Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Epistemology of the Reel -- Part Two

Experience, Emotions, and Learning.

I may be justified in believing that there is a tree in front of me by virtue of the fact that I am currently having a certain kind of sense experience, but this will be true only in “favorable circumstances.” If I am confronted with a complicated arrangement of mirrors, I may not be justified in believing that there is an oak tree in front of me, even though it looks for all the world as if there is. Again, it may look for all the world as if water is running uphill, but the general improbability of this greatly diminishes the justification the corresponding belief receives from that experience. (1)

As William P. Alston indicates in the quote above, most often we are perfectly justified in claiming that what we are seeing is indeed something of real substance before us. Yet, this is what Alston qualifies as a favorable circumstance. In other words, there is no reason to believe that I am hallucinating, dreaming, that the objects I see are holograms, and so forth. Favorable circumstances are just part of every-day-life. We seldom (unless you’re a philosopher working too much in metaphysics and epistemology) give much thought to the physical reality of the world we live in. When I reach out my hand for my mug of coffee, I fully expect that my fingers will grip the handle and I will be able to pick it up and bring it to my lips. I do not even think about whether my mug is real or not. (2)

When we step into a movie theater we have entered a non-favorable circumstance of sorts, as I have indicated in the last entry. Sure, the seats are real, the popcorn is buttery, and the teenager in the row behind me who just cannot find it in his power to shut the hell up is all too real. However, we are not justified in believing that we really are seeing a Tyrannosaurus Rex when we watch Jurassic Park. (3) This might be overstating the obvious. Yet, I think it is an important point to make before proceeding. While we don’t ultimately believe what we experience in the movie theater to be real in-and-of-itself, there is a sense in which it is very real. The actors are most often real people; the locations are usually real or at least real sound stages in Hollywood made to look like a certain place on earth or beyond. Even in digital animation, the colors and pixels correspond to real volumes of data stored on hard drives. In this sense, we can understand that the film is grounded in reality. But once the film has been edited, all special effects work done, and the final cut distributed to theaters, the film is now its own entity. The reality of making the film becomes rather secondary. In fact, a good film should not, as one views it, call the viewer’s attention to how it was made. (4) When viewing the film, we are to suspend disbelief, entering into a susceptible epistemic state of mind. There is no magic or mystery to this. We are merely watching the film and accepting it as the story that it is. We open our selves to experiencing the story. Here in lies the true power of cinema: Experience. What ultimately is the reality of film is the experience of the film.

What might be understood in epistemology to be an un-favorable circumstance is precisely the most favorable for film. We are not expected to believe that film we are viewing is reality unfolding before our eyes. It is art, an imitation of reality. We are well aware of this fact. At a much more subconscious level, we are to believe that the characters in the story could be real, and the events of the story could take place. This does not mean we bypass the impossible, but for the sake of preserving the suspension of disbelief filmmakers usually try to avoid the implausible. Thus, we can connect with the struggles of fictional characters, and our emotions are aroused through this connection. In fact, failing to make the emotional connection between character and audience can be deadly to a film. I have found myself sitting in a movie theater thinking, “I really don’t care where this movie is going because I don’t like any of these characters!” Just like that, such a film has lost its emotional grip on me. (5)

What can we learn from communication through emotional connection? Is not acquisition of knowledge a cognitive activity? Well, not entirely. We are emotional beings, and in this way, we are to communicate emotionally. In fact, emotional communication is crucial in many areas of our lives. What would a marriage based on purely cognitive communication be like? (6) We are designed to be emotional beings, and to communicate these emotions.

According to Robert C. Solomon, “Emotions are the life force of the soul, the source of most of our values (not all; there is always hunger, thirst, and fatigue), the basis of most other passions.” (7) Emotions play a significant role in human life, even the life of the philosopher. In the attempt to rely solely on language for communication and education, we neglect the experiential aspects of life. Think of what a newborn learns in those first crucial years of life. It is entirely through experiencing the world around him or her that a child first encounters the world and learns, eventually developing language and cognitive skills. Life itself is an experience. And in many ways, cinema is an imitation of that experience. It mimics our reality, providing us with a unique experience of reality we might not otherwise have. Who of us will walk on Mars, or see the bottom of the ocean? Precisely because of the “Plato’s Cave-like” environment of the theater, movies can provide us with these experiences in a powerful way.

