Philosophy Film(s)

Upon the home video release of Jean-Luc Godard's "Adieu au langage," we ask: Can a film be a work of philosophy?
Z. W. Lewis

Adieu au langage

When I stumbled out of the theatre after my first viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s newest film, Adieu au langage—which will be released on home video by Kino Lorber on April 14—I felt that nagging feeling that only a few films can give. That feeling isn’t necessarily limited to great or even good films, but belongs instead to a certain special, disparate troupe. I left feeling that Godard had made a film that wanted to think about film in some way, aligning itself with the films that made their ways into books of philosophy by film theorists Noël Carroll and Stanley Cavell.

Admittedly, there’s a danger in these feelings. Adieu au langage, as well as the whole lot of these “thinking” films, could simply be playfully “meta,” purposefully toying with the conversations that critics and academics love. Maybe I’ve just taken the filmmaker’s bait here, but if there's one thing that's certain about his intense wave of contribution to the nouvelle vague in the 60s, his politically-charged films of the 70s, and his through-line of experimenting with film form and film history, it's that Godard spends a lot of time thinking about the cinema. His constant quoting of continental philosophers and literary tomes also means he’s well-read.  Was Adieu au langage crafted as a "thinking" film in the same manner that Emerson's essay or the Dostoyevsky's novels are of interest to professional philosophers?

I’d need a few more visitations with Godard’s film and its legion of verbal and visual citations in order to be comfortable classifying it as philosophy. Still, Adieu au langage may act as a stepping stone to once again talk about how we classify films. Fiction and documentary (as well as “experimental” for those that don’t comfortably fit in either) have dominated the landscape of film classification, and, by extension, the way an audience engages with films. In the literary, or at least the academic world, writing can be classified as a work of history, economic theory, business ethics, preparing a multi-layered coconut cake, grammar, and a few even come with that label on the back of the book that reads “philosophy.” If words can be arranged to reflect ideas that form the classification of philosophy, can a moving image do the same?

The academic territory surrounding claims about philosophy in movies can turn into a mess of subtle changes in prepositions and conjunctions that can mean completely distinct things. There’s “philosophy and film” whose films may be able to weave philosophical themes into their narratives. This would include films like The Matrix (1999) as a Cartesian thought experiment, or any of those Pop Culture and Philosophy books. Then there’s “philosophy of film,” where disparate thinkers like psychologist Hugo Münsterberg and film theorist André Bazin hammered out the specific qualities of the medium of film and how it might use those qualities to its advantage. Finally, there’s the most convoluted and perhaps the most interesting: “film as philosophy.” Only a few loud voices, particularly Stephen Mulhall and Noël Carroll, have posited that works of cinema might be able to do the same sort of activity as traditional written philosophy—that the Alien franchise give the same sorts of insight into authorial merit as Roland Barthes’s “Death of the Author.” Godard’s game of references certainly places it in the first mentioned category, and the film's innovative use of 3D has certainly stirred conversations about the second; but is it a work of philosophy? I’ve recently looked into some other experimental candidates in order to find hints of how Adieu au langage might be considered.

If we’re to tackle the most obvious starting point, what about films by philosophers purporting to being a work of philosophy? The Situationist movement (1957-1972), an off-shoot or addendum to the long history of Marxism, eventually found its way into the films of its most stringent practitioners. The most famous examples belong to Guy Debord in his visual treatise to his own textual work, The Society of the Spectacle (1974), and the almost hilarious political-debate-qua-wuxia film Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (1973) from René Viénet. Both Debord and Viénetsit more comfortably in a “theorist” or “social critic” title than a strict “philosopher,” but, like Walter Benjamin’s criticism, their ideas may drift through all these professions

Debord gives the most literal example of “filmed philosophy” with The Society of the Spectacle. Brief b-roll shots make up a visual analogous counterpart to Debord’s droning monologue on workers and class structure, a filmed essay relying strictly on the spoken word with image only as filler. At a time when cinematic essays are regularly composed with the lyrical quality of Chris Marker and Joris Ivens, Debord’s tedious tactic of scrolling through his book’s text on an empty background for several minutes to juxtapose images of French streets and films seems unfit for the cinematic language. This style would later be appropriated by another political thinker, American filmmaker Ken Jacobs, in his Star Spangled to Death (2004) and Seeking the Monkey King (2011). Where Debord fancies a straight, somber reading, Jacobs prefers humor and a caustic tongue as well as performance art and visual experimentation. Paragraphs may zip by during Star Spangled to Death as Jacobs relies on the technology of home video (and, by extension, the pause button) to determine how the viewer receives the text. Seeking the Monkey King creates a near-3D environment with gold foil, only to interrupt its faux-stereoscopic trip with walls of political text that match the ferocity of the images. Ken Jacobs understands tone and weaves his text into an interesting aesthetic. He’s not trying to build a formal argument like Debord; Jacobs’s films convey his partisan approach through actors, camera tricks, and invented allegories. They both maintain a similar style and substance, but Jacobs’s work offers a more inquisitive and interesting approach.

