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Five Minute Talk: Film-Philosophy

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Interstellar.

The basic claim of film-philosophy is that films can actually do philosophy. Clearly films can be used as examples to illustrate philosophical issues, where they act as extended thought experiments.

So, for instance, in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the moral question of whether we only follow rules to avoid punishment is put under pressure when Judah’s murder of his mistress goes unpunished or, in another example, neoliberal values are forced to confront unexamined prejudice when a daughter introduces her black fiancé to her white intellectual parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Film can also be used to teach philosophy by explicitly presenting philosophical ideas either though interviews with philosophers (Žižek!, Derrida, The Perverts Guide to Cinema/Ideology) or though characters’ philosophical discussions in films such as My Night at Maud's, Waking Life, Dinner with Andre). Film-philosophy, however, claims that (perhaps some, perhaps all) cinema offers original philosophical insights and is not merely an illustration or explication of prior philosophical thought. This, of course, begs the question of what “prior philosophical thought” or even “philosophy” itself might be.  Philosophy is generally used  in two different ways: philosophy as a worldview and philosophy as a critical approach to or in the world.

However, allow me to sidestep this issue by a thought experiment of my own. Imagine someone who has never read any philosophy – classically understood - in their entire life – and let us add that they have never read a novel either (this does not strike me as unlikely). Let us imagine that this person has watched any number of popular entertainment films (this strikes me as quite likely). What then can we say of this person’s philosophical knowledge? Would we argue that they are probably unthinking automatons of the capitalist order, hoodwinked by dreams of avarice and enslaved by heteronormative patterns of unachievable romantic fulfilment? Or would we argue that this cine-literate person has quite likely learned some philosophically interesting truths about the world?

If the latter, then who or what is doing the philosophy? The film or the person who watches the film? Let’s take as an example the hokum science fiction of Interstellar. This is a bit of a plot spoiler, but there is a fifth dimension beyond time and it is love. Love allows humans to travel to all places and all times. Is this sci-fi nonsense or a deep understanding of and contribution to the philosophy of love? If the film is offering a philosophy of some sort, is it a bad one? And should we look to the overt narrative to find this philosophy? Does the philosophy exist in the goals and trials of the characters or does it exist in the image and its manipulation,in the composition of shots and the rhythm of editing?  We would also need to talk about the difference between novels, poems, paintings, short films, opera, ballet, conceptual dance, television, music and feature films as well.

In some sense being alive is philosophy but it seems to me that cinema gives us a way in which to consider our lives and our choices in a critically philosophical way. While I may not think that love is the fifth dimension (although the more I think about it, the less sure I am of this), Interstellar is nevertheless part of a philosophical discussion about love that is thousands of years in the making.


In the last few days I have seen three and a half films: Black Venus (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2010), Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993), Possible Worlds (Robert Lepage, 2000) and half of Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014). Of these, the most overtly philosophical – Possible Worlds (in which brains in vats try and communicate with the outside world) – is the least engaging (although Tilda Swinton is, as always, worth watching). Black Venus is politically interesting on slavery, spectacle, racism and prostitution in early 19th century Europe – but, frankly, a bit of a bore. Boyhood seems vacuous… but it is Bad Boy Bubby that allowed me to enter the world of early 1990s Australia and the mind (or experience) of a person brought up in a single room and no contact with the outside world. It is perhaps this affective engagement with a world that is not mine that defines what I mean by film-philosophy.

Dr David Sorfa, Course Organiser of Film Studies the Edinburgh International Film Festival