Philosophy of Film

Steven G. Smith
Christian Center 11—office hours posted
Home phone 601-354-2290

Film Studies 2750-01/Philosophy 2250-01
Fall 2014 M 6:30-9:00

In the century since its invention, film (a handy term for moving pictures in whatever medium) has become not only an unexpected new art form but virtually a standard kind of experience for people who spend much of their time watching shows on screens—that is to say, for a very large proportion of people now living. What kind of experience do we have by means of film? What does it mean that film is not only an experience a person might have, but a way of experiencing reality? What is discovered, obscured, presented, repressed, concluded, or confused by means of the camera-editing arts? What can we learn about the character of human experience more broadly from studying film experience? How are the central philosophical questions about reality, knowledge, meaning, and value affected by film? This semester we will be asking in particular: how is our understanding of love affected by cinematic treatment of that subject?

We will use philosophical methods, forming concepts and theses and arguments with the greatest possible care and freedom in conversation with earlier landmark exercises of thought, to assess the nature of film and its significance in human life. We will explore film experience as a site of philosophy and an important philosophical problem in its own right.

Readings will be assigned in handouts and in these books, available in the bookstore:
Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing about Film (6th ed.)
Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism (6th ed.)

The course grade will be determined by:
Class participation 10%
Weekly writings (2-3 p. papers) 35%
Midterm exam 15%
Final exam 15%
Term project 25%

subject to revision by announcement in class or by e-mail

READINGS: be aware that different editions of Film Theory and Criticism (FTAC) may be in use among us; the page numbers listed here are for the 6th ed. (2004), which was the most affordable and available edition when this syllabus was written.
VIEWINGS are of films on DVD or videotape held by the Millsaps library. Usually it will make the most sense to do the week’s readings before the viewing; the readings are chosen to give you new ways of thinking about the film material. We will try to schedule SCREENINGS of assigned films at convenient times.


Aug. 25 Introduction to class. What is film experience? Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

Sept. 1 LABOR DAY (no class)

Sept. 8 Film experience, cont.
READ: Corrigan, Chaps. 1-3; Kracauer, “Basic Concepts” and “The Establishment of Physical Existence” (FTAC 143-153, 303-313); Cavell, “Photograph and Screen” (FTAC 344-345)
VIEW: Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

Sept. 15 Montage theory.
READ: Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot” and “Dramaturgy of Film Form”
(FTAC 13-40)
VIEW: The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Sept. 22 Montage and mise en scène.
READ: Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” (FTAC)
VIEW: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Sept. 29 Personal synthesis.
READ: Sarris, “Auteur Theory” (FTAC 561-564); Descartes and Kant selections (handout)
VIEW: Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March (1986)

Oct. 6 Animation
READ: Panofsky, “Style and Medium in Motion Pictures” (FTAC 289-302); Balász, “The Close-Up” and “The Face of Man” (FTAC 314-321)
VIEW: Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Oct. 13 FALL BREAK (no class)


Oct. 27 Film/love, gender, and emotion.
READ: Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” (FTAC 727-741)
VIEW: King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)

Nov. 3 Film/love as dream.
READ: Noel Carroll, “Jean-Louis Baudry and ‘The Apparatus’” (FTAC 224-239); Colin McGinn, from The Power of Movies (handout)
VIEW: Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Nov. 10 Film/love and procreation.
READ: Plato, from the Symposium; Sartre, from Being and Nothingness; Beauvoir, from The Second Sex (handouts)
VIEW: Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

Nov. 17 Film/love as a mind game.
READ: Robert Solomon, from Love: Emotion, Myth, & Metaphor (handout)
VIEW: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, 2012)

Nov. 24 Film/love as surreal.
READ: Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (FTAC 166-170); Solomon, more from Love (handout)
VIEW: Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, 2012)

Dec. 1 Film/love tomorrow.
VIEW: Her (Spike Jonze, 2014)


Final exam at assigned time in Finals Week.


In the library there are useful general sources in the Refer¬ence section like Halliwell’s Film Guide and Film Encyclopedia. We also have numerous books on film theory, film history, particular genres, and particular directors. You will find much of interest in film journals to which Millsaps sub¬scribes electronically including Film-Philosophy and Film Comment. See Chap. 6 of Corrigan for many more print and online resources.

Two of the most useful books that go deeper than Corrigan into film aesthetics are David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art, and Dennis DeNitto, Film: Form and Feeling.

For overviews of these fields with bibliographies see the entries “Philosophy of Film” and “Love” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


The purpose of the assigned writings in the course is to practice noticing features of film experience and thinking about its nature and implications, and about meaningful human experience more broadly. Most assignments will explicitly direct you to relate ideas that are presented in class and readings to specific features of the films that we view. Grades on writing will reflect the degree to which you fulfill these criteria:

(1) Thoughtful grappling with ideas and arguments introduced in the course, with
(2) sensitive perception of actual ingredients of films viewed, and
(3) effective use of English.

Think of each 2-3 page weekly paper as a philosophically oriented version of what Corrigan calls a “critical review”—a “philosophical review,” for short.

[A=excellent, B=good, C=satisfactory, D=unsatisfactory/passing, F=not passing]


1. The question of essential form. (See Plato’s dialogues in which Socrates tries to find an adequate definition of an item like virtue or justice.) What makes a phenomenon the kind of thing it is? What is the essence of an art work, e.g.? What is the distinctive essence of cinematic art works or cinematic experience? (“Phenomenology” is a sophisticated 20th-century version of this line of investigation pioneered by Edmund Husserl. “Conceptual analysis” is a comparable effort by so-called “analytic” philosophers in the tradition of Bertrand Russell.)

