Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Philosophy and the Essential Ambiguity of Film

To begin, an example of how my thought processes work. Monday night, after Conan was over, tv inertia found me switching over to Bravo and watching the last half of an old episode of Without a Trace. The plot was about a missing teenager whose girlfriend had been involved in a near-daily series of sex parties held at his best friend's house. The girl had been a regular at the parties until she met her boyfriend, when she stopped going. But after the host started spreading rumours that the boyfriend had cheated on her, she returned, and the fight they had when he discovered this fact happened right before his disappearance.

The actors playing the party host and the girlfriend looked incredibly familiar, but I couldn't remember the name of the episode, or the names of the actors. But this morning, as I woke up, I remembered where I had seen the party host before: Canadian teen sitcom Student Bodies, which I used to watch semi-regularly when I was in high school. The actor was Jamie Elman, and on his imdb page, they had listed the name of the Without a Trace episode, "Sons and Daughters." The girlfriend in that episode was Kat Dennings, who starred last year in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with Michael Cera.

Now, here's the idea I had in the shower this morning, after looking up this thread of interconnecting movies. I noticed another item on Jamie Elman's filmography, When Nietzsche Wept, in which he played a young Sigmund Freud. After searching through some reviews on the internet of this movie, I discovered that there were none, except a couple of forum posts on nytimes.com, one of which was a one-sentence endorsement, and the other of which said it was fit for MST3K. Apparently, Armand Assante had a decent performance, but the film was a gross oversimplification of his views.

It reminded me of an opinion I've held for some time about philosophy movies: that they should not be made. Why they shouldn't be made is a matter of the very different form of philosophy and film. Philosophy is a clearly written argument or exploration of an idea. Philosophy is largely making declarative statements and arranging them to articulate a concept or an argument. It is a matter of words, and occasionally illustrative diagrams, but mostly words. The purpose in philosophy is to explain, and interpret those explanations.

But film is a medium of images, and images don't declare anything: they just are. Sure, you can film a lecture, but a fascinating lecture is a boring film, and attempts to represent philosophies in film are best done through characters whose motivations can be understood as being rooted in or inspired by particular philosophies. If characters actually talk about their philosophical motivations, usually in long, ludicrous speeches, it becomes boring. Philosophy strives for clarity, but films strive for ambiguity. A well crafted image is a display that can consist almost entirely in interpretation. Interpretation in philosophy only begins after the text has been clearly stated. Philosophical interpretation must begin from a clear standing point in the text, and if the starting text itself is obscure, the interpretation will collapse. This is the key difference between the image and the text.

This is why novels work so much better in stating philosophical ideas. The works of Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Milan Kundera are three examples that come immediately to mind. The adaptation of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an excellent example of the difference between novels and films when it comes to philosophy. The novel was largely an exploration of Kundera's philosophical engagement with Nietzsche, and his interpretation of Nietzsche's eternal return concept. (I think Kundera committed the common mistake in Nietzsche readers, thinking of the eternal return as the sameness of repetition, when it's actually the repetition of difference, but that's neither here nor there.) The characters were cyphers for the philosophical exploration. The novel was a philosophical exploration that happened in a political and personal narrative context, and as such, it was a brilliant success.

In his adaptation, Philip Kaufman understood exactly what to do with his film. To have the characters state explicitly Kundera's philosophical engagement with Nietzsche and have the film revolve around that would have sent the audience to sleep. Instead, Kaufman's film focussed on the articulation of these ideas in the actions of the characters themselves. The audience sees the characters engage with the world, and we can work out through their actions the ideas that animate them. There are some wonderful images of Daniel Day-Lewis in the film that illustrate his philosophy of being's lightness much better than any speech ever would. Wondering whether he should rejoin his wife Juliette Binoche, who has fled the superficial and selfish society of Zürich for Prague, he stands in a pond playing with ducks, his arms outstretched on a foggy afternoon. After finding tranquility together working on their farm in rural Czechoslovakia, Day-Lewis, driving a tractor, raises his arms in mocking thanks to God, sitting on a line between the brightnesses of blue sky and green fields, Binoche watching and laughing. These images are ambiguous in themselves, and their explanatory content depends centrally on the audience.

After first conceiving this idea, I thought of a narrative inspired by that Without a Trace episode that would be an excellent philosophical novel, and if I eventually decide to pursue it, would be the first genuinely philosophical novel I write. I hope you don't mind my spoiling the end of a six year old episode of Without a Trace. At the end of the episode, we discover that the county sheriff was engaged to Kat Dennings' mother, and had discovered that his own daughter from his previous marriage was a participant in Jamie Elman's parties. Irrational with rage over seemingly having lost his biological daughter to a nihilistic lifestyle, he follows his soon-to-be-daughter-in-law back home. That night he sees the boyfriend visit and try to reconcile, only for Kat Dennings to turn him away. Dennings had told her mother that she was raped to cover up her involvement with Elman's parties. The sheriff, thinking the boyfriend was Dennings' rapist, captures him as he leaves Dennings' house, and takes him into the woods where he strangles the boyfriend to death. The end of the episode sees him confessing to Anthony LaPaglia and being led away to jail.

I wondered what could the motivations possibly be of a lawyer who would try to get him off, someone whose defense strategy would have to consist in badgering the highly traumatized witnesses to force them to break down on the stand and tricking them into contradicting themselves. This lawyer would have no ethical values other than his own power in convincing people that his desires were the truth that should motivate them. I can think of no motivation for anyone to convince a remorseful confessed killer to plead not guilty and allow his lawyer to destroy the psyches of the prosecution's witnesses. This lawyer would go ever farther than not believing in an absolute good, because you can believe in a plurality of good and still be ethical. That's me. This lawyer would have to believe that there is not, and cannot be, any good at all. Each case would be, for him, an expression of his own power. He would be a living exercise in what we could call, paraphrasing Nietzsche, a monstrous nihilist, a man happy to have overcome the values of the society in which he lives, but who sees no need to create new values.

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