19 Oct 2013

(Popular) Films as Philosophy: A ‘Wittgensteinian’ View(er)

By Rupert Read.

There has been a great deal of interest in recent years in the question of whether films can function as philosophical works, in other words, can films ‘do’ philosophy? This interest, however, seems to sooner or later inevitably founder on the following dilemma: Either the philosophical work done by films is paraphrasable, in which case ultimately the films in question are merely pretty or striking vehicles for philosophising which precedes them; or the philosophical work done by films is not paraphrasable, in which case it seems mysterious/dubious/systemically-obscure.

However, this dilemma, while in its own terms quite correct, rests, I submit, on an unjustified presumption. The presumption is that philosophical ‘work’ has to be understood (if it is to be worthwhile) as issuing in theses/theories/opinions. But there is another possibility, a possibility explored at greatest length in Wittgenstein’s philosophy: that philosophical work at its best is ‘therapeutic’, in very roughly the psychological sense of that word. Namely: that philosophy need not – and in fact should not – issue in any controversial theses or opinions, any theories, at all. Rather, it should work with a person's own presumptions, exposing them to awareness, and thus empowering them to autonomously acknowledge, justify, overcome, or transform them. It is this possibility, that the members of the thinkingfilm collective aim to explore together over the coming months and years.

My own co-edited collection Film as Philosophy: Essays on Cinema after Wittgenstein and Cavell (Palgrave, 2005, with Jerry Goodenough), and especially Phil Hutchinson’s and my essay in that collection, endeavoured in a preliminary way to develop the idea sketched above. In the present piece, I want to enter a little further into it, and into the following associated question: Is there a way to understand how some of the greatest popular films work in ways that transcend any heresies of paraphrase, transcend film theories that would subject films to their diktat, and empower the viewer to understand how the films in question can enact 'therapeutic' work upon and with the viewer? A difficulty facing the efforts to understand films as philosophical works has been their (in most cases) consistently ‘dialogical’ nature, the way that they offer different voices, and not just (as most philosophical prose works do) one voice: but this is a strength of these film-as-philosophy works - once they are understood as 'therapeutic' works.

Take films such as Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Children of Men, Ingma Bergman's Persona, or Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and The New World. Are these films simply disguised pieces of didacticism? Do they have a simple ‘message’, which they wrap in an emotive, elaborate, striking and pretty coating, to sugar the pill? (How could a film be a major philosophical/ethical/political work, unless it basically did this? But/or equally: how could a film be such a work if it did basically only this?)

I say not. I say that there are not only these alternatives: Instead, you (and I am speaking here primarily of film-makers; though also of film-critics) can offer up your thinking on film as an exploratory intervention designed to facilitate a 'therapeutic' process of thinking and feeling on the part of the viewer. The work - the philosophical work - is work that viewers have to do for themselves. Whatever the viewer can do for themselves, one should leave them to do for themselves…

And I submit, as the reader will have noted, that what I am suggesting is true of some of the most popular films of our time. These, and the reader's resistance to the outline case I wish to make for them here, will be my primary focus, in the present piece.

So: The Lord of the Rings film trilogy can if you wish (see below) be said to make a new philosophical ‘argument’, cutting across and beyond Descartes. But it doesn’t make this ‘argument’ in the abstract. It encourages you to experience it. In general terms: the film challenges you; you go into ‘dialogue’ with it. You go into therapy with it, much as this is the process of reading the Tractatus or the Philosophical Investigations with understanding.

Let me illustrate this point by setting out briefly how I ‘read’ the Lord of the Rings film trilogy:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy dir. Peter Jackson (2001-2003)

In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, we see on the screen – we experience viscerally the point-of-view manifest in a pathological search for safety, for surety (most notably, we see this vividly in scenes in which one reaches for the Ring, for invisibility, for escape to a private realm that is one’s own, a realm where one can be lord and master). This desperate search for safety – for something that one can hold onto confidently – of Frodo et al results in one being ‘overpowered’ by an overwhelming dread at an ‘overwhelming’ watching, judging, heartless and destructive external agency. The search for safety results in one seemingly being confronted by absolute nemesis, with no expectation of being saved by a benevolent force – there is none as strong, or none that is willing, one is quickly convinced. That ‘God’ is onto me, and that ‘God’ is a malevolent demon; just that super-Cartesian possibility is, I am urging, lived out at the deep, dark heart of Lord of the Rings.

