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The Palgrave Handbook Of The Philosophy Of Film And Motion Pictures

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This handbook brings together essays in the philosophy of film and motion pictures from authorities across the spectrum. It boasts contributions from philosophers and film theorists alike, with many essays employing pluralist approaches to this interdisciplinary subject. Core areas treated include film ontology, film structure, psychology, authorship, narrative, and viewer emotion. Emerging areas of interest, including virtual reality, video games, and nonfictional and autobiographical film also have dedicated chapters. Other areas of focus include the film medium’s intersection with contemporary social issues, film’s kinship to other art forms, and the influence of historically seminal schools of thought in the philosophy of film. Of emphasis in many of the essays is the relationship and overlap of analytic and continental perspectives in this subject.
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Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella

The Palgrave Handbook
of the Philosophy of
Film and Motion Pictures
Edited by
Noël Carroll
Laura T. Di Summa
Shawn Loht
Foreword by Errol Morris

The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy
of Film and Motion Pictures

Noël Carroll
Laura T. Di Summa • Shawn Loht

The Palgrave
Handbook of the
Philosophy of Film
and Motion Pictures

Noël Carroll
The Graduate Center
City University of New York
New York, NY, USA

Laura T. Di Summa
William Paterson University
Wayne, NJ, USA

Shawn Loht
Baton Rouge Community College
Baton Rouge, LA, USA

ISBN 978-3-030-19600-4    ISBN 978-3-030-19601-1


© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2019
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The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland


There really is no disentangling philosophy and film. Film is part of philosophy;
philosophy is part of film. Most major philosophical issues are expressed in film
in one way or another because film, properly conceived, is a way of thinking
about the world. It’s about the relationship between our perception of the
world and the world itself. It’s riddled with fundamental issues of epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of perception, philosophy of mind,
moral philosophy, and on, and on.
Let me give an example, which I use in my recent book The Ashtray: one of
my favorite John Ford movies, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Looked at from one perspective, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an
extended essay on reference, meaning and the coherence versus the correspondence theories of truth.
Following Horace Greeley’s injunction to “Go West, young man,” Ransom
Stoddard (James Stewart) takes his law school diploma and hangs out his shingle in Shinbone, a lawless frontier town in a life-or-death struggle with Liberty
Valance (Lee Marvin), gunslinger and goon of the cattle barons. In the final
shoot-out, Stoddard seems to kill Valance. But when his conscience revolts
against his newfound notoriety, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) recalls for
him—and we, the audience, see—that it was really Doniphon who shot Liberty
Valance from the shadows across the street.
We, the viewers, and a few people in the world of the film—admittedly a
fictional world but a world that we can easily imagine—believe that Tom
Doniphon shot Liberty Valance. But everyone else believes that Ransom
Stoddard shot Liberty Valance. We know that one view is true and one view is
false. That is, one view is true and one view is false in the world of the film.
And, make no mistake, films endlessly conjure with fictive worlds which are
meant to be seen as real worlds in the sense that we are asked to think about
what people believe in them and how they act on their beliefs.
It’s at the very end of the film where these issues come directly into play.
Ransom Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) are returning to Washington



from Shinbone on the train; the conductor explains to both of them that he
will do all in his power to ensure that they make all their connections and arrive
in Washington on time. He adds as a rejoinder, “Nothing is too good for the
man who shot Liberty Valance.” He says this while looking at James Stewart
(Ransom Stoddard). Who is the conductor referring to? Is he referring to
Ransom Stoddard or is he referring to Tom Doniphon? The conductor in the
world of the film clearly thinks that he’s referring to Ransom Stoddard. But is
he? On the one hand, his description uniquely identifies Doniphon; on the
other, his intention is to pick out Stoddard.
This has become a sticky wicket in the world of language philosophy—endless debates between people who feel that proper names are sticky labels and
people who think that proper names are disguised definite descriptions (and, to
be honest, a whole lot of complicated examples in between). But the point is
that it’s just this kind of ambiguity in language that gives John Ford’s epic an
additional oom-pah-pah. Because we’re thrown back on the ambiguities, the
ironies, the uncertainties of the film. And in considering them, they multiply
before our eyes. Is Tom Doniphon good or bad? He’s good because he allowed
Ransom Stoddard to go on and serve his country and attain statehood for his
unnamed western state. He’s bad because he committed a cold-blooded murder. A murder no matter how you look at it—possibly justifiable homicide, not
according to the law, but by some higher moral principle if there is one. The
Man Who Shot Liberty Valance also has much to teach us about ideas of truth
and heroism. After all, what can be more heroic than giving up everything for
the woman you love and losing that woman in the process, as does Doniphon?
What does such a movie have to do with philosophy? There’s a simple
answer to that: EVERYTHING. It’s like one of those pictures you’re given and
asked, how many animals can you identify in this image? How many philosophical issues can you identify in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? My guess
is hundreds.
Instead of trying to expound them, I would like to offer another example:
Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948). Consider how our picture of the world is
changed by adding and subtracting information. In The Fallen Idol, the young
protagonist Phillipe (Bobby Henrey) has one version of reality, the police have
another. And a man’s life hangs in the balance.
Movies are particularly good at this—at providing versions that call attention to what is real and what is imagined. In that sense, they are ultimately
epistemic. (I could be, perhaps, charged with indulging in that same kind of
device in The Thin Blue Line.) The Fallen Idol is an especially nuanced film in
this respect. The different perspectives it presents challenge an audience to
confront both the mystery of what happened and its role as investigator and
interpreter of that mystery.
Near the middle of the film, Phillipe, a diplomat’s son in the care of his
embassy’s staff, finds himself in the middle of a domestic crisis. He is roused by
a quarrel between his father’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), and Mrs.
Baines (Sonia Dresdel). Philippe spies the couple arguing at the top of the



embassy’s grand staircase. He runs out to the fire escape and down a level to
get a better view as the fight intensifies and gets physical. Just when it looks like
Baines is about to throw his wife down the stairs, Phillipe goes down another
level, anticipating her fall. He can’t see that the fight de-escalates as he does.
Baines calmly walks off while his wife, who is trying to confront Baines’s mistress, runs to a nearby window and begins to pound on it. The bottom of the
window tilts inward from the force of her blows at the top, knocking Mrs.
Baines off her feet and down the stairs. It is at this point that Philippe arrives
on the next level of the fire escape and has his expectations confirmed when he
sees Mrs. Baines’s body tumbling down the last few stairs.
As the camera follows Phillipe down the fire escape, we can peer into the
building through windows spaced widely apart. We see that Phillipe does not
have an unobstructed view of what is going on inside the building. We know,
then, that we cannot trust his version of events. But can we trust our own?
Phillipe’s perspective is an almost perfect metaphor for film itself. For the now
old-fashioned idea of the persistence of vision. A strip of 35-mm film has 16
images every foot and is projected at a film speed of 24 images a second—24
images separated by strips of black. How neatly this matches Phillipe’s warped
perception as he runs down the fire escape: the dark, blank wall of the embassy
exterior and the images that he sees through the windows.
Ultimately, there is no separating philosophy from film or film from philosophy. They’re interwoven with each other. I could name a few more themes, but
it’s clearly a partial, incomplete list. Images and reality. The motivation of characters that are partially real and partially make-believe. Documentary (of all
stripes and descriptions) and drama. Epistemology, ontology, and everything
else you could imagine. The question isn’t whether there is philosophy in film.
The question should be: how could it be otherwise?
FilmmakerErrol Morris
New York, NY, USA


Part I The Medium in Film and Motion Pictures   1
1	Film Ontology: Extension, Criteria and Candidates  3
Frank Boardman
2	Medium Specificity 29
Noël Carroll
3	The Moving Image 49
Nick Wiltsher and Aaron Meskin
4	The Art of Cinematography 71
Patrick Keating
Part II The Structure of Film and Motion Pictures  95
5	Silly Questions and Arguments for the Implicit, Cinematic
Narrator 97
Angela Curran
6	Narrative and the Moving Image119
Patrick Keating
7	On Rhythm in Film Editing143
Karen Pearlman
8	Animation165
David Davies



9	Sound in Film189
Paloma Atencia-Linares
10	What Is a Screenplay?215
Ted Nannicelli
Part III Approaches and Schools 235
11	Analytic Philosophy of Film: (Contrasted with Continental
Film Theory)237
Richard Eldridge
12	When the Twain Shall Meet: On the Divide Between Analytic
and Continental Film Philosophy259
John Ó Maoilearca
13	The Phenomenological Movement in Context of the
Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures285
Shawn Loht
14	Ideology and Experience: The Legacy of Critical Theory315
Espen Hammer
15	Stanley Cavell: What Becomes of People on Film?335
Paul Guyer
16	Film Art from the Analytic Perspective357
Deborah Knight
17	Cognitive Theory of the Moving Image381
Carl Plantinga
18	Aesthetic Criticism409
Andrew Klevan
19	Poststructuralism and Film441
Robert Sinnerbrink



Part IV Philosophy Through Film 467
20	Thoughtful Films, Thoughtful Fictions: The Philosophical
Terrain Between Illustrations and Thought Experiments469
E. M. Dadlez
21	Contemporary Philosophical Filmmaking491
Thomas E. Wartenberg
22	Filmosophy/Film as Philosophy513
Robert Sinnerbrink
Part V Auteur Theory, the Avant-Garde and New Filmmakers 541
23	The Auteur Theory in the Age of the Mini-Series543
Douglas Lackey
24	The Question of Poetic Cinema551
Tom Gunning
25	Avant-Garde Films as Philosophy573
Malcolm Turvey
Part VI Documentary 601
26	Show and Tell: The Identification of Documentary Film603
Vitor Moura
27	The Autobiographical Documentary627
Laura T. Di Summa
Part VII Movies and Society 651
28	Feminist Philosophy of Film653
Zoë Cunliffe



