Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity

Irving Singer,
Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity.
MIT Press, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-262-19563-8
US$24.95 (hb)

Irving Singer,
Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film.
MIT Press, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-0-262-19589-8
US$24.95 (hb)

(Review copies supplied by MIT Press)

Could it be that “philosopher of film” is a persona on the way to becoming obsolete? This would perhaps be surprising, given that it is only recently that serious philosophers (beginning with Stanley Cavell and Gilles Deleuze) have managed to see in cinema a medium both distinct in itself and worthy of philosophical attention. If the philosopher of film is on the way to being outmoded, this would be for more than one reason, first among which would be that “philosophy” has already for several decades considered the possibility of its own end or death, and considered as well whether its examination of this possibility is something which it already does from the perspective of its own aftermath.[1]  But it would also be because the notion of ‘cinema’, which enabled philosophy and philosophers to go to the movies, really belongs to the 20th century. If philosophers could come to believe in the significance of film, this was due in no small part to the artistry of cinema when compared with a rival medium which, since its emergence in the last half century or so, has clearly won the contest to access the consciousness of worldwide audiences, but which has done so without ever convincing philosophers, critics, or audiences themselves that it promulgates much else besides banalities and stupidities (even though it continues to be consumed with a rapacity at odds with the dis-satisfactions it brings, indicating that something like a logic of addiction may be at work): I mean television.

Despite this, already in 1973 Ingmar Bergman accepted the challenge of creating significant works for television, directing the series Scenes from a Marriage (Sweden 1973), considered by some to be, ironically, his greatest ‘film’. And he did so again with Fanny and Alexander (Sweden 1982) (winner of an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film). Likewise, Krzysztof Kieslowski embraced television with his Decalogue (Poland 1989), David Lynch did so with Twin Peaks (USA 1990), and Lars von Trier followed suit with Kingdom (Denmark 1994). If these most celebrated and auteurist of directors rose or sunk to the challenge of making TV, it was obviously with more than one motive in mind, but among the explanations for this phenomenon is without doubt the fact that a process is underway the outcome of which will be to supersede the distinction between cinema and television. And we must immediately add that this material and actual “deconstruction” of the distinction between cinema and television (itself part of a more general convergence of television, information, and communication) does not mean that we ought to presume that the philosopher of film will be superseded by the “theorist of media”, but rather perhaps by a more interesting figure, the outlines of which remain, as yet, barely perceptible.

Bearing these thoughts in mind, the work of philosopher of film Irving Singer seems to belong to, or to emerge from, an earlier time, which is perhaps both Singer’s weakness and his strength. In his two most recent books, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher and Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film, Singer continues a conversation about the conjunction of philosophy and cinema which he has been conducting for some time. If his work expresses something about this conjunction, then it is perhaps precisely the fact that both take time, that is, our attention, which is to say that each is the elaboration of a technique, in ways that ask us to develop techniques of reception. That is, we can say that both cinema and philosophy are, at their finest, instruments of our education, part of an economy of care. And Singer also shows us, I believe, how this is so not only for audiences and readers but also for directors, writers and thinkers.

If Singer sees that both cinema and philosophy are elements and instruments of our education, this is because he possesses the ability to reflect on them from the perspective of large scales of time, such as, for example, in relation to the way in which myths have functioned throughout recorded human history. This is one reason why we cannot simply substitute the media theorist for the philosopher of film: the former often lacks the diachronic perspective arising from a sense of the past, being on the contrary preoccupied with ‘keeping up’ with the latest developments, a preoccupation which is sometimes mistaken for a genuine feeling for the future.

In his introduction to Cinematic Mythmaking, Singer describes the myths of ancient societies as “fortifying strands that articulated in their unity a sense of reality”, and as “communal narratives” of “fictional as well as nonfictional inventiveness” (CM, p. 2). If it is conventional to speak of myth as lending unity and cohesion to a collectivity, what is more interesting here is the conjunction of “invented fiction” and “sense of reality”. Singer seems here to be gesturing towards an acknowledgement that “reality” is the effect of a synthesis of experience, a synthesis reliant upon the inventions of mythology and containing an irreducibly fictive aspect.

