… [Mark Rowlands'] interest in science fiction, literary and cinematic, stems from its engagement with abstract ideas rather than any attraction to its artistic merits or demerits: science fiction simply provides ‘a vast store of information relevant to the study of philosophy.’
… The question of whether or not there might be better or worse visualizations is not broached [in his book, The Philosopher at the End of the Universe], for Rowlands is only interested in extracting the problem or argument from each film. And here is where the tension lies in his approach. Given that he spends little to no time on the cinematic qualities of the films under discussion, nor much time on their plots even when reduced to text, it is obvious that each movie acts as a pretext for a philosophical analysis in abstraction from its filmic ‘embodiment.’ Hence, the point of that embodiment is soon lost since the content of each film is, to all intents and purposes, reduced to a chapter heading. The films selected generally act as a structuring influence for discussions that could have taken place just as well in a non-cinematic context.
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… As Litch [in her book, Philosophy through Film] turns to the film [Hilary and Jackie] when introducing arguments for ‘cognitive relativism,’ she sets out what is unusual about it:
Hilary and Jackie differs from most of the other films presented in this book, in that its philosophical import is not to be found in its story or in bits of dialogue, but in the structure of the film. In the film’s various retellings the viewer is made aware of the markedly different interpretations each of the characters puts on the ‘same’ set of events.
The film’s structure enacts, rather than relates, the philosophical point. In fact, Litch admits that philosophical arguments often treat relativism too abstractly, whereas film makes concrete and comprehensible what a ‘different perspective’ might actually mean. This concession to the power of film form, however, only highlights Litch’s avoidance of aesthetics in every other film she tackles. That she does find philosophical content in their stories and ‘bits of dialogue’ does not obviate the fact that their structure, or cinematography, or mise-en-scène, or acting performances, may have contained more than was apparent at first glance. They too may have been philosophical.
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… So, what can they do? To be specific, what more would the proper incorporation of film aesthetics bring to these studies? In fact, we’ve already encountered some possibilities. For instance, some engagement with character identification, which we saw lacking in Rowland’s treatment of The Sixth Day, would be one area where a broader knowledge of the filmic would serve philosophical ends. In particular, the difference between optical ‘alignment’ and affective ‘allegiance’ would be of great use, given that we are not necessarily allied with the characters that we are aligned with optically. When Mary Litch analyses Total Recall, for example, she simply takes it for granted that ‘the viewer is in exactly the same position as the character.’ Though the film uses ‘restricted narrative’ — putting us in a similar (though not identical) epistemic position as the hero of the film, Doug Quaid — this is not the same as being in the same affective situation as him, for our attitude as viewer is a product of numerous forces other than just knowledge. Yet, it is the affects produced in the audience that give films their ‘force,’ according to Litch, so surely some more reflection is warranted on how they are produced aesthetically.
… To get us started, therefore, here is a short list of some of the aesthetical properties that give film its full force: the elements of mise-en-scène (setting, lighting, costume and make-up, figure and camera movement, acting performance, props, and color, as well as the broader elements of camera framing and composition, angle, distance, and focus); editing (cuts, dissolves and fades, establishing shots and close-up shots, ‘continuity’ versus ‘dynamic’ editing, ‘montage sequences,’ elliptical editing, and expanded editing); and narrative (narration versus narrative, restricted and unrestricted narration, cause and effect plotting, linear and non-linear chronology, reflexivity, multiple narratives, and unreliable narration). And this is still not to mention the importance of sound, music, acting or the difference between realist and anti-realist film aesthetics in general. Beyond aesthetics simpliciter, there are many other non-textual issues in film apt for philosophical reflection, including whether the psychological experience of seeing a film can be restricted to the film object at all, for example; or whether the means of distribution and consumption (that is, exhibition and viewing) are not also implicated in the ‘meaning’ of any film.