29	Race in Film677
Lewis R. Gordon
30	How Do We Look So Far? Notes Toward a Queer-Film
David A. Gerstner
31	Film, Art, and Pornography721
Jacob M. Held
32	Propaganda and the Moving Image757
Sheryl Tuttle Ross
Part VIII Movies and the Arts 781
33	Film and Fine Art: Automatism, Automata and “The Myth
of Total Cinema” in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann783
Kristin Boyce
34	The Sonic Art of Film and the Sonic Arts in Film801
John Dyck
35	Adaptation, Translation, and Philosophical Investigation in
Garry L. Hagberg
Part IX Emotions and Psychology 843
36	Imagination and Film845
Jonathan Gilmore
37	Empathy and Sympathy: Two Contemporary Models of
Character Engagement865
Daniel Jerónimo Tobón
38	Affect and Motion Pictures893
Jesse Prinz
39	Psychoanalysis and the Philosophy of Film923
Nickolas Pappas



Part X Alternative Media 947
40	The Television Medium949
Ted Nannicelli
41	Videogames and Film971
Jon Robson and Aaron Meskin
42	Virtual Reality as an Emerging Art Medium and Its
Immersive Affordances995
Gal Raz

Notes on Contributors

Paloma Atencia-Linares is a research associate at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico (UNAM). She did her PhD in Philosophy at University
College London (UCL), was a lecturer at the University of Kent, UK, for two
years and worked for six years as a sound designer for TV and films.
Frank Boardman is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Worcester State
University. He has worked predominantly in the philosophy of art, with excursions into logic, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. In the philosophy of
film, he has so far been primarily concerned with film ontology, the rhetorical
and cognitive values of film, and the nature and criticism of concert films.
Kristin Boyce is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a faculty fellow at the
Shackouls Honors College, Mississippi State University. She received a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 2010. She is the recipient
of numerous awards, including an American Council of Learned Societies
(ACLS) New Faculty Fellowship, a post-­doctoral fellowship from Stanford
University, and a Josephine De Karmán Dissertation Fellowship. Her primary
research interests are in philosophy of art, history of early analytic philosophy,
and Wittgenstein.
Noël Carroll is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York. He has written over 15 books, including,
most recently, Humour: A Very Short Introduction. He has also been a journalist and has written five documentaries.
Zoë Cunliffe is a PhD student at the City University of New York’s Graduate
Center. Her philosophical interests include aesthetics, social and political philosophy, and social epistemology. Most recently she delivered a paper,
“Narrative Fiction and Epistemic Injustice,” at a meeting of the American
Society for Aesthetics. When not doing philosophy, she is usually eating Asian
food, binge-watching films and television, or exploring the city.




Angela Curran is a visiting assistant professor at Kansas State University. She
works on topics in ancient Greek philosophy, aesthetics, and philosophy of
film, and is author of The Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Aristotle and the
Poetics (2015).
E. M. Dadlez has a PhD in Philosophy from Syracuse University and is
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma. Her work is
mainly on the philosophy of art and literature, and on topics at the intersection
(sometimes, more accurately, the collision) of aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology. She is author of various articles on aesthetics and feminist ethics, as well as of What’s Hecuba to Him? Fictional Events and Actual Emotions
and Mirrors to One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David
Hume. She is editor of Jane Austen’s Emma: Philosophical Perspectives.
David Davies is Professor of Philosophy at McGill University. He is author of
Art as Performance (2004), Aesthetics and Literature (2007), and Philosophy of
the Performing Arts (2011). He is also editor of The Thin Red Line (2008) and
co-editor of Blade Runner (2015), both in the Routledge series Philosophers on
Film. He has published widely on philosophical issues in the metaphysics and
epistemology of art; issues relating more specifically to film, photography, performance, music, literature, visual art, and dance; and issues in general metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language.
Laura T. Di Summa is an assistant professor at William Paterson University.
She received her PhD from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center
in 2014, where she worked with Prof. Noël Carroll. She has written and presented papers on autobiography and its developments, philosophy of motion
pictures, everyday aesthetics, and issues related to the cognitive analysis of
visual arts. She has been the Managing Editor of The Philosophical Forum
since 2010.
John Dyck is a PhD candidate at the City University of New York’s Graduate
Center, finishing his dissertation on aesthetic value. He also writes on philosophy of music.
Richard Eldridge is Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of
Philosophy at Swarthmore College. He has held visiting appointments in
Bremen, Erfurt, and Freiburg (Germany); Essex (UK); Sydney (Australia); and
Stanford and Brooklyn (US). He has written widely on aesthetics, the
philosophies of literature and film, German Idealism and Romanticism,
and the philosophy of language, including, most recently, Images of History:
Kant, Benjamin, Freedom and the Human Subject (2016) and Werner Herzog:
Filmmaker and Philosopher (2019).
David A. Gerstner is Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of
Media Culture at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) College of Staten
Island. He also serves as a member of the doctoral faculty at the CUNY
Graduate Center. His books include: Christophe Honoré: A Critical Introduction



(with Julien Nahmias, 2015), Queer Pollen: White Seduction, Black Male
Homosexuality, and the Cinematic (2011, Choice Outstanding Academic Title,
2012), Manly Arts: Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema (2006),
and The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture (editor, 2006—
New York Public Library “Best of Reference,” 2007). His co-edited
works include Media Authorship (with Cynthia Chris) and Authorship and
Film (with Janet Staiger). He is editor of the book series Queer Screens.
Jonathan Gilmore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the City University
of New York, the Graduate Center and Baruch College. He is author of Apt
Imaginings: Feelings for Fictions and Other Creatures of the Mind.
Lewis R. Gordon is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut
(UCONN)-Storrs, Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced
Studies, and Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes
University in South Africa. His books are Fear of Black Consciousness and his
collection of essays 论哲学、去殖民化与种族 (“On Philosophy, Decolonization,
and Race”), trans. Li Beilei.
Tom Gunning is Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of
Cinema and Media at the University of Chicago, and author of D.W. Griffith
and the Origins of American Narrative Film, The Films of Fritz Lang; Allegories
of Vision and Modernity, and over 150 articles.
Paul Guyer is Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at
Brown University and Florence R.C. Murray Professor in the Humanities
emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his AB and PhD from
Harvard under the supervision of Stanley Cavell. He is author of ten
books on Kant, including Kant’s aesthetics, and of A History of Modern
Aesthetics in three volumes (2014). He was General Co-Editor of the Cambridge
Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, and in that series was co-­editor and
co-translator of the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of the Power of
Judgment and editor and co-translator of Kant’s Notes and Fragments. With
Ted Cohen and Hilary Putnam, he edited Pursuits of Reason, a volume of
essays on the work of Stanley Cavell (1993). He is a fellow of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Garry L. Hagberg is James H. Ottaway Professor of Philosophy and
Aesthetics at Bard College, and has also held a Chair in the School of Philosophy
at the University of East Anglia. Author of numerous papers at the intersection
of aesthetics and the philosophy of language, his books include Meaning
and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge and
Art as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aesthetic Theory; his most recent
book is Describing Ourselves: Wittgenstein and Autobiographical Consciousness.
He is editor of Art and Ethical Criticism and Fictional Characters, Real
Problems: The Search for Ethical Content in Literature as well as of his most
recent edited volume, Wittgenstein on Aesthetic Understanding. Co-editor of



A Companion to the Philosophy of Literature and editor of the journal
Philosophy and Literature, Hagberg is presently writing a new book on the
contribution literary experience makes to the formation of self and sensibility, Living in Words: Literature, Autobiographical Language, and the
Composition of Selfhood, and editing a volume Stanley Cavell on Aesthetic
Espen Hammer is Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. He is author
of, among other books, Stanley Cavell: Skepticism, Subjectivity, and the
Ordinary (2002), Adorno and the Political (2005), Philosophy and Temporality
from Kant to Critical Theory (2013), and Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience,
and Catastrophe (2015). He is editor of German Idealism: Contemporary
Perspectives (2007), Theodor W. Adorno II: Critical Assessments of Leading
Philosophers (2015), and Kafka’s The Trial: Philosophical Perspectives (2018).
He is also a co-editor with Peter E. Gordon and Max Pensky of The
Blackwell Companion to Adorno (forthcoming) and a co-editor with Axel
Honneth and Peter E. Gordon of The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt
School (2018).
Jacob M. Held is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the
University of Central Arkansas (UCA) Core (General Education) at the UCA
in Conway, Arkansas. His philosophical work focuses on political and legal
theory, pornography, and popular culture and philosophy. His most
recent works include The Philosophy of Sex (7th edition), edited with Raja
Halwani, Alan Soble, and Sarah Hoffman (2017), Stephen King and
Philosophy (2016) and Wonder Woman and Philosophy (2017). Dr. Held
focuses primarily on scholarly work that is accessible to and engages a
broad audience. Outside of the academy his work has been featured in
venues such as The Huffington Post, The Guardian, and PhilosophyTalk.
Patrick Keating is an associate professor in the Department of Communication
at Trinity University, where he teaches courses in film studies and video production. He is author of Hollywood Lighting from the Silent Era to Film Noir
(2010) and editor of Cinematography (2014). His most recent book is The
Dynamic Frame: Camera Movement in Classical Hollywood (forthcoming in
2019), for which he was named an Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of
Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Andrew Klevan is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the Oxford University.
He is author of Aesthetic Evaluation and Film (2018), Barbara Stanwyck
(2013), Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (2005), and
Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film (2000).
He is also co-editor of The Language and Style of Film Criticism (2011).
Deborah Knight teaches philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston,
Canada. Her early academic career in film studies was cut short because she
supported analytic film theory in the days of dogmatic poststructuralism. She



