The Philosophy of Motion Pictures – By James L. Neibaur

Approaches to cinema vary from merely offering impressions and opinions to examining the very idea of the moving image as philosophical fodder. As early as 1916, Harvard professor Hugo Munsterberg published a psychological study of the moving picture (which he referred to as a photoplay), but a philosophical approach is far more recent

Noel Carroll’s book The Philosophy of Motion Pictures, part of Blackwell Publishing’s Foundations of the Philosophy of the Arts series, is one of the more insightful scholarly approaches to cinema in recent years.

The author perceives the moving image as an art form to be examined philosophically from an intellectual perspective as well as historical and aesthetic. This idea has become reasonably commonplace since the first truly serious generation of film students sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s, after film itself has been around long enough to offer different perspectives on a myriad of themes. Carroll separates the science of several still pictures on celluloid from the audience’s perspective of the moving image that is absorbed as film is projected. It is the moving image itself to which Carroll responds.

The book explores film as moving image with several interesting and intellectually stimulating and satisfying chapters covering film as art, differences in perspective from film to cinema, moving pictures, and the moving image. Skepticism as to whether film is indeed art, medium specificity, the ontological approach, and affective imagery are all examined within the book’s pages.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter deals with cinema and its general forms, from its narrative to the shots that complete the image’s movement. The cognitive approach to the illusion of the moving image, as the objects are present to us, is discussed as per the idea that while watching King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper) or The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah), we suspend belief enough to realize a fifty foot gorilla is not actually within arm’s length, nor are bullets from western gunmen actively flying around us.

Carroll also gives some interesting attention to the idea of the screen being soiled by something so outrageous-yet-possible as “an unhappy patron (throwing) a glass of Coke (at the screen) eons ago…” as one of the minor obstacles we must see “through” in order to absorb the moving image.

The text concludes with the idea of evaluating movies, and how this process as itself evolved since criticism has gone from the essays of Pauline Kael, James Agee, or Pare Lorentz, to the thumbs up or down approach that allows little if any serious evaluation. Carroll concludes that DVDs, cable television, and computer access has made movies readily available and accessible so that film criticism is no longer in the hands of professionals and certainly not learned scholars.

Libraries and Universities will probably best benefit from Carroll’s study. Its approach is effective for students of film, the arts, or philosophy.