The Filmosophy Manifesto

filmosophy in A Scanner Darkly
A Scanner Darkly: the pure manifestation of fluid film-thinking’

It has been a long held suspicion of mine that bad film criticism is a product of filmgoers who are themselves habitually poor listeners. I do not mean to cast aspersions upon those who for whatever reason neglect to recognize subtext in the films they watch, rather it is upon those who fanatically pursue the subtext as a pre-established end that I direct my observation. I would much prefer the inarticulate ‘it sucks’ analysis to the sort of posturing of value that is made when, for example, the significance of a film is reduced to how it fits into the director’s oeuvre, presupposing the merit of auteur theory. This preoccupation with context beyond the limits of the frame to the detriment of perceiving the film’s intrinsic quality is a rampant and dismaying epidemic of lazy criticism.

Still, some concession is owed the variety of activities that fall under the umbrella term ‘film criticism’, as a professional film review for mass consumption should not be considered ‘lazy’ if it has nothing lofty to aspire to; there is an inherent mercantile logic to reigning in the analysis (i.e. prevent plot spoilers) and emphasizing the commodity aspects of the work like a consumer report on a blender. My concern lies squarely on the emulation of this mercantile approach by amateur cinephiles and academicians.

Chronic poor listening is only a part of the problem befalling film criticism; there is, in addition, the lack of an adequate vocabulary and conceptual framework to express the experiential component of film-going. As if to overcompensate for this lack, I tend to form my reviews around how the films directly affects me but it is immensely problematic to balance the needs of self-illumination with those of the reader; added to this challenge, is the saturation of the shorthand, convenient approaches of the glossy reviews which fetishize the technical and/or cognitive achievements of the film with a parlance that has become adopted through exposure. This reactionary approach of mine, while an earnest attempt to remove unnecessary prejudices in my analysis by privileging the personal experience, has inadvertently created a new prejudice which remains similarly fixed: I have made a schemata of my ego that is at times too standoffish with the films it engages, leaving me in need of a better approach.

Post-film writing is all about compromise, yet there is the aspiration to capture in words that which transcends language in the experience, the ‘life force’ of the work beyond the anatomy from which it derives. As Daniel Frampton endorses, what needs to be captured in post-film writing is the shared experience of the film-event by both the film itself and the filmgoer, what he refers to as ‘the mix of thinkings’.

Frampton’s ‘radical manifesto’ entitled alluringly enough, Filmosophy, provides the framework and vocabulary I have been longing for, and puts to rest the tired anachronisms of conventional approaches to film criticism with their focus on how and in it what context a film was made (i.e., the film as a historical document approach) and conceptualizes the film as actualized thought which he calls ‘film-thinking’. Hesitant to fully anthropomorphize the film, Frampton employs the notion purely as a conceptual tool whereby the film possesses something he calls ‘film-being’, a mode of being which exists as the film is being experienced and which unlike the human mode, is devoid of phenomenological nuance. It is a being that exists in unsolicited thought, simultaneously creating and thinking through the scenario of the filmic story, presenting an audio visual experience of a thought which often bears resemblances to but does not directly simulate human consciousness. A passage from Filmosophy may clarify this point:

The concept of the filmind becomes simply ‘the film’ – the film is the utterable itself (though it does not represent a language, or a language system). This means that, for the filmgoer, it is simply the film that is creating itself and intending towards the characters and objects. This also means that… all narratorial agents are grounded in the film itself, in viewpoints and character experience. Filmosophy aims to bring creative invention back into the film, not take the filmgoer out of the film to some external invisible puppeteer. (p.99)

