Three Philosophical Filmmakers: Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir

Irving Singer,
Three Philosophical Filmmakers: Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir.
Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2004.
ISBN: 0 262 19501 1279 pp
US$32.95 (hb) (Review copy supplied by MIT Press)

Edmund Husserl famously devoted several pages to the description of the act of perceiving a blank page. Recollection of this is sufficient to indicate the difficulty of applying phenomenological method to the immensely complex act of watching a film. Yet one starting point for approaching the ontological question of the cinematic “thing itself” might well be Husserl’s account of the “temporal object” and its relation to the consciousness of time, for which his paradigmatic case is the hearing of a melody. Nevertheless, the anthropological, historical, technological and psychoanalytic aspects of cinematic experience threaten to undo the very possibility of a phenomenological approach, or at least to demand its reconfiguration.

However that stands, most “film theory” tends to presuppose this question of the cinematic thing rather than explicitly pursue it, and this comes at the cost of general theoretical doubt. This may be a consequence both of the complexity of the question, and of the relative novelty of a medium that is still only a century old. The result is a proliferation of seemingly incompatible approaches.

This in turn suggests a comparison between Irving Singer’s new book and Mark Hansen’s, also published by MIT in 2004, New Philosophy for New Media. Hansen’s title immediately implies each stage in the technical evolution of media may provoke a demand for a corresponding evolution in philosophical thinking. Philosophy, then, would not be timeless wisdom, but something that responds to a kind of need that arises from out of a certain movement in history.

Singer’s title, on the other hand, is an analogue of a title by George Santayana – Three Philosophical Poets . Although he disagrees with Santayana’s account of photography, Singer’s title indicates a region of agreement between them. What they share is the thought that the arts are the pinnacle of humanistic expression, where humanism is grasped as the potential to be “saturated by the humanities […] an accomplishment, not a doctrine.” By referring to Santayana’s title through his own, Singer implicitly raises the question of the distance from poetry to film. But, more importantly, for Singer, as for Santayana, “humanism” is the ultimate philosophical ground, and this indicates a more stable and unvarying conception of the relation between philosophy and medium than does Hansen’s title. In the end, this will have consequences for Singer’s overall account of the cinematic medium.

“Philosophical,” in Singer’s title, refers more than anything to a “world outlook,” to the way individuals grasp their own existence. If this seems a rather vague or even “pre-theoretical” conception of the philosophical, it should be recalled Singer emerges from an intellectual tradition of which film theorists are largely ignorant. His grasp of the philosophical, furthermore, immediately evinces two compensatory virtues: firstly , it takes “being philosophical” as characteristic of human existence as such and, hence, as a potential within each of us; and, secondly , it is grounded in an understanding of the philosophical that does not neglect that, as the word itself indicates, this is always bound up with “love.” Philosophy, in short, is warmly understood by Singer as the essence of the human.

This conception informs Singer’s choice of subject, in a way he admits may have “prejudiced my case” (2). Hitchcock, Welles and Renoir could each aptly be described as “auteurs ,” and produced bodies of work expressive  of an attitude or approach to life, a world outlook in the sense Singer is concerned to explore (all three also, and perhaps significantly, regularly appeared as actors in their own work). His goal is not to rank these three “philosophies,” but to give the reader an understanding of the singular perspective “shown forth” in the work of each, thereby demonstrating “the many means by which cinematic art depends upon the creative expression of different insights into the human condition” (ix).

Singer is concerned only in very general terms with existing film theory, which he conventionally divides between “formalist” and “realist” approaches, that is, between those focused on “technique,” and those focused on “meaning.” Does the cinematic image garner its significance through what it constructs for the viewer or the way it is constructed, or does the meaningfulness of the image lie in its very presentation of “reality”? He wishes, unsurprisingly, to overcome this division, a project pursued in his earlier work, Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique. Just as Santayana’s virtue was to harmonize the literary and the philosophical, so too Singer wishes to harmonize formalism and realism (1). He thus shows that each of the three directors can be placed on a scale the poles of which are these “oppositions,” and yet none can be reduced to one or other of these poles.

