How Do Movies ‘Do’ Philosophy?, by Darrell Tuffs


Early Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are not only credited with expanding the possibilities of the human mind but were among the first writers to begin challenging the idea of the human mind; to begin thinking about thinking. Film, on the other hand, was first created mainly to function as a fairground entertainment, a magical process by which the moving images of reality could be viewed and screened back to the very beings that inhabit reality. Early films were a ride, a thrill, and an entertainment machine, one that was far from inhibiting the high-cultured, intellectual world of philosophy. So then, how is it possible that the two could, in fact, be completely inseparable and essential for each other’s existence? How can a film engage in, not just simply highlighting and presenting a philosophical idea, but in actively ‘doing’ philosophy? What does it mean to say that a film can think? And, more importantly, what does it mean to say that a film can think about thinking?

In discussing what it means to say that any given film ‘does’ philosophy, it is important to look at film in relation to human thinking; the way in which we subconsciously remember dreams and the process by which we consciously attempt to account for memories within the mind. In Filmosophy, Daniel Frampton connects human thought to what he calls “film-thinking”. For Frampton, a film’s ‘mind’ can exist in separation from any individual spectator’s subjective gaze, meaning that the film itself develops a perception of its own world separated from the perception of its makers and audience. “Film seems to be a double phenomenology, a double intention: our perception of film, and the film’s perception of its world … our understanding of our world can be informed and changed by this other way of experiencing the world, this other view of a similar world.” (Frampton, 2006, p.15) This means that not only can a film ‘think’, but that, in experiencing film, we are experiencing an alternate reality, one similar in appearance to our world, but ultimately, one that more resembles the patterns of the human thought process. We remember memories in snippets, as partly unreliable scraps of information used to construct a seemingly logical whole, which is, in turn, the same way we remember and experience film. Meaning that, for Frampton, there is little difference between remembering an actual event that took place in our world, and an event witnessed in the film world. Stanley Cavell also connects film to a process of memory, stating that, “like dreams, certain moments from films viewed decades ago will nag as vividly as moments of childhood.” (Cavell, 1979, p.17) This is important for explaining what it means for a film to be ‘doing’ philosophy. If we subscribe to the idea that films can exist as more than a blank mirror held to reality, then we may accept that they can further develop philosophical concepts in a way that extends our experience of reality. In viewing cinema, we lose our conscious sense of the body, only for the mind to take over. It is in the mind that philosophical concepts are not only kept within, but also generated from, meaning that cinema may act as an aid or shortcut for directly experiencing philosophy.

In his book, Philosophy Goes to the Movies, Christopher Falzon deliberates “the philosophy we can discern through the image … how cinematic images can be used to portray and talk about philosophical themes, positions, and ideas.” (Falzon, 2002, p.5) Falzon strikes an important note in explaining how the discipline of philosophy can inform and influence film, but it may be said that films are capable of more than merely ‘talking about’ philosophy, and instead, are proficient enough to move into the realms of actively ‘doing’ philosophy. With this, Falzon connects film to philosophy in a profound way, but in order to label a film as ‘doing’ philosophy, we need to think more deeply about what films can do for philosophy, rather than focusing exclusively on what philosophy can do for films. In The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a lonely and disenfranchised movie-lover (Cecilia) is greeted with a fictional film character (Tom Baxter) who enters the real world, only to influence Cecelia to change the way she views her own existence. The entire film may be seen as a visual depiction of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, in which human prisoners are held, forced to spend their lives viewing only the indexical shadows left by real objects on a cave wall. In the film, Cecilia spends her life figuratively imprisoned as she views the indexical images of light created by film projections. The Purple Rose of Cairo is on one level, a thought experiment, in recreating Plato’s allegory, before subjecting it to real world consequences. Yet, the film does more than this, in taking Plato’s wall shadows, and giving them agency, in allowing them to explore the outside world just as the prisoners are eventually able to, if not only for a brief moment. The film allows its audience to actively participate in both Tom and Cecilia’s situation, to witness and experience their fascination and wonder as the events of the film play out. ‘Doing’ philosophy for Plato when creating the “Allegory of the Cave” was to first suppose the allegory, before placing the concept into the minds of the reader in order to unlock and uncover deeper truths about the human mind and its place in the world; the fundamental aim of philosophy. The Purple Rose of Cairo does just this, but instead of blankly visualizing Plato’s old philosophical ideas, it expands on them, allowing these ideas to develop and progress as the film does. Stephen Mulhall comments on films as “themselves reflecting on and evaluating such view and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the ways that philosophers do” (Mulhall, 2001, p.2) To say that any given film ‘does’ philosophy is to suggest an awareness the film has for its own thought. Films are a process, a motion in which moods and tones can shift and transform; their philosophical status can develop past the point of mere projections. To explore the ‘film world’ is not just to witness or imagine a thought experiment, but is to experience an alternate reality while the film experiences itself. Thus, to question a film as “doing” philosophy is to suggest that any given film can ‘think’ past the point of the filmmaker’s intent, and into the motions of evaluating and questioning its own characters, ideas, and sense of morality.


