the ongoing conversation about perennial philosophical problems. The metatheoretical publication of which I am most proud is my piece on Being John Malkovich in the special edition of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, where I argued that it is one of those films.

There I proposed a hierarchy of senses in which a film can be philosophical: a) (minimally) when appreciation of it can be enhanced when seen through a philosophical lens; b) (moreso) when the filmmaker is intentionally trying to embody a philosophical position and succeeds; and c) (optimally) when a film makes a unique contribution to the conversation. On these (and other) grounds, I have tried to defend our sub-discipline against attacks that question whether philosophers should be talking about popular entertainments at all.

My third primary interest has been the intersection of existentialist philosophy and film. Existentialism as a movement was always defined as much by its literature and theater as by its philosophical treatises, and many filmmakers have clearly been influenced by their exposure to existentialist thought. A surprising number of directors studied philosophy as undergraduates, including Woody Allen, the Wachowski Brothers and Terence Malick (who translated one of Martin Heidegger's classic treatises). Existentialism was one of the first philosophical movements to discuss movies philosophically back in the late-1960's, when the conversation began about the films of Ingmar Bergman, Michaelangelo Antonioni, and such French New Wave directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Films can provide situated examples of existential dilemmas with a clarity and degree of detail that is crucial to understanding what is at stake. My own work applies the theories of Friedrich Nietzsche to such films as The Silence of the Lambs and Citizen Kane.

Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously is a brief overview of the history of philosophizing about film, which begins with a survey of early film theorists that had a philosophical bent (like Munsterberg and Eisenstein) and with profiles of the two most significant writers in the field so far, Stanley Cavell and Noel Carroll. It then examines the majors themes, genres and inquiries that have characterized the last two decades of philosophizing about film. My ongoing eleven year stint as editor of the SPSCVA's print journal put me in a unique position to do so.

As one reviewer has noted, there is little that is new in this volume, and I did not do justice to the major figures in European film-philosophy (like Deleuze and Zizek). But I hope it is valuable as a critical review of the major trends in philosophizing about film, and if it is I will be gratified.

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Daniel Shaw is Professor of Philosophy at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, where he is also the editor of Film and Philosophy, the journal of the Society for the Philosophic Study of the Contemporary Visual Arts (SPSCVA). His publications include, amongst others, Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror (2003).

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