has written on filmmakers including Hitchcock, Eastwood, and Nolan and on
film genres including the Western, science fiction, detective fiction, and
horror. She has written about the structure of film narratives, emotional
engagement with fictional characters, sentimentality, and ethical criticism.
Forthcoming work will allow her to revisit Blade Runner as well as her
skepticism about the claim that certain feature-length fiction films are
philosophical thought experiments.
Douglas Lackey is Professor of Philosophy at Baruch College and the
Graduate Center, City University of New York, where he has taught courses on
film theory and the history of film. He is interested in connections between
perception theory and film, and action theory and dance aesthetics.
Shawn Loht has written on phenomenology, the philosophy of film, and
ancient Greek philosophy. His recent publications include the monograph
Phenomenology of Film: A Heideggerian Account of the Film Experience (2017).
He has taught in the philosophy departments at Tulane University, Mercer
University, and Pennsylvania State University.
Aaron Meskin is Professor of Philosophical Aesthetics at the University of
Georgia. He works on a variety of issues in aesthetics, the philosophy of food,
and philosophical psychology. He has authored numerous journal articles and
chapters and co-edited five books, including The Routledge Companion to
Comics (2016), Aesthetics and the Science of Mind (2014), and The Art of
Comics: A Philosophical Approach (2012).
Vitor Moura is an assistant professor at the Universidade do Minho, Portugal,
where he presently teaches a number of courses, ranging from logic to aesthetics
of architecture. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-­Madison
in 2006. His research projects address the issue of intentionalism in aesthetic
interpretation, and perception and aesthetic experience. He is also a member of
the Executive Committee of the European Society for Aesthetics.
Ted Nannicelli teaches at the School of Communication and Arts, The
University of Queensland. He is author of A Philosophy of the Screenplay (2013),
Appreciating the Art of Television (2017), and Artistic Creation and Ethical
Criticism (forthcoming).
John Ó Maoilearca is Professor of Film at Kingston School of Art, Kingston
University, London. He has also taught philosophy and film theory at the
University of Sunderland, England, and the University of Dundee, Scotland.
He has published ten books, including (as author) Bergson and Philosophy
(2000), Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline (2006), Philosophy and the
Moving Image: Refractions of Reality (2010), and (as editor) Bergson and the
Art of Immanence (2013) and The Bloomsbury Companion to Continental
Philosophy (2013). His last book was All Thoughts Are Equal: Laruelle and
Nonhuman Philosophy (2015).



Nickolas Pappas is Executive Officer and Professor of Philosophy at the City
University of New York’s Graduate Center. He is author of several books,
including the Guidebook to Plato’s Republic (now in its third edition) and most
recently The Philosopher’s New Clothes: The Theaetetus, the Academy, and
Philosophy’s Turn against Fashion. His numerous shorter pieces cover topics in
ancient philosophy and aesthetics.
Karen Pearlman is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University (Sydney) and
author of Cutting Rhythms, Intuitive Film Editing (2016). Her creative practice research film Woman with an Editing Bench (2016) won the Australian
Teachers of Media (ATOM) Award for Best Short Fiction and the
Australian Screen Editors Guild (ASE) Award for Best Editing in a Short
Film along with six other film festival prizes. Other publications from
Karen’s ongoing research into editing, cognition and feminist film histories include “Editing and Cognition Beyond Continuity” in Projections,
The Journal of Movies and Mind (2017), “Documentary Editing and
Distributed Cognition” in A Cognitive Approach to Documentary (Palgrave
Macmillan 2018), co-editing a special issue of the journal Apparatus titled
“Women at the Editing Table: Revising Soviet Film History of the 1920s
and 30s” (2018), and the essay film After the Facts (2018), which has
screened at many international film festivals, won “Best Editing” in Open
Content at the ASE awards 2018, and has been accepted for publication
in [in]Transition in 2019.
Carl Plantinga is Professor of Film and Media at Calvin College and former
president of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image. He is
author of Screen Stories: Emotion and the Ethics of Engagement (2018), Moving
Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience (2009), and Rhetoric
and Representation in Nonfiction Film (1997). Plantinga also co-edited The
Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film (with Paisley Livingston) and
Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion (with Greg M. Smith).
Jesse Prinz is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center
of the City University of New York and was Einstein Visiting Fellow at the
Berlin School of Mind and Brain. Prinz is interested in how the mind
works and how philosophical accounts of the mental can be informed by
findings from psychology, the neurosciences, anthropology, and related
fields. His research interests include emotion, consciousness, cultural cognition, concepts, perception, moral psychology, and aesthetics. Much of
his work is a continuation of the classical empiricist tradition, which
emphasizes the role of perceptual experience and socialization in grounding our cognitive capacities. Prinz is author of over 100 articles, and several books, including: Furnishing the Mind, Gut Reactions, The Emotional
Construction of Morals, The Conscious Brain, and Beyond Human Nature. Two
other books, Works of Wonder and The Moral Self, are forthcoming, and a
book on social construction is in progress.



Gal Raz is a visiting lecturer at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television
and the Sagol School of Neuroscience, and a researcher at the Sagol Institute
for Brain Functions, Tel-Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. His fields of
research include brain network dynamics, neuroscience of empathy, cinematic empathy, neuoroaesthetics of motion pictures, audiovisual brain
computer interfaces, and virtual and augmented reality.
Jon Robson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nottingham.
He has written extensively in a range of areas within aesthetics (especially on the
epistemology of aesthetic judgments). Outside of aesthetics, he works in a range
of other philosophical sub-disciplines, including epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion. He is co-editor of Aesthetics and the Sciences
of Mind (2014) and The Aesthetics of Videogames (2018) as well as co-author of
A Critical Introduction to the Metaphysics of Time (2016).
Sheryl Tuttle Ross is Full Professor of Philosophy at the University of
Wisconsin-La Crosse. She researches at the intersection of art, politics and
morality. She has written extensively about propaganda, developing the
Epistemic Merit Model and its application to a variety of artworks, media and
social circumstances. She is currently expanding her research focus to include
political humor and aesthetic akrasia.
Robert Sinnerbrink is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie
University, Australia. He is author of Understanding Hegelianism (2007), New
Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (2011), Cinematic Ethics: Exploring
Ethical Experience through Film (2016), and Terrence Malick: Filmmaker and
Philosopher (2019). He is also on the editorial boards of the journals Film and
Philosophy, Film-Philosophy, and Projections: The Journal of Movies and Mind.
Daniel Jerónimo Tobón teaches at the Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia,
and is a doctoral candidate at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. He has
written on aesthetics, contemporary Colombian art and film, art and memory,
and emotions.
Malcolm Turvey is Sol Gittleman Professor in the Department of Art and Art
History and Director of the Film and Media Studies Program at Tufts
University. He is also an editor of the journal October. He is author of Doubting
Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition (2008) and The Filming of Modern
Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s (2011), and co-editor of
Wittgenstein, Theory, and the Arts (2001). His Play Time: Jacques Tati and
Comedic Modernism will be published by Columbia University Press in 2019.
Thomas E. Wartenberg is a senior research fellow in Philosophy at Mount
Holyoke College. His main areas of focus are aesthetics, the philosophy of film,
and philosophy for children. Among his publications are Thinking on Screen:
Film as Philosophy, Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism,
Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide, and Mel Bochner: Illustrating Philosophy.



He has edited or co-edited four volumes on philosophy and film, most recently
Fight Club (Philosophers on Film). He is Film Editor for Philosophy Now.
Nick Wiltsher is Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellow at the University
of Antwerp’s Centre for Philosophical Psychology. He has previously been
employed at Auburn University (AL, US), the Federal University of Rio
Grande do Sul (Porto Alegre, Brazil), and the University of Leeds (UK).
He works on imagination in the philosophy of mind and on a number of topics
in aesthetics.

List of Tables

Table 7.1
Table 7.2

Table form distillation of the three questions being asked and the
ideas being proposed in response to each
Table form distillation of the three operations, or tools, editors
deploy and each of their three suboperations




At present, we are in the midst of a heyday in the philosophy of film, or, more
accurately, the philosophy of the moving image or motion picture, whose practice comprises not only film, but television, video, video games, digital imaging, virtual reality, and technologies yet to come and which are delivered by a
comparable array of platforms. Never before have so many philosophers, from
such a wide variety of theoretical traditions, taken this measure of professional
interest in the movies. These interests, moreover, range across the philosophical division of labor, raising metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political,
and, of course, aesthetical questions with respect to cinema. In this anthology,
we have attempted to provide a wide sampling of the many issues from a diverse
range of schools that are philosophically interrogating the moving image today.
Philosophers such as Hugo Munsterberg and György Lukacs took an early
interest in film, commenting upon it even before 1920. Moreover, writers who
were often classified as film theorists—such as Béla Balász, Rudolf Arnheim,
André Bazin, and V.F. Perkins—were, even when not card-carrying philosophers, nevertheless philosophically informed, and they pursued the philosophical investigation of film in the process of enfranchising film as an art form and
establishing what they identified as its constitutive norms.
In the English-speaking world, from the standpoint of professional philosophy, the publication in 1971 of Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed: Reflections
on the Ontology of Film was a seminal event. Here was a book-length treatise on
film by a member of Harvard University’s philosophy department, arguably
one of the most distinguished philosophy departments in the Anglo-American
world, whose faculty at the time included many giants of twentieth-century
philosophy (such as W.V.O. Quine and John Rawls). Cavell’s work provided
both inspiration and legitimatization to younger philosophers who grew up
movie-mad and aspired to unite their love of film with their love of philosophy.
All the authors in this volume belong to the generations who, if they have not
followed Cavell’s lead, have benefitted from the opportunity he made possible,
if only institutionally. They have gone where philosophers have never gone



before and recorded in depth the sophistication of the contemporary philosophical conversation focused on the moving image.
Perhaps needless to say, this anthology has not covered every imaginable
subject in the expanding area of the philosophy of cinema, a moving target, if
there ever was one. But we, the editors, have attempted to canvas topics at
greater length than previous volumes in this genre, and we have encouraged
our authors to attempt original philosophizing in their contributions. In this
regard, we hope that this volume will not only track past and recent achievements in the philosophy of the moving image but also pave the way for
the future.
Noël Carroll


