Wartenberg 2015

Wartenberg, T. 2015. Philosophy of film. In Zalta, E. N. Ed. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/film/.

This piece is an encyclopedia entry that attempts to paint the entire landscape of philosophy of film in broad strokes summarizing (and occasionally critically reflecting on) all aspects of the discipline. It provides a useful entry into the field. Wartenberg interprets philosophy of film broadly: he includes “all those interested in theoretical issues about the cinema,” and not just professional philosophers; and, perhaps controversially, he also includes film theory in his scope. It is this breadth that ultimately makes this piece valuable. Wartenberg begins by distinguishing between cognitive film theorists (such as Carroll and Currie) who are mainly concerned with how viewers consciously process the film experience and others who are more concerned with film as art. The tension between these two positions are supposed to animate philosophy of film and both are given ample space in Wartenberg’s piece.

After these preliminaries, Wartenberg deals with a sequence of topics with no discernible structure to their order. that turns to the question of the nature of film, a question that dominated theorizing about film during the first half of the twentieth century. What needed to be established was that film was an artform (beyond vulgar popular entertainment) and that there was something distinctive about it, for instance, some feature that would distinguish it from theater. Münsterberg, Arnheim, and Bazin, and, closer to our time, Carroll, Currie, and Walton form part of this discussion: whether film explicates a unique type of “realism” remains a matter of heated contention.

A short introduction and critique to the auteur theory follows. So influential has this theory been that those in its thrall seem to forget a most elementary aspect of film-making: as Wartenberg puts it, “it takes a village to make a movie.” In particular, it takes more than the director even in the case of the greatest of them. This discussion is followed by one of how films generate emotional involvement of the viewer; what is not clear is why, or even whether, there is anything special about film here compared to other media that embrace fiction (for instance, theater or literature).

The problem of narration in film then receives attention but, once again, it is left unclear what, if anything, is special about film in this context. (Narrative and its attendant problems are hardly unique to film.) Wartenberg does address this issue to some extent by noting that the role played by the camera in generating the narrative is unique to film. An unsatisfyingly short section of film and society follows. Perhaps that lack of satisfaction should not be directed to Wartenberg personally rather than to the philosophy of film: even though there is widespread recognition of the social role played by film–and, here, film may have been the dominant artform with a social role for the last century–, deep discussions of the social role of film have been rare. Occasionally, individual films such as Griffith’s notorious Birth of a Nation (1922) and Spike Lee’s (1989) Do the Right Thing have provoked such a reaction; but these have been rare. (Perhaps we would even be better with doctrinaire Marxist criticism?)

Wartenberg ends with a discussion of film as philosophy, a line famously and unconvincingly pushed by Cavell. Perhaps the less that is said about this, the better even though it has been the focus of a lot of Wartenberg’s work and that of a hanfull of philosophers including Kupfer and Freeland.

22 January 2020