Reflections on the Importance of Film
Upon reading The World Viewed it is immediately clear: here is a man who takes film seriously. In this regard, Cavell provides a useful model for not only the analysis of film, but for analysis in general, as with his work he exhibits thoroughness, clarity, specificity, along with a good deal of literary ability and even poeticism. He thinksand thinks uniquelyand not only do I appreciate this, I aspire to this. More than anything, his book has catalyzed thought within me, and this thought has revolved around two questions that he offers in the first chapter, beginning with "what is art?" and ending with "what is film?" Just as Cavell interprets the first question as being "not about the nature of art, but about the nature of the importance of art" I, too, will interpret the second question as meaning "what is the nature of the importance of film?" Thus, the heart of this paper: why is film important?
That it is important seems an obvious fact; surely an experience so ubiquitous warrants acknowledgment of this. Are there functional humans in our society who haven't seen a film? If so, their numbers are so low as to be considered trivial and certainly deviant (no moral judgment implied). In the face of such ubiquity it seems that articulation of this importance would be easily rendered, yet I've found that when I askwhy is film important?I am met with answers that are at best developed as the speaker considers the question, and at worst dismissed as "weird" or not worthy of consideration. In no cases have I found people who have pondered this question; just as a butterfly rides the currents of the winds rather than questioning them, there are film-lovers who partake without ever questioning why or what. Yes, there are those who do ponder thisfilm theorists, critiques, philosophers, directors etc.but these people form a very small percentage of those who watch films. Here we have a paradox that interests mehow something can have importance without consideration. The principal definition of important is "worthy of note or consideration, especially for its interest, value, or relevance." Consideration is careful reflection on something, and importance demands thistherefore, can film be said to be important?
Yes, film can (and must) be said to be importanthow many movies have you heard people talking about, if only briefly? People talk about film frequently, but where they differ from the philosopher etc. is that they tend to speak either about content or technicality. It is my belief that the practice of philosophy is a natural function of the human animalquestioning is evolutionarily adaptivebut it is a function that is frequently overlooked. In other words, it just never occurs to people to ask questions such as "why is film important?" This results not from capacity but from a general focus that results from observationsad to say (at least for philosophers), our society is far from the Stoa, and so questioning of this kind is generally relegated to academia.
This need not necessarily be so, and a value of film is that as it is such a ubiquitous event it can provide a springboard for such philosophical investigationnot only for philosophical issues (questions pertaining to Cartesian dualism arising from The Matrix, e.g.), but for learning the philosophical process itself, ways of reflecting that allow us deeper understanding and appreciations. Just as many people who love books enjoy talking about them once they've begun to do somy intro to literary criticism class was much different at the end than the beginningso too may film lovers undergo a similar transformation, using film as a catalyst to develop various intellectual capabilities. Here we have what I will list as the first (not in priority, simply in arrangement) importance of filmdue to its unique role in common experience, it provides an accessible vehicle for the expansion of reflective capacity.
As film appeals to so many people, its importance must be variedone set value couldn't capture so many attentions. Cavell discusses social aspects of film early in his book, and this seems a good place to go. He mentions that "the events associated with the experiences of books and music are only occasionally as important as the experience of the works themselves. The events associated with movies are those of companionship or lack of companionship: the audience of a book is essentially solitary, one soul at a time; the audience of music and theatre is essentially larger than your immediate acquaintancea gathering of the city; the crowd at a movie comprises various pools of companions, or scattered souls with someone missing" (Cavell, 10). Going to a movie is an event, and often it may involve a series of other eventsshopping, dinnerand thereby form part of a matrix of social interaction, of companionship. I can remember times when the movie itself wasn't as important as the act of goingfrom teenage "makeout" sessions at Dune to seeing Crocodile Dundee after my grandfather's funeral to taking my daughter to see Shrek 3, such occasions were more than simply seeing the film in-itself. Movies can provide a shared context, an opportunity to do something in unity yet with an external focus. There are times where thisa shared distanceis entirely appropriate, where such transcends escapism and becomes a bonding experience.
Yet it isn't only the shared context that can act as a bonding mechanismthe actual sharing of emotions can also serve to bring companions together. Here we have one of the powerful potentials of film, the ability to stimulate prolonged and varied emotional responses. I may feel strong emotions by viewing a painting in a museum, but my experience of these emotions will fall within a certain fairly confined rangethe feelings that I get by looking at De Chirico's Melancholy and Mystery of a Street are bound to be limited, as the scene I am viewing is static, not allowing for much evolution. In a well-crafted film, however, I may move from humor to fear to poignancy to outrage to sadness within the limits of the duration of the film, and in some cases I may still feel emotional after-effects once the film is through. Studies show that sharing experiences that involve mutual emotional responses can result in an increased sense of bondingperhaps this is why movies are a staple of traditional dating rituals, by creating effects that would otherwise be had over a much longer span of time. This is an interesting pointthat an artificial experience can provide real effectsis this possible in other regards?