In fact, building on suggestions in my and Goodenough’s Film as Philosophy, and in my essay on The Lord of the Rings in my book Philosophy for Life (Contimuum, 2007), I would argue that Jackson’s analysis, building on and going beyond Tolkien’s, is far subtler and more psychologically-real than Descartes’s emotionless academic rendition of the mind ‘meditating’ upon the terrors of possible cosmic aloneness and the company one might surprisingly and regrettably find oneself keeping in that aloneness.

For Jackson, the God-awful malign demon is not a self-standing ontic thing. Rather, to be God-powerful, it needs something to complete it. It needs you, or more specifically, your fear and addictive desire and weakness. It needs your desire for power, that corrupts, that takes you from others; it needs your self-fulfilling fear of ‘it’; it needs your weakness, that would hand the power over to ‘it’ in a doomed bid to lessen the grip upon you of dread. The malicious demon (in Jackson/Tolkien) depends on you. He is not all-powerful, without the One Ring that is in your power. You are not nothing beside Him; you are just pitifully small and vulnerable in comparison, as you toss on the sea of fate. He will only become all-powerful if you try to become him, or alternatively simply give him the power he seeks.

Sauron and The Ring,  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson (2001-2003)

The rationale here, and it is a profound one, is this: If God/Satan/Sauron quite simply is all-powerful, then – paradoxically – your worries are significantly tempered. For there is then no quest, no chance of escape, nowhere to hide. One can give up worrying. The mind in search of absolute safety-certainty, the mind unused to not-worrying and unwilling to risk such a state, must then restlessly pass on from the assumption of one’s absolute abjection before God. If one is infinitely less than God, then one is to some extent relieved, even if God is malign: because at least there is then nothing more one can do. One can simply sit back, and wait to be annihilated or tortured etc., safe in the knowledge that there is no way out. Belief in an omnipotent God, even if the God has an Old Testament temper or much worse, is a means to the psychological security of not actually having to go on actively worrying and acting. The mind in search of absolute safety, the mind in search of any possible threats to it will quickly, restlessly, move on: the more worrying thought that comes to one next (a thought that is common in schizophreniform mental ‘disorder’, but that is never arrived at in Decartes’s meditations) is that perhaps one does still have a part to play, that one’s actions will be consequential, that what one does or thinks next could make things even worse. 

Paradoxically, there is something even worse than abjection before an all-powerful malevolent demon: namely, the threat of a less than all-powerful malevolent demon whose power and action depends on you, on what you do and think. The ceaseless, hungry, terrified motion of schizoid thought is right here: Jackson correctly identifies and powerfully depicts a potentially-self-fulfilling threat to thought and to one’s very sense of identity more profound than – and a logical extension of – that which Descartes set out for us. This then is literature/film as philosophy, with a vengeance: Jackson’s Tolkien has taken us somewhere philosophically new, somewhere undreamt of in Cartesian philosophy.

This then is the case for seeing The Lord of the Rings as a subtler and nastier moral threat than Descartes’s demon, and thus for seeing Jackson/Tolkien as offering a philosophical corrective to Descartes, filling in the gaps in his presentation of what it would actually mean to imagine a malign demon of infinite or (better) of great power. The really disturbing, the more deeply psychologically-challenging notion, the clear and distinct idea that can unworld one, is that ‘malignity’ is quite incomplete without us, without our existentially ongoing participation. The desire for the Ring is the desire to be the Lord of the Rings (and this explains the otherwise inexplicable title of the work: because Sauron is not even a real character in the story), to become invulnerable through being all-powerful; the desire to be shot of the Ring is the desire to already be abject before such an all-powerful Lord of the Rings; both are (pathological) efforts to escape from the ordinary lived human condition of ‘limited’ always-already-embodied existence, the worst fear of which is being confronted, not with a malign omnipotent demon, but with a malign demon who can only be completed by you.

