Philosophy of Film

Steven G. Smith
Academic Complex 109F—office hours posted
Home phone 601-354-2290

Film Studies 2750-01/Philosophy 2250-01
Fall 2018         T 6:30-9:00 (shifted to 7:00-9:30)

In the 125 years or so since its invention, film (a handy term for moving pictures in whatever medium) has become not only a surprising late addition to the realm of fine arts, “the seventh art,” but virtually a standard kind of experience for people who spend much of their time watching shows on screens—people like us. So what kind of experience are we having? 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 film? What can film teach us about the character of human experience more broadly? 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 life affected by cinematic treatments of deranged experience?

Each week in class and in written reviews we will closely examine outstanding works of cinematic art, analyzing how the meanings of movies are achieved. And 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%

SCHEDULE 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 is currently one of the most affordable and available editions.

VIEWINGS are of films on DVD 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.

Aug. 21  Introduction to class. What is film experience? Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929)

Aug. 28  Film experience, cont. Mise en scène

READ:  Corrigan, Chaps. 1-3; Kracauer, “Basic Concepts” and “The stablishment of Physical Existence” (FTAC 143-153, 303-313); Cavell, “Photograph and Screen” (FTAC 344-345)

VIEW: Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)

 Sept. 4  Montage theory.

READ:  Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot,” “Dramaturgy of Film Form” (FTAC 13-40)

VIEW:  The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Sept. 11  Realism.

READ:  Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” (FTAC 41-53)

VIEW:  Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Sept. 18  Personal synthesis.

READ:  Andrew Sarris, “Auteur Theory” (FTAC 561-564); Descartes and Kant selections (handout)

VIEW: Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

 Sept. 25  Voyeurism: the involvement of the audience in “abnormal” psychology.

READ: Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (FTAC 837-848)

VIEW: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Oct. 2  MIDTERM. Surrealism. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí, 1929)

Oct. 9  FALL BREAK (no class)

Oct. 16  Film as dream; surrealism.

READ: André Breton, from the First Surrealist Manifesto (handout); Colin McGinn, from The Power of Movies (handout)

VIEW: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)


Oct. 23  Animation

READ: Erwin Panofsky, “Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures” (FTAC 289-302)

VIEW: A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)

Oct. 30  The art film

READ: David Bordwell, “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice” (FTAC 774-782)

VIEW:  Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Nov. 6  Deranging the Western

READ: Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicles: The Westerner” (FTAC 703-716)

VIEW: Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)

Nov. 13  Deranging the Holocaust (black comedy)

READ:  Ilan Avisar, selection from Screening the Holocaust (handout)

VIEW:  Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmuller, 1976)

Nov. 20  Deranging the war movie

READ: J. Glenn Gray, “The Enduring Appeals of Battle” (handout)

VIEW:  Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)



Term Projects due Dec. 3. Final exam at assigned time in Finals Week.


In the library there are useful general sources in the Refer­ence 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 sub­scribes 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 an overview of philosophy of film with a bibliography see “Philosophy of Film” in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For creative projects, filmmaking equipment can be checked out of the Millsaps library. Consult with the instructor about this.


It’s always a good idea to visit the Writing Center, which is staffed by student Writing Consultants who are trained to help you grow as a writer. Writing Consultants work with all writers, in all disciplines, at all skill levels, and in all stages of the writing process. These consultations are most useful to students 48 hours or more in advance of a due date, and many students benefit from multiple visits during the writing process. Students may elect to send a session report summarizing their writing center visit to professors. If you would like to notify your professor of your visit, please inform the consultant when you arrive at the Writing Center. Students may also request session reporting to professors after their visit by emailing Visit for more information about hours, locations, and upcoming events.


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 idea 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 newer 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’ methodological 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 and meaningfulness. (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. (Ludwig Wittgenstein developed a linguistic version of this question: 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, queer, and postcolonial 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? How do movies contribute to a revisioning of human experience?
  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. This work will be suitable for inclusion in your Writing Portfolio as representing your work in Fine Arts.


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.