The Medium in Film and
Motion Pictures


Film Ontology: Extension, Criteria
and Candidates
Frank Boardman

Our concern in this chapter is with a set of issues central to the ontology of
film. “Ontology” traditionally refers to the branch of philosophy that deals
with questions about the being and nature of things. We can safely assume that
films exist or even less controversially that there are some films. So, our first
question in the ontology of film need not be “are there films?” but rather
“what is film?” An even clearer statement of our primary question may be
“what sort of thing is film?”
Armed with an answer to that question, we could wade more confidently into
secondary issues regarding films’ constitutive parts or the conditions under which
they persist through time. But alas, while we have no shortage of available theories about the nature of film, there is nothing like consensus around any one of
them. This has not been an entirely unfavorable condition, however. A good
number of critical insights and useful observations about film have emerged out
of philosophers’ debates, arguments and disagreements over film ontology.
Another sort of disagreement, though, has been less beneficial. These are
disagreements over the question itself, which largely emerge from two sources.
First, we don’t enjoy antecedent agreement on the class of things that are films
(the extension of “film”). And we can’t expect to agree on what makes things
films if we don’t first agree on which things are films. Second, we don’t yet
agree on what we’re asking. That is to say, we don’t agree on criteria for an
adequate answer.
So, instead of offering or defending a particular theory of film ontology in
this chapter, I’d like to discuss the proper extension of “film” and propose a set

F. Boardman (*)
Worcester State University, Worcester, MA, USA
© The Author(s) 2019
N. Carroll et al. (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Film
and Motion Pictures,




of criteria for selecting an ontological theory of it. I’ll then consider some
­current and likely candidate theories using those criteria. By way of conclusion,
I’ll offer some suggestions for ways the discussion might move forward.

Determining the Extension of “Film”
We should notice right away that there is no natural or privileged use of “film”
or set of films independent of some particular theoretical or conversational
interest. A frustrated aficionado of celluloid and acetate film might be interested in the nature of the set of objects that ranges from Louis Le Prince’s
experiments to those few hold-out 35-mm theaters scattered around the world.
But most of us do not think that the history of film ended with the swift triumph of digital projection in this decade. The films that dominate the cultural
landscape are still being made, distributed, seen, discussed and written about,
even if there is no longer any film involved.
The “film” in this sense relies on Le Prince’s and Edison’s technologies, but
doesn’t emerge until others use that technology to say and tell. And it is not
entirely clear when that activity starts. Are the Lumiere brothers’ early projected films the start of this history or does it wait on the first narrative film
(which may also have been theirs)? We can’t just be interested in narrative films
per se, lest we exclude whole swaths of genuine films more likely to be seen at
the gallery than the multiplex.
But then again, it is not merely the technology of moving images in which
we’re interested. Whatever films are, they don’t include security camera footage or Skype conversations. We should think of ourselves as primarily investigating an art form. This is not because we should assume from the outset that
there is an ontological difference between last night’s security footage and
Rear Window, but because only the art film (understanding that term as widely
as is reasonably possible) provides us with a special investigative interest.1 The
cultural, aesthetic and historical interests we take in Hitchcock’s masterpiece2
motivate questions about its nature. And because we take similar interests in
other films, we should not assume that Rear Window is ontologically sui generis.
Just as it is the art form status of films that arouses our interest in its ontology, the ontology of film has figured prominently in the establishment of film
as an art. As moving pictures matured from curiosity to art form, the live-­
action narrative film naturally invited comparisons to two close cousins.
Focusing on the technology and means of display, the film is kin to photography. It is in fact photography itself, multiplied, put in motion and coupled
(eventually) with sound. Focusing instead on their content, films are in the
family of theater and continue the ancient history of drama and comedy.

For a slightly different (and stronger) take on the discontinuity between the technical and
artistic natures of film, see Jacques Rancière, Film Fables, Emiliano Battista, trans. (Oxford: Berg
2001) 11–12.
Yes it is.



This situation presented something of a dilemma for the early advocate of
films’ art status. On the one hand, the art status of photography was itself in
question. On the other, if films are artworks in the theatrical tradition, then the
artwork in question may just be the actions filmed rather than the film itself.
Thus, the price for resting the possibility of films’ art status on similarity with
another art form is that it makes room for a skeptic to claim that film is no
distinct form, but rather a mode of presentation for the form to which
it’s compared.
This central problem is still with us, even if the art status of (some) photography is more of a given today. If film can be an art form, it must be a kind of
thing that is (a) capable of being art and (b) different in some significant and
relevant way from existing art forms. Given their proximity, the pressing challenge for (b) is to distinguish film from photography and theater, though we
want to be able to distinguish it from painting, poetry and music as well.3
We have good reason, then, to want an ontology of film as an art form. And,
in fact, it is difficult to see what other compelling reason we could have for
wanting an ontology of film. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by thinking
that the ontology of art is just more interesting than the ontology of security
or communication technology.
Even so, there does not necessarily need to be an ontological difference
between the film and the security footage in order for there to be a difference
in their art status, unless there is an ontological difference between art and
nonart (but that would be another matter). There is, after all, at least a prima
facie distinction to be made between ontological and art-status questions. In
the present context, the former ask “what makes this thing a film and not
something else?” While the latter ask, “what makes this film a work of art and
not something that is not a work of art?”
There are two reasons, though, to confine the extension of “film” in question to filmic works of art and exclude security camera footage, home movies,
Skype conversations and the like. The first follows from the kind of interests we
just discussed. It is captured in what David Davies calls the ‘pragmatic constraint’ on the ontology of art:
Artworks must be entities that can bear the sorts of properties rightly ascribed to
what are termed “works” in our reflective critical and appreciative practice; that
are individuated in the way such “works” are or would be individuated, and that
have the modal properties that are reasonably ascribed to “works,” in that

I should note that there is no universal agreement on the need to distinguish film from other
arts. Alain Badiou, for instance, thinks that “cinema is nothing but editing” and that otherwise it
is the “plus-one of the arts” taking from music, stage, literature and even painting without contributing anything essentially artistic of its own. Alain Badiou, Cinema, Susan Spitzer, Trans.
(Cambridge: Polity, 2017) 97; 89.
David Davies, Art as Performance (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 18.



This “methodological principle guiding philosophical inquiry,” Davies notices,
is at least implicitly at work in many and otherwise various ontologies of art.5
Sherri Irvin later makes explicit use of the same criterion, (rightfully) preferring
to call it the “critical practice constraint.”6
Applying the critical practice constraint to film suggests an ontological difference between (for instance) security camera footage and live-action narrative
films. It is inappropriate to criticize security footage for its aesthetic or otherwise formal faults. Regardless of how films are properly individuated, the question of individuation does not arise for security footage. Footage has duration,
not individuality. And the same film could have different endings. If some
duration of security footage has a different ending (and “ending” is not even
the right word here), it is a different bit of footage.
The second reason becomes apparent when we consider the difference
between actual security camera footage and security-camera-footage-like shots
in a film. Certain shots in The Wire (2002–2008) or The Bourne Identity
(2002), for instance, let you know that a character is being filmed by providing
the perspective of the security camera filming. The entire movie Look (2007) is
shot from such perspectives. But in these instances, the shots themselves establish the existence of a fictional and unseen security camera. Actual security
cameras require the existence of an actual unseen security camera. These are
not merely ways of seeing the film and the footage. Something is fundamentally different about the two. One camera is fictional and the other actual.
Surely, the difference between the fictional and the actual is ontological.
This is not to say, however, that the ontological difference between security
camera footage (and the like) and film as we mean to discover it must track the
fiction/non-fiction divide. There are, after all, plenty of non-fiction films, both
documentaries (in the traditional sense of “documentary,” we’ll consider
another in a little bit) and nonnarrative (what are often and sometimes pejoratively called “experimental”) films. We could imagine, in fact, actual security
footage being repurposed as such a film. But then it would have been transformed (or “transfigured” in Arthur Danto’s parlance).7 And that transformation is a transformation in the kind of thing that it is. It will go from a mere
recording to something with a point, a meaning. It will go from having only
duration to an individual identity. Its modal properties will change. It will
become subject to aesthetic evaluation. It will, in short, become a new
kind of thing.
So, only those moving images8 that might be reasonably thought of as artworks are films in the sense under consideration. But there is still some work to
be done to say which artworks are members of that class. The first couple of
Davies, Art as Performance, 18–19.
Sherri Irvin, “The Ontological Diversity of Visual Artworks” in New Waves in Aesthetics, ed.
Kathleen Stock and Katherine Thomson-Jones (London: Macmillan, 2008), 2.
Arthur Danto, “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism 33 (1974).
Or, as we’ll see a little later, potentially moving images.



questions involve the technology of displaying films—even (as we discussed
above) when the technology that is standard is changing over time. First, is
such technology necessary? For instance, if films involve moving images, then
so do flip books, and we might be reluctant to admit flip books into the relevant class.9 But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty. Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscope”
is a series of paintings that appear as an animation to riders of the Q train after
they leave Dekalb Avenue on their way to Manhattan from Brooklyn. The
moving-image effect is delivered by stationary pictures viewed from a moving
train rather than moving pictures viewed from a stationary position. The same
visual effect could have been carried out in the normal way, with those particular pictures in motion. In fact, it is theoretically possible to set up giant slides
of each frame of The Godfather (1972) separated by black pillars at just the
right distance and have a train pass them all at just the right speed while piping
in synchronized audio across the loudspeakers. The overall effect would be a
viewing of The Godfather by other (albeit rather extraordinary) means. And The
Godfather is a film.
Then is the technology of film display enough to guarantee a film? Mike
Hoolboom’s White Museum consists visually of half an hour of film leader (the
empty film used by technicians to mark beginnings and endings) projected on
a screen. Most of us would want to count this as a film, even if it is the kind that
could only be made as a minimalist comment on the nature of film.10
So, once art status is established or assumed, it seems that uses of certain
display technologies are sufficient for a work to be a film. But what about the
images that are displayed? Most importantly, is there a useful ontological category that captures both animation and live-action films? Three considerations
speak in favor of there being one, or at least our defaulting to the position that
there is one in the absence of evidence to the contrary. First, there are the obvious commonalities. Both involve displayed moving images typically (these days
anyway) accompanied by sound. Both typically tell stories, involve acting and
have a common lineage as narratives in literature and theater. Second, animations and live actions occupy the same place in the cultural landscape. They are
shown in the same theaters, on the same televisions and via the same websites.
They’re reviewed and discussed in the same sections of newspapers. Third, if
they were distinct categories, there would be a great and ever-greater number
of bothersome borderline and otherwise unclear cases. There are the mixtures
like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Phantom Menace (1999),
entirely Rotoscoped films like A Scanner Darkly (2006), and the action blockbusters that leave virtually no shot untouched by visual effects. Admittedly,
none of these considerations are quite definitive. It may be that the right
Noël Carroll, for instance, thinks these are outside the relevant class. See “Defining the Moving
Image,” in Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures, ed. Noël Carroll and Jinhee Choi (Oxford:
Blackwell, 2006) Especially 131.
For more on such cases and an account that puts the sufficiency of cinematic display technology front and center, see Trevor Ponech, “The Substance of Cinema,” The Journal of Aesthetics
and Art Criticism 64 (2006).



