Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Recommendation for the day: Stephen Mulhall.

by Ryland Walker Knight

As I often reiterate, I'm a slow learner stuck in loops I set for myself. Felipe recommended Stephen Mulhall's On Film (Thinking in Action) a year ago but it wasn't until a month ago that I finally read it. A small book, around 140 pages, On Film considers the Alien series of films as a starting point to argue for films as philosophical works. Mulhall's prose is clear and precise, a lucid examination of not just the four films attached to the series but of how each works in the oeuvre of its director. This post is a recommendation, flat out. It's not big on analysis of style (look to Style and Meaning for that), but there is no doubt about the high level of thoughtful evaluation on display here. Apparently it did not sit well with some of Mulhall's colleagues in the philosophical field (he has written books about Heidegger and Wittgenstein and Cavell), and some colleagues in the film studies field, which prompted Mulhall to write an essay called "Film as Philosophy: The Very Idea" (I've uploaded a pdf to zshare, breaking the rules a bit). It's a fine introduction to Mulhall's basic argument and I recommend reading that as well. A second edition of On Film was released last month and incorporates this essay as well as some writing on the Mission: Impossible trilogy as well as Minority Report. As a way to entice conversation, I'll now quote two paragraphs from the essay I've uploaded. Hope this strikes your fancy, too.

This point about what is proper to the condition of philosophy will recur; in fact, the rest of this paper will amount to retracing the circle of concepts I have just laid out in a more expansive and, I hope, elucidatory way. But for now, I want to concentrate on my claim about what one might call the argumentative relevance of particular experience. According to my conception of the matter, the ultimate touchstone for the validity of my argument that certain films, by existing in the condition of philosophy and consequently engaging reflectively on just the issues reflected upon in the philosophy of film, might be thought of as themselves philosophizing, is whether or not my claims to identify such moments in these films are convincing. So, for example, in my reading of Scott’s Blade Runner, I argue that Deckard’s Voight-Kampff machine, designed to distinguish humans from replicants, is a figure for the movie camera’s capacity to project and screen real human beings. And in my reading of Cameron’s Terminator 2, I claim that the clash between two models of terminator—a chameleon-like mimetic polyalloy confronting an obdurately inflexible titanium skeleton—is a way of scrutinizing two styles of acting (the actor becoming each character versus each character being a version of the actor).

Of course, what shows that the Voight-Kampff machine is a figure for the camera is not the simple fact that it exists in the film and possesses some properties analogous to those of a camera; by that token the presence of a mirror or a camera in any film would determine a priori that that film had substantial reflexive concerns. What matters is rather how the machine figures in the structures of significance established, developed, and even subverted by the film as a whole. So my claim that in presenting us with such a machine, Blade Runner is presenting us with a particular understanding of its own nature (by critically evaluating the opportunities and limits of one of its own determining conditions) can be justified only by showing that and how the film’s specific treatment of that machine betrays a genuinely thoughtful engagement with those conditions on the part of those who made it; and that can be established only by providing a convincing reading of the film as a whole in those terms.

Also, there's a Cavell quote (from The Claim of Reason) that Mulhall uses early in the book that I think is so succinct that I have to share it. It concerns how to distinguish between fear, terror and horror and speaks to why I (and others) like to see There Will Be Blood as a horror picture--as the kind of horror picture I'd like to see more of in the future. It's also pretty apt when you think about Ripley and her alien other...
Fear is of danger; terror is of violence, of the violence I might do or that might be done me. I can be terrified of thunder, but not horrified by it. And isn't it the case that not the human horrifies me, but the inhuman, the monstrous? Very well. But only what is human can be inhuman. --Can only the human be monstrous? If something is monstrous, and we do not believe that there are monsters, then only the human is a candidate for the monstrous.

If only humans feel horror (if the capacity to feel horror is a development of the specifically human biological inheritance), then maybe it is a response specifically to being human. To what, specifically, about being human? Horror is the title I am giving to the perception of the precariousness of human identity, to the perception that it may be lost or invaded, that we may be, or may become, something other than we are, or take ourselves for; that our origins as human beings need accounting for, and are unaccountable.

third revelation

1 comment:

  1. --Another advantage Mulhall's book can claim is that immediately after I finished it I wanted to watch all 8 films discussed ASAP. I don't have the time, right now, but it seems like something I'll definitely do in the near future.

    --I plan on using that Cavell quote in addition to that Ricoeur quote I put up a while ago as part of my argument about _TWBB_ and hermeneutics and history and how all those forces force us to reconsider what a film is, and how film narrative works. Because it's rather clear that _TWBB_ is not after some kind of traditional three-act structure. Pace Ricoeur, it's more like an archive of traces.