This is borne out by Singer’s consideration of the mythological aspect of cinema and his critique of Henri Bergson. Bergson insists there is a distinction, if not indeed an opposition, between pure temporal experience and the temporality of the experience of moving pictures, pointing to the “choppy and strangely contrived” character of cinematic perception (CM, p. 8). In fact, however, according to Singer, even though it is correct to describe cinema as “a spatializing of time” (and, as such, a materializing of time), it is not the case that the cinematographic effect somehow falls short of genuine temporal experience, and on the contrary it is “no less real and immediate in its fashion than any other experience” (CM, p. 9). The point here would not be that the cinematic effect renders our perception as smooth and continuous as some purported pure temporal experience; rather, the point is that all “sense of reality” is in fact a synthesis from out of the choppy and contrived character of experience itself. Singer thus reiterates (without explicitly making it clear) the chief lesson of phenomenology, especially as far as cinema goes: reality is always already edited, that is, a synthetic outcome of a selection from among certain possibilities, and according to selective criteria themselves overdetermined by the mnemotechnical apparatus operative within any particular epoch.[2]

Insofar as mythology is oral, we might say that it operated via a kind of “fluid mechanics,” in relation to which the invention of tragedy represented a “literalization”, a making-lettered, of what had been hitherto largely a matter of “living speech.”[3]  Tragedy both made possible the analysis of myth, in that the precise text could be returned to again and again, and made possible that in some sense tragedy could be an analysis and not only a synthesis for the Greek polity – insofar as tragedy constituted an attempt by the polis to struggle with certain questions, specifically questions of law and politics. It is with that in mind that one can understand, as Jean-Pierre Vernant made clear, how it is that philosophy, however much it may at times have taken an oppositional stand in relation to myth, was not in fact mythology’s opposite, but rather emerged from out of a process which was nothing other than the spatializing and materializing of myth itself, first in the form of the Homerian epics, and in the works of Hesiod, and then as tragedy and presocratic and classical philosophy.[4]  Singer understands this insofar as he acknowledges that an underlying “mythological perspective” permeates philosophical work (CM, p. 3). Nevertheless, it is not entirely certain that Singer avoids the error of conceiving philosophy as somehow superseding myth, leaving myth behind, an error refuted by Martin Heidegger in the following terms: “Thinking is not the sediment of demythologised myth.”[5]

However that stands, Singer more clearly understands that cinema, like tragedy, conjoins synthetic and analytic aspects. Insofar as it resembles dreaming (that is, our partially conscious apprehension of the work of the unconscious), cinema is the synthesis of editing. Cinema places us into conditions in which we are receptive to what is being bestowed, or, in other words, conditions where the flux of our consciousness can enter the flux of images before us onscreen, and vice versa, synthesizing a “sense of reality” not in spite but by the very means of film editing. Something about the very character of cinematic technology makes this commingling of fluxes possible:

Movies became the principle art form of our age when they did because it was only a hundred or so years ago that technology attained the capacity to combine the making of myths with a vivid simulation in conscious experience of what happens every night when we go to sleep and dream. (CM, pp. 6–7)

And yet when we watch movies we remain awake, insofar as our “mesmerization” remains incomplete (CM, p. 6). That is, insofar as movies achieve a “melding” of dreaming and waking states, they create conditions of consciousness in which we are “passively receptive as in a dream and yet fully cognizant of the fact that the flickering images are in themselves as real as the elongated screen on which they appear” (IB, pp. 38–39). As such, we are not completely divorced from analytic possibilities, that is, from possibilities of reflection, including philosophical reflection. Editing, the very basis of synthesis, also enables the creation of a certain distance, and this “distancing” (CM, p. 9) makes possible the visibility of the cinematic object itself, such that it can form a mirror in which we see ourselves.

Yet Singer also makes clear that insofar as movies are aesthetic temporal objects (temporal objects in Edmund Husserl’s sense of an object the existence of which occurs not only within but as a temporal flow, for which Husserl’s paradigm is a melody), reflectivity is not simply a property of the thing. Rather, he cites Jean Cocteau’s statement about film, that mirrors have to learn to be more reflective, or in other words that this reflective capacity is an aesthetic problem. Singer considers that this lesson is developed by Bergman beyond Cocteau, for example in Winter Light [Sweden, 1962], which, according to Bergman, is not in any way a document of “reality,” and yet is “so bewilderingly similar to reality that we lose any sense that it is actually a reflection” (IB, p. 53).

The concealment or the exploitation of this possibility amounts to the difference between the approach of John Ford, maker of myths, and that of Orson Welles, who described his films, contra Ford’s, as examining how mythmaking affects human consciousness (CM, pp. 11–12; IB, p. 90). And in the case of Bergman, Singer ties this to the process of Bergman’s own becoming (IB, p. 26), that is, his filmmaking is in some sense a mythmaking, or a reflection, in which and through which Bergman invents himself, performatively constitutes his existence in relation to the existential themes of childhood, love, faith, and mortality. But if Bergman does this, it is not simply because he reflects internally on the image he manufactures for himself externally on celluloid; rather, it is through the way in which this exteriorisation matters for others, contributes to their becoming, their individuation, which Bergman describes as his need to touch others, that Bergman himself becomes (IB, pp. 27–28).