­ ntological account separates animation from live action. But such an account
has the dual burdens of a proof that we tend to be in error and a diagnosis for
that error.
Finally, while we’re on the topic of borderline cases, there may be a question
about the status of mixed-media works that involve film. Carl Hancock Rux’s
Mycenaean involves live acting on a stage accompanied by projected moving
images. And the band Neurosis used to accompany their performances with
original video projected around them. But these sorts of works shouldn’t over-­
worry us. These hybrid works are plausibly combinations of various art forms.11
It seems unlikely that they would need any special ontological account. They
are, as we should expect, works whose parts belong to various categories, whatever those categories turn out to be.

Criteria for an Ontology of Film
Having sketched an outline for the extension of the operative sense of “film,”
we’re in a better position to provide some criteria for a good theory of film
ontology. If the goal of such a theory is to answer the question “What is film?”
or “What makes this thing I’m watching a film and not something else?”, then
the primary condition on a successful theory is that it provides necessary conditions for membership in that extension that together come as close as possible
to being sufficient. That is to say, we’re after a set of conditions, each one of
which must be present in something if that thing is to be a film, and (if possible) all of those conditions being present in something guarantees that that
thing is a film.
It may be that no set of conditions will be sufficient because films may share
an ontology with non-films. But we should not assume this at the outset. And
even if sufficiency is impossible or undesirable, we should still aim at coming as
close as we can to it in order to say something interesting about the nature of
film. So, we’re after properties common to everything in the class described
above that help us distinguish those things from nonmembers. As should be
clear from our earlier conversation, we at least want to be able to distinguish
film from other art forms, especially photographs, paintings and theater.
Much of the usual criteria for theory selection apply to ontologies of film in
a number of interrelated ways. Such theories ought to be consistent, at least in
the absence of evidence of some dastardly paradox waiting at the heart of film.
They ought to be plausible as well. That is to say, we ought—ceteris paribus—
to adopt the ontology that forces us to amend fewer of our present beliefs.
Similarly, the best ontological theory will, again ceteris paribus, be simpler. We
ought to prefer the theory that forces us to take on fewer new beliefs. Especially
important in this context is that we should take on as few new ontological
entity types as we reasonably can. The best theory will also produce more
My use of “hybrid” here is akin to Jerrold Levinson’s in “Hybrid Art Forms,” The Journal of
Aesthetic Education 18 (1984).



­ tility. There is more that we can do with the most preferable theory, be it
opening new lines of research, informing our appreciation of films or otherwise
guiding our actions.
Finally, explanatory power is as important a criterion for adjudicating
between ontological theories of film as it is in other contexts. So what ought to
count as data for such a theory? For starters, an ontological theory ought to
shed some light on our common experience of film and our everyday discourse
about films. The latter will include a wide range of practices, from the writings
of professional critics to watercooler talk about recent summer blockbusters.
It’s this kind of consideration that motivates the “critical practice constraint”
we discussed earlier.
There may, however, be something wrong with our common experience of
or discourse about film, and we should be open to the possibility that the best
ontology of film can show us this. But again, this places a heavy burden of
proof and diagnosis on the theory that would attempt to do so. In the absence
of both of these, our default demand ought to be that a theory help us explain
rather than explain away our typical experiences and practices.
Of special interest regarding explanatory power are two puzzles that Danto
introduces in “Moving Pictures,” both of which point to crucial and fundamental issues.12 The first, in very Danto-nian style, involves indiscernible counterparts: the photographic slide and the unmoving film image, projected side
by side onto a screen or wall. The two are exactly the same to all appearances,
and yet there is an important difference between them. Because that difference
is a difference in kind or, to be a bit more dramatic, mode of being, it is incumbent on an ontology of film to explain the difference. One way of looking at
this problem is that it raises the stakes on a prior condition on an ontology of
film: that it should appropriately distinguish film and photography.
The second puzzle that Danto considers has—I think unfortunately—
received less attention, at least as an issue in film ontology. This is the distinction between what Danto calls a “screenplay” and a “documentary” film. Here,
“screenplay” does not mean the textual plan for or documentation of a film,
nor is “documentary” the genre designation with which we’re most familiar.
Rather, they refer to two ways of viewing a film, which correspond to two ways
of viewing given filmed objects. When we watch that famous scene in The
Godfather, what we see is the result of the work of a camera trained on Al
Pacino walking into a staged restaurant-like setting with a prop gun. When we
see Al Pacino acting with a prop in his hand, we view them as motifs and The
Godfather as documentary. We are literally seeing what the camera documents.
Alternatively, we can see the same thing before us as Michael Corleone walking
into a restaurant dining room with a gun in his hand. That is to view Pacino
and the prop as models and The Godfather as screenplay. We do not yet have an
ontological distinction (much less a problem) but rather two ways of seeing.
The ontological issue arises when we notice that some films can only—at least

Arthur Danto, “Moving Pictures,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 4 (1979).



without error—be viewed as documentaries, others as screenplays or documentaries. No one in the security camera footage is a model, and it is not at all a
screenplay. But there’s still no real trouble, since typically no one is acting in
security footage. The really difficult questions start when we consider films of
plays. When my son acts in a school play, he is a model for whatever fictional
character he’s playing. And yet my recording from the third row cannot be
viewed as a screenplay even though it is recording someone being a model. I
can slip into viewing him as model, but what I’m viewing is him-as-model
within the play that is then filmed, not in the film itself. Given the facts (a) that
there is an ontological difference between the film that can be viewed as screenplay and the film that cannot and (b) that the screenplay is, among films that
may count as art, more common than those that cannot, it is incumbent on an
ontology of film as an art form that it account for or at least help explain this
difference. Until we have done so, we have not really distinguished film from
theater. Incidentally, we also risk turning the in-theater handheld camera bootleg of a movie into its own work.
Two one-time ambitions for the ontology of art are notably absent from
these criteria—namely that a theory of this sort should provide a critical standard or teleology for film. This is not because these things are undesirable. If
further utility is a reason to prefer a theory, then, surely, we should—ceteris
paribus—choose the theory that provides benefits as useful as these. This result,
however, is just too unlikely to demand of a theory. The diversity of styles and
purposes of good films strongly suggests that there is more than one good-­
making quality of film, whatever their ontology. It seems only a vestigial
Aristotelianism would have us expect an inference to the goodness of a thing
directly from its kind or type.

With these criteria in hand, let’s evaluate some candidate ontologies of film.
Some of these have been introduced for other purposes, though they’re all
claims that either have been offered as ontologies of film or might reasonably
be so offered.
Realism has a special place in the history of film and film theory. In its simplest
form, it is the claim that what distinguishes film as an art form is its capacity to
transmit, present or re-present reality as it is. André Bazin used this feature of
film to distinguish it from other plastic arts.13 On his account, photography is
the culmination of a centuries-long fascination with reproducing reality in the
plastic arts. Film then expands photography’s capacity to capture reality by
providing it with movement. Realism thus provided Bazin and his immediate
André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema? Vol. 1, trans.
Hugh Gray. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).



followers with three key things: (a) an ontology of film, (b) a justification for
the art status of film and (c) a critical standard for film. Regarding (b), the art
status of film is achieved by establishing a place for photography and film at the
end of a narrative history of art forms. For (c), Bazin thinks that because film
is essentially photography, and realism is photography’s great defining achievement, films are at their best when they focus on this realist project to which
they’re uniquely suited. Formalism, realism’s primary rival, is (allegedly anyway) more at home in painting and other traditional plastic arts. Our focus is,
of course, on (a), especially given that the art status of film is not so controversial, and providing a critical standard is no requirement of an ontological theory. It is worth noting, though, that the photographic (and especially
mechanical) nature of film has in other hands been used to cast doubt on its
art status.14
Read strictly as an ontological theory, Bazin’s realism is somewhat unclear.
First, he makes quite a bit of the “objective” nature of photography and film as
opposed to other “subjective” plastic arts like painting and sculpture.15 While
it’s true that we can, as Bazin argues, under normal circumstances infer the
existence of x from a photograph of x and not a painting of x, this hardly makes
photography and film objective, as though consciousness is not involved in
choosing, curating and editing shots. In the kinds of photographs and films
we’re interested in when we consider them as art forms, such conscious involvement is necessary. Second, he speaks about film as a reproduction of reality
rather than—as might seem more natural—a recording of it. This appears to
not be a metaphor. As he says at one point: “The reality that cinema reproduces
at will and organizes is the same worldly reality of which we are a part, the
sensible continuum out of which the celluloid makes a mold both special and
temporal. I cannot repeat a single moment of my life, but cinema can repeat
any one of these moments indefinitely before my eyes.”16 Bazin seems here and
elsewhere to come awfully close to suggesting that there is no important difference between seeing in life and seeing on film, except that the latter has the
advantage of potential repetition. But taken literally, this claim entails the
absurdity that there is no important difference between the object and its
image on film. It is perfectly reasonable that we might be watching Blazing
Saddles on television and I say, “I see Cleavon Little there on the screen.” But
if you were to then say, “where is Cleavon Little now?” I could not reasonably
respond “I just told you, he’s right there on the screen.”
But perhaps Bazin has in mind something more plausible, something akin to
Kendall Walton’s “transparency thesis” regarding photography and film.17 On
Notably: Roger Scruton, “Photography and Representation,” in Philosophy of Film and Motion
Pictures, ed. Noël Carroll and Jinhee Choi (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).
Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” 13–14.
André Bazin, “Death Every Afternoon,” in Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed.
Ivone Margulies, trans. Mark A. Cohen (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 30.
Kendall Walton, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism,” Critical
Inquiry 11 (1994).



