Notes on Carroll and Popular Philosophy

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Lafontaine, Andrée


Carroll's talk raised important questions in the audience, which I would summarize under one meta-question: the role of the interpreter. Four main questions were posed:
1) What are we to make of the "immortal" narrator?
2) Are there non-philosophic films?
3) How many philosophical insights does a film have?
4) Why opt for the "denial of mortality" angle (insight) rather than the representation angle. Through the idea of representation, isn't the film (by being a film) exemplifying the victory of humans over mortality?

Carroll's response to these questions left me, to be honest, a little unsatisfied. His claim that "it is bizarre to think that Norma has somehow succeeded" over mortality" in effect seems shaky, especially when two participants have indeed interpreted the Norma Desmond character as being "beautiful" rather than a monster. In all fairness, Carroll does provide arguments to support his claim that Norma is portrayed, through different characteristics, as monstrous. But I would have enjoyed a panel composed of these participants as well, for I am sure that they too would have provided arguments to support their claim.

I have personally always viewed Sunset Boulevard from a different angle than the one presented by Carroll:  not as addressing a question common to all human beings (what is the sign of a question being philosophic, if I understood correctly), but as addressing questions that pertain to women in particular. Being a woman, this movie has always moved me profoundly, because of the way it presents a woman's relationship to aging, more particularly, the visible signs of aging, and the importance we, as a society, attribute to youth, not only a youthful appearance, but also a youthful demeanor, especially for women. This has, of course, been addressed in different ways by other American movies, inside and outside of Hollywood. And this is in fact one of the reasons why I would consider this "angle" to be just as valid: I view, Sunset Boulevard to pursue similar questions as do All About EveNow Voyager and Opening Night, to name only a few.  I'm not sure if Carroll would grant these questions the status of "philosophy" - as they are not universal, do not pertain to the human condition, but are socially and historically located and contingent.

As I see it, it is the interpreter of the movie which is central to the "philosophical" role the movie might play. This, of course, points to M. Lefebvre's other question: Is there a difference between a philosophical film and a philosophical reading of film? I, for one, believe that N. Carroll has not successfully answered that question.

For Carroll, the film functions as a maïeutique ; it has a "definite conclusion", towards which the director guides the audience through a series of elements, cues, that are constantly repeated throughout the film. The film brings the audience to contemplate a specific question. As the participants' reading attest, I'm not so sure Sunset Boulevard's "message" is so univocal and unambiguous. In fact, when a movie does lead the audience to a clear conclusion through the delivery of a spelled out message, I think that we tend to lose interest in the movie, or at least to consider it too didactic to be artistic. "A clear message": isn't that the opposite of what philosophy is? Don't we tend to think of such "clear messages" as propaganda rather than philosophy?

On the other hand, it seems to me that we also tend to require that a movie provide clear, unambiguous message before we deem it "philosophical". There seems to be good reasons for this as well: if the movie is saying too many things, how can we maintain that it is saying at least one thing? How do we know it is saying anything at all? How do we find those supporting arguments when there are just as many arguments, in the film, that negate each "message" or "insight"?

I personally think we're asking the wrong question, when we are wondering whether or not movies can "do" philosophy (to use Carroll's and many other's expression). This is usually followed by a "bémol" to state that, of course, movies, being object, cannot, per se, do philosophy (or anything else). To say that some movies can do philosophy is only meant as a short cut. But this short cut has the effect of cutting out the interpreter who is the one that does the doing. 

To say that a pair of boots makes you think philosophically does not make the boots "philosophical". I wonder why we are ready to grant this to movies, even if it is just as a figure of speech.

Asking the right question, with regards to film and philosophy, must involve the enunciator of the philosophy insight, the interpreter.


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