Finding Ourselves at the MoviesLike Stanley Cavell’s relatively recent Cities of Words and Robert B. Pippin’s Hollywood Westerns, Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies is a work of philosophical wisdom contained within theoretical naivety. Whether the thinker happens to be deeply immersed in cinema (as Cavell so clearly has been) or a sort of visiting professor of film as we find with Pippin and Kahn, these are all writers who bypass the theory of film for some first principles they see at work within it, principles that can be better explored through pressing philosophical arguments instead of through more superficial theoretical squabbles. There is nothing here on realism versus formalism, gaze theory, the notion of the apparatus. Nothing on the divide between dedicated Deleuzians, film phenomenologists and cold to the touch cognitivists, and there is always something pleasing about anyone refusing to beat around the theoretical bush while at the same time capable of bringing in the heavy artillery. Kant, Nietzsche and Aristotle are vital to Cavell; Hegel, Rousseau and Jung pertinent to Pippin; Plato, Kant and Aristotle are useful here.

It isn’t that Kahn ignores theory altogether, more that he utilises it on a surface level useful for his own ends. Here he footnotes Christian Metz saying, “‘Cinematographic language’ is first of all the literalness of a plot. Artistic effects, even when they are substantially inseparable from the semic act by which film tells us its story, nevertheless constitute another level of signification.”  (p.206) Kahn quotes Metz to justify the importance of the plot, not at all to address semiotic questions. Deleuze is footnoted because Kahn sees the French philosopher making a similar point to his own, with Kahn mentioning the importance of clichés “in creating and maintaining unity.” (p.203) But for Kahn this is a starting point, not a conclusion, a way in which to suggest cinema is the opposite of what Metz and many semioticians claimed; that cinema, for Deleuze, is more an information system than a narrative sign system. (1) A plot can come out of a film but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily embedded in it. Reading Kahn’s book you could come away thinking Metz and Deleuze shared similar thoughts, and with similarities not too far removed from Kahn’s own perspective. This is obviously not the case. The freedom he seizes can lead to oversimplifications; and on such occasions can range from the refreshing to the ingenuous, perhaps even the disingenuous.

Yet Kahn does offer a number of provisos before he starts. “I am not taking up the role of movie critic. I have little to say on whether any of the movies I discuss are worth seeing. Neither is this a work of film theory, although I hope that those interested in that discipline will find something of value here.” (p.ix) Kahn adds: “I emphasize narrative over the other aspects of creativity and production that go into a film. This is not because narrative is more important but because my questions go to what a film means and what that meaning tells us about ourselves.” (p.ix) If Kahn is likely to irritate the Deleuzians and the semioticians, here the Bordwellians might bristle. As David Bordwell says in Minding Movies:

The movie audience isn’t a good cross-section of the general public. The demographic profile tilts very young and moderately affluent. Movies are largely a middle-class teenage and twenty something form. When a producer says her movie is trying to catch the zeitgeist, she’s not tracking retired guys in Arizona wearing white belts; she’s thinking of the tastes of kids in baseball caps and draggy jeans. (2)

However, Bordwell seems to be talking about demographic fashion; Kahn is more interested in finding core aspects of being in film, believing philosophy’s roots have a dimension of the dramatic, and film a dimension of the philosophical. “Plato may have done philosophy, but he wrote dramas. In his dialogues we are offered an imaginative construction that has a narrative line, as well as philosophical arguments.” (p.vii) It isn’t that film wants to capture the moment; more that it unavoidably explores certain ongoing preoccupations.  Near the end of the book Kahn writes:

Films are not efforts to repress revolution through the construction of false consciousness. Rather, they are efforts to remind and to recall… Of course, one might think that this entire imaginary construction is a matter of false consciousness. This is an argument to be made, but come the revolution there will be bigger game to hunt than what is playing in the local cinema. (p.186)

The Althusserians would have a word or two to say about that as Kahn blithely bypasses a very large chunk of political film theory, but his book would have to become a very different beast (elephantine in size) if he were to absorb, argue with and reject so many areas of analysis. Nevertheless, a few words about Baudry’s article “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographer Apparatus” wouldn’t have been a bad idea. (3)

So what is Kahn getting at? Broken down into five chapters with a conclusion, Kahn initially addresses philosophy as an academic discipline alienating many laymen: film can pick up the philosophical slack, rescuing philosophy from its arcane slumbers. “After all, everyone has a deep interest in the traditional subjects of philosophy: the nature of self, the meaning of life, the possibility of free action, the character of justice, and the nature of truth.” (p. 2) In chapters two and three he wonders how we manage to create a meaningful world, one “created by imagination and maintained by narrative.” (p. 2) The final sections of the book are interested in sacrifice and love, in looking at Old Testament morality given modern form as he draws on the story of Abraham and Isaac to suggest the problem of giving our only begotten son, or for that matter ourselves, to a political cause, and the issue of rebirth that the New Testament offers in a cinema deploying various forms of resurrection.