2. The question of evidence. (See René Descartes’ methodical skepticism and discovery of possibilities of certainty in his Meditations on First Philosophy.) How is reality evident to us—what counts, in perception and thought, as revealing or indicating reality? What constitutes trustworthy evidence? On the side of the knower, what sort of mind certifies or rejects evidence? Our more carefully considered judgments of reality sometimes disagree with our spontaneous sense-based convictions.

3. The question of coherence. (See Immanuel Kant’s transcendental arguments in Critique of Pure Reason.) Under what conditions is meaningful experience possible? What rules have to be followed for putting experience together? The idea here is that our world is a construct. (There’s a linguistic version of this question that Ludwig Wittgenstein developed: How do we follow rules in order to say meaningful things, or: What is the “grammar” of our “forms of life” supporting the things we are able to say?)

4. The question of history. (See G. W. F. Hegel’s historical articulation of reality in Phenomenology of Spirit.) How does our experience of reality depend on real historical developments and conscious participation in such developments? The idea here is that our reality is an evolving work-in-progress.

5. The question of essential deception and/or contestation. (See Marxian, Freudian, feminist, postcolonial, and other critical theories.) How is our experience of reality ordinarily warped, constricted, or dramatically deployed by social and psychological forces like class struggle, repression of desires, male-centered culture, European-centered culture, etc.? Are remedies available?

6. The question of ultimate motivation and the Good. (Almost all major philosophers make claims about this, from Plato extolling eternal form to Gilles Deleuze extolling maximal creativity.) What is the implicit goal of our choices of what to pay attention to and how to synthesize our experience? What is the most important in our experience and how does it make its appeal to us?


Proposals for the term project are welcome, and negotiable. Most term projects will consist either of (1) a 10-12 pp. philosophical study of one or more examples of film, or (2) a film made by the student as a philosophical study, with an accompanying presentation (2-3 pp. in its written form) of rationale and findings. All projects should be discussed in advance with the instructor, with a working plan approved before Fall Break.


When a paper is required, do not submit the first draft of your paper. Edit yourself; turn in a second (or later) draft.

Here are some of the unmistakable signs of a first draft:

1. The introduction hasn’t been revised to fit how the paper actually turned out.

2. The flow is ragged and confusing because the paper hasn’t been reorganized according to how its content and argument shaped up.

3. There isn’t a definite conclusion yet.

4. It’s flabby: there are phrases and sentences throughout that could be cut.

5. There are many typos and other mechanical errors and inconsistencies.

6. (In a research paper:) Some works cited in the paper are not included in Works Cited, or vice versa.

Unless you are an exceptionally skilled writer, you cannot write a paper at the last minute that is free of these problems. A paper written at the last minute will look like what it is, a first draft.


Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927) – ultimate problem solved: husband and wife fall in love again after he tries to kill her. Very creative cinematically.

City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931) – sentimental but really luminous story of pure love.

L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934) – dreamlike tale of newlyweds on a French canal barge.

Classics of the “Hollywood Remarriage Comedy” examined by Stanley Cavell in Pursuits of Happiness, all involving fundamental renegotiation of relationship, all superentertaining:

It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
Adam’s Rib (George Cukor, 1949)

Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) – potent melodrama of sacrificial mother love.

Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945) – a poignant love made possible by the train schedule.

La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950) – the definitive “worldly-wise” perspective on love affairs, psychologically acute and compassionate, bringing to light a strong connection between our yearning for love and our concern about time

Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock beg for a psychological elucidation (read Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in FTAC).

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964) – archetypal all-musical romance.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966) – how badly sour can it go and still be love?

Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) – where does sex get you spiritually? Love must be referenced somehow by this intense erotic experience, but how? Compare In the Realm of the Senses (Nagiso Ishima, 1976) which is more like straight-out porn in content but has a similar seriousness.

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) – scary-beautiful love movie from a feminist perspective.

Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) – if you want to contemplate what makes a romantic movie inordinately popular.

AI: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) – what can love mean to a machine?

Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002) – let an alien planet help you carry on with your dead loved ones. (The original version by Tarkovsky [1972] is great, too, but not so romantic.)

Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004) – young boy comes forward as reincarnation of Nicole Kidman’s beloved dead husband: is the love still alive?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) – Clem and Joel, unhappily erasing memories of each other, end up fighting back for the good memories and their future

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) – tragic gay male romance that became a cultural touchstone.

Guest of Cindy Sherman (Tom Donahue and Paul Hasegawa-Overacker, 2008) – Hasegawa-Overacker maneuvers into and out of a love relationship with a famous contemporary artist by means of making this documentary.


1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.
One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence. For these purposes, each week’s 2 ½-hour class meeting is equal to two classes—thus, to miss either the first or second segment of a week’s meeting would equal one absence. To illustrate, someone who totaled 7 absences would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade. The reason for this: our in class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Hardcopy required. Unless I’ve expressly stated otherwise, or unless I grant you permission in extraordinary circumstances, I expect every out-of-class writing assignment to be submitted by its deadline in a printed-out version rather than electronically. This makes a big difference in the effectiveness and efficiency with which I can respond to your writing performance as well as your ideas. Do, however, save copies of all your work, electronically if possible.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. Academic honor. All members of the Millsaps community are pledged to uphold academic honor, the core of which is refraining from giving or receiving unauthorized aid on any assignment. I particularly caution against plagiarism, that is, using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgement. Plagiarized work means a mandatory referral to the Honor Council and may result in expulsion from the class.

5. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will be given only to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

6. Disabilities. If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services. You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228. Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick, letters have been processed, and you have met with your instructor.