Top: The Society of the Spectacle. Bottom: Seeking the Monkey King.

I suppose “interesting” shouldn’t be the key criterion in a film that wants to philosophize. But perhaps Debord should be disqualified for another reason: it isn’t quite a film, but a filmed text. This is admittedly rough territory, as what could qualify as “cinematic enough” could be simplified to a series of moving images which The Society of the Spectacle certainly fits. The problem could be framed this way: Plato’s Republic is certainly a work of philosophy, but a film consisting of each page of the Republic is something entirely different. The film’s text would consist of static shots of a book, and, despite the book’s contents, this wouldn’t even please philosophers in the comfiest armchairs.

Not all the Situationists felt that this strict “filmed philosophy” would be the best approach. René Viénet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? features actors in an older kung-fu film re-dubbed into his verbose, Marxist speech. The wuxia of the appropriated film’s proletariat-versus-bourgeoisie fights mirror Viénet’s replaced dialogue that switches between leftist militant platitudes and sex jokes (not too far from Godard’s heart). Though the fights are helpful in illustrating the kind of revolutionary intentions behind a post-May '68 group like the Situationists, Can Dialectics Break Bricks? ultimately falls into the same category of filmed philosophy. Where Debord film his own words in a scrolling text, Viénet accomplishes the same effect by jamming some of those same words in his actors’ mouths. His leftist fisticuff extravaganza comes closer to the spirit of The Matrix or I Heart Huckabees (2004)—movies whose characters, environments, and narratives can reference philosophy but steer away from the dirty work of actually doing it.

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

I know, I’m hard to please. But philosophy is a strict, holy ground for those who love it, and it has only come about through textual or oratory forms for millennia. When anyone claims that we can engage in the same practice as Aristotle, Rousseau, or Wittgenstein in a new, wildly popular format, that’s big news. Those who love both philosophy and the moving image should try their hardest to falsify these claims in hopes that a strong suggestion might survive.

If the plain-faced “filmed philosophy” of the Situationists wouldn’t qualify as works of philosophy, what about the less-than-obvious choices? Though free of any quotes or references to the big ideas, American filmmaker Ernie Gehr’s experimental work was recently picked up by Peter Catapano of the Stone, the New York Times’s philosophy column, to offer insight into the topic of thinking films. Gehr’s most popular film, Serene Velocity (1970), is an experiment using the primary constituents of an image: space, light, distance, and focal length. A series of images of a single hallway are presented at alternating degrees of those constituents in order to remove the viewer from any type of spatial consistency. By making those pieces of cinema stand out as the only variations in the film, Gehr calls attention to how we perceive these images in two dimensions. From the Times interview: “The relationship of a still to a moving image — that was so haunting… It deals with space, and what happens on the plane, with the fact that you are working with this deep space and the same time with frames, no movement. It’s all in the way we see....” And: “It is a question that is always haunting me: What is it that I’m working with? It’s also, What is a film? What is a digital work? Is it the physical item? Is it the projector? The strip of film? The tape? The disc? It’s all part of it. It’s mixed media. And the way these things all interact tell us so much about human perception and experience and the way one sees anything in the world.” The interview never approaches a strict philosophy outside those questions, but Gehr’s work itself offers insight into these ontological concerns.