Frampton introduces his approach by showing the shortcomings of those which preceded his. The common tropes in film theory such as ‘cinema as human consciousness’, and ‘camera as surveyor of objective reality’, are examined and rejected in Frampton’s central thesis as outmoded frames of reference that do not account for the new technological developments in film creation which wholly transform the medium. In what way, for example, does Andre Bazin’s ‘ontology of cinema’ bear any meaning in the visual distortion of Mickey’s face in Natural Born Killers, or in the minute manipulations of facial expressions in Requiem for a Dream? Similarly, the antiquated view of a film mirroring human cognitive patterns, while intriguing, is grossly oversimplified as its capacities exceed the boundaries of human phenomenology, and even as a conceptual tool it limits the potentiality of cinematic expression to an anthropomorphized narrator, and overlooks what Frampton considers to be the transsubjective narrator ever present in the film. The formal properties of the film, even when there is no explicit narrator perspective evoked in the film (either by a particular character or an omniscient presence evoked through voice-over), should also be considered as manifestations of ‘film-being’ realizing itself. Frampton states:

By seeing film as thinking the filmgoer understands every element of style as an intended effect, and so every moment as the film thinking through its image-content. The concept of narration tells us a certain moment of style is assisting the plot, the concept of filmind tells us that this moment of style is a dramatic imaging of the story (p. 113).

The popular rhetoric in Cinema Studies centers upon the cognitive experiences of films, the film as a product of form and content to be dismantled and understood. These ostensive descriptions of the film do not, as Frampton observes, give a ‘way in’ to the drama. They tell what but not why, and perceive ‘style’ as normative deviations which need only be classified rather than felt for their own particular film-world potency. For enthusiasts of cognizant theorizing, form and content are treated as separate entities, not only in the post-film writing, but one suspects during the film-going, ever calculating the manner in which an effect is rendered. To this, Frampton places much of the fault upon the conventions established by David Bordwell, a theorist I am particularly conscious of from my own academic pursuits in Cinema Studies. Even if an experience of the film is felt by the cognizant filmgoer, the decision to then piece together the technical components of the work can never qualify the experience…. there remains a significant gap between the two vocabularies. As Frampton rightfully acknowledges: one does not feel form and content separately, but as a functioning whole which when whole ceases to be the sum of its parts. Cinema is not merely problem-solving, nor is it merely an archival task. Films which limit their scope to fulfill these modest ends interest me the least, and it is due in part to this that I echo Matt Zoller Seitz’s problem with the films of Tarantino, the inherent coldness of them, which I equate with their imposed preoccupation with being clever rather then earnest.

In contrast to these, Frampton calls upon the movement towards fluid film-thinking in cinema, the uninhibited direct evocation of the filmic story through the manipulation of formal properties resigned chiefly to the task of creating clear images of purposeful thought. An example of this fluid film-thinking is provided in the unhinged movements of David Fincher’s films (think of the panning out from the trash can in Fight Club, or more recently, the taxi ride in Zodiac). Not limited to camera movements, fluid film-thinking is an aspiration for the filmic qualities, formal, narrative, etc, to resist tropes of understanding and provide an arena of experience that overwhelms the analytical and challenges one to encounter film as an entity unto itself. As Frampton observes, ‘each film engenders its own type of responses’, and need to be understood in this way.

Which brings me to the matter of writing about film. Frampton calls for a poeticizing to post-film writing which is apt considering that cinema is not literature and cannot be adequately encapsulated by conventional expository analysis (as quoted in the book, Eisenstein muses, ‘The shot never becomes a letter but always remains an ambiguous hieroglyph”). The film-thinking transcends language and to bridge the gap we require a will to step outside the conventional and feel through words. I have a fondness for a conversational approach to analysis where the writing is the product of two or more people comparing and contrasting their experiences (Matt Zoller Seitz’s post is an exemplar of what I am thinking of). At the forefront of the filmosophical review should be the questions: what does the film feel about its subject? What do I feel about the subject? Where do they intersect (what Frampton calls the ‘third thought’)?