There are interesting things in each chapter, even though it is often hard to eschew our interest in aesthetics as Kahn really doesn’t see much of a difference between very fine films that he discusses (The Sweet Hereafter [Atom Egoyan, 1997], Caché [Hidden, Michael Haneke, 2005], Don’t Look Now [Nicholas Roeg, 1973], Deliverance [John Boorman, 1972], Apocalypse Now [Francis Ford Coppola, 1979], A History of Violence [David Cronenberg, 2005]) and lesser aesthetic mortals (Gran Torino [Clint Eastwood, 2008], In the Line of Fire [Wolfgang Petersen, 1993], Air-Force One [Wolfgang Petersen, 1997], The Parent Trap [Nancy Meyers, 1998], Forrest Gump [Robert Zemeckis, 1993], Braveheart [Mel Gibson, 1995]). Surely one reason why the former group are “better” films lies in the complexity of their arguments couched in narrative form. When Kahn very interestingly discusses in chapter 3 the difference between representation and identity, he does so by claiming, “A good deal follows from this relationship of representation to identity. A being incapable of representation has no identity to itself. Such a being, as the Greeks would have said, is either beneath or above humankind. Whatever identity my dog has, she has by virtue of my representation of her.” (p. 69) Identity comes from a certain type of consciousness, and our ability to make not so much sense of our lives, though that as well, but narratives of our existence. A dog has an identity, but it doesn’t have, it would seem, a representative mode in which to examine and explore that identity. One potential criticism of the book isn’t the elitist claim that too many of the films are overly mainstream; more that the more commercially oriented cinema works offer a lower level of consciousness. When we often refer to a big blockbuster as stupid, are we doing so because we feel our identity deserves better representation, more complex narrative arrangements than the film provides? Often Kahn sets up arguments on mediocre films that are much more sophisticated than many a critic’s analysis of far more demanding ones, but we might sometimes wish his fine mind was put to work on finer films.

In perhaps the best chapter of the book, “Violence and the State”, he discusses the problem of sacrificing oneself or one’s offspring to the country, mentioning Lincoln’s Gettysburg address: “Sacrifice for a proposition, identity become representation.” (p.111) When Kahn writes, “every history is a fiction. To see the groundlessness of representation is as intolerable as seeing the meaninglessness of violence,” (p.111) it is the problem of a sacrifice of self to a representation that does nothing to augment the values of that state. If a wounded war hero comes back from a war that has been perceived as just, he represents in his broken condition nevertheless the higher values of that society. If the war is unjust he is a disabled figure as accusation. This is central, of course, to the identity/representation issue of a number of films on Vietnam unmentioned here: the documentary Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978) and Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer, 1981). When, in Hearts and Minds, a Vietnam veteran talks about the war, the camera slowly zooms out to reveal his war injuries. The sergeant’s political dismay is all the more accusatory when we see the injuries he has suffered. This is the war veteran representing not the pride of his country, but its guilt. Identity has been sacrificed to false representation. Gran Torino is more than a simple-minded revenge movie, but it might not be much more than a simple-minded redemptive one. Kahn very skilfully adopts it for his argument, but we might still believe that our identities deserve better cinematic representations than films like this. Here Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is the bitter old Korean war vet who has lost his wife and lives in a community overrun by gangs. After being robbed by a young Korean kid cajoled into stealing by his peers, the kid’s family insists that he help Walt with various chores.  Over the course of the film Walt protects this family from outside forces, and redeems himself for his failures during the Korean war. He has always been haunted by killing a young Korean soldier who was trying to surrender. By the film’s conclusion he will die a sacrificial death: he protects the Korean family, confronting the gangsters without a weapon and is killed, but he has arranged for the police to arrive as the deed takes place. He has made amends in the present for his atrocity in the past.