And all this, I am saying, has to be experienced to be believed. These are the kinds of thoughts that go on, even if through a glass darkly, in the intelligent viewer of these films. Only some account like this can, after all, explain their great success: because, in plot terms, The Lord of the Rings is of course a pitiful failure. See, for example this excellent Volksvagen advert’s take on the trilogy, and this offering from howitshouldhaveended.com , which makes the point just as well. It only makes sense as an essentially psychical quest. One that the viewer must engage in, for themselves…

And this, in essence, is how I would respond to a reader who said: “Haven’t you refuted yourself? How can you give ‘readings’ at all, and expect us to hear them as anything other than didactic dogmatism, if film-as-philosophy, after Wittgenstein, is essentially a matter of personal experience of the viewer?” My readings are invitations to a viewer to see the film in the kind of way I am laying out, or indeed to consider their having already seen it in such a way: i.e., in the latter case, suggestions as to why the film in question has the power that it has, if one has allowed it to have power (and has not resisted it, as people often resist popular films in particular, on prejudiced, weak grounds such as, ‘But this is mere entertainment, it can have no serious content’). The real work of the film is done on the viewer at the time, and afterward, and in successive viewings, and it is done dialectically and dialogically: the viewer is necessarily actively involved in the process and not merely lectured at (by me or by the director).

Thinking through matters such as this has been the goal of my work in film as philosophy since 2005, when my co-edited book of that name first appeared. The most notable development during that time in my own work, has been a greater effort, already somewhat-signposted in my Introduction to the book, but now somewhat delivered on, to include a treatment as philosophy of some of the most popular films in cinematic history. I am referring to films such as 2001: a Space OdysseyApocalypto, the Lord of the Rings trilogy of course (see above), and (most recently) Avatar. If it can be shown that even movies such as these function as philosophy, then the strength and importance of the ‘film as philosophy’ idea that my co-edited collection crystallised for the first time is/will be redoubled.

(The reader will have already noticed that I combine thinking about such huge blockbusters as these willy-nilly with ‘art-house’ classics. This I regard as a central finding of looking at films as philosophy: that the films which can be thus viewed successfully are diverse, and undercut the ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ culture divide. I will return to this point.)

Let me now then venture this: When one really understands films such as The Lord of the Rings (see the relevant chapter of my Philosophy for Life and my paper on Avatar in Radical Anthropology ), they don’t have generalised messages as such.

Take Avatar, as examined in my recent ThinkingFilm feature post, here. Its metaphors, I suggested there, are rich and open. They are not closed and simple. They involve the viewer in their development.

Avatar is a call to us all to re-enchant and to replenish and to restore the ecosystems of our fragile world. In this way, it is a quintessentially philosophical film: for it aims to cultivate in us the love of true wisdom.

Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)

So: these films that I am discussing are not mere disguised bits of propaganda. They essentially involve the viewer. They guide the viewer on a proposed ‘journey’ (a journey ‘mirroring’ the ‘hero’s journey’ of the protagonist(s)) – the journey is psychically individual, as well as partly collective. The specificities of each person’s journey will be different; and indeed, one may refuse altogether to take the journey (as many critics have done). Part of the way that I/we account for / give accounts of these films is inevitably autobiographical. I am allegorising my reading/viewing of these films. The ‘message’ that I speak of is thus the message for me; and everyone, each person, must in this way speak for themselves. This is not relativism; it is simply reality.