Emphasis on the third thought may provide a buffer zone from the ‘hypothetical value’ of theory-laden frames of reference and unrestrained ego-centered analysis. The meaning becomes an emerging character of the mix of thinkings, which if then integrated further via a dialectic with another film-going perspective (i.e. an Ebert and Roeper formula) makes yet another level to the emerging character which may provide for the reader a finer source of meaning then any single emphasis could provide. We cannot explain a film, but we can indirectly suggest its multi-faceted significance through the emerging character of our analysis. Extraneous hyperbole should be replaced by a focused pursuit of the third thought. Frampton writes:

The concept of film-thinking, and the humanistic rhetoric that accompanies it, makes it easier to reveal and write about the initial encounter with film (our immediate response). Perhaps filmosophy can help reassess those ‘difficult great films’ that film critics applaud but do not seem to like or enjoy – did you feel its greatness or work it out afterwards? (p. 178)

Frampton, David. Filmosophy. New York: Wallflower Press, 2006.

http://www.filmosophy.org/

19 comments

  1. shock is coming pretty cheap in this damaged economy.

  2. congratulations, the first and second posts in your thread are wastes because i am too dumb to keep it to the right window!

  3. Keeping it on topic – have you ever gone to the philosophy section of Chapters and seen how most of the section is now "Family Guy and philosophy"; "Two and a Half men – and philosophy", "Teletubbies and philosophy", etc – its pretty crazy.

    I opened the Watchmen one to a random page and was told that Hooded Justice and Captain metropolis were gay with each other and that it was supposedly so obvious. Several pages followed of this assertion with no evidence to back it up.

  4. I hope to write the Lost and Philosophy book soon.

  5. To quote the Dude, "That's interesting, man." I guess I look to Ebert for the type of criticism you're describing. His is always personal, based on his experience in that particular dark room at the time. It's interesting the different reviewers I look to for their specific takes. I like Andrew Sarris for the historical context take, Maddy Robinson for the New Criticism/structuralism, Anthony Lane for the contrarian, cynical look … I guees I tend to compartmentalize. I don't know where I personally fall in line. Definitely I'm always coming with a LGBT viewpoint, but I would never want to define my perspective as such.

  6. Here is the kernel of what I'm saying:

    "At the forefront of the filmosophical review should be the questions: what does the film feel about its subject? What do I feel about the subject? Where do they intersect (what Frampton calls the ‘third thought’)?"

    I think the problem is often that we tend to veer one way or the other… we either write straight from the gut, or what I like to call the John Campea style, or we obsess about 'intentions' of the film, not even necessarily what it is thinking about, but what the director is thinking about in making the film, and this is the academic strand of analysis. Both of these are flawed approaches.

    If you sever the author from the film and just have it as a thought to look at, its in the end a more worthwhile approach, because ultimately the film is the thing! you can have an artwork in a gallery, and the artwork is right there, it is communicating to you, and you don't need the placard beside it putting it into context in any authoritative way, its its own thing. Its a crutch to keep relying on the film as created object to determine value, its the equivalent of pundits who talk about how Obama is perceived by his speech, rather then confront directly the arguments he is saying.

  7. “At the forefront of the filmosophical review should be the questions: what does the film feel about its subject? What do I feel about the subject? Where do they intersect (what Frampton calls the ‘third thought’)?”

    Yeah, that's why I like Ebert! He's not afraid to tangentialize about whatever he may feel about the subject, and it doesn't hurt that I usually agree with his takes on most subjects …

  8. I tend to like both approaches. I like a critic that points out different things about a movie to think about. Historical context, filmmaker context, where the story/style comes from in terms things -> This is a vessel to think about a film in a different way, certainly on second viewing, or in retrospect/hindsight.

    I also try to come from a personal reaction, but find that 'crutch' to be too darn hard to ignore, especially when a lot of modern films are aping/remaking/pastiche-ing other films. It is very hard not to point it out. When something truly unconventional comes along (a few off the cuff debatable choices – Zodiac, Last Life in the Universe, Man on Wire, Hard Candy, Inland Empire), well then that is where you throw the 'crutch' away.

  9. "I hope to write the Lost and Philosophy book soon."

