It would seem that, with three posts already, Noel Carroll's presentation on Sunset Boulevard and film as philosophical text is the talk-to-talk-about out of ARTHEMIS today. I hope that my comments will not simply repeat those of my fellow bloggers, but will rather provide some new insights on what we all seem to take issue with in his talk (that is, the status of film as philosophical text and the purpose of such a designation).
The argument that films can "do philosophy" is one that I've heard before, specifically in an episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast featuring Stephen Mulhall. (He presumably makes the argument in his book, On Film, which I haven't read; it's my understanding that the book provides readings of Blade Runner and the Alien quadrilogy using a similar framework to that presented by Carroll today.) It's also worth noting that, in the podcast, Mulhall is met with the same criticism as Carroll was today: specifically, isn't it us that is "doing" the philosophy and not the film? Martin Lefebvre asked whether there was a difference between a philosophical film and reading a film philosophically. I wonder if there is any reason to designate films as philosophical at all.
Andree Lafontaine has already put it so eloquently in her blog entry below - "To say a pair of boots makes you think philosophically does not make the boots 'philosophical'" - and I agree with her completely. But I'm more concerned with what we're doing when we call a film philosophical. Specifically, Carroll seems to be in the business (if inadvertently) of ranking films by blessing some with this nomination and not others. In the question period, he picked Tarzan and the Leopard Woman out of thin air as a film that wouldn't be classified as philosophical. But I wonder why not? Throughout his presentation, Carroll seemed to equate the activity of "doing philosophy" with how the film Sunset Blvd treated its themes, specifically the refusal to acknowledge death. The Tarzan films certainly have themes, though they may be even more "banal" than Sunset Blvd's (I have seen the Tarzan film in question, but I'll admit that the entire Johnny Weissmuller run on the character seems to blend together in my mind, with the exception of the exceptional or unusual entries, like Tarzan's New York Adventure and Tarzan and his Mate). In addition to its treatment of its themes, however, the Tarzan films additionally posit certain human/non-human interactions as "natural" or "good," and certainly this is the domain of philosophy. Because of his lack of elaboration and his unwillingless to see those elements of Tarzan that would qualify as philosophy (in his framework, at least), Carroll seems to simply be dismissing the film because of its apparent lack of quality (perhaps based on its status as a franchise film, as a B-picture, etc.). Obviously, I take issue with this, and I'd side with what Lefebvre's question seems to be implying: if Sunset Blvd is "doing philosophy," it would certainly seem that all (or at least the vast majority of) other films are as well.
And what is gained by applying this nomination to films? We can do thematic analysis without trying to justify our readings under the banner of philosophy, whether we're film scholars or philosophers (or, in Carroll's case, both). All we're doing by calling some films philosophical and some not is elevating our object of study unnecessarily (assuming here that philosophy is a laudable pursuit). Saying a film is philosophical becomes just another way of saying it's "good," "rich," or [insert your go-to term for praising art here].
With that said, I agree with my fellow blogger Julien Lapointe, who writes below that he still finds the idea of films as practicing philosophy to be alluring. I also see the value in filmmakers deliberately engaging with philosophical ideas in their films. (Indeed, I'm presenting a conference paper at the end of this month wherein I read Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation as a failed contribution to the discourse of animal rights philosophy.) I just don't see the value in classifying some films as philosophical to the exclusion of others. To respond to the hypothetical skeptic's third critique of Carroll's position ("the excessive elaboration argument"), film has the ability to penetrate segments of the population that would not otherwise engage with philosophical issues, and as such is an ideal venue for introducing such concepts to them. And I have no doubt that films have this potential. Whether we should then call them philosophical films, however... why not just call them "films" and leave it at that?
On a closing, and somewhat unrelated, note, I wonder why Carroll chose Sunset Blvd and not Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? for his analysis today. The latter film, hazy in my memory though it may be, seems to deal with the same themes as Sunset but without the complications (the dead narrator undermining the idea that death cannot be overcome, as one audience member pointed out) and perhaps even more hyperbolically (e.g. Baby Jane is even older, pretending to be even younger, and becomes even more of a grotesque, than Norma Desmond) while also drawing on horror tropes. The increased emphasis on Baby Jane's monstrosity makes the point that Hollywood (or show business more generally) turns its stars into monsters crystal clear.
For those interested, I've included the URL of the Philosophy Bites podcast mentioned at the beginning of this entry below.