In terms of theoretical scope, the book I currently hold in my hands could hardly be more comprehensive; in terms of ambition, it could hardly be more colossal. With Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers, editor Felicity Colman has mustered a clutch of figures from the academy to gloss the contributions of 32 of the most important thinkers to have combined, in various ways, philosophical practice and an engagement with the cinema.
To do so in the space of 400 pages is an impressive feat, and Colman has ably managed to strike a balance between concision and rigour. For the most part, the contributions come across as taut and easily digestible, and function as all good introductions to theoretical figures should: giving the reader a broad sense of the thinker’s context and their contribution to the field, and encouraging us to delve more deeply into the original writings themselves.
As such, I can easily picture this book becoming a staple presence on the bookshelves of undergraduate Film Studies students – few will probably read it cover to cover, but it can function well as a durable resource, a handy primer for those feeling the need to bring themselves up to speed with theorists they will invariably encounter in the course of their degree. The more polemical contributions, and those on more obscure figures, meanwhile, can still engage the more advanced reader.
This said, the manner in which I consumed the volume was of an entirely different nature: instead of randomly dipping into it every so often when the need arose, I did read it cover to cover, in a couple of sittings over the space of a few days, while in a sybaritic post-thesis submission state – reading this book in a cold Melbourne flat being my version of taking off to Bali for a week.
And so this manner of reading, combined with the brevity of the contributions, inevitably informed my impression of Colman’s anthology, as it took on the form of an intellectual whirlwind tour. Some of the transitions between thinkers were comparatively smooth – from Jacques Derrida to Gilles Deleuze, Paul Virilio to Jean Baudrillard, or Alain Badiou to Jacques Rancière; others, meanwhile, constituted jarring switches in contexts or theoretical approaches – I would be instantaneously transported from Vilém Flusser to Siegfried Kracauer, from Jean-Luc Godard to Stanley Cavell, from Laura Mulvey to Homi Bhabha. The result of this was, as you may have divined, that reading the book produces a highly cinematic effect as, in the best tradition of Dziga Vertov or Artavazd Pelechian, it morphs into a frenetic montage bringing together disparate historical epochs, geographical environments and philosophical traditions.
Furthermore, my approach to the book not only allowed me to discern a distinct, if subterranean, narrative arc to the arrangement of the texts, but also to appreciate the almost Dantesque symmetry and order of the collection. Collated into three sections, which themselves each contain roughly ten chapters, and preceded by an introductory canto, each contribution reaches almost exactly the same wordcount (4500-5000 words).
If anything, the structure of Film, Theory and Philosophy is too harmonious, and this is probably its most central flaw: the uniformity in the length of the entries jars against a distinct lack of uniformity in the importance of the subjects to the field. With some contributions – those on André Bazin, Deleuze or Christian Metz, for example – the marvel is in the fact that the writer managed to adequately cover such vast and fundamental interventions into film theory in the space given. Others have the opposite problem, as a number of the texts concern themselves with thinkers who, while undeniably important to the development of philosophy in the 20th century, often lacked an emphasis on an engagement with the cinema in their work. This reaches an extreme with Louise Burchill’s entry on Derrida, which centres not on what Derrida actually wrote with regards to film (very little, it turns out), but rather on an interview given to Cahiers du cinéma in 2001 in which he lamented not having sufficiently written on the cinema.
The quality of the entries is nonetheless of a consistently high level, and none can really be singled out for overarching criticism. Where I feel the need to polemicise, however, is with Colman’s introduction. Entitled “What is Film-Philosophy?”, Colman’s piece is clearly heavily influenced by the eponymous UK-based journal, set up by Daniel Frampton in the mid-’90s, and which is now one of the most theoretically vibrant film journals in the English-speaking world. Certainly, my experience of attending Film-Philosophy’s conference in Dundee last year – where Colman gave a presentation with much the same content as her introduction here – was that the journal has become a natural point of gravitation for a number of exciting contemporary figures thinking through the various ways in which film and philosophy intersect. Indeed, the journal – members of whose editorial board furnish a number of the entries in this book – explicitly seeks an “active engagement” between both fields, in order to sustain “a thoughtful reevaluation of key aspects of each discipline” (1). Similarly, Colman asserts the importance of the hyphen in the term film-philosophy. As the “conjoining ‘and’ of film and philosophy”, the hyphen “represents different meanings in different applications: it can be a proposition or a conjunction; it might argue for multiplicity or for singularity; or it might be posed as a presumption for or argument against various aspects of the two disciplines” (p. 3). For Colman, then, “How that conjunctive hyphen is practised becomes indicative of a particular aesthetic and politic of film-philosophy” (p. 3).
