Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film

January 8, 2009

"There is", writes Irving Singer in his prefatory note, "no definitive termination in this text, or in anything else I write." He adds that "because my mission is not historical, I feel justified in letting the chapters stand alone without much attempt to link them in any causal or temporal pattern", and he admits "I find that ending each particular book leaves me with the feeling that it would have been very different, and possibly better, if I were now to begin it anew."

Such lack of dogmatism is refreshing, especially in a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It does, though, raise a faint doubt that Singer, under the guise of a likeably unprofessorial informality, may be handing himself a capacious get-out clause allowing him to ramble on at length about pretty much anything he likes - all the more so since his title includes "myth" and "philosophy", two of the most Humpty-Dumptyish words in the language. ("When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.")

Such doubts soon resurface. Singer's first chapter concerns itself chiefly with Preston Sturges' classic screwball comedy The Lady Eve (1941) in which Barbara Stanwyck's bewitching con artist ensnares a rich but hopelessly unworldly young man played by Henry Fonda. At one point he devotes three pages to a scene where Fonda, trying to romance Stanwyck in a woodland glade, is repeatedly distracted by his horse nuzzling the top of his head. It's an amusing scene, and Singer explores it with loving appreciation - but just what it tells us about Sturges' use of either myth or philosophy is anybody's guess.

At other times Singer seems determined to throw so many mythological tropes into the mix, and cross-refer them to so many disparate works, that while his prose is never less than lucid his train of thought grows increasingly murky. In his chapter on Cocteau, an artist for whom mythic archetypes formed a lifelong preoccupation, Singer identifies the theme of Orphee (1949) as that of a protagonist "fulfilling his destiny by seeking death in conjunction with the life-enhancing love of a woman who is devoted to him". This - and especially that fuzzy phrase "in conjunction with" - is usefully vague, allowing him to cite in rapid succession Wagner's The Flying Dutchman and Ring Cycle, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire (1987), Thornton Wilder's play Our Town and Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1956). Such grab-bag eclecticism renders the mythic link so tenuous as to pass the snapping point.

Again, in his chapter devoted to the various treatments of Henry James' Washington Square - the original novel, the stage adaptation and the film versions directed by William Wyler in 1949 and Agnieszka Holland in 1997 - Singer repeatedly invokes the Don Juan myth: his logic being that the clash between the heroine's father and her suitor parallels that of Dona Elvira's father and her lover Don Juan. But the differences between the two situations outweigh the similarities, and in any case over-possessive father versus eager suitor is a commonplace in literature at least as far back as the commedia dell'arte, if not further.

At other times, Singer's evident love of cinema leads him into special pleading, as when he claims that certain cinematic techniques such as montage, which compress or distort time, are therefore "inherently mythical" (Singer's italics). Nor is he always as tolerantly unprescriptive as his prefatory note might suggest. Discussing Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete (1946), he explains that "in this complex transaction life and death interpenetrate, as they do in all the vegetative and animal processes of nature, and in the inscrutable mysteries by which we perpetuate the qualities of our biological forebears. That", he adds firmly, "is what the film is about." Well, if you say so, Professor ...

Still, while this is hardly the definitive study of myth - let alone philosophy - in film that the title might seem to promise, Singer's enthusiasm and his inquiring, inventive cast of mind throw up a steady stream of stimulating ideas: Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) as a dark, doomed reworking of the Pygmalion myth, or Kubrick's treatment of circus-style grotesquerie contrasted with Fellini's. (Unfashionably, in Singer's estimation Fellini comes out the winner on points.) He makes a nice distinction between the "real" and the "true" as represented on screen - although here again, this is a creative interplay on which cinema has no monopoly. His book is best treated not as any kind of rigorous critical analysis, but rather as a rhapsodic excursion through a gallery of his favourite movies and cinematic themes aimed at sparking off similarly discursive enthusiasms in the reader. Writing it, he says, was "life-enhancing and a great deal of fun" - and it is in that spirit that we are invited to respond.

Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film

Irving Singer. MIT Press, 256pp, £16.95. ISBN 9780262195898. Published 31 October 2008.

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