this version of realism, photography and film are perceptual aids to seeing what
we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, much like a telescope or a convex mirror
in a parking lot. Instead of allowing us to see at great distances or around corners, film allows us to see what has occurred in the past. I’m thus no more
committed to saying that Cleavon Little is right there on the screen than I am
to pointing at the mirror when you ask where is the car that I see in it, or to the
telescope when you ask where is the star that I see in it. In this respect, “transparency” may not be the best term. The first case of transparency we think of
is the window. But when I remark on a tree I see through a window I point in
the same direction when you ask, “where do you see this tree?” as I do when
you ask, “where is this tree?” But when we’re in the garage and I remark on a
car around the corner, I point toward the mirror when you ask, “where do you
see this car?” and another direction entirely when you ask, “where is this car?”
And I point to the telescope when you ask where I see a given star but not
when you ask where that star is. It is true that we say things like “I see the star
through the telescope” and “I see the tree through the window.” But we risk
equivocation when we assume these sentences have exactly the same structure.
In one sense, “seeing through” is synonymous with “seeing by means of” (as
in “we see unicellular organisms only through microscopes”) and in another
“seeing through” is synonymous with “seeing on the other side of without seeing around” (as in “A person can only see through so much water”). We “see
through” some things in both senses, eyeglasses, for example. Film, however,
is not one of these.
This complaint may not amount to much more than terminological quibbling. What is important may instead just be that viewing a photograph or a
film allows us to see real things the same way that telescopes and mirrors do,
even if not quite transparently. But if it is not actual transparency, then the
transparency theorist owes us an account of this particular kind of seeing reality. A number of detractors have objected that no adequately sufficient condition has been offered for this sort of transparency.18 As a first attempt, causal
production seems like a decent candidate. The actual car around the corner,
plus the mechanics of reflection causes me to see what I do in the mirror. The
actual star, plus the mechanics of telescopy causes me to see what I do in the
telescope. And Cleavon Little himself, plus the mechanics of cameras and projections, causes me to see what I do on television. But then again, an optical
sensor and a description-generating program can mechanically cause a written
description of an object, but we wouldn’t call that description “transparent” in
any sense. So perhaps visual similarity should be added. But imagine a chess-­
obsessed society in which sensors on the boards of grandmasters transmit their
moves to boards set up in living rooms across the country so that each move is
Gregory Currie, Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1995) especially 61–76; Berys Gaut, “Analytic Philosophy of Film:
History, Issues, Prospects,” Analytic Philosophy 38 (1997) 147–8; Carroll, “Defining the Moving
Image,” 121.



replicated by automatically moving pieces on boards everywhere. We’d all sit
and watch the same games played out on our own boards, which look exactly
like the one on which the grandmasters are playing. But those boards would
not be transparent as a result.
However, even if the transparency theorist has nothing to offer in the way of
rebuttal or additional conditions, it is not clear that transparency has thus been
refuted. She could, for instance, posit a virtuous circle between transparency
and seeing through (in that first sense of “through”). Or she could insist that
transparency is a simple, irreducible concept that is (a) given in our perceptual
experience of photographs and live-action film and (b) evidenced by everyday language?
Then again, transparency of any sort may not provide the best account of
those experiences or our discussion of them, even among realist theories. And
if not, then it is not clear that anything speaks in favor of transparency. Perhaps
we say that we “see” Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles but not in the most
detailed verbal description of him because recognizing Little on film is so very
much like recognizing him in real life. But recognizing his description is not at
all like recognizing him. The latter first involves recognizing certain shapes or
sounds that look and sound nothing like Little himself. Little in life (when he
was alive) and Little on film trigger the same recognition capacities. If we can
recognize Little in the former circumstance, we can do so in the latter, at least
under normal circumstances. But this does not mean that Blazing Saddles presents Little to us, as transparency would have us believe. Perhaps, instead, it
represents Little to us. And the specific way in which this pictorial representation via perceptual likeness happens via moving pictures provides film with its
unique ontology. This is more or less Gregory Currie’s position, and is at present the most plausible version of realism available.19
But will any version of realism provide an adequate ontology for film?
Probably not, if we take seriously the requirement that such a theory explains
the difference between the film and the recorded play. If what we see is the
object in front of the camera, either because we see it directly or because photography is transparent, then we see only Cleavon Little and never Sheriff Bart,
since there is, in fact, no such sheriff. Similarly, if cinematic representation is
only carried out through the recognition of perceptual likeness, it is not at all
clear how we could distinguish Blazing Saddles, in which it is perfectly reasonable to see Sheriff Bart or Cleavon Little and some rehearsal footage of Blazing
Saddles where it would only be appropriate to see Little. Bart and Little, after
all, look an awful lot alike.
If film is not essentially the presentation or representation of reality, maybe its
nature is to be found rather in its unique capacity to present us with (or cause
in us) the illusion of something real. There is something to be said for this view

Currie, Image and Mind, especially 79–112.



as well. We do praise films for “sucking us in” and fault them for ruining our
suspension of disbelief. And yet films do not tend to produce genuine cognitive
illusions, at least in adults. That is to say, we do not believe what we see in the
film is really happening before us, that the perspective of the camera is our own.
If we did, we’d have to ask how we fly over cities when we see establishing shots
or jump back and forth in a room without continuous movement in multi-­
camera scenes. Nor do we think the content of the film is actually happening,
or we would either be inclined to do something about it or have to ask ourselves troubling questions about our omniscient impotence.20
So films do not engender propositional illusions, or false beliefs that x. The
aerial establishing shot does not, for instance, produce the illusion that we are
flying. But it may still produce a different, non-propositional sort of illusion.
The Icaruses among us may feel liberated, while the acrophobes feel some nauseated panic. These feelings are part of the illusion of flight without the illusion
that we are flying. Similarly, “Dutch angle” shots may give us the sensation that
something is not right with the world. We might call this sort of thing a “sensory” illusion, and it does seem perfectly natural to say that such shots provide
the viewer with the sensation of flying or of unease. The problem is that while
this sort of sensory illusion may be a capacity of film, it is hardly a necessary
condition. The aerial shot may produce an illusory sensation of flying, but do
scenes from the film adaptation of Neil Simon’s Lost In Yonkers similarly produce a sensation of being present for a conversation? Is there such a thing? Even
if there is and it does, it seems highly implausible that the film does so in some
way that is significantly different than a stage production of the play.
A somewhat different sort of perceptual illusion (which may be thought of
as a subset of sensory illusions) might be thought to be far more common, if
not universal, in films.21 Specifically, we might wonder if the unique essence of
film is that it produces the illusion of movement. Currie argues against this
“weak illusionism,” insisting that the images on the screen really do move.
Images, after all, are mind-and-perception-dependent entities. The effect may
be pulled off by a quick succession of still pictures, but the image itself is nonetheless moving. Others—notably and I think most successfully Andrew Kania—
have insisted that this movement is illusory after all.22 A film of Misty Copeland
doing pirouettes appears to be an image of her moving, but some frame images
include Copeland’s whole face, some just the right side of it, some just the left,
and others none of it at all. How can a faceless image and a full-faced image be
the same image? We say it is, so claim the illusionists, only because these differThe reader may notice a certain similarity or affinity here with suggestions in Colin Radford’s
treatment of the paradox of fiction in “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?”
Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 49 (1975) 71.
I’m relying on Currie here for the distinction between perceptual and cognitive filmic illusions.
Currie, Image and Mind, especially 28–30.
Andrew Kania, “The Illusion of Realism in Film,” British Journal of Aesthetics 42 (2002).



ent images are united by the illusion of movement that their quick succession
produces.23 There is no reason to posit continuity much less identity absent
that illusion.
I haven’t the slightest idea how to adjudicate between the illusionist and
anti-illusionist on this point. I suspect, in fact, that they may be having a purely
verbal dispute. The good news is that we don’t need to settle the issue here, as
we have some other reasons to think even perceptual illusionism is inadequate
as an ontology of film. For starters, plenty of other art forms are capable of
producing the illusion of movement, and if we make our characterization of
“art form” fine grained enough, there are some entire forms that do so. Ink-­
and-­paper optical illusions are a well-established sort of example, but there are
others. Stage settings in plays, operas and ballets sometimes give the illusion of
movement to stationary figures, and a note or melody being taken up by different parts of an orchestra at different times creates the illusion that the sound
is traveling in space.
The illusion of movement is not necessary for film either, as Danto’s example of the motionless film indicates. And finally, the illusion of movement, even
if it is a genuine feature of film, does nothing to distinguish the screenplay from
the recorded play. One produces the illusion of movement if and only if the
other does as well.
There are ways for us to entertain an idea, claim or attitude without being
aware of or under the illusion of its truth, actuality or veridicality. One of those
is to imagine it. Film may be a means by which we come to imagine the events
depicted. This too has at least two versions. On the first, we imagine participating in the experience. Unless we imagine that we are invisible, inaudible and
capable of taking on another’s perspective (which would be a lot), we imagine
that we are right there in the depicted scene having the perspective of the camera. The same sorts of issues we identified with regard to cognitive illusions
apply as well to participatory imaginations. We might be a little more lenient
and forgiving, though, as we can imagine all sorts of things we can’t actually
believe. We may be able to imagine ourselves flying during an establishing
aerial shot, for instance, or having the capacity to move from one place to
another without continuous movement during multi-camera scenes. But given
a split-screen shot, are we to imagine that we’re in two places at once? Is this
even possible? Also, what on earth are we imagining is happening to us when
we hear a disembodied voice-over, especially when the speaker is a narrator and
not a character in the film? Who is talking to us? When we hear the soundtrack,
where is that music supposed to be coming from?
Even if we could imagine these things without distracting questions attached,
the participatory imagination theory has another problem in just the kinds of