In questioning itself, film becomes inherently philosophical since the art form itself is raised into question. Cinema can present a variety of philosophical questions within story, tone, and technical filmmaking decisions, but what makes these filmic components a function of ‘doing’ philosophy is the fact that a film can present a direct argument, a point of view, or a judgment upon its own characters. It may be argued that films themselves do not form opinions, but that these are simply the opinions held by audiences, which are then subconsciously applied to the film itself. But this works both ways; audiences may sometimes apply their own philosophical opinions to a film, but so does a film to audiences, for example, as social critiques. Cinema helps us form opinions on real world injustices and consequences, opinions that were perhaps never present to begin with, but were created by a given film while communicating an idea. In viewing cinema, a communication exchange between an audience’s perception of reality and a film’s perception of its reality must and does take place, creating a platform for which ideas are not only screened, but are philosophically considered and carefully deliberated. Within this communication, films can then make philosophical claims, not only by illustrating philosophical theories, but also by constructing thought experiments (The Matrix, 1999) or by presenting counterexamples (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2004). Films can engage an audience enough to evoke the same intellectual response caused by the early philosophers, to reflect our world back upon us in such a way that forces us to see our reality differently, to think about our existence in relation to the world depicted in any given film. In calling a film ‘thoughtful’, ‘engaging’, ‘moving’, or even ‘life-changing’ we are admitting that a film can communicate ideas and complex human emotions past the point of our subjective conscience, which in turn, directs us to begin thinking about films as works of active philosophy.


Arguments could and have been made about the banality of films as philosophy. But in suggesting that all types of films can ‘do’ philosophy, we are raising their importance towards the level of philosophy itself, making ‘films as philosophy’ a more acceptable and approachable area to explore, not just for film theorists, but also for more traditional modern philosophers. With Stephen Mulhall exploring the Alien series (1979-1992), Thomas Wartenberg seriously deliberating The Matrix (1999), and Stanley Cavell’s work focusing on Hollywood classics such as Gone With the Wind (1939) or The Maltese Falcon (1941), philosophers are beginning to establish a profound link between philosophy and film. Not exclusively limited to art- house cinema, this link also explores populist mainstream films; hence, to say that any given film can ‘do’ philosophy does not limit the academic credentials of philosophy as an important intellectual tool, but only expands the scope of the discipline, taking it to new possibilities and understandings of human perception, while also allowing cinema to be taken seriously as an established art form.

Cavell, S. (1979) The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, 2nd edn, London: Harvard University Press.

Falzon, C. (2002) Philosophy Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Philosophy, London: Routledge.

Frampton, D. (2006) Filmosophy, London: Wallflower.

Mulhall, S. (2001) On Film: Thinking in Action, New York: Routledge.

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