Singer is generally uninterested in polemic, and in this book such theoretical concerns are subordinated to the appreciative elaboration of the singular work of the directors themselves. His method does not only consist in sensitively reading the imagery, technique, and narratives of the films he examines. Although he only rarely refers to other writers on film, he does spend a great deal of time analyzing the frequently overlooked writings and interviews in which these directors themselves express their attitudes to filmmaking and life. For Singer, concerned to show each director’s films are an expression of their individual “philosophy,” the words left behind by these auteurs are significant elements of the dialogue between filmmaker and audience.

His approach is thus an inherently pleasurable one, characterized by a love of and appreciation for the films he speaks about, and their makers. I confess that in the course of reading his book I became tempted to indulge in a fantasy in which I authored my own analogous volume, with the same title, but focusing on contemporary directors. My fantasized subtitle was Von Trier, Malick, Kiarostami, and the more I read Singer’s account, the more my triangle of directors seemed an isometric projection of his own.

Singer characterizes Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, as a master technician and manipulator, whose “purist” approach might be thought as inherently dehumanizing. Hitchcock’s cinematic assaults, however, escape mere “formalism” to achieve some kind of true significance, to possess “meaning.” His films presuppose the distinction between good and evil, or between the ordinary and the extraordinary, yet somehow surpass such oppositions. Could this description not be applied to Lars Von Trier?

At the other end of the scale, Jean Renoir engages his audience as an equal partner in the conversation and, contrary to Hitchcock, is fascinated by the “reality” the camera can simply convey, for instance in the faces and gestures of the actors. But if this is realism, it also determines Renoir’s technique, directing the camera, for instance, to follow the actors or give them space, in his constant exploration of human life. With such methods, according to Singer, Renoir succeeds in showing us his own very humanity and his “humanistic” approach to life. Given this account, one way to understand Abbas Kiarostami is as Renoir’s true descendant.

Finally, Orson Welles displays enormous cinematic audacity, shown in his commandment, cited by Singer, that the filmmaker should comprehend and synthesize “as much as possible of the human accomplishment in these last twenty thousand years” (145). His absolute command of theme and technique are reflected in his masterful use of voiceover, and his love of the manifold ways the camera can be made to reveal. His films amount to an essentially “philosophical” presentation of world and history. The same description could be applied to Terrence Malick who, like Welles, succeeds in embodying a series of distinct approaches to existence in his various characters, allowing the audience to navigate for themselves between them, while also suggesting the world is larger and older than the human beings who criss-cross the planetary surface.

Of course, the more I let this fantasy play out, the more these parallels were balanced by an equal set of divergences. My triangle of contemporary directors does not merely repeat Singer’s triangle of past masters. With this realization questions of time, and of the history and evolution of media, re-emerge. Does the “generational change” in the history of cinema reflect an evolution of cinematic ideas, or the technical progress of the medium, or is it simply a passive reflection of social change? Or is social change itself (and hence the lives of subsequent generations of directors) itself a product of the history of cinema and the media generally?

I am reminded of my own father, who adored the films of Eric Rohmer, for instance, but was utterly dismissive of the apparently “Rohmeresque” Ma Vie Sexuelle (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 1996), on the grounds, essentially, that it is cold, without heart. Or, in other words, without a true grasp of existence as such. Perhaps Singer would agree that a process is unfolding in which his conception of the philosophical is progressively being lost or forgotten (see, for instance, his ambivalence about Stanley Kubrick when compared to Welles [250–52]).

No doubt Singer grasps there is a mutual historical effect between cinema and existence. His earlier title, Reality Transformed, thematizes this cinematic power. His attempt to supersede the division between realism and formalism, for instance, is fundamentally grounded in the claim that “film changes reality through techniques that matter because of meanings they are able to generate.” But taking this seriously means following to the end the question of the “history of consciousness” as such, that is, the history of its prostheses. And this would return us to phenomenological questions, both Husserlian and Heideggerian, but also to the transformation of those questions undertaken by Bernard Stiegler, as we shall see.

Singer disagrees with Santayana’s account of photography because it denies photography the full status of fine art. Santayana argues that true art “makes over” something of nature-under the “guidance of a human interest.” Although both photography and written poetry are ways of  recording, of preserving in objects what would otherwise be lost to finite memory, nevertheless Santayana notes that what they record is fundamentally different. Photography records merely what stands before it, without being the result of an essentially human act; poetry records what must already have “passed through the processes of abstraction and verbal expression.” Santayana concludes: “The one is an artificial memory, the other a petrified intelligence.”

