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Film Theory: Criticism and Philosophy

Updated on April 3, 2015


  1. Philosophy's Contribution (to Film)
  2. Gilles Delueze
  3. The Movement Image
  4. The Time Image
  5. Conclusion
  6. Video- The Perverts Guide to Film trailer.

Like most realities, it takes an entire crew to create
Like most realities, it takes an entire crew to create

Philosophy's Contribution

Philosophy of film is a branch of aesthetics within the discipline of philosophy which seeks to understand the most basic questions regarding film. These range from broad questions about relations between science and value theory to specific questions about knowledge and perspectivism, authenticity and social relations. Philosophy can bring out important aspects of film while film, at the same time, may challenge philosophy to think of itself and the answers it seeks in new ways.

Philosophical study of film applies to particular disciplinary perspectives and methods to produce critical analysis of some of the most basic assumptions now dominant in film studies. Much of the early and influential work addresses themes similar to philosophy such as whether film is a language or an art form. Both are possible and many critical essays have been published suggesting it may be both. It also addresses how film communicates. There is a lengthy philosophical tradition discussing some of the central concepts employed in film studies about knowledge, evidence, points of view, perspective and objectivity.

Scholars and theorists such as Michael Foucault, regard art works of all kinds as symbolic systems with complex internal structures that enable them to play significant cognitive functions within certain contexts. However, the symbolic system in the artwork needs to be interpreted to play these cognitive roles. In his analysis if art, Foucault suggests that it contains entire systems representational thought. When applying the same theory to film, questions arise such as how individual films embody conventions of representation that make for their time. But also, how the films themselves philosophize on these conventions. In this sense, films can therefor be seen as reflective, world creating, philosophical achievements by using photography, sound, editing, special effects, and characterization; films can persuade audiences to believe in the world that is represented. Their ability to create entire worlds and Universes (Marvel Universefor example) makes them perfect mediums for critical reflection as films can portray features of the world that audiences recognize, ie human relations, themes, religious ideas...etc.

Indeed it is our effort to become aware of the features of such film worlds which gives rise to the philosophical criticism of film. However, they can also be examined on the assumption that film is an everyday object, which confound audiences when they reflect on them. Philosophers had always sought to answer deep questions by creating puzzlement over what may seem simple and ordinary. Film is puzzling, despite its role in our everyday lives, as it poses a variety of epistemological problems. They function in a way that enhances our representations of the world, like mirrors, or photographs. We can edit photographs to make what we saw look even more spectacular, the same as film. And yet these are devices, which enhance our vision, we don't yet understand fully, how they work and how they are to be understood and perceived.

Philosophers may also view films as transparent, as an illustration of a philosophical theory. In these cases, the emphasis is not on films as representational systems, rather as stories about characters and actions. Again, something we view as simple in everyday understanding. Taking this approach, philosophers follow the same course as literature philosophers, viewing films in the same way that novels and plays are viewed. They are treated as offering detailed illustrations of certain kinds of moral problems and their resolutions.

Whether theorists regard film as primary objects of aesthetic appraisal, epistemological puzzles or illustrations of social and political viewpoints, each bears a unique and diverse tradition of reflection as a way of enriching the interpretations of film.

Gilles Deleuze

Gilles Deleuze is a French Philosopher with an affinity for cinema. He has written two books on cinema: 'Cinema 1: The Movement Image' and 'Cinema 2: The Time Image'. His approach to to the study of of cinema is a semiotic one, where he classifies films in terms of the signs they produce. Henrik Bergson, another French Philosopher, had significant influence on Deleuze, and he takes two fundamental points from Bergson in his approach. First, concerning Bergson's understanding of what image is. According to Bergson, an image is the consciousness we have of an object, perception cannot be divided into object, and consciousness of that object. The consciousness of the object is the object and this is what image is.

For Deleuze, this means that is there is no distinction between the two, then there is no division between film and consciousness of film. Likewise, there should also be no distinction between film/consciousness of film and the real world, as for the duration of the film, the film is the real world. Audiences become a spectators of the world they are watching, and for this time our world does not exist.

Deleuzes principal question lies in the title of one of his books, 'How Do They Create Meaning?', a book in which he answers this question. They make meanings by producing specific modes of representation, by utilizing features such as editing, sound/special effects, narrative, mise-en-scene and performance. Films using these produce specific signs where meanings can created. (The search for signs and symbols is a method known as semiotics, in which Philosophy of film can be studied. Philosophy of film covers nearly all aspects of film theory.)

Deleuze refuses to accept the notion of cinematic ideological apparatus, instead relying on what he believes as the film/creator/director using aspects of cinematic materials to produce specific meanings. The Movement Image refers to a specific way in which cinema/film functioned at a certain point in history. While The Time Image indicates another way of understanding how cinema functions. For Deleuze, the 2nd World War was a crucial turning point in cinema history as films that came before it were of the Movement Image kind, and after it they were Time Image films. He was adamant that both Images constituted different modes of filmic expression. However, post World War was not the end of Movement Image films, nor was it the beginning of Time Image films.

A Movement Image Set

The Time Image

By contrast, time image films do not work towards a definitive result, nor do they contain characters whose actions can bring about the result.

Good and evil are rarely clear cut, black and white. therefor characters can't act in ways that might lead to the triumph of good.

There are other ways of defining characters in Time Image films though, such as placing them in situations they can't control.

Time may also be fractured in Time Image, Past, present and future,with no coherent chronology with regards to story and plot, it may not be obvious. Not everything has its place, and often the story will become muddled and confusing (Pulp Fiction and Fight Club), leaving interpretations up to audiences.

The Movement Image:

There are two defining features of the Movement Image film:

They are films that work towards a definitive result

They feature characters that are capable of bringing about this result.

Particular forms of this type of film is the 'Large form of the action image' which he describes a type of realism. There are Two main Traits of this 'Large form of the action Image'; Milieu and Modes of Behavior. The Milieu is the setting or situation of the film (not just location but aspects of plot also) while the Mode of Behavior is reducible to the character. Both are interrelated, as placing a character in a certain setting will affect his behavior, ie Wild West films.

Time is always coherent in Movement Image films, everything has its place, it is clear and obvious.

A Time Image Film


Indeed, Deleuzes characterization of film, and filmic symbols poses intriguing questions about cinema and its place in history. However, this Hub has only focused on two aspects of Deleuzes Philosophy in film, he goes much deeper with his explanations and characterizations, including Movement Image subplots like The Perception Image, The Affection Image and The Action Image (which I mentioned Briefly), and The Time Image Subplots like Crystal Image and Actual/Virtual Image.

Philosophy of film contains so many aspects of film theory, from semiotics, Structuralist film, psychoanalytic film, and Apparatus theory to more defined areas such as feminist film, and Auteur theory. It is basically an all encompassing theory that utilizes every aspect of film in its search for the most fundamental questions in film.

One of the Best Documentaries on Philosophy of Film

© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide


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