This is the final essay I wrote for Film Philosophy at Amsterdam University College. I have pasted the introduction and conclusion here.
In Presence Achieved in Language, German-American literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is critical of the contemporary intellectual paradigm in the Humanities that primarily emphasises interpretation. Gumbrecht argues that only grasping the meaning of language, or art in general, is intellectually limiting as art can achieve more than just entail a well-circumscribed interpretation (318). In particular, Gumbrecht argues that art blurs the boundary between past and present, illusion and reality, and most importantly, absence and presence (317). As the central concept in Gumbrecht’s ontological argument, “presence” refers to an artwork’s tangible effects on people’s senses, emotions and bodies. It is through the presence achieved in art that people are fully engaged with aesthetic experiences when meaning-making is often delayed and subjective. In this essay, I contrast Gumbrecht’s insight with the cognitivist and Daniel Frampton’s phenomenological views on cinematic experiences. Borrowing scenes from Terrance Malik’s film The Tree of Life, I propose that cinematic expressions can create presence besides communicating stable, concrete meanings that mostly engage one’s mind. I side with Gumbrecht and argue that merely attributing or reconstructing the meaning of a film, cognitively or phenomenologically, limits the philosophising potential of the medium. After all, film intrinsically philosophises as a physical reality, or film-being.
The implications of Gumbrecht’s ontological theory about art in general as a physical reality are thought-provoking: the theory questions not just the medium of doing philosophy but also the nature of philosophy. Firstly, essay-writing and film, or any art in general, seem to philosophise differently. While a philosophical essay presents structured arguments and engages its reader’s cognitive faculties, art evokes emotional, spiritual and bodily reactions. While it is certainly limiting to cognitively interpret a film as if it is an essay, it is also unfair to dismiss a film’s philosophising capability simply because it is not a well-structured argument. Film needs to be treated more seriously as a medium that philosophises in a distinctive way through the presence it creates. The presence achieved in film not just engages cognitive faculties of the audience, it also unsettles, liberates and inspires. It is when a film-being is recognised as a physical reality that cinematic experiences can be fully explored, and the film’s philosophising potential can be maximised. The second implication is more profound, if not radical. In the western intellectual tradition, the mind has often been prioritised as the essence of human while other parts of human existence are deemed peripheral. Philosophy, as a result, has always been treated as the exercise of the mind and cognition. But Gumbrecht’s aesthetic theory criticises that intellectual tradition and explores a fuller range of human experiences that involve the bodily, spiritual and interpersonal aspects of existence. Meaning, an essentially cognitive construct, now indeed seems intellectually limiting. Gumbrecht, embracing a fuller version of phenomenology than Frampton, implies that philosophy can be, or perhaps even should be non-cognitive, personal and metaphorical. With Gumbrecht’s perspective, film can be a rather promising philosophising agent. While an argumentative essay mostly engages the mind, film-being interacts with its audience and involves a larger range of human experiences, be it conscious or unconscious. All human faculties including but not limited to the cognitive faculty are involved in philosophising with the film-being. Philosophy is not just understood in a film, but felt, experienced and integrated into human existence. Through such genuine interactions with film-being, audience regard life as philosophy and philosophy as life.
To sum up, through cinematic experiences, audience surrender their cognitive faculties and engage in genuine interactions with the film-being. The pioneer of film studies Andre Bazin once says that photography is invented out of mankind’s obsession with realism (12). Cognitivist film theorists may read Bazin literally: the cinematic world resembles the real world as much as possible. Gumbrecht, on the other hand, would read Bazin phenomenologically: through film, audience interact what is the ultimately real, a physical reality, or the material presence achieved by cinematic expressions. Gumbrecht in the end provides a more comprehensible account of cinematic experiences. As another Heideggerian “house of Being”, film liberates audience from the constrain of space-time and functions as the ultimate philosophising agent.
Bazin, Andre, and Hugh Gray. What is Cinema? University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967.
Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1979.
Frampton, Daniel. filmosophy. Wallflower, London; New York, 2006.
Gumbrecht, Hans U. “Presence Achieved in Language (with Special Attention Given to the Presence of the Past).” History and Theory, vol. 45, no. 3, 2006, pp. 317-327.
Malik, Terrence (director). The Tree of Life. Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain (Main Casts). 2011