Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form, by Robert B. Pippin

Lucy Bolton enjoys a sharp new analysis of getting philosophical about the cinema 

December 12, 2019
Row of cinema seats
Source: iStock

Robert Pippin is a philosopher with an abiding interest in cinema. His earlier book, The Philosophical Hitchcock (2018), undertakes a meticulous close analysis of Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958), demonstrating the philosophical questions and positions that the film argues and that go some way to explaining its enduring pre-eminence and appeal.

In this new book, Pippin broadens his philosophical attention to other classic works of cinema, such as Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and All That Heaven Allows (1955), Douglas Sirk’s perennially moving investigation of middle-aged sex and class. There is more Hitchcock here, too, penetrating engagement with the idea of self-consciousness in Rear Window (1954) and of confounding morality in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Pippin’s approach to these films is to regard them as forms of philosophical reflection. This nuanced position argues that films aren’t simply illustrations of philosophical ideas or handy teaching tools to make philosophy accessible, or even that they pose philosophical thought experiments for us to contemplate. As Pippin acknowledges, films certainly can do all of these things very well. But what his book does is to demonstrate that films “can have philosophical work to do” and themselves “need to be considered modes of reflective thought”.

That films can be philosophically provocative and insightful is no longer a matter for debate, and UK scholars such as Catherine Constable, Sarah Cooper and Richard Rushton, and the journal Film-Philosophy, have been at the vanguard of this field over the past 15 years or so. Pippin’s Filmed Thought adds to this body of work in that he proposes a means of looking at certain films as operating beyond what appears to be their genre, or their plot, in that they can be seen to be reflecting upon themselves. Movies such as the ones Pippin discusses here demand reviewing and reflection in order to understand what is going on, and why we are shown the world of the film in a certain way. To put it more plainly, he suggests that these films are about themselves or the filmic medium in some sense: what they do is show, ask about and argue for a particular position on a philosophical issue. As an example, the mysteries and corruptions in Chinatown are not neatly resolved, and the inconclusive ending applies as much to our philosophical understanding of moral judgements in the real world as it does to our assessment of the end of the movie: we may never be sure of what is really going on.

The standout chapter, for me, is on Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and In a Lonely Place (1950). Here Pippin demonstrates how the films use their awareness of irony in relation to form (“stylized and operatic”) and location (Hollywood), respectively, to expose the degree to which we trust Hollywood’s presentation of romantic love, men and women, and how these shape our expectations in life. The book is accessibly written, focuses on wonderful films and argues compellingly for the intellectual intricacy of cinematic works that may already be very familiar to us. 

Lucy Bolton is reader in film studies at Queen Mary University of London. Her latest book is Contemporary Cinema and the Philosophy of Iris Murdoch (2019).


Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form
By Robert B. Pippin
University of Chicago Press
312pp, £79.00 and £28.00
ISBN 9780226671956 and 9780226672007
Published 16 December 2019

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Print headline: Thinking, caught on camera

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