    I'm sure you realized you were too late before you even wrote that:

    http://www.amazon.ca/Lost-Philosophy-Island-Has-R

  10. This is a good start Rot. Now just nail it up to your church door and your done.

    Naw, just foolin'. But seriously I'll read it later.

  11. I hear ya Kurt but I guess my problem is when the historicizing becomes justifications for how good a film is. I am fine when someone wants to put a film in a particular context anecdotally, but when you are outsourcing the meaning and value of a film predominately on things happening outside of the frame, i.e. meta elements, thats where I have problems.

    Its a film first, what the film is thinking about matters first… admittedly there are films which are thinking self-reflexively but most don't, most films are just trying to tell a story, a concentrated thought that has nothing to do with film culture.

    films of Tarantino are entirely self-reflexive of film culture, but Malick's Thin Red Line is not aspiring to be anything but a particular story, a particular expression of life, not film culture. It exists not to have its form and content divorced and analyzed and admired, it exists to get at existential realities (although Henrik seems to think it exists to bask in Americana).

    @Goon

    I bet they made that book after season 1

    @Rusty

    I got to admit, the Lutheran label fits.

  12. No no. I'm not calling a lutheran. I'm calling you Martin Luther. Huuuuuuge difference.

  13. @labby

    As much as I am bitching about how people review films, I rarely read reviews outside this sandbox here. I think maybe Ebert takes the high road in his reviews, evaluating the film on its own terms while acknowledging his own biases about it… I just have to say our tastes couldn't be further though, and so I hardly listen to him.

  14. for the most part, it is better to think of films not as things to be decoded but things to be encountered. you don't give up the film for the sake of the anecdote.

  15. Yeah, I admit don't read Ebert for his tastes in films, but the man sure can write.

  16. Ebert's best in my opinion is his Medium Cool review. It's in his archive.

  17. "it exists to get at existential realities (although Henrik seems to think it exists to bask in Americana)."

    No, I agree with you. I just think that the way it gets at existential realities, is through the same overwrought american war movie clichés and contrivances that have been used countless times, and as such, I could not watch it all the way through, because I was bored.

    I'm sick of this debate of how it's appropriate to talk about a film. Didn't you already post one long-winded diatribe on the subject? Give it a rest, this is not academia, this is conversation.

  18. I may be using academic terms to express my point but I am not an apologist for academia, just the opposite. I think far too many people who are not academics, whose professions do not hinge upon being archivists and film historians play even in friendly conversation as if they were.

    Maybe its a cultural thing, bloggers growing up in the shadow of Big Media and carrying on their anachronistic blatherings about 'film', but why can't we focus on the film foremost as if a spontaneous creation, and look at what it wants to say, rather than endlessly frame its value according to its origin and its history?

    This is a fucked society where no one can say anything directly because everyone is a pundit and their interest in what you say is only how you say it, not what is being said.

    sure, how I wrote this post was dryly academic, but my intended audience are people who think in those terms, who want everything out and exposed and footnoted. I am trying to be persuasive.

    But yeah I am interested in how we talk about film, I am interested in sidestepping conversations that end up going nowhere because two people have no concept of what they are saying, they just want to blindly hold a position, irrespective of whether both positions relate to the same physical object or to fantasies of meaning outside the frame.

  19. I know I will get shit for this but allow me a temporary academic caveat:

    to paraphrase some ideas from a Berkeley podcast I am listening to:

    symbolic art points away from the particular experience to a meaning that already exists elsewhere… in order to be an effective symbol the meaning has to already exist otherwise how could you symbolize it? so if you are approaching a symbolic film (i.e. meta, self-reflexive) than nothing new is created and you are witnessing death. to read symbols into things is to kill them.

    This is kind of my point with where I diverge from Kurt and his overt interest in meta elements of films, and films that operate conscious of conventions and equating value with these acts. Give me the film that has something new to say, that acknowledges its eventness and doesn't need to should itself in pastiche to be of value.

    I like my films embracing the now, the moment of its story, and all else is decoration.

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