Kania, “The Illusion of Realism in Film,” 253–4.



shots that might seem to give it credence. If films produce imaginations, then
the point-of-view (POV) shot invites us to imagine having the perceptual experience of a character fictionally present to the events of the film.24 The POV
shot provides a kind of first personal storytelling. But if this is the nature of
film, then all shots do this. How, then, do we recognize the POV shot and
distinguish it from others?
We could avoid all of these issues by instead thinking that films provide for
an impersonal imaginative experience. On this view, a film puts us in contact
with the content of an imaginative experience without placing us in it. So,
when I watch the scene in Blazing Saddles where Sheriff Bart meets the Cisco
Kid, I imagine as actual the meeting I’m seeing. I’m aided in this imagination
by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder’s acting, the set, costumes and so on. But I
don’t imagine being a third person inexplicably unacknowledged there in the
jail cell. This is undoubtedly a more plausible account of our experience of films.
Unfortunately, impersonal imagination won’t do much better as an ontology of film. Our first concern should be this: what exactly is the film object
here? If it’s the imagination, we don’t experience the same films. This certainly
does not conform to our everyday language and critical practices regarding
films. If instead the film is an aid to the imagination, we have nothing to distinguish films from other narrative art forms such as plays or novels. Either way,
we’re no closer to a unique ontology. And we’re certainly no closer to explaining either of Danto’s puzzles. The still photograph and the motionless film
both engage the imagination in the same way (if either of them do). And whatever the difference between the screenplay and the recording of a play is, it
can’t be in their capacity to aid imagination. The recording of an excellent play
might spark an audience’s imagination much better than a poor screenplay.
And an excellent screenplay might do better than a poor recording of a play or
a recording of a poor play.
Film as Dream
The “dream” or “oneiric” theory of film may refer to a number of different
theses. Weakly, some films are subject to the kind of Freudian psychoanalysis
that is applicable to dreams, and some of the methods of such analyses are valuable mechanisms of film interpretation in general. Ambiguously, Hollywood
was once known as a “dream factory.” And confusingly, Christian Metz and
Alfred Guzzetti claim that, despite some important differences between watching a narrative film and dreaming:
the filmic flux resembles the oneiric flux more than other productions of waking
resemble it. It is received, as we have said, in a state of lessened wakefulness. Its
signifier (images accompanied by sound and movement) inherently confers on it
Notice this presence is fictional even if the film is non-fictional. Real people don’t record their
perceptual experiences.



a certain affinity with the dream, for it coincides directly with one of the major
features of the oneiric signifier, “imaged” expression, the consideration of representability, to use Freud’s term.25

If dreams do involve the id’s expression via the image content of dreams, this
does indeed indicate a certain isomorphism between dreaming and film. But
this similarity is not enough to establish the stronger claim that film experience
is of a type with dream experience. After all, there are stark differences between
the representational natures of dreams and films. For instance, films represent
in part via the kind of complex communicative implicatures that mark everyday
utterances. Cinematic conventions are so commonly and successfully used to
express meaning to an audience that confounding convention can be a successful tool for changing the meaning of an image. A filmmaker’s anticipation of
her audience’s expectations regarding these conventions guide her filmmaking
decisions and the audience’s expectations of that anticipation guide their interpretive judgments. Film meaning and interpretation is, therefore, cooperative.
Even if it is reasonable to think that the id expresses the content of dreams in
order to communicate something to the ego (and “communicate” may be a
stretch or at best a metaphor here), the communication is hardly cooperative.
To bolster the stronger claim, Metz and Guzzetti posit the “lessened wakefulness” of film experience, so that viewing a film takes us into something of a
daydream state. By “daydream,” they must mean something more removed
from waking experience than mere musing or imagining. But what then? Are
there daydreams that genuinely get us closer to the dream state wherein, crucially, we take the image to be real? Maybe we do. I seem to have the experience of daydreaming so deeply that I have to consciously re-recognize the
unreality of the daydream’s content. But that does not happen with films. In
the darkest theater showing the most realistic film, I only “remind” myself of
its unreality when I want to shake off its emotional effects, not to settle what is
real and what isn’t.
What we need to consider, then, is a strong dream theory that relies on the
psychological condition of film engagement rather than any dubious claims
about the degree of actual “sleep” involved in our reception of films. And luckily we have such theories. Colin McGinn, for instance, claims that “movies
arouse in the viewer the same kinds of psychological mechanisms and processes
that characterize the dreaming state.”26
Like the participatory imagination theory we just discussed, the dream theory has a problem with the kinds of cases that might at first glance look like
good homes for it. Consider “The Test Dream,” from season five of The
Sopranos. The episode’s title comes from an extended dream sequence in which
the viewer is taken into one of Tony Soprano’s dreams. This sequence is
Christian Metz and Alfred Guzzetti, “The Fiction Film and Its Spectator: A Metapsychological
Study” New Literary History 8 (1976): 90.
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies (New York: Vintage, 2007), 102.



remarkably successful in capturing the phenomenal quality of dreams. Tony
dreams a symbolically rich semi-linear narrative in which events occur uncaused,
the predictability of time and space is fleeting and people from his life assume
others’ roles in a way that suggests he is dreaming amalgamations of people.
Tony himself “moves” through each inappropriately connected stage of his
dream unaware of the abrasiveness of their juxtaposition and unaware that he
is dreaming. The sequence is surreal without being disorienting, absurd without being unfamiliar. The aesthetic effect is in fact exceedingly familiar. What is
displayed is very much the way we remember dreams. It is, in a word, dreamlike.
How, then, does this show the dream theory false? If we have an instance of
film that is recognizably dreamlike, doesn’t that at least provide some anecdotal evidence for it? In fact, it does just the opposite. What we should focus
on here is not the fact that this sequence is dreamlike but rather that we are
able to recognize that it is dreamlike. The sequence is recognizably dreamlike
because it engages—through the use of both dramatic and cinematic techniques—the psychological operations characteristic of dreaming. It is remarkable only because not all—in fact very few—films do so. If all film worked on
us this way as the strong dream theory imagines, it would be trivial to say that
this one particular film is dreamlike. All film would be dreamlike.
Compare the situation with film viewing and dreaming to two activities that
more clearly involve the same psychological operations: lying and storytelling.
These are not the same things and neither is one a version of the other (though
they may both be versions of creative imagining). Yet it would clearly be trivial
to say that a given instance of lying was storytelling-like. Of course, it was
storytelling-like, just like all instances of lying. Lying and storytelling have just
the kind of relation that the dream theorist imagines for film viewing and
dreaming. But it is not trivial to say that this sequence from The Sopranos is
dreamlike. So, it must be false that, in general, viewing films and dreaming
involve the same psychological mechanisms and processes.
Film as Language or Symbol System
If one problem with the oneiric theory of film is its inability to adequately
account for the communicative capacity of film, perhaps we should look directly
to that capacity for the nature of film. Language, being our primary means of
communicating, is a natural place to start. And indeed, so much has been said
about the “language of film” that it has become an assumption in some quarters that there is such a thing. But even if there is a language of film, this does
not entail that film is essentially a language. English is the language of Moby
Dick, Old English the language of Beowulf and First-Order Logic the language
of the proofs I should be grading right now. But no one would therefore say
that Moby Dick, Beowulf or proofs on an exam are these languages. But if
there is a language of film and film is not itself that language, what language is
it? More to the point, it is not uncommon to read or hear that film is a specific
and unique language, and that is the sort of theory in which we’re interested.



In order to evaluate this theory, we’ll need to first say what a language is. A
language is first and foremost a symbol system, though not all symbol systems
are languages. There is an unfortunate tendency to conflate the two concepts,
but it is worth keeping them distinct. A symbol system may be any set of determinants for the range of “stands for,” “represents” or some other relevantly
similar relation. The “check engine” light in my car is part of a symbol system
but not a language.
The “check engine” example may suggest that a language is a communicative symbol system, and what’s lacking in the car notification system is communicative intention and Grice’s “nonnatural meaning.”27 The light means
that there’s a problem with the engine, but only “naturally,” as my hurting
elbow means that there’s some problem in my arm. If this is right, then film
may be a language after all, as we’ve discussed its communicative nature already.
But languages are not only communicative and not all systems of communication are languages. Performative utterances are noncommunicative uses of language. And I may point to my smiling face to communicate my happiness to you.28
A still rough but better approximation: a particular language is a set of symbols and rules that (a) determine when sequences of those symbols are well
formed and (b) relate those sequences to meanings. The two key features here
are that a language must contain a syntax and semantics, and the latter must be
determined by rules of the language rather than anything like natural fit or
resemblance. And on this characterization, it is pretty clear that film is not a language.29 True, there may be cinematic conventions that rely upon communicative symbols. Montages mean that the ratio of screen time to fictional time
decreases during them—a shot of a building followed directly by an interior shot
means that the depicted room is in that building, and if the camera pans away
slowly from two characters who might have sex, then they had sex. But these are
remarkable cases. Most meanings in film are not delivered by semantic rules or
conventions. We need not and should not appeal to any convention to explain
why Sheriff Bart is a person and not a horse. If Mel Brooks wanted the Sheriff to
be a horse, then he would have had a horse play the part and not Cleavon Little.
Maybe we could imagine a convention that would override this natural assumption, one where horses are customarily used to play people. But the fact that a
convention could counterfactually override more natural ­depictive assumptions
does not mean that those assumptions are themselves merely conventional.
Film may fail to be a language and still be a symbol system, even if the “represents” relation is in most cases dependent on a perceptual similarity between
the representation and the represented. Whether or not this is a feature of
H.P. Grice, “Meaning” Philosophical Review 66 (1956).
Just to be clear: the smile itself may indicate that I’m happy. It’s the pointing that does the
Currie helpfully provides us with a fairly devastating argument against this sort of theory.
Much of what I say in this section echoes that argument. Gregory Currie, “The Long Goodbye:
The Imaginary Language of Film,” in in Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures, ed. Noël Carroll
and Jinhee Choi (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).



