Kupfer 1999

Kupfer, J. H. 1999. Film Criticism and Virtue Theory. In Kupfer, J. H. Visions of Virtue in Popular Film. Bolder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 13 -33.

This piece is the theoretical chapter from Kupfer’s book in which it is followed by his readings of Groundhog Day (1993), The African Queen (1951), Parenthood (1989), Rob Roy (1995), Fresh (1994), Jaws (1975), and Aliens (1986). It is a professional philosopher’s work. Kupfer has little concern with film theory or film studies and, in particular, is quick to reject what he calls the semiological-Marxist-pyschological theories of film. (He doesn’t seem to realize how contentious the juxtaposition of these three descriptors is.) Instead he offers a methodology solidly rooted in Anglo-American philosophy. His project is to articulate the morals, the virtues to be promoted, from the stories told by films. (This is thus a virtue ethics perspective on film.) Claiming to follow Cavell, Kupfer notes: “I have written a book that explores philosophy in film than one that offers a philosophy of film.” (But it is hard to discern Cavell’s influence anywhere else).

For didactic purposes the book–and this individual chapter, which has on occasion been anthologized for this purpose–is quite useful. Beyond that, how much it contributes to a philosophical understanding of film remains questionable.

To motivate moral interpretations of films, Kupfer (following MacIntyre 1981) begins with the claim that films must embody narratives to achieve coherence. Moreover, according to him, to make sense, these narratives or stories “have a purpose or point” (p. 21) though this purpose or point need not be that of the filmmaker’s. Explicating this point is the purpose of film interpretation and: “As with all art, once a film is made, it is a public object open to interpretation according to conventions of intelligibility and the interpreter’s creative response” (p. 21). For any film, more than one cogent interpretation may be possible, and each of them depends in part on what the interpreter brings to the film. But not all interpretations are equally valuable: “Interpretations are vindicated when they help viewers see more in the film–more details, more significance in those details for the overall work, more connections among the parts and aspects of the film, more meaning altogether in the story” (p. 22). So far, so good.

But, at this point the argument becomes sketchy. Even if we concede that films must be stories, and that these stories have points, what guarantees that this point is moral? Must all films be parables? As far as I can see, Kupfer does not address this point explicitly. (He does address a related objection, that finding the point of the story as a moral story may not be the best way to understand all films. He concedes this point and restricts his analysis to those films that are best understood in his preferred mode.)

Nevertheless, there is a way to make some sense of Kupfer’s project. The narratives that films consist of (or at least those films that fall under his purview) are narratives about human actors, how they respond to event, that is, what features of character they display and, over time, how these features develop (or get stunted). If the narrative shows the enhancement of moral virtues (and Kupfer, harking back to Aristotle’s project, endorses a wide spectrum of such virtues), then a film succeeds and it is to be commended. Otherwise, presumably, not.

At the end of the day, the question that remains is whether Kupfer’s strategy can successfully capture more than a handful of films. How does one deal with Citizen Kane? There’s a narrative there, for sure, but is there any uplift of virtue? Bicycle Thieves? We may be heartbroken by a moral failure or by how poverty leads to moral degeneration–and that may be the most salient moral point of the movie. But is there any virtue that is being promoted? Turning to comedy, the apparent nobility of Keaton’s stoneface may inspire us. But how do we make sense of the charming little lies and thefts of Chaplin’s tramp? How about films that  trade on moral ambiguity rather than the development of virtues? Isn’t that a better reading of Bicycle Thieves? Or Citizen Kane?

Of course, as mentioned earlier, Kupfer explicitly notes that his approach is not supposed to capture all films. The trouble is that it may not capture almost any of the films that we are likely to enshrine in the canon.


MacIntyre, A. 1981. After Virtue. Notre-Dame, University of Notre-Dame Press.

4 April 2019