These films do not then make arguments in the ordinary philosophical sense of that word: they don’t yield premises and conclusions, etc.. As I’ve said, they rather offer (what Wittgenstein sometimes calls) therapy. This is philosophy not as theory nor as quasi-factive impersonal claim, but as a process that one must work through for oneself. It is different from the idea of philosophy to which we are accustomed; it sits ill with the idolatry of science which lies at the heart of our civilisation. So much the worse for that idolatry. It is idolatry of science and the taking of technology as a ‘neutral’ tool that has got us as a civilisation and as a species into the mess we are in. Avatar (and The Lord of the Rings, and Apocalypto) dramatises and extends the logic of this. Thus we should expect that a non-scientistic vein of philosophy, such as Wittgenstein offers, is what is appropriate to help us understand how to extricate ourselves from that mess.

Our expectation is not disappointed. These films are works, like Wittgenstein’s writing, designed to heal. But: healing, healing of one’s mind, one’s body-self, and of one’s world, is an art, not a science, and is through and through processual.

Take Children of Men: A new-born child presses a claim for care upon anyone and everyone, no matter what their filial relation or otherwise to it might be. This is the point made by this powerful film, about a dystopian future in which there are no children being born: the meaning of the film’s superficially odd title (based by the way on a line in the bible) is that any children born are children of all of us, of men as well as women.

The Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

The film charts the journey of its central protagonist from a situation of cynicism to a situation of total care for a new-born child that is ‘not his’. The film is thus a vivid and rich metaphor for the care we all must have for the future of humankind. The newborn baby in the film directly symbolises of course the whole of future humankind, the human adventure, the human project. All who come after us are the children of all women, and all men. That is what I think the title really means...

Thus: these films are not (unlike, say, video-games) escapist. They provide an illusion of escape. Actually, they return one: to oneself and to the world, to in fact our world-in-peril. Ready to know it (as if) for the first time…

The Children of Men, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

This is what I see in these films. But again, I believe it is to a greater or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, what many millions of others see too. I believe that I am tapping here into the reason for the vast popular success of (most of) these films. For that success can otherwise be somewhat hard to understand: As already noted, Lord of the Rings has multiple fairly obvious flaws, including a quite basic and fundamental plot flaw; Avatar can easily be seen as a predictable and just very shiny exercise in cheese, or as a predictable ‘anti-American’ rant. Many critics have responded to Avatar either from ‘the Left’ (with cynicism and a knowing superiority to such alleged sentimentalism, romanticism and superficiality, or even with silly allegations that the film is itself tacitly racist against indigenous peoples, against the disabled, etc.) or from ‘the Right’ (with anger against the attack within the film on cultural norms, on (American) militarism, etc.). It is the critics from ‘the Right’, who are if anything slightly closer to the truth, I think, despite themselves. Avatar is shocking, in the extent to which, when one experiences it closely, (when one experiences for instance that arrow transfixing and killing one’s American/military/racist/speciesist self (Col. Quaritch), so that the world can be saved, and so that in due course Jake can be fully reborn as a Na’vi) the journey it proposes and offers takes one far indeed from one’s comfort-zone. I think that the reason why the film has been found by so many millions to be emotionally compelling – as emotionally compelling as the Na’vi themselves are, in their general emotional healthiness and expressiveness – is the kind of line of understanding of the film that I am alluding to here. People find it compelling, because of the ‘journey’ it takes them on, because of the assumptions it puts into question, because of the way that it speaks to our condition as alienated from our planetary home and from each other. And this is why Avatar was banned in China; this is why it has inspired colourful protests against the apartheid wall in Palestine; why it is inspiring the activist work of the Radical Anthropology Group and so on.

The exact same is true of Lord of the Rings; the drastic plot-flaws and unbelievable nature of the narrative end up being pluses, not minuses. They are gentle tacit ‘alienation effects’ in roughly Brecht’s sense of that word. They enhance the experience of questing that the viewer vicariously has; the psychological journey that one is taken on, into oneself, into one’s courage and resources and faith in oneself, in others and in what Aragorn calls “this good Earth.”