Indeed it is. Just as children learn from storytelling, we may also learn from film, as both provide an avenue for experience that lies outside our normal point of view. One of the enchanting aspects of film is that it allows for relief from the ordinaryfrom the banality of repetition we can transport ourselves to almost any situation conceivable. This transportation in-itself doesn't a priori lead to an expansion of personal boundarieslearningas such is contingent upon the specific film viewed. Learningas opposed to simply recording experiencecan come from two directions, which we may consider as expansive and contractive.
The first direction is an expansion derived from watching a film. This category includes those films that can remove epistemological blindersfilms that show us an aspect of life that was previously unconsidered or ill-considered. Films that orient around a segment of society other than the one we normally operate in are here pertinentan example of this type is the film Boys Don't Cry (and of course the genre of documentary is rife with films of this type), which can raise compassion for the plight of transgendered people who live under the spell of oppression. Films of this nature show us something other than what we ordinarily see, and do so in ways that can heighten our ability to relate to people whom we might normally categorize and dismiss without really seeing. This may be seen as compassion through exposure, a unidirectional recognition of the essential humanity that lies beyond the labels that we are taught to apply, the stereotypes that we may own and offer without realizing that they are there.
The second direction, contraction, may be seen as learning for reinforcement, in order to solidify views and positions. An example: as a young man who was a criminal, I would watch movies that validated behaviors that I engaged in. I liked drug movies (Rush, Drugstore Cowboy) and movies with criminal violence (Natural Born Killers, Reservoir Dogs) because these helped strengthen the conceptual apparatus and identifications that I had that allowed me to continue my nihilistic existence. Here we have two sides of a coinegoic expansion through exposure to the new, or egoic reinforcement and stasis through confinement to the familiarand this coin is one of inspiration. Movies can inspire us, can cause us to identify and/or actthey are able to do this because they are the most specifically emotional of artistic forms, the form that most closely mirrors human experience.
Essential to the power of this form is movement and viewing. Music has movement, and thus is able to stimulate an array of feelings, yet the overall impact may be lessened for most because of its singularly auditory nature. It engages the mind in a less specific waythe mind may interpret the music, but this interpretation will always be essentially subjective and specific to the individual, whereas with a movie the interpretation of the events depictedthis aside from any value judgments that the viewer may makewill typically bear close resemblance. If we watch Fight Club together we may differ on the ethical value of destroying bank buildings, but we will probably both agree that that, on screen, the ending scene depicts these buildings falling from explosive charges; the events inherent in the film will be seen in similar fashion. Were we to both listen to Wagner's Thus Spoke Zarathustra we run the chance of having radically different interpretations of the workin this regard, the medium of film is less abstract than music.
The impact of viewing is greatwe are creatures of sight, and sights can cause immediate effects, from revulsion to attraction. Movies take this natural process and condense it into an intensified form; as Cavell states, "It is in thinking of the power of an art as such that I think again about the hesitation I have sometimes felt towards regarding the movie as an art at all, its effects being too powerful or immediate to count as the effects of art" (Cavell, 103). It is precisely this impact that makes a movie "art" as surely such is the goal of artwhat artist wants to create a work that underwhelms, that causes little or no effect in the mind and emotions of the participant? From the religious art of the Renaissance to the works of Modernists like Bacon, all who have created have done so for effect, be it religious awe or visceral disgust. Compared to pictures and photographs, film exponentially impacts in greater fashionor perhaps better to say in more diverse fashionas the combination of viewing with movement allows for a far greater continuum of stimuli. Viewing and movement stimulate interestany person who has meditated will testify that it is far easier to concentrate on a movie than a blank wall for two hoursstillness seems anathema to the mind. Perhaps this has evolutionary functiona person who is naturally able to focus attention on stillness could focus to the point of distraction from physical events, thereby allowing a predator a better opportunity to ambush. In any event, it is this combination that mimics life and captures attentionwhen it is done well. Yet regardless of the how we still have the why; why do movies engage our interest? Why are there times when we prefer the artificial over the real?
