Thesis: Philosophy of Film Philosophy

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Philosophy of Film

Philosophy in Film

Ever since mankind first crawled out of the slime, it has attempted -- through the brighter intellectual luminaries that most ages have produced -- to describe and explain the conditions of humanity and reality with as much objectivity as can be mustered (a subject which is itself a matter of great debate). There are many different areas of inquiry within these broad topics, and many more approaches and conclusions that have been drawn by humanity's great thinkers. Concepts of memory and identity, truth and reality, and even the ability to know have all been questioned and repeatedly examined over the millennia of human civilization, sometimes clarifying and often confusing our view of the world around us and our place in it. The branch of human thought generally devoted to such pursuits has been dubbed philosophy, a word that comes from the language of the first great Western philosophers, the Greeks, and which literally means the "love of knowledge." This term has become arguably more appropriate both for the pursuit and the pursuers of such thinking in the modern era.

Traditionally, philosophical texts have been written and disseminated as paper (or parchment) and ink (or other medium). Dialogues, and then essays and books, were the standard forms of expounding philosophical theories. Speeches were delivered and debates held, too, and there is no doubt that there are certain overtly philosophical works of art that can be cited from most ages. But it is not until the advent of cinema that mankind gained the ability to create an unchanging text with both explicit and symbolic philosophical elements and investigations that employs narrative and personal aesthetic style. Like any work of art, a good film is a labor of love and is marked by the uniqueness of its creator. When these labors of love delve into subjects like identity, reality, and ethics -- when they are concerned with knowledge -- they become true philosophical texts.

One of the most basic questions philosophy explores is the nature of identity and one's sense of self. John Locke formulated one of the modern concepts of this sense of self, claiming that it was not inborn or immutable but rather resulted from repeated self-identification as an individual goes through life. This makes memory essential to the formation of an identity, a requirement that many other philosophers have disagreed with. The fairly recent film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores this concept, and ultimately determines that while memory can change our conscious self, it does not define our identity.

The ways in which the film illustrates this determination are varied, appearing in both minor events in the action and the overarching plot. The fact the Clementine and Joel find each other again, and even fall in love again (or, arguably, resume the love they already had) is the most clear example of this. Despite the complete lack of a memory regarding their prior relationship, they still feel a connection with each other -- their identities still mesh. It could be argued that the couple gets back together because they lost the memory of their prior relationship, but their final decision to remain together despite the revelation of their prior actions demonstrates the inconsistency of this interpretation. The day they spend together before learning that they had been a couple also provides ample evidence that their characters are still the same. The course of the movie shows how each character -- especially Joel -- was changed by the relationship, and the "real time" day of the movie shows these characters reflecting these changes. This is also evidence of the film's philosophical position that memory, though important in forming a sense of self, is not the essential ingredient of identity.

The film also raises questions about the value of suffering, especially the ability to clearly perceive truths and/or appropriate courses of action suffering seems to grant. Suffering is portrayed both in their relationship as seen through Joel's memories, in the act of removing Joel's memory, and in the relationship between Mary and the doctor. Suffering is also the point of the memory alterations that take place; the doctor's "patients" are all attempting to forget past losses. Mary's decision to send out everyone's files seems to suggest the film's stance that truth and a full memory are preferable to escaping or avoiding suffering, but at the same time the suffering Joel and Clementine go through does not lead to anything productive. The only thing suffering is good for, then, is helping us avoid future suffering.

The concept of identity is explored in a very different way in Stanley Kubrik's film A Clockwork Orange. Here, the feasibility and ethics of reprogramming a criminal mind also raises issues of the existence and nature of free will. The aggression and obsession with sex that has come to be viewed as typical of the adolescent male is hugely exaggerated in the main character of the film and his hooligan friends, to the danger of the rest of society. At the heart of the film are questions of what constitutes morality, and whether or not it can be taught or is inborn. The film's re-education scenes make quite clear the inhumanity of forced moral instruction, and reveal the hypocrisy of such an act as immoral itself. Crime generally consists of impinging on another's rights, including the right to free will. The punishers in this film are guilty of the same crime.

That being said, there is still a complex ethical issue raised in the film. Though it might seem immoral to rob a criminal of their free will (or whatever decision making power they in reality have), could it really be ethically correct for a society to let such a dangerous person exercise their will? Society has consistently answered this question with a very clear "no." Imprisonment and/or other methods of barring individuals deemed dangerous from society have been practiced by every community in recorded history. As long as life in prison and even death are acceptable measures for dealing with criminality, reprogramming cannot be considered any less moral -- it is no more against the prisoner's will than the other options. Society's ability to punish crime does not mean that we do not have free will, however -- we are given the choice to act in ways that are society can abide, and if we choose other alternatives we must face the consequences. This is evidence of society utilizing its own free will, which it derives from the common wills of those individuals who make up the given society.

The film Waking Life deals with many interconnected philosophical issues regarding free will, human potential, reality, and our ability to know. One issue of prime importance to all of these questions is the need to have an observer, even a disinterested one. Though we can never know another's viewpoint or even existence with any certainty, it is the belief that there is a perspective observing us that lends our actions and thoughts validity -- otherwise, everything simply exists in an unknowing, uncaring, and ultimately meaningless void. Though this is a very real philosophical possibility, it is not an especially pleasant one. The view expressed by philosopher Louis Mackey in the film of human beings as lazy creatures that rarely fulfill their potential is also rather unpleasant, but its truth can be seen in any number of real life examples. Whenever someone "rises to the occasion," it is evidence that they are capable of more than they consistently perform.

The ultimate question of the movie, however, is what constitutes reality. Is perception sufficient as a working reality, or is it an illusion that must be delved into? The question of whether Wiley is dreaming or even dead is raised many times… [END OF PREVIEW]

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