In exploring the convergence between film and philosophy, Colman treats film-philosophy as an independent discipline, distinct from film theory. While film theorists, in Colman’s view, “engage in formal issues such as the modes of ‘realism in the diegesis’ or explore sociological and psychological concepts in screen forms”, film-philosophers, on the other hand, “talk up the film-mind analogy, the question of rhetoric and the values inherent in scientific knowledge” (p. 4). Claiming film-philosophy to be a separate discipline is a hubristic stance, to say the least, and creates an unwarranted divorce with film theory, which, as Colman per force recognises, has always been decisively, albeit multifariously, informed by philosophical thought.
Even more troubling, for me, was Colman’s subsumption of film as an artform into the catch-all expression “screen forms”, which, as an “everyday medium for information retrieval, communication, distraction and entertainment” can include “television, Web services, data repositories, gaming screens, mobile screens and art-based and non-commercial screen-related forms”, which convey “global news, sports events, the natural world, imaginative worlds and so on” (p. 1). The cinema’s artistic potential – for so long denied, and even now not universally accepted – is barely given consideration in Colman’s appraisal of “screen technologies” as a “central currency for all types of scientific and social communication, information and analytic economy” (p. 1). Of course, it can not be denied that the moving image has been predominantly used for the (often oppressive) purposes of communication, entertainment and ideological manipulation. But this in no way negates the fact that, to put it bluntly, Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zemlya (Earth, 1930) or F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) represent a qualitatively different – and, dare I say, qualitatively more emancipatory – form of human expression than that of an American Apparel commercial or a YouTube clip of a farting panda; and this distinction seems to elude Colman. In essence, if there is a cleavage in theoretical considerations of the cinema today, it is not between “film theory” and “film-philosophy”, but between viewing film through the prism of art, and seeing it as no more than a socio-cultural artefact, a “screen form”, whereby a doctoral thesis on Buffy or Call of Duty II has equal validity to one on Carl Theodor Dreyer or Kenji Mizoguchi (2).
But such a polemic calls for a more expansive forum than this book review allows, and it is to Colman’s credit that her stance does not affect the selection of either the subjects themselves nor those given the task of analysing them. A distinct imbalance is present, in the sense that the thinkers chosen almost exclusively have their theoretical origins in continental philosophy, but this is deliberate, and Colman avows the need to “address a serious limitation in much of the discussion of film-philosophy that tends to engage analytic and/or cognitive practices of analysis” (p. 12). Indeed, of the 32 figures examined, 22 either are French by birth or have spent their most productive years in the country, and many of the remainder are distinctly French-influenced. But this reflects nothing more than the fact that France has been home to the most fecund cross-fertilisation of philosophy and film-analysis, a tradition which is still bearing fruit today.
Obviously, an anthology such as this can not hope to cover every relevant figure, and one can understand the difficulty in limiting the number of entries to 32, when so many more thinkers could have been discussed. Gripes about absences should therefore be tempered, but, nonetheless, the omission of an entry on Walter Benjamin is such a glaring lacuna in the collection – considering the importance of cinema for Benjamin’s thought, and the importance of Benjamin for thought on the cinema –that I can’t help but wonder whether extraneous circumstances prevented its inclusion. More broadly, the range of thinkers skews too heavily towards philosophers engaging with the cinema; the only filmmaker addressed is Godard, and this precludes what could have been interesting approaches to the ways in which other directors (Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Epstein, Harun Farocki, Alexander Kluge, to name a few) incorporated philosophical considerations into their aesthetic programmes.