This preference derives from our ability to choose, and the reason we choosein this regard, to watch a specific filmis because we like to exercise control over our mood. Every culture has its drugs and its techniques for changing consciousness; these may run from the grossgetting blasted on Jager shotsto the subtleeating a piece of chocolateyet through the spectrum runs the desire for self-control. One of our basic capacities is the ability to make second-order calculations and assessments, to reflect upon our desires and experiences, to question and think; one could even make a good case for this capacity as the essence of being human. (This is why the concept that philosophy as parasitic or trivial is ill-consideredthe philosophical quest lies at the heart of our human be-ing). This capacity allows us to go beyond the experience of an emotional-mental stateit gives us the power to imagine something other than what is, and move toward it. This is what Sartre calls the nihilating aspect of human consciousness, the function that lets us shift attention from physical sensation to abstractionwe can imagine something else, and it is upon this capacity that human civilization rests.
Observe the process the next time you select a movie. Yes, counterexamples may be madesometimes I may watch a film because it's the only opportunity to do sobut while this process is not an absolute, in general, overall, we choose movies that reflect our moods. Sometimes we may want to maintain a moodif I'm buoyant I probably won't watch Mulholland Driveand other times we want to change our moodI can't be melancholy for too long if I watch Talledega Nights. And while other cases may be more subtle than this, in almost all we want to create an effect by watching a moviewe may want to escape, to see something beautiful, to learn, to feel nostalgic or scared or happy or excited, but in generalwe have a desired end-state or experience that we want to have in mind when we select a film.
Sometimes what we may be seeking is the unknown or the new. An aspect of our ability to imagine the other is to seek it, to value it. With the establishment of society our innate primate curiosity has had to be deprioritized in the name of stabilitythe nature of our culture demands it. The safety of civil order is built on inertiawhen we find a system that works (though not necessarily well) then maintaining that system seems an evolutionarily safe thing to do. From the point of view of sheer volume of propagation of genes this is good, but on an individual level it means that our lives are based on established patterns of action that have the potential to remain relatively unchanged for decades. Here we have a conflict: we have minds that are innately curious and lives that are typically repetitious. It seems evolutionarily adaptive that we develop activities that allow us to explore and stimulate our curiosity without doing something drastic like moving to Tibet. Certainly, some people will live lives that are unpredictable, and more will engage a variety of activities in order to keep the mind sharpbut, not everyone has the time or inclination to do so. Take the case of a single mother who works two jobs and takes care of her children in the interimshe may not have the time or resources to engage activities beyond taking care of her kids and collapsing on the sofa. I'm not advocating it as the best lifestyle choice, but we've got to keep our monkey-minds busy, and there do exist casesmany of them, in factwhere watching movies (and television, alas) acts as a primary medium for intellectual variety, if not stimulation.
Even for those of us who do get stimulation from a variety of activities, film offers a medium unique to itselfa medium of possibility that far exceeds the potentials of reality. I absolutely love films that show me something that can't be seen in ordinary existence; this may range from the beautiful to the bizarre (or even include both!), but in any case what attracts me is the blend of impossibility and uniqueness. This must be presented in a certain wayI can easily accept the most far-fetched concept, but if poorly written dialogue or improbable behavior occurs then the film, or at least that segment, is ruined for me; I like my impossibilities coated with realism.
Though difficult to articulate exactly, perhaps the importance of film may be gauged by the degree to which it would be missed if it were to be made nonexistent. Can you imagine what your life would be like if you had never seen a film (television must, in this example, fall under this general category of "film")? I enjoy most art forms, but for me film is irreplaceable. Is it even possible to imagine this? For those of us who were born after the advent of filmand this is basically all of us nowfilm has been important culturally and, therefore, individually. On the level of pure stimulation mentioned above radio could sufficebut think of the possibilities that would lay dormant, unactualized, were film to be not. No other medium could capture the artistic properties of Renaissance, none the frenetic brilliance of Moulin Rouge, none the fantastic excellence of The Matrix. Have these films enhanced my life? Yes, assuredly so. To be human is to be more than a biological machine, more than a being who nests, eats, mates; to be human is to create. And while our technological creations are more astounding than is typically appreciated, it is our artistic creations that are truly profound, as they move beyond the necessities of survival into the realm of pure appreciation. We create art because we can. It strikes our entire beingemotional, mental, physical, and, as some believe, spiritualin a way that can never be fully explained. Attempts to explain art are like attempts to explain quantum realitythere is always something, some essential part, that escapes the attempt. If we were able to explain art, it wouldn't have the same impactit would have no mystery, no anima, it would be too easily grasped by the intellect, like dissecting a frog in biology class. Art goes beyond wordswords may point in the right direction, but the path goes beyond our ability to condense and define. Film, as art, inherits this legacy; so commonplace that few contemplate its importance, yet so important that none can express it.
Cavell, Stanley, The World Viewed (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).