G. W. Pabst, Secrets of a Soul – Freudian

Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound, Psycho

Akira Kurosawa, I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being) – interesting for its Japanese cultural setting and the reference to fear of atomic warfare

Nunnally Johnson, The Three Faces of Eve – multiple personalities

Ingmar Bergman, Hour of the Wolf, Through a Glass Darkly

Nagisa Oshima, In the Realm of the Senses – erotic excess

John Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence

Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining

Roman Polanski, Repulsion

Werner Herzog, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo

Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver, Shutter Island

David Cronenberg, The Brood, Videodrome, A Dangerous Method, Naked Lunch, Spider

Jonathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs

Nicholas Hytner (writer Alan Bennett), The Madness of King George

David Lynch, Mulholland Drive

Darren Aronofsky, Pi, Black Swan, Mother

William Friedkin, Bug

Lars von Trier, Breaking the Waves, Melancholia

Jeff Nichols, Martha Marcy May Marlene

In a madhouse:

A Page of Madness – 1926 Japanese silent movie, incomplete, but remarkable for its imagery

Samuel Fuller, Shock Corridor

Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies – a verité documentary

Wang Bing, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part – a similar Chinese exercise (2013)

Peter Brook, Marat/Sade

Milos Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


Young psychopaths:

Oliver Stone, Natural Born Killers

Gus van Sant, Elephant – the Columbine shooters

Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk About Kevin

The movie itself is crazy:

Federico Fellini, Fellini Satyricon

Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo

Guy Maddin, The Forbidden Room


  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, and to miss both would equal two absences.  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.

  1. Electronic communication devices (cell phones, laptops, etc.). In the current state of our social evolution, electronic devices are harmful Interrupters and Distracters. Their use is banned in our class—except, yes, you can whip it out to look something up that bears directly on class discussion, but then you must put it away again. If you have special needs, discuss with me.
  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. Accommodations. If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact the Office of Student Life at 601-974-1200 to schedule an appointment with the Director of Housing, Residence Life, and Accessibility Services, Katherine Warren.  Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place, letters have been processed, and you have met with your instructor.


Millsaps College is an academic community dedicated to the pursuit of scholarly inquiry and intellectual growth.  The foundation of this community is a spirit of personal honesty and mutual trust.  Through their Honor Code, the students of Millsaps College affirm their adherence to these basic ethical principles.

An Honor Code is not simply a set of rules and procedures governing students’ academic conduct.  It is an opportunity to put personal responsibility and integrity into action.  When students agree to abide by an Honor Code, they liberate themselves to pursue their academic goals in an atmosphere of mutual confidence and respect.

The success of the Code depends on the support of each member of the community.  Students and faculty alike commit themselves in their work to the principles of academic honesty.  When they become aware of infractions, both students and faculty are obligated to report them to the Honor Council, which is responsible for enforcement.  A representative, but not exhaustive, list of academic offenses and violations covered by the Millsaps Academic Honor Code is provided at

The pledge signed by all students upon entering the College is as follows:

As a Millsaps College student, I hereby affirm that I understand the Honor Code and am aware of its implications and of my responsibility to the Code.  In the interests of expanding the atmosphere of respect and trust in the College, I promise to uphold the Honor Code and I will not tolerate dishonest behavior in myself or in others.

Each examination, quiz, or other assignment that is to be graded will carry the written pledge: “I hereby certify that I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment.  (Signature)”  The abbreviation “Pledged” followed by the student’s signature has the same meaning and may be acceptable on assignments other than final examinations.

It is the responsibility of students and faculty to report offenses to the Honor Code Council in the form of a written report.  This account must be signed, the accusation explained in as much detail as possible and submitted to the Dean of the College.

The Honor Council, 2018-2019

Student Members:

DJ Hawkins, Chair
Alycee Moity, Vice Chair
Emma Carter, Sergeant-At-Arms
Alvin Joseph
Brenna Michael

Faculty Members:

Dr. Blakely Fender
Dr. Anne MacMaster
Dr. Nathan Shrader