Evaluating for character-development, plausibility, etc. in movies such as Apocalypto, Lord of the Rings and Avatar is a complete mistake. That is not the kinds of films they are. They don’t really have characters (in the sense that a classic novel does) at all. They are myths. They have heroes' journeys, etc., and, relatedly, they have transformative effects. They are revelatory, 'therapeutic' works. That is why I think them philosophical, in spite of their appearance. Or rather: Their appearance of being non-philosophical is the very thing that enables them to be truly philosophical...

True, some of the narrative-pleasure of Lord of the Rings and (especially) Avatar comes from following what can reasonably be described as character-development in complex plot-settings. In fact, utterly crucial to these films is the audience taking a vicarious transformational journey with the heroes: Jake’s persona by the end of the film is profoundly different from what it was at the start. I am not of course denying any of this; I am suggesting that this ‘character-development’ is not the kind of thing one finds in the world of the classic novel: it is not defined by its quiddities and specificities. On the contrary: It is defined by its universal resonance. What are developed are not so much characters as great mythic ciphers – ciphers, ultimately, for the persona of the viewer themselves.

Some films then precisely don’t have 'characters', and are all the stronger for that. For instance, in Lord of the Rings, it is crucial to realise that Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf are all essentially the same 'character'. They are 3 versions of the same arc. That's not a criticism, it is an understanding.

Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalf: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson (2001-2003)

These films’ appearance fools one into thinking that they cannot be deep. And so they creep up on you, with an ecological depth and a cultural critique that literally astonishes. I am referring for instance to the way in which Apocalypto shocks one to the core at the end: one suddenly realises that the film is not about a bunch of human-sacrificing savages running a barbarian empire: it is about us. We have been watching a culture that we looked down upon as oppressive imperial eco-destructors: only to find with a shock of recognition that Barbarians are us. A complete process of rethinking is then necessarily undergone, and the film watched the second time around is completely different from the fast time.

Consider in this connection the following remark from John Gray’s perceptive new book, The Silence of Animals (Penguin 2013, p.9): “[B]arbarism is not a primitive form of life, Conrad is intimating [in Heart of Darkness; the point is famously riffed on by Apocalypse Now, whose title, I suggest, points forward to that of Mel Gibson’s movie], but a pathological development of civilisation.” Barbarism is not what precedes civilisation: it is what happens as a civilisation becomes decadent, and/or after it collapses. The point is also explored in Michel Henri’s book, Barbarism, and in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (on which, if interested, see my 2011 review of Mulhall’s book on Coetzee, in MIND). But isn’t it wonderful to see it sprung on us in a novel and shocking way in a popular film?

Notice by the way the clear resemblance between these Mayan temples in Apocalypto and the border-wall (keeping out the ‘barbarian, monstrous’ south from the ‘home of the brave’) in the film Monsters - a wall that the protagonists see while standing amidst the overgrown ruins of an ancient Mayan temple. It’s not a coincidental one, in my view. Who are the monsters, who are the barbarians? This is the uncomfortable question thrust upon them by these films.

Apocalypto, dir. Mel Gibson (2006)

Some would nevertheless argue that popular Hollywood films with their action-sequences and loud soundtracks cannot be anything other than simplistic propagandistic ‘message’ films. I don't agree that an apparently-bombastic soundtrack is a sign of a film being a propagandistic film. I think those who say so have missed one of my central points about Lord of the Rings and Apocalypto (and Avatar): I think that these films work by pursuing what Cora Diamond (in relation to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) calls 'an indirect method'. They precisely to appear to be crude, by virtue of having bombastic soundtracks etc. . That is how they then secretly work their magic. Their surface crudity is the vehicle for them to be able to do something deeper. Precisely in encouraging one to think that they aren't deep, they carve out a space for depth. In the case of Lord of the Rings: a film about psychotic madness etc. precisely needs to appear to be a film that is about a real-life epic struggle. (See my piece on the film here for more on this point). In the case of Apocalypto: the ride of the long chase in the latter half of the film slows down the process in one of realising that the film is actually not about a high speed chase in the Amazon - it is about you (us), about our culture. We should note furthermore that Avatar was successful, whereas other 3-D films with more dramatic and 'bombastic' effects have failed. I am offering a reason(s) why.