Even though Singer’s critique of Santayana’s “realism” is no doubt entirely correct, perhaps he misses the more fundamental point. For Santayana photography is an “imitation” – of what? Of the “mental image,” that is, of the imperfect means through which memory strives to retain what passes through us as experience. Santayana’s point of departure is that the mental image already takes us from the animal to the spiritual sphere. The photograph, however, is a more perfect form of this imperfect means of memory. Both its value and its power lie in this mimetic relation to the mental image. What neither Singer nor Santayana sufficiently grasp is what this account means, not for photography, but for the image as such.

Singer’s wish to overcome the distinction between meaning and technique is framed in terms of “interdependence” (ix), and it may be possible to see in this a parallel with Stiegler’s own account of the relation between the “mental image” and the “image-object” (the cinematic image), which he characterizes as a relation of difference without opposition. But Singer does not go far enough in drawing the implications of this thought for his own understanding of the “human.” At stake is whether perception itself, the mental image, is always already bound up with the image-object, that is, already inherently “cinematic,” which would then be a clue to the power of cinema, as Santayana already hinted.

Crucial to Stiegler’s account is that the relation between mental image and image-object is historical, in the sense both of having always been and of evolving, becoming. And, according to Stiegler, this technical history of the image has entered a decisive new phase, one which throws into crisis our ability to make sense of the world, a crisis of the capacity for images to signify and constitute reality as such. For Stiegler, we could say, Santayana’s devaluation of photography when compared with writing can be grasped as the historical moment when, in Kantian terms, (visual) synthesis diverged from (textual) analysis, which subsequently characterizes the entire history of Hollywood and television.

This, then, would indicate both the virtue of Singer’s work and its limit. The limit would be that he must choose the directors he does, because his apparently timeless conception of the philosophical is in fact highly specific, dependent on a particular milieu-civilized and urbane, yet bonded socially and suffused by human concern. If the essence of the human is philosophical, nevertheless this thought must be qualified: the philosophical in Singer’s sense is a way of constituting reality, of perceiving the world and acting toward it, and this constitution of reality has its own history, which is a technical history before it is a “human” history. Singer’s philosophy, Singer’s humanism, cannot sufficiently think this history. If film theory can be distributed between formalist and realist possibilities, this is because the essence of perception, that is, of life, is already post-production – editing. The history of humanity is the history of the transforming capacity to edit the experiential flux in order to post-produce, and project, “reality”.

Singer’s virtue would be to recall to mind the fading milieu from which his “humanistic” and “philosophical” conception emerges, if not to revive it, then at least to provide a measure of our own increasing distance from it. And, hence, of our disappearing capacity for successful editing, our disappearing capacity for what, in Singer’s terms, is the philosophical as such. Singer is, I believe, extremely aware of and unsettled by the ongoing disintegration of the accomplishments of humanism, a disintegration the causes of which cannot be separated from the history of media.

Singer has in the past cited Santayana on life and death: “Our distinction and glory, as well as our sorrow, will have lain in being something in particular, and in knowing what it is.” No doubt both Singer and Stiegler agree with this thought. And, for Stiegler, what characterizes the current phase of technical evolution is precisely the loss of this mortal capacity for “being something in particular,” a destruction of the capacity for individual and collective individuation. Whether coming phases in the evolution of media and technics will open onto new capacities for perceiving and constituting reality, new ways of life, or whether we will only be able to lament the accomplished decomposition of the human, is today’s question. Even if Singer does not frame this question directly, nevertheless, by juxtaposing and integrating the words and the images of Hitchcock, Welles and Renoir, by taking this step toward the re-composition of analysis and synthesis, he at least provides a clue to grasping what is at stake in it.

Daniel Ross
Created on: Tuesday, 19 July 2005 | Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005

About the Author

Daniel Ross

About the Authors

Daniel Ross

Daniel Ross completed his doctorate on Heidegger and the political at Monash University. He is the author of Violent Democracy and co-director of The Ister (2004).View all posts by Daniel Ross →