Danto 1979

Danto, A. C. 1979. Moving pictures. Quarterly Review of Film & Video 4 (1): 1 -21.

Typical of much of Danto’s work on aesthetics, this is a difficult piece, often allusive to the point of being completely opaque, thereby frustrating, and seemingly imbued with name-dropping (plays, movies, books, sometimes obscure). Danto was a professor at Columbia University in the City of New York (and I wrote an undergraduate thesis on Nietzsche under him) and this piece seems to be a parody of itself, New York intellectuals writing only for themselves, referring to plays only staged in New York, and with an occasional gesture to Europe.

Nevertheless, this piece is often anthologized in collections of film and philosophy and film studies. That generates a presumption that it repays study. Does it? Before we judge that it harps on hackneyed themes such as the independence of film as an art-form or the tortured relationship between film and theater on the one hand and film and photography on the other, we should keep in mind that it was written in 1979, the same year that Cavell published The World Viewed. Thus, within Anglophone philosophy, at least analytic philosophy, Danto’s is one of the earlier works in philosophy of film. We can view this piece as thus representing the period when analytic philosophy of film came of age. We should also keep in mind that Danto was one of the most important aestheticians of his generation and one of very few philosophers who routinely crossed the analytic-continental divide.

What, then, is Danto’s project? At the beginning of Section II he explains: “I am not engaged in botanizing, in seeking for a new classification of the arts. Rather, I am seeking for what maybe philosophically relevant in film as an art. And one method for isolating philosophical relevance is to look for principles which must be invoked if we are to distinguish between things which are otherwise exactly alike” (p. 6). In the case of film there are two “otherwise exactly alike” things: theater and photography. Making the relevant distinction between film on one hand and theater or photography occupies most of Danto’s dense text which is otherwise filled with incidental remarks that are sometimes interesting but occasionally distracting.

That film should be carefully distinguished from theater is a project that goes back decades in writing about film, most famously to Panofsky since the 1930s. Life Panofsky, Danto emphasizes the dynamization of space (though he does not use Panofsky’s term–in general, there is little engagement with past work in Danto’s piece). The question is whether Danto has new arguments to offer. He does to the extent that he develops two relatively novel related philosophical themes. The first is to “differentiate between a film of a play and what we might speak of as a screenplay proper, where the play, so to speak, is in the film, but there is in reality no play which is actually photographed” (p. 11). The former is about the play; the latter is about what the (screen)play is about. This is plausible enough: a film of a play is a good film if it represents the play well irrespective of whether the play is good.

Danto’s second such theme is that: “A film of the play is about actors, whereas a screenplay is not about actors . . . but about the persons whose roles they play” (p. 12). Danto’s claim here is not entirely convincing and he notes himself that it seems to fail when we confront the phenomenon of star actors (his examples are Gable, Garbo, Olivier, and Elizabeth Taylor; we could add others from Keaton to Kirk Douglas to Jackie Chan). In movies with stars, the movie is typically as much if not more about the star rather than the character played. Indeed, we often forget the name of the character while the star remains deeply embedded in our memory. In Gone With the Wind (1939) we remember Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, not Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Danto finds such actors “opaque” but has no good solution for the problem they pose.

Danto’s attempt to distinguish film from photography is more novel and interesting though it relies on a questionable assumption of a straightforward correspondence between image and reality. (The camera is compared to the eye; Danto ignores the fact that our vision is binocular.) A movie is not a moving photograph: “Moving pictures are just that: pictures which move, not just (or necessarily at all) pictures of moving things” (p. 15). They have a different ontology and semantics. A photograph of a (film) scene being enacted is just that, not a representation of (part of) what the film is about. Indeed, according to Danto: “What a nondocumentary film is about cannot be photographed” (p. 14). Photographs cannot be fictional; nonducumentary film is fiction. This move has nontrivial philosophical consequences. If the veridicality of photographs give them a certain kind of transparency, that is, an entry into the world as it is (however that is interpreted), films do not inherit that transparency. Films thus seem to have (though Danto does not put it this way) something more in common with artforms that embrace fiction, for instance, novels.

At the end of the day the most lasting contribution of Danto’s piece may well have to do with how he distinguishes film and photography. Other than that we pay attention to this piece only because of Danto’s status in the discipline. Were it not for that, I am skeptical whether we would pay this piece much attention.

06 February 2019