In this article I have invoked broadly-Wittgensteinian themes to defend some major popular films against the criticisms usually crudely levelled at them. However, I hope that you the reader don't get from this the wrong impression: I am by no means arguing that only these films are any good! Nothing of the sort! I am a big fan for instance of Eisenstein. I think that Herzog's Grizzly Man is a deep ecologically-interested work; I am a huge fan of Herzog. I teach on these people, and on Bergman, Resnais, Von Trier, and Malick, etc.. I accept that often it is more obvious that what I am saying in this article is true of those film-makers than it is of Gibson, Jackson, Cameron, etc. . ‘Art-films’ often/generally are more essentially open to ‘interpretation’, demanding of ‘reading’ (Though the scare-quotes are advised: the terrible danger of such words is that it can once again sucker us into the heresy of paraphrase.)

What I dispute is only the crude 'high' vs. 'low' culture dichotomy and the concomitant very silly reductivist 'logic of commerce' point ('If it makes big money then it can't be any good!') that I believe sadly makes it impossible for many students/people from being able to say "I see you" to Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, Apocalypto. These films too, I am suggesting, necessarily involve the viewer, are not merely ‘morals’ wrapped in a shiny package. They too co-perform something; they too philosophise… The difference between them and the ‘art-films’ one is encouraged to look down one’s nose from is only one of degree, not of kind, I am saying.

A final substantive point: Avatar, like a number of other major philosophical films, places centrally in itself the metaphor of awakening from sleep, from dream. Now: Neither in a dream (unless it be a shared dream - think Inception!) nor in spectatorship (which has been the traditional model of philosophy (See for instance John Dewey's critique of this in The Quest for Certainty, Minton Balch and Company, 1929) - and of film-viewing (is this partly why philosophy and film have been so well-suited to each other? That both have usually been thought of as an essentially armchair activities? If so, this I think reflects badly on both)) does one encounter real others. One doesn't encounter anything more than the kind of thing that the killer Dollarhyde dreams of, in Michael Mann’s superb 1986 movie Manhunter: oneself, glorious, reflected back at one, instead of the eyes of another. This postulation of the other only as a device to mirror the alleged glory of the self is a nightmare of egoism/solipsism:

Manhunter, dir. Michael Mann (1986)

How can it be avoided? Simple: by taking the risk, the leap of faith, necessary in actually encountering others. In meeting real, other people. This is how film can be therapeutic/transformative: by engaging one in a personal encounter which is also a shared encounter (This is one reason why, once more, it is important that we still generally see films in cinemas); by vicariously and then really throwing one into the world. This is the 'point'/task, I claim, of many of the films that I have here praised. And we can see it clearly also in Blade Runner and Inception (and Wings of Desire) and more through a glass darkly in Memento (and Manhunter). Look for it clearly (though not without great difficulty) also in Hiroshima Mon Amour, and even in Last Year at Marienbad. Other films, besides those mentioned above, which in my view clearly have this engaging therapeutic intent include Monsters (on which see Phil Hutchinson’s masterful thinkingfilm piece), District 9, Never Let Me Go, Melancholia, Collateral, 2001, and the films of Terrence Malick. Films of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture both.

These films that I have mentioned here in this piece, indiscriminately popular and ‘art house’ works, are those that I think offer the best opportunity for broadly Wittgensteinian thinking on film. Some of them, I (along with thinkingfilmcollective colleagues) will be writing on more in the next few years. These are exciting times, for thinking film as philosophy…


[N.B. A longer version of this article will be appearing in a special issue of the Al-Mukhatabat philosophy journal. So comments to help improve it are especially welcome! Thanks to various colleagues for comments already, including especially Peter Kramer and Vincent Gaine, and to Ruth Makoff for editorial assistance.]

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