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

For Kahn this is an act of love that conjoins identity to representation. Other examples in the chapter include Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) and Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), works antithetical in their tone but sharing a recuperative narrative of heroic endeavour. If we are finding ourselves at the movies, as Kahn insists, shouldn’t we be slightly wary of not so much Althusserian false consciousness as a simplified one? The argument Kahn offers in this chapter acknowledges a certain sacrifice if the gain from it is greater in value than the individual loss. He is not the liberal insisting war is wrong, suggesting we should make love not war, but instead saying that if we must make war then it must be for love – love of family, love of country, love of a greater good. We might have problems with Kahn’s assumptions, but they are argued for more rigorously than the films he often takes as his subjects. Gran Torino might prove his point, but aren’t there better films that stretch it?

After all, Kahn would say, narrative is a form of argument. “We no longer have a common culture of live theatre or fiction. Film has become the singular art form that we share as a community. Watching a film, we enter a common community of viewers. This is what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community”: we are linked to unknown others through our knowledge that each of us has experienced the same films.” (p.50) But there is the imagined community as the mob, and the imagined community as that of the enlightened citizen. If Kahn sees Plato’s dialogues as dramatic forms of enquiry for the purposes of this enlightened citizen, we might wonder whether many films are closer to a mob mentality, producing a mindset that isn’t individualizing and based on love, but crowd-oriented and capable of inciting hatred. Anything from The Patriot (Roland Emmerich, 2000) to Braveheart, Inglourious Basterds to Saving Private Ryan can imagine a community, but they aren’t necessarily communities we care to side with if there is an element of mob rule. As Elias Canetti says in Crowds and Power, “the inner, or pack, dynamics of war are basically as follows. From the lamenting pack around a dead man there forms a war pack bent on avenging him; and from the war pack, if it is victorious, a triumphant pack of increase.” (4) There might be positive values to be extracted from these four films (all discussed or footnoted in Kahn’s book), but the pack mentality is never far away either. The sort of subtle dialogical enquiry Kahn admires in Plato’s work is hardly present in these four films by, respectively, Roland Emmerich, Mel Gibson, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino. Films like In the Bedroom (Todd Fields, 2000), A History of Violence, even Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) – all also name-checked here – are a bit closer to the dialogical than the didactic: films demanding our reservations and not only our passions.

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008)

Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008)

Of course, Kahn will say that his purpose isn’t to evaluate but to extrapolate: to take from a film what he needs for his argumentative through-line. But even Kahn can’t quite avoid judgement. When he talks about the Liam Neeson film Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008), he links it to many a superhero film where “the modern comedy of violence is a form of magical realism. It constructs a hero with superhuman powers who cannot be killed by human hands.” (p.103) If Taken is a weaker film for Kahn than Gran Torino it lies in the need for a happy ending, so that sacrifice gives way to wish fulfilment. But then for many Gran Torino will be a weak film next to numerous great seventies works that deal with the problem of sacrifice and societal readjustment. If film is a way of doing philosophy, a way of making sense of our identity through representation, then overly simplified representation is like bad philosophy. If for Kahn “philosophers [today] produce nothing but talk. In America, where speech has such a privileged political position, there tends to be a flattening of all forms of discourse” (p.14), much cinema produces nothing but pat solutions, another form of flattening.

Kahn’s book might then have benefited from stronger cinematic examples as well as a chapter absorbing cinematic theory to avoid the twin perils of the naive no matter the general sophistication of his thinking. This is a very useful book that opens up numerous problems concerning the self and how we wish to be represented, but it doesn’t quite possess the nuanced naivety of a Cavell – of a writer who can seek in populist Hollywood nevertheless an ongoing ethos (what he calls “moral perfectionism” in Cities of Words (5)). But this a problem of texts chosen and theories eschewed rather than a lack of serious thinking. Finding Ourselves at the Movies is if nothing else a thoughtful and often thought-provoking book, a work that often successfully blends film and philosophy in “a practice of critical reflection on our beliefs and practices.” (p.1)

Paul W. Kahn, Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for A New Generation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).


1. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image (London: Athlone Press, 1992), p. 12.

2. David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft and Business of Filmmaking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), p. 24

3. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Base Cinematographic Apparatus”, in: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (ed.), Apparatus, Cinematographic Apparatus: Selected Writings (New York: Tanam Press, 1980), pp. 25-37.

4. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Continuum, 1978), p. 138.

5. Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words: Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life (Belknapp, London: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2005), p. ix.