When Gehr was tackling a “thinking film” of space in Serene Velocity, artist and filmmaker Michael Snow used cinema to think about sound in his 'Rameau's Nephew' by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974). Described by Snow himself as a “musical comedy,” though any relation to that genre’s classics would involve jumping several mental hurdles, 'Rameau’s Nephew' also avoids any sort of philosophical references, rants, or ramblings. Instead, Snow forges his comedy in little sound puzzles that break with traditional sound editing. This extends from reading off and correcting a scrolling credit sequence in the middle of the film (many fake cast names, including Wilma Schoen, being anagrams of “Michael Snow”) to a sink out of sync, a pun I wouldn’t have noticed had Jonathan Rosenbaum not mentioned it in his book Placing Movies. These puns give a lightheartedness to an otherwise dense four-hour experimental work that plays with questions of how audiences experience sound in films. In his own words: “In making Rameau’s Nephew, I was trying to make it experienceable that the voices you hear coming from the loudspeakers are not voices but representations of voices. Even though there is a kind of realism, where you do believe in the image, and you do believe in the sound, you see that it is actually colored light projected on a flat surface -- the image. And that the sound is in fact something that has gone through a process, so that it resembles human speech.” The independent production of Snow’s work allows for a description like that, but Snow, also an accomplished jazz musician, has been experimenting with sound for his entire career. By using garbled dialogue, reversed soundtracks, aural illusions, and his ceaseless resource of puns, Snow posits questions in his film that philosophers ask about film and music techniques after the boom of the talkies: “Does the implementation of sound place ‘talkies’ in a different medium from silent films?” or “How do we engage with an unreliable narration?”

Top: Serene Velocity. Bottom: 'Rameau's Nephew' by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen

It still doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten very far, does it? I like these ideas of space and sound more than the rigid textual qualities of the Situationists, but where should we draw the line between “experimenting” and “philosophizing”? Does such a line even exist? 

While Gehr and Snow’s films may require some context to understand their thought processes, another philosophy candidate promotes his in more humble terms. Jonas Mekas, a devotee of the film diary format, places his home movies into pensive anthologies lasting anywhere from a few minutes to nearly six hours. His longest work, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), encompasses several years of his life with only his family and friends (often celebrities of the avant-garde community) at the forefront. Mekas’s journal notes and brief poetry act as intertitles while his voice comments on the film’s structure, often apologizing for how boring or elliptical it may seem. Mekas, funny and self-deprecating, croons over these awkward images with his old, heavily-accented poetry of nostalgia that represents a break from the form-driven intentions of his contemporaries. If Gehr and Snow are Aristotle and Wittgenstein, analyzing and playing with the fabric of their work, then Mekas is Emerson, a poet on the outside whose meditations on life itself warrants the same degree of contemplation (though in much more digestible terms). P. Adams Sitney said as much in his Emersonian study of the avant-garde scene in Eyes Upside Down: “Here again an epistemological aporia is central to Mekas’s theology of memory, where without knowing it, we retain fragments of paradise… This means that, unpredictably, real events can be changed with the resonance of those Edenic feelings of elation, in which we step out of time (“ecstasy”), or compress time”1. Sitney’s analysis refers to just one verse of Mekas’s wistful prose, a reflection on a state of knowing a certain something just through a feeling of prelapsarian community. This is epistemology-via-hippiedom perhaps, but Mekas’s later diction (an introduction for chapter six) solves it: “Didn’t all those French guys tell you how to read the images? Yes, they told you. So, please read these images and you’ll be able to tell everything about me.” Read the images, hear those words, and put them together. If his images are his text, he’s in a better position than the diction-heavy intentions of the Situationists. If his wistful images teach us how to think (on his own Emersonian paradise-grants-knowledge terms), he’s also in a better position than the high-reaching structuralism of Gehr and Snow.

As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty

If convincing lines can be drawn between Mekas and Emerson and between Emerson and the philosophical world, there’s at least enough traction to make the field interesting. So, what about the other nature-loving, quote-heavy innovator? I could go through another round of taxonomy to fit Adieu au langage into the Situationists (likely not, it’s too image-heavy even if it occasionally shares politically-driven fervor), the structuralists (closer, as the film does like thinking about 3-D as yet another component to be manipulated), or Mekas (closest—they both have an interesting symbiotic relationship between image-text and diction-text). Godard, however, doesn’t play well with others. His use of 3-D in “the shot” manages to free the image from the frame as the viewer can display individual shots or both at her will. These are hijinks equal to the structuralist attitude of exploring the limitations and combinations of individual parts of cinema technique, but Godard’s fun lies in applying this spectacle to thematic ends. “The shot” gives a visual corollary to his years-long preoccupation on man/woman, nature/capitalism, and violence/peace (each eye given a different part of each division) in the same vein as Mekas’s plea to put his images and poems together. Again: “Didn’t those French guys tell you how to read the images?” It’s a long shot to say that Adieu au langage and these other films can do the work of philosophy, but they openly blur the lines between “experimenting” and “thinking”. That’s a good start.

1. Sitney, P. Adams. "Mekas's Retrospection." Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. 378. Print.

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Jean-Luc GodardErnie GehrKen JacobsJonas MekasGuy DebordRené ViénetLong Reads
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