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Film Philosophers

Philosopher Irving Singer explores the legacy of three film directors whose writings provide insights into their art.
March 2, 2005

Three Philosophical
Hitchcock, Welles.

By Irving Singer
MIT Press, 2004
279 pages, $32.95

Sam Goldwyn, the founder of MGM Studios, once said, “Pictures are for entertainment; messages should be delivered by Western Union.” Nonetheless, the blend of art and entertainment in film makes it a medium very conducive to message delivery. And according to MIT professor of philosophy Irving Singer, in some cases those messages can also contain complex philosophical ideas.

In his recent book Three Philosophical Filmmakers: Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir, Singer shows how this trio of influential directors used a combination of realism (capturing reality) and formalism (reorganizing or transforming reality) to convey meaning in their films. Singer argues that although these filmmakers did not consider themselves philosophers, it is nevertheless proper to treat them as philo­sophical thinkers: “from the point of view of a philosopher like myself,” Singer says, “I am able to perceive the way in which they are philosophical.”

While film theorists tend to focus on the extremes of either realism or formalism, Singer says, “most great filmmakers are generally doing both.” Singer sees realism in Alfred Hitchcock, who is traditionally seen by critics as a pure formalist, and formalism in Jean Renoir, traditionally thought of as a pure realist. In Orson Welles, he sees a bridge between the two. But what Singer finds particularly remarkable about these three filmmakers is the legacy they left behind in writings and interviews, from which he draws extensively in his book. “[They] spoke a great deal about film theory—not only in terms of their own practice, but on film theory in general and film theory in relation to their ideas about the world and society and what they wanted to do as human beings,” he says.

Singer has been drawn to movies since he was a child in the 1930s. “I had a wide appetite and very little experience of the world, and