Tom Gunning: Cartesian Cognitivism and the Limits of Cinéphilia

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Lapointe, Julien


I was certainly looking forward to Tom Gunning's talk, particularly because I admire his work, but I was equally at pains to grasp what specific point he was driving at, at least with regards to his claim that Bordwell and others deny "motion pictures." My uncertainty was far from alleviated when, during the Q&A period, Noel Carroll asked him where he stood on the Realism-vs.Illusion debate in analytic philosophy, and Gunning responded sheepishly, albeit humorously, "I'm on whichever side you say I'm on." (Boy! And I thought Superman knew how to dodge a speeding bullet).


While Gunning disagrees with Bordwell's preliminary cognitivism, such as I have been able to grasp it in Narration in the Fiction Film, I'm not sure if he does so on a scientific basis -- or even a coherent philosophical basis (Gunning would reply that he is neither a philosopher nor a scientist, but a humble cinéphile -- I'll get to that in a minute). He simply ascribes a Cartesian bias to Bordwell: the bias supposedly revealed in Descartes's Discourse on Method, of distrusting information gleaned from the senses and privileging the workings of the mind alone (as an entity divorced from the body). Let's put aside the obvious consideration that if Bordwell genuinely was afflicted with such radical Cartesian doubt, and rejection, of the senses, he would scarcely entertain the notion of watching movies, much less studying them and writing about them. For me what is at issue here is Gunning's succeeding comment: that rather than view the experience of film-watching as flawed perception of some sort, and by extension, flawed understanding, he would prefer to enjoy it as something ludic; a sort of immense pleasure, and of unending gratification. The implication, too, is that this isn't Bordwell's perspective, which instead (we are to believe) confines film-watching to second-rate, sensorial data.


I have never met Bordwell, and even if I had, would not presume to testify on his behalf to his presumed love of filmgoing -- a love that seems to me nonetheless fairly clearly and indelibly writ large on his numerous books, including Narration(who could stand to watch and write about such seemingly mind-blowing notions as "parametric narration," unless if on some fundamental level they derived great fun from film-going?). It seems to me the problem is that Gunning, whether he fully realizes this or not, is trying to rescue film from the clutches of thinkers, of philosophers, of historians, in short, of academe, and restore it to its rightful place as an object of veneration among cinéphiles. I would be tempted here, though, to recall Bordwell's charge against Slavoj Zizek, which one of my colleagues (Andrée) recently quoted in writing, to the effect of: we can all agree that Zizek loves movies; so what?; so do a lot of people! 


It seems pedantic to point out the obvious, but: the experience of still images as providing an illusion of movement (if one claims this to be the case) need not preclude anyone from enjoying them. And this doesn't diminish or contradict the fact that one can gain understanding from, and exercise one's cognitive faculties upon, this supposedly flawed perceptual data. What is at stake is what goes on between the images on screen, and one's eyes, one's ears and one's mind. And to claim that we stop "denying" that these images have movement requires more than heartfelt cinéphilia (i.e. Gunning's source of ludic wonder), but engaging in the kinds of questions towards which Carroll was pressing him. Cinéphilia can and should play a pivotal role with one's scholarly engagement with film, but it somehow isn't enough to convey that one's idiosyncratic wariness of certain terms ("illusion," or "false movement," to return to yesterday's debate), in the absence of argumentative rigor. Or to phrase the matter differently -- I'll accept, if only as a provocation, the argument that cinéphilia is a necessary condition to studying films; it isn't and can never be a sufficient condition to producing intelligible work. 


Despite my confusions and reservations, I felt privileged to have the opportunity to see and hear Tom Gunning talk, something I had been wanting to do ever since I read his excellent book on Fritz Lang some while ago. 


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