Casablanca: Philosophy of the Film

The aim of this Introduction is to clarify what might be expected of the philosophy of film, offering thereby a framework into which can be fitted the scattered and diverse efforts of others. All the arguments and theses will be illustrated with the help of one film: Casablanca.

This will, I hope, seem an unlikely choice: in taking up the challenge to show its appropriateness I may diminish that sense of unlikelihood. In a banal sense there is plenty of philosophy in films. We can all recall, ‘Johnny, Johnny, why don’t you stop fooling yourself’, and countless other deathless aphorisms. Some of these may be true, though not original; culling them from films is more likely to be a satirical than an enlightening exercise. Most of the canonical works of academic philosophy were written before films existed and are, therefore, unlikely to discuss them. Nevertheless, film may be embraced within some of the things philosophers do, whether mentioned or not.

We call a certain sort of thinking, taking as its object anything under the sun, ‘philosophical’, as when we speak of philosophy of life or a philosophical attitude to things. Films are full of that. Such very general thinking is not confined to philosophers. What sort of thinking do philosophers call ‘philosophical’? One answer, a highly self-conscious one, can be attributed to Kant, or to his influence. That answer is: thinking about thinking. Can this apply to film? On this view philosophy of the film is thinking about how we think about film; is, so to speak, thinking about the very possibility of thinking about film. Kant pushed his argument all the way, and concluded that the purest form of philosophy concerned itself with thinking itself, and in general, the possibility of thinking about anything at all. I am uncertain whether that leaves any room for film.

While not necessarily endorsing Kant’s stipulation of what constitutes philosophy, I shall, for the purposes of characterizing the subject of philosophy of the film, utilize it as a starting point. If film is to be an object of thought, one question involved in thinking about it at all might be, what sort of a thing is film that we can think about it? Questions framed in such a way—using ‘thing language’—are characteristically answered by telling us that the thing is a material object, in this case celluloid on spools, created by a photographic process and then realized by a reverse process—instead of light coming through a lens to strike film, light is thrown through the film to go out through a lens on to a screen (a more circumspect answer would add parallel clauses about sounds going through microphones and, as electricity, through photoelectric cells and so, as light, to film, and light through film sent out through photoelectric cells as electricity to loudspeakers to become sound). But as material object the film is only one among many—sticks and stones, trees and people, dynamos and cameras—and does not pose any peculiar philosophical problems. Casablanca considered as several reels of celluloid in cans is just one material object among many.

Philosophers variously theorize that our very capacity to think of material objects—things—can be explained because they are accessible to our senses, or intellects, because they fit the categorial apparatus; they participate in universals, because they have both primary and secondary qualitites; and so on. Each is an attempt to specify what it is about material objects that makes it possible for us to think about them. Films qua material objects—like books—are uninteresting because they do not create special problems for any of these (problematic) theories. (problematic) theories.

So it is not the material object that is being addressed when we consider the very possibility of thinking about the film in general, about Casablanca in particular. What is being addressed is something we loosely speak of as ‘on’ the film, or ‘contained in’ the film; namely the content, or meaning—usually a form of narrative. Such an object of thought as narrative is not material; yet it is at the same time not immaterial or mental. It is in a metaphysical limbo in much the same way as are relationships. People are concrete but the relationships between people, equally real, are abstract. The stories, plots, themes or meanings, in short the content of films, are also abstract objects.

How then is it possible to think about the film in general as abstract object, as meaning; about Casablanca in particular as an abstract object? This is a question; how does it become a problem? What is to stop us thinking about abstract objects? This is to misunderstand. ‘How is such thinking possible?, asks, ‘how is it done?’, not, ‘how on earth can it be done?’ What then are the conditions that make it possible to think about film as abstract object? As with physical objects, thought can be construed as a relation between the thinker and what is being thought about. There must then be capacities in the thinker to discern, identify and understand the object of thought which, in its turn, must at least partly possess features that make it accessible to the thinker. The thinker about film content, I suppose, is not different from the thinker about mathematics or motor cars. In so far as philosophy has any theories of the thinker (viz. empiricism, associationism, rationalism, phenomenalism, Kantianism) these need not find the thinking part of thinking about the film problematic. However, when it comes to the object of thought, such as a book, a film, or Casablanca in particular, the philosophy is more problematic. There are philosophical theories of material objects or physical substance, and of mental entities or mental substance, and reductions of the one to the other. But the field of relations, meanings and of abstractions in general is contested at such a fundamental level that narrative in general, never mind narrative film in particular, still less Casablanca, has scarcely been theorised about at all. Hence what follows will be crude.

The most general answer to how it is possible to think about the film qua abstract object is that film’s contents, which are information stored in retrievable form on rolls of celluloid, can be actualized so that those who experience the film build up from it an intelligible content, one we even might be tempted to call ‘a world’. The real world includes among its contents things, people, relations, abstractions; so does the world on film; the world we can discern on film simulates the real world so closely that we can speak of a resemblence, even of a continuity, between the two. Yet since the film world is a world contained on celluloid, it is philosophically important to discuss whether we know in principle how to demarcate this imaginary world from whatever we take to be the real world that it resembles. Only if we can demarcate the film world from the real world can we ask the question of whether the presuppositions involved in making the contents of film intelligible to ourselves resemble those presuppositions we need for intelligibility in general and hence whether film is a useful way to think about thinking and making sense in general.

A basic condition enabling us to think about film, then, is that it is such that we are able to discern in its content something resembling a world; something, that is, like the world, but yet in some definite way not the world, merely like it. ‘World’ here could be expanded: it connotes order not chaos, contents not void, intelligible not meaningless. So we can redescribe what is presupposed by our discerning a world on film by saying that it permits us to impose order, to make intelligible, to individuate and to identify things. What we might call the project of constituting a world on film is merely a small part of the wider project with which we are constantly engaged; that is, imposing intelligibility, order, individuation and identity on the world in which we live. Precisely because film in some way replicates locally what we are constantly engaged in globally there is the possibility that we may learn from our constitution of the film world about our world-constituting activities in general.

The overwhelming majority of the intelligibles, the ordering forces, the individuals and the identities to be found in the film world are people; or, as some philosophers prefer to call them, persons. Each narrative film such as Casablanca has what we may call a cast of persons. But films in general also have casts of persons, persons who reappear in one film after another—shifting their personae from one story to another, changed yet the same. I am referring to stars, a by no means trivial variant of the notion of a person. Here then we have a feature of the world on film that both differs from and resembles our world. Stars provide points of continuity and recognition across or between films. They may be a principle or cause of whatever reality we decide the films have, as well as another clue to the very possibility of thinking about the film.

Why not now go on to explain how it is possible for us to discern a world on film? This Kantian question is better avoided here, for the simple reason that it is too ambitious. Our understanding both of thought and of the objects of thought is rudimentary, no more so than when we try to tackle world constitution. We have only the dimmest idea of how infants build up their picture of the world from the undifferentiated manifold of experience, especially when all our communication presupposes our results being coordinatable. It is possible that studying how it is done with films may illuminate that murky area. If world constitution from films is to illuminate world constitution tout court we have some way to go as yet.

Not only do we discern a world on film, but that world resembles our world. Here again the theory of resemblance is bitterly disputed territory—ironically, since none of the competitors has strength to do much more than throw a punch or two at their opponents before collapsing.
For the present, then, I take it that thinking about film is possible because we have the physical and mental equipment and they provide the materials for us to constitute something it is natural to write of as a world, both resembling and differing from ours, differing in particular because the world on film is an artifact, not a natural occurrence. Furthermore, although resembling our world, it differs from it decisively in being known not to be real.

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