I am certainly uncertain… #Philosophy and Film

Can a film explore a philosophical issue in sufficient depth to consider it a contribution to philosophy?

This isn’t a new question by any stretch of the imagination: philosophy and the arts is Routledge’s philosophy theme of the month and has been a topic of interest to philosophers since, at least, Plato.

The fun part about philosophy and art is that it’s not a one-way street.  A significant amount of academic attention has been given to the philosophical underpinnings of art.  What is art?  How can we distinguish art from not-art?  How do we value art?  Is art good?

But there’s a second question which has, until comparatively recently, been shafted to literature studies: how can art discuss (and inform) philosophical questions?

I am probably a huge snob, but I think that there’s something missing from popular culture’s treatment of philosophically interesting questions.  First, ‘philosophical’ films are almost universally pretentious and pander to a particular kind of undergraduate male.  I can think of a handful of comic books which have done interesting, nuanced, and meaningful explorations of philosophical themes which were quickly canned because they don’t sell.  Similarly, philosophical nuance is thrown under a bus whenever it threatens sales.  When the focus of popular culture is pecuniary (even mercenary), how can it present challenging philosophical ideas that don’t just regurgitate the prejudices of the audience?

There is a danger that the previous paragraph will be read as ‘Boohoo, films aren’t 15,000 word theses on Kantianism.’  I’m not denigrating films for not being able to explore philosophical themes in significant depth; on the contrary, I think popular culture is supposed to be popular and entertain audiences (and make vast amounts of money for the studios).

While people can use their reactions to films to explore philosophical ideas, I’m not sure the films themselves are capable of capturing them.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

2 thoughts on “I am certainly uncertain… #Philosophy and Film”

  1. Could you provide examples of “philosophical films”? Would you consider Pan’s Labyrinth or The Spirit of the Beehive to be philosophical films? I would think quite a number of films (if not all of art) are philosophical at their core, but I guess what you’re looking for are films that consciously, and expertly, explore said topic/s.

  2. The length of films generally doesn’t lend itself well to more complex and difficult ideas. A film is (generally speaking) the equivalent of a written short story. To tackle more difficult and complex ideas, one needs a longer-form medium. The TV series might be one such – I’m imagining of something like ‘Carnivale’ or ‘Six Feet Under’.

    But this might actually be an area in which games have an advantage. ‘Planescape: Torment’ did a pretty good job of delving into some interesting philosophical ideas and Bioware have continued that trend somewhat. Games have the combination (at least potentially) of length and depth that could allow designers to explore ideas in a meaningful way.

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