Josh Dunigan |||

The form of philosophy and film

Most of what I have been doing lately is reading philosophy and watching all the critically acclaimed films I have been missing out on my whole life. Not only do both share similarities in material, such as death, morality, justice, moral psychology, and other great areas of life to think about, they share similar form. The form being the way the material is presented and how. I do not mean this literally since one uses music, colors, expressions, dialogue, and cinemotography while the other uses only words, argument, examples, and text. I am speaking more of things like how a section of philosophy is similar to a scene in a film or how Introduction to Metaphysics is similar to some of the ways Jim Jarmusch has done his films.

Staying on that topic, I love all of Jarmusch’s work. To name a few, Coffee and Cigarettes and Night on Earth are films that feature multiple different stories that are not necessarily tied together. In Coffee and Cigarettes, it is 11 short stories about people drinking coffee and smoking cigs. They are full of awkward conversation, late arrivals, discussion about how cigarettes are unhealthy, and other everyday conversations. The beauty of this films was you felt like Jarmusch captured what its like to get coffee with people. Sometimes people are late, sometimes the conversation is just about what is at hand, sometimes you are catching up with someone you have not seen awhile since grabbing coffee is what you use as an excuse to say lets hang out”.

Heidegger has a similar approach in Introduction to Metaphysics in his search to understand being”. The first three chapters are not similar to Jarmusch since Heidegger examings what metaphysics is, the grammar and etymology of being, and the question of the essence of being. Related to the last part, he uses chapter four to try and figure this out. Four of the sections are about being and becoming, seeming, thinking, and the ought. Jarmusch may have been going for what the essence of getting coffee and having cigarettes is like while Heidegger was going for being is. One went for the everyday and the mundane, the other about the most fundamental question to metaphysics, according to Heidegger, which is why are there beings at all instead of nothing?”.

It may be argued that Stranger Than Paradise is a better example, since more of the elements of it persist over the length of the work as does in Introduction to Metaphysics. The three main characters find themselves in New York City, isolated Ohio, and Florida. There three parts of this film seem to be most aptly described in the quote below. These three characters go from the big city, to the middle of nowhere, to sunny Florida, and the location seems to have no affect on them whatsoever.

Another example is a little more straightforward. Immanuel Kant wrote systematically about much of philosophy. He wrote about metaphysics, ethics, justice, religion, human nature, aesthetics, causality, rationality, and more. To fully understand Kant and how all of these works relate to each other, you would need to read most of his work if not all. Even more, you would need to go learn about Kant’s personal life and his own character. This is the approach some philosophers have done, like Helga Varden, when writing about love, sex, and gender as a Kantian. After doing so, his own seemingly contradictory statements make more sense, the reason why he separates happiness and freedom, or internal and external freedom.

As I have taken a liking to the works of certain directors, I go and watch more of their films. Some that have stuck out to me are Jarmusch, Tarkovsky, Ozu, and Bong Joon-ho. After watching more Ozu, you can really see the type of things he wants to make films about by drawing similarities to them. After watching Snowpiercer and Parasite by Bong, it could seem like he was mostly interested in just class distinctions. However, The Host is a monster film that is seemingly critical of the US and Korean governments. Memories of Murder and Mother made me think that sometimes the way people seem is the way they are and nothing deeper. Like how Kant’s life came into his philosophy, Jarmusch’s own self bleeds into his art just like a philosopher. Jarmusch brings on people he respects in music, locations he adores, and mentions artists and literature that he is influenced by.

To bring up Heidegger again, he described the way that Being and Time is structured is as if it was a spiral. Instead of presenting an argument in the simplest way, he writes it in a phenomenological structure. He says that we will slowly try to understand being, and we will come back to parts we visited before. But this time we will know more and go more in depth on those original parts and repeat until we get to what we are looking for. This spiral structure, where we slowly accumulate more knowledge and come back to things we already learned to learn more about is similar to some mystery films. Knives Out goes over the same scenes and facts about what happened over and over, but each time we revisit them with more knowledge. 12 Angry Men does this by revisiting certain facts of the case the jurors were tasked with deciding guilty or not guilty on. As more and more knowledge is gained, as people start to realize that certain facts are no longer as clear as they thought, they examine with this new gained doubt other areas of the case that were also seemingly clear, if not the most clear.

An obvious example is with the climax of a film and a work of philosophy. There are certain parts of work of philosophy where the core argument is made, the interesting new incite is formed. There is build up to this point and there is stuff to be said after these parts as they are usually not made at the very end (but they can be). Films all have well known climaxes and are just as easy to spot. In philosophy, you will be either puzzled to how we got there or amazed at this new knowledge that is being argued for. In film, you will most likely feel amazement, horror, sadness, joy, or a moment of eureka.

Sometimes philosophers are poetic, just like a beautiful scene. There are certain quotes from philosophy that are profound and beautiful in a way, such as Arendt’s statement in The Origins of Totalitarianism about the horror of being a stateless refugee with no right to have rights or Rosseau’s famous line about the first man to fool others into creating private property. These may not be the most important part of the philosophy, but you remember them for one reason or another. I’m reminded of some of the scenes of In the Mood for Love, Bill Hader and I both thought that the rain scene in Pather Panchali was beautiful, or the first color scene in Stalker.

Films evoke immense emotion sometimes such as empathy or disgust or they want to decieve us. Similar, philosophy has intuition pumps and thought experiments. A film may use a grotesque murder to make us feel the horror of some atrocity or it may use a sleight of hand to decieve us of the true facts behind such as in a mystery. Philosophy does similar thinks to get us to see a new point of view or look at the theory in practice. Peter Singer’s a child drowing in a pond example is supposed to make you feel a little bit of shame at yourself for your greed and hypocrisy. The Chinese Room is supposed to make you think that a computer will not have a mind no matter how intelligent it seems to behave. Swamp man is supposed to make us think that a person that was physically the same as someone else will still be different in that they did not live the same life. Heck, the swamp man example is basically the tv show Living With Yourself.

Less interestingly, some films go by a more standard form, just like some philosophy papers. This does not mean that film is bad if the form is standard. The material in a film may be best suited for straightforward causal scenes, one after another. Just like some philosophy may be presented just as some premises and a conclusion with some elaboration of each. If the form and the matter are both standard, however, there may be nothing interesting or exciting worthy of talking about in it.

Philosophy and film also have to try and find the best way to break up their respective works. Philosophy has to deal with how much or how little to say about something, what should be its own thought or should it broken into two different thoughts, and how each part plays well with the rest of the parts as a whole and the parts that come immediately before and after. Film does the same in that there are reasons for why to make a scene longer or shorter, should we do this in one shot or multiple shots, and what type of camera techniques do we want to use to best show this part. Both a director and a philosopher need to figure out how to bring to life what is in their head in the way such that what they want to get across to their intended target is done successfully. Maybe some thought in a philosophy paper is important and needs more paragraphs than others, or it is an obnoxiously long sentence and that is just how it is best written. Maybe all of the scenes in a movie are really long, but cutting them down to be shorter may convey the same plot but not evoke the emotions you wanted to draw out in the viewer.

This is no way exhaustive of some of the similarities. A lot of the references to movie and philosophy will not make sense without really going in depth into either yourself. But if you do, you’ll see what I’m seein.

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