If it is true that the reflectivity of the cinematic screen is an aesthetic problem, then of course the interpretation of the spatialized and materialized myths that cinematic temporal objects are is always a matter of judgment. At times, Singer’s interpretations are perhaps open to question. When discussing 2001: A Space Odyssey (USA, 1968), for example, Singer conducts this interpretation via the Homeric allusion contained in the subtitle, and via the (Nietzschean-inflected) Zarathustrianism of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous musical choice. At the same time, he does not neglect the Promethean overtones, which could be described as the way in which 2001 elaborates a myth about the correspondence of technogenesis and anthropogenesis, a myth extended into the question of the fate of this common origin. But this does not necessarily mean that Singer is correct when he writes:

What is truly mythic about Kubrick’s vision in 2001 manifests his faith in the boundless opportunities for exploration that await us in the coming years. (CM, p. 209)

Or when he writes:

On the voyage, we see the mythic oneness of buddies united in a joint pursuit, together with secondary comrades waiting in hibernation until they are needed. (CM, p. 211)

It seems, to this spectator at least, that Kubrick’s “faith” is at least tinged with sceptical doubt, and that, if the relation between the crew members can really be described in terms of “mythic oneness”, this is only present very discreetly, and that it is at least as possible to see these relations as on the contrary very discrete, that is, atomized. It is perhaps that Singer’s reading here is a little too tied to mythical representations, and not quite as perceptive as it might be about the civilizational questions being asked, and furthermore that it is for this reason that Singer can conclude that “it would be unreasonable to interpret Kubrick’s narrative as an important probing into the relationship between technology and the modern version of human nature” (CM, p. 212).

And thus Singer also concludes that in 2001 Kubrick fails to consider all aspects of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman, concluding specifically that he fails to reflect the essentially artistic character of the Übermensch. But might we venture to suggest that, even if 2001 indubitably contains themes of exploration and faith, the portrait of the becoming of human beings it offers also has something in common with Nietzsche who forecast that “the history of the next two centuries” could be described as the “advent of nihilism”, a process of becoming and a struggle which he then immediately compares to the restless, violent rush of a river “that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.”[6] If the future contains possibilities for a new age of reflection, for Nietzsche as for (we suggest) Kubrick, the new being inhabiting this coming epoch could only come at the end and as the outcome of this process of struggle with nihilism.

And yet, somewhat tying these threads together, Singer also writes the following:

If 2001 can be called “spiritual,” it is because its usual adherence to the reductive view of life has transmuted the violence and sexuality of ordinary experience into the more splendid attainments that our evolved technology may someday achieve. (CM, p. 217).

We might spell this as Kubrick’s (or Singer’s) unsentimental nostalgia for a homeland that remains still to come and perhaps still unapproachable, in which the desublimating tendencies of the present epoch, tendencies destructive of our reflective capacities, are interrupted (the question of these desublimating tendencies being pursued as well through Singer’s reading of Kubrick’s final cinematic odyssey, Eyes Wide Shut [USA, 1999]). The outcome of this interruption, the end of the advent of nihilism, would be the emergence of another libidinal economy setting the conditions for all the singular achievements of a future humanity. Hence it is that Singer ends Cinematic Mythmaking with the following words:

Whether the hero is Odysseus or Dave Bowman or Bill Harford, the history of his voyaging ends in revealing home truths about himself and his masculinity within a trajectory that returns him to the wife, the family, the country, or the planet to which he rightly belongs. At our present level of development, film – by itself and through its interaction with other art forms – serves as the most advanced mode of making and perpetuating myths of that sort. (CM, p. 229)

Perhaps the question implied by Singer’s analysis, but which he himself is unable to ask, is whether the future voyaging of human beings, the process of individual and collective becoming of this species, will continue to rely on our reception of the cinematic and televisual objects offered to us by a Hollywood dream factory industrializing the image (largely for desublimating ends). Could it be that, on the contrary, the new digital instruments continuing to emerge from, and contributing to, the process of convergence alluded to in the beginning, will result not only in temporal objects of a different sort, but in fact, by tending to materially and actually “deconstruct” the opposition between creator and consumer, become vehicles of a new spirit, unleashing a transformational process for humanity itself? But this would be, perhaps, a question exceeding the limits of the domain of the philosopher of film, a domain which is nevertheless carefully and faithfully explored by Singer in these admirable works of dialogical exchange between a thinker and the movies he loves.

Daniel Ross,


[1] Cf., Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” Writing and Difference, London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, pp. 79–80.
[2]  Cf., Bernard Stiegler, “The Discrete Image,” in Stiegler & Jacques Derrida, Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002, pp. 147–63.
[3] Bernard Stiegler, Pour en finir avec la mécroissance, Paris: Flammarion, 2009, p. 106.
[4] Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.
[5] Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, Bloomington Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, p. 112.
[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, New York: Vintage Books, 1967, “Preface,” §2.

Created on: Sunday, 30 August 2009

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 →