The book nevertheless begins in startling fashion. Part I, entitled “What is cinema?” and engaging with ontological/phenomenological approaches to the seventh art, opens with accounts of two figures who hardly leap to one’s mind when thinking of film and philosophy. I had to trawl back to a dark corner of my brain to retrieve the name Hugo Münsterberg, but Robert Sinnerbrink makes an impassioned defence of Jean Mitry’s claim that “In 1916 this man understood cinema about as well as anyone ever will” (p. 20), and Adrian Martin similarly introduces this ignorant reader to the hitherto unknown Vilém Flusser. From here we enter more familiar territory, with Kracauer, Theodor Adorno and Antonin Artaud examined before a sustained engagement with the phenomenological approach to film, through the prism of Henri Bergson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas.
The highlight in this section is Julie Kuhlken’s analysis of Adorno. In opposition to the common refrain that Adorno has a snobbish disdain for the lowbrow in offering an unambiguous defence of the impossibly rarefied high modernism of Samuel Beckett, Arnold Schoenberg et al., Kuhlken forcibly demonstrates the dynamic dialecticisation of high and low art in Adorno’s thinking, and his opposition to the “culture industry” for the fact that it deprives both of their value. It is to be lamented, however, that Kuhlken takes Adorno’s own thought as an undialectical whole, when in fact, with regards to the cinema, he had a distinct transformation in viewpoint – from the “every trip to the cinema leaves me stupider and worse” attitude of Minima Moralia (1951) to a genuine, if piecemeal, appreciation of cinematic modernism in Transparencies on Film (1967).
Of course, any time the word “ontology” comes within the vicinity of “cinema”, it is inevitable that “Bazin” is not far off, and, before Part I concludes with a chapter on Roland Barthes, Hunter Vaughan offers an entry on the French critic, which functions as a central lynchpin of the book with Bazin representing a transitional nodal point between the phenomenological accounts of the first half of the 20th century, and the theory and practice of Serge Daney, Godard, Deleuze and Badiou, among others, in the period since his death. But Vaughan’s piece, while informative, offers little beyond Dudley Andrew’s exhaustive work on the thinker – recognised as having “single-handedly done the most to preserve … Bazin’s legacy” (p. 101) – and the reader would be advised simply to consult Andrew’s own literature, along with, of course, the original texts themselves (3).
The aforementioned late-twentieth century figures feature strongly in Parts II and III, which deal with, respectively, “accounts of 20th-century cultures” (under the rubric of “Politics of the Cinematic Century”) and “event and technological epistemologies” (with the heading “Cinematic Nature”) (p. 13). Part II, in many ways, is the most pessimistic section of the book. The gloomy hypothesis of the “death” of the cinema’s artistic potential, contemporaneous with the outbreak of World War II, and its replacement with the all-embracing “visual” of television and information technology, developed in tandem by Daney and Godard, and most forcefully exposed in the latter’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), is only slightly leavened by John Mullarkey’s entry on Deleuze. For Deleuze, the history of the cinema is defined by the same breaking point, but one which is decidedly more positive in outlook, in which – as anyone exposed to a Film Studies university department in the last 20 years would know – the Movement-Image of the pre-war period is replaced with the Time-Image of post-war cinema.
Mullarkey’s account of Deleuze’s Cinéma books is remarkably accessible and can not be substantially faulted, and yet, while mindful of the space limitations, I would have appreciated a look at the dominance the works have had on the field, a dominance which in the last few years has reached saturation point. So much has been said about and written on Deleuzian film theory that, it seems, little more can be added. Moreover, I have had the sneaking suspicion of late – which is possibly a little harsh – that the Cinéma books simply relay a rather conventional historicisation of the cinema, utilising a well-known canon of classical and modernist films, with the main novelty being no more than Deleuze’s inimitable use of vocabulary and elaborate taxonomisation of image-forms.