Beyond that, film can teach us something about ourselves. Again, we must connect with the characters in the story. When we care, we can be moved. Some stories have simple plots, wishing only to remind the audience of the value of emotional connection between people in love. Others deal with the bitter reality of the world we live in, attempting to find hope in a world where people kill each other. Still others ask desperate questions in light of the staggering amount of evil in our world. I think of how deeply moved I was in watching The Pianist. (8) The film deals with a talented Jewish pianist suppressed and torn from his family by the horrific actions of the Holocaust. Such stories should never embrace some idealistic “objective” point of view. The purpose of the film is that in a small way, for a few hours, we too live through such experiences. I say “in a small way” because never will the experience of watching a film (which is an imitation of the experiences of life) be equal to experiences in real life. The purpose of film is to move the audience. It should be recognized that given the emotional power and grip films can have, they can be used for ill. Films can be made that devalue human life (not always on purpose, but often for the sake of making a few bucks at the box-office). Yet, I do not think this a sufficient reason to abandon the medium as a form of communicating deep truth. If nothing more, every mindless action flick that detracts from the value of human life that is released should spur the more thoughtful filmmaker to work harder so that some day his or her life-honoring work can be seen in the multiplex down the street. For every film that cheapens human sexuality or degrades femininity, there should be a film made that holds these things up in an ethical and virtuous light. Please do not take me to imply that action films or films with any sort of nudity have no value. I merely encourage the filmmaking community to use caution with what message is sent to audiences about the value of human life and sexuality through the films we make and release.

When sitting in the theater in our favorably non-favorable circumstance, our minds are acquiring information through the senses, specifically the visual and auditory senses. But this does not mean that the mind is inactive. As I have already argued, there is a subconscious level at which the mind must be in operation to be able to interpret the images and sounds bombarding the senses. Still further, we should be prepared to examine the even deeper issues of the mental activity in experiencing films. This will depend on the story being told. As I have alluded to already, some stories require little active mental engagement. They are straightforward, even superficial. These stories have their place; we all need diversion and entertainment. However, many films posses a much deeper thought-provoking quality. Films like Memento (9) require active engagement of the viewer’s mind for the story to be understood at all. The best works of art posses a great deal of subtlety. Most films could be viewed on the merely superficial level. But this does not mean that there are no deeper ideas and experiences that that can be gleamed from these films.

Probably the second most important part of viewing a film (right after opening yourself to experiencing it) is taking time after experiencing the story to reflect on it. This is important in any storytelling medium, any art really. The problem is that we are not educated to do this in current American culture. Most literature classes involve little true reflection. Tests and papers in most literature classes are designed to merely verify students have done their homework. Never mind how a given novel or story may or may not have moved students. It was not until I took World Literature in college that an academic course encouraged me to reflect over great works of literature. But this involves taking time to reflect on the story. Who has time for that, right? Well, at least when it comes to movies, start by sitting through the credits. Try going to a movie alone some time, then try driving home without saying a word. I have often enjoyed the beautiful stillness of going to the theater alone. It can be a cathartic, spiritual experience of reflection and learning. These are special trips to the theater, and I don’t do them all the time. I am firm believer in the communal power of the theater experience as well. They work in different ways, and both have great value.

The idea behind both experiencing the film and reflecting on what you have experienced is to be able to learn from such an experience. What fictional films can do is to hold up a mirror in which we can look into and wonder how we might respond in similar situations. Inevitably, these experiences of film, like all experiences of art, will be subjective to each person. There should be a recognition that many films are meant to have deeper meanings than just the superficial story. Every film is written from a certain worldview, every film has some agenda. I do not mean to use the word “agenda” in a negative way; I merely wish to point out that no film is devoid of meaning and the influence of a worldview. People make films. People have worldviews. The act of making a film can very much be an act of struggling with or expressing one’s worldview.

The power of film is precisely its experiential value. The experience has the ability to arouse in us certain desires. However, we inevitably bring ourselves to the film. (10) It is easy for film to arouse base desires of lust and violence. Even these desires, though, must first of all be present in the viewer. We cannot change some desires due to their involuntary nature. (11) Cinema provides a meeting ground for worldviews and perspectives. This is why film is often referred to as a cultural dialogue by critics and cultural observers. By learning how to engage in this dialogue, we can more fully appreciate the experience of cinema and come to see it in a new light.

End Notes:

(1) R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (ed.) Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1992) 297.

(2) Many arguments in the areas of epistemology and metaphysics deal with views of reality, this is something we can only reference here, but I should note this is a significant field of study in philosophy.

(3) Steven Spielberg, 1993.

(4) Exception to such rules are usually satires about making a film.

(5) I may as well get up and leave, but I usually give the film another chance. I wasted one hour; what’s another, right?

(6) It should be noted that I do not believe love to merely be an emotion, but also a life long commitment when in the context of marriage. Still, the emotional connection love brings about is crucial to a marriage.

(7) Robert C. Solomon, The Passions. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press: 1983) 14.

(8) Roman Polanski, 2003.

(9) Christopher Nolan, 2000.

(10) For a good discussion on how each person must lay themselves before a work of art see: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism. (New York, NY. Cambridge University press, 1961).

(11) Richard Swinburne, The Evolution of the Soul. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986) 114, 118.

1 comment:

Greg said...

I think you make some very good points. I do believe fake worlds can be a distraction if not done right but as you said the ability to relate to the characters and situations is most key. For instance most high school plays are obviously fake and not well done but a few good actors can pull you into the story. Another thing this post made me think of is even though a movie is made with a biased view that doesn't mean that the biases of the person watching won't override that view. So emotional appeal and effectiveness is somewhat left up to the viewer. Kind of like how many girls like chick flicks and generally many guys don't. I like your post. It is very well written and thought provoking. You should teach filmmaking.