many films will ultimately depend on your preferred theory of depiction. The
good news (again) is that we don’t need to decide, since depiction is not necessary for film in the first place. Even if it is appropriate to say that the interview
of Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ Civil War is a depiction of Shelby Foote (a
rather large “if”), still there is no depiction in purely abstract films.
In its favor, a linguistic or semiotic ontology of film may be capable of
explaining one of Danto’s two puzzles. It may just be that the screenplay is in
the language of film (whatever that turns out to be) and the recorded play is
not. This may be even if the recorded play looks in many ways like a screenplay,
just as the sequence “Blund parg remple dwo draguile ringe” may look like a
sentence but is not. Of course, a whole lot of work would have to be done to
explain how this works in the case of film, and we’ve already considered some
reasons to be pessimistic about success. The theory is entirely lost, though, in
providing help on the other puzzle. If the unmoving film image is in a language, then the photograph is in the same language.
Film as Thought
There are two different diagnoses available for the shortcomings of the last few
theories. First, we might think that their proponents err in seeking a psychological characterization of something that is not essentially psychological in
nature. Alternatively, we could lay the fault in the theorists’ attempts to align
film too closely with other, unrelated psychological faculties—an audience’s
imaginative or illusory reception, on the one hand, or a filmmaker’s oneiric or
linguistic capacities, on the other.
If we want to avoid the latter mistake, perhaps what we need is a theory of
film that assigns to it a relatively unique psychological function. We have the
foundations for such a theory in Gilles Deleuze’s expansive work on cinema.
Deleuze rejects purely psychoanalytic and linguistic theories of film, and yet
film is for him still essentially bound to human psychology. As he says, “The
great directors of the cinema may be compared, in our view, not merely with
painters, architects and musicians, but also with thinkers. They think with
movement-images and time-images instead of concepts.”30 Film on this view is
a set of image-kinds (or, perhaps, kinds of image-making) distinguished by
their role in a fairly sui generis psychological process. We cannot, therefore,
characterize films and filmmaking using established categories; we can only
offer analogies such as Deleuze’s suggestion that images are to filmmaking
what concepts are to cognition.
What is left for us to do in fleshing out a theory of this kind, then, is not to
say what sort of thing the film image is, but rather to provide a taxonomy of
film images. We see the beginnings of just such an attempt in Deleuze’s distinction between the movement-image and the time-image. The movement-image,
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam,
Trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013) xiv.



born of a number of distinctly cinematographic techniques that Deleuze elides
into “framing,” is fundamentally dynamic. It is neither reducible to series of
still photographs nor is it a mere illusion produced by their rapid succession. It
is characteristic of films that their images have no privileged moments. Deleuze
then provides kinds of movement-image categorized by what they are images
of—notably perceptions, affects and actions.31 Time-images, which we gain
from the montage, are likewise more than a depiction or signifier of time. As
the montage relates discontinuous movement-images, it provides—or just
is—a distinct form of thought about (and in) time.32
For Deleuze, these image-kinds also have historical significance. The advent
of the time-image marks the break between classical and modern film. And the
latter is only possible as a postwar phenomenon, just like other forms of
thought—notably but not exclusively philosophy.
The taxonomy of images that Deleuze provides is both insightful and useful,
and it’s possible that he is not espousing a film ontology in quite the same vein
as the others we’ve considered here (his intentions are not always so clear).
Even so, his work is illustrative of an approach to film ontology about which we
ought to have at least two concerns. First, any account that treats film as a
mode of thought is going to have to contend with the facts that thoughts typically belong to individuals and films are typically made by many people.33 Given
a filmic image, we might wonder whose thought we’re seeing: the director’s,
editor’s, cinematographer’s, camera operator’s or set designer’s?
There are a couple of strategies we could employ to resolve this sort of issue,
though neither are available to Deleuze. First, we might think of a film as presenting a collective thought in much the same way that a legislature can collectively enact a law or a committee can collectively issue a statement. But a
necessary feature of these other cases is that the members of the bodies in
question communicate and coordinate with one another to reach an agreement
on the thoughts they express. This is only possible through the use of articulable concepts, and the thoughts they collectively express employ concepts as
well. But the thoughts Deleuze ascribes to film are imagistic rather than conceptual, and it is not at all clear how a group of people could agree on images
before they’re produced. We might avoid this problem by positing a kind of
collective unconscious that manifests itself in the filmic image rather than in
cognitive content. But whatever plausibility the phrase “collective unconscious” borrows from Jungian psychology (and that might not be very much)
dissolves when we realize how comparatively local and mysterious this unconscious commonality would have to be. Instead of residing in all people because
of a long-shared history, this collective unconscious would reside in a few people making a film together because of extraordinary coincidence.
Ibid., 64–5.
Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Goleta, Trans.
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989) 34–8.
Deleuze himself tends to focus just on directors.



Our second problem: while there is clearly something distinct about filmic
images, they are not unique as a matter of thought. Setting aside for a moment
the aforementioned problems that attend multiple authorship, imagine a film
director and a stage director both in total control of their productions. They
both must imagine and produce from imagination something for an audience
to see. The resulting visual arrays are both bounded or framed, either by the
scope of the lens or by the edges of the stage. Stage settings can move to alter
perspectives in many of the ways that camera movement does in films. And
finally, costume changes, actor switches and discontinuous settings and actions
can produce on stage the same temporal imaging that we see in film montages.
Moving Pictures, Moving Images
Emphasis on movement is a recurring theme in a number of the theories we’ve
already considered. For the representational realist like Currie, it identifies the
film’s species among the genus of depiction. For the perceptual illusionist, it is
the crucial illusion that film generates. And it forms the foundation for a full
half of Deleuze’s taxonomy of filmic images. We’ll consider here Arthur
Danto’s and Noel Carroll’s ontological theories, both of which put film’s
movement front and center.
Unsurprisingly, Danto has the advantage of at least attempting to provide in
his ontology of film an account of the two puzzles we’ve been discussing.
Indeed, his focus is on distinguishing film from photography, on the one hand,
and from theater, on the other.34 The former is achieved, he thinks, by recognizing that films are essentially moving pictures. The movement of films is
threefold: pictures move in the projector, images move on the screen and cameras move while they record. So, the unmoving-image film is distinct from the
perceptually indiscernible photographic slide by virtue of the fact that we watch
the one but (at most) see the other. That is to say, it is reasonable to wonder if
the film image will move, but not the photograph image. And the unmoving
nature of the film image is a stylistic choice of the filmmaker, while for the
photographer it is just a function of the medium.
As long as we’re heading down this rabbit hole, though, we might wonder
about another sort of image projected next to the first two. This one consists
of the photograph replicated and pasted over and over onto a 35-mm reel and
then projected on the wall. So, we have:
(a) a photograph projected onto a wall next to;
(b) a perceptually indiscernible still film projected on the wall next to; and
(c) a reel of film containing a series of reproductions of (a) projected
on the wall.


Danto, “Moving Pictures.”



Is (c) a film? On the one hand, there would appear to be some tension between
counting Hoolboom’s projected leader as a film but not (c). On the other
hand, there seems to be a relevant difference between (b), which was shot with
a moving picture camera, and (c) which is the same image shot with a still
photo camera. For instance, movement in the first camera would have produced a moving picture. Movement in the second camera would have produced a different picture. So (b) at least potentially involves all three kinds of
filmic movement that Danto identifies—the camera, the picture and the image,
while (c) contains only one. It is not clear if all three are necessary or if they’re
individually sufficient for the requisite movement, and I fear we may be
approaching the limits of intuition and good philosophical taste.
Let’s turn then to the other explanandum, the distinction between the documentary recorded play and the screenplay. According to Danto, the difference
is that a recorded play is about what is photographed, while the screenplay is
not. The recording of a theater production of Romeo and Juliet is about the
actors and what they’re doing on a stage. The screenplay Romeo and Juliet is
also a film of actors, but it is about two doomed teenage lovers. Those lovers
don’t appear in the recorded stage production at all, only people acting in
those roles.
As much credit as Danto deserves for taking this problem seriously, we
should have at least two concerns about his strategy for solving it. First, I’m not
sure the recorded play is about what is photographed either. It is not clear that
the recording of the play is about anything. It seems more natural to say it is a
recording of a play, not about the play. Second, some non-fiction screenplays
are about what is photographed. There is an important distinction to be made
between the “documentary” recording, as Danto uses the term in this context,
and the “documentary” genre of non-fiction films. The genre-documentary is
not a mere recording of some event. Though it is about real events, and, therefore, it is about what is photographed, it can still be a work whose artfulness
depends on its moving images. That is to say, there are still two ways of viewing
the genre-documentary film. We can view it as recording-documentary when
we consider only the events captured on the film or we can view the same footage as a means to the filmmaker communicating something about what is being
shown. To view the genre-documentary in this way is effectively to view it as
screenplay rather