From this point, however, the reader enters darker realms. Tom Conley’s study on Sarah Kofman – another discovery for me – is one of the most remarkable in the collection. A French follower of Jean Hyppolite and Deleuze, who gained a Chair at the Sorbonne in 1991 before taking her own life in 1994, Kofman was working on two books at the time of her death, the autobiographical fiction Rue Ordener, Rue Labat and the unfinished collection of essays L’Imposture de la beauté, which marked her “effort to put the remainders of her life together before taking leave of the world” (p. 190). The intersection between film and philosophy in Kofman’s writing is fascinating, as Conley explains the way that the insertion of The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) into Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, alongside ruminations on Sigmund Freud and Leonardo da Vinci, turns the segments of the book into plan-séquences, with the entire work becoming a sort of “ciné-écriture” (p. 193). Hitchcock’s film becomes “more than a philosophical object. It obsesses. It reveals, dissimulates, clarifies and adjudicates” (p. 198). For Conley, Kofman’s suicide is an act of “creative affirmation” (p. 199), a re-enactment of the film which so curiously impregnated her life.
The respective fates of Virilio, Baudrillard and François Lyotard have not been as tragic as Kofman’s life. But their views on the cinema – as a tool used by late capitalism to engage in warfare and dissemble reality from a populace irrevocably mired in “post-modern” placidity – offer an unremittingly bleak view of the prospects both of film and the world at large. It is left to Part III, “Cinematic Nature”, to provide a counter-balance to this grim picture. The section opens with one of the true highlights of the book, Michael Goddard’s absorbing presentation of Raymond Bellour’s film theory. Goddard sets out to do what few of the other entries concerned themselves with: tracing the evolution of a thinker, in this case examining Bellour’s progression from a Metzian theorist in the 1970s to his more recent, Deleuze-inflected work of the 1990s and 2000s. My only misgiving about Goddard’s piece is that the timing of its submission prevented him from addressing Bellour’s recent Le Corps du cinéma, one of the most important works of film theory to be released in 2009, which has built upon the ideas developed in the two L’entre-images volumes (4).
After traversing the Lacan-influenced thinking of Julia Kristeva, Mulvey, Bhabha and Slavoj Žižek, Film, Theory and Philosophy concludes with entries on three of the most engaging thinkers to have revitalised continental philosophy in the last decade. Stephen Zepke details Badiou’s application of a neo-Platonist ontological framework to an aesthetic situation marked by the “saturation” of the “didactic”, “romantic” and “classical” relationships between art and philosophical truth, and a cinematic environment characterised as “post-classical”, while Sudeep Dasgupta outlines Rancière’s notion of the supercession of art’s “representational age” by its “aesthetic age”, and his distinctive interpretations of Epstein, Deleuze, Godard and other figures.
Finally, the reader is taken through Giorgio Agamben’s reflections on the cinema. In finishing with an overview of the Italian philosopher’s brief essay “The Six Most Beautiful Minutes in the History of the Cinema”, Christian McCrea’s entry concludes the book on an exalted note. The six minutes in question come from Orson Welles’ unfinished Don Quixote, in a scene where Cervantes’ knight “sits in a provincial cinema, agape at the screen” and, becoming frustrated at the lifelike presence of what he sees, “slashes at the canvas, cutting into horses and pirates as the balcony erupts in outrage and laughter” (p. 356). McCrea notes that, for Agamben, the beauty of moments such as this is their possession of a “key expressive power” which “generate[s] both doubt and action: to draw us in, and to demand of us something radical” (p. 357). In evoking this sequence– a sublime morsel of film furnished by one of the masters of the medium – Agamben implicitly rectifies the inadequacies of Colman’s introduction. What separates the art of cinema from being merely another “screen form” is, simply put, beauty.
Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers, edited by Felicity Colman, Acumen Publishing, Durham, 2009.
- See Film-Philosophy’s Editorial Policies.
- Perhaps it is indicative that the book is dedicated to “Nia” who, we are told, “loves Jaws” (Steven Spielberg, 1975).
- Dudley Andrew, André Bazin, Oxford University Press, New York, 1978.
- Raymond Bellour, L’entre-images: Photo, cinéma, vidéo, La Différence, Paris, 1990; L’entre-images 2: Mots, images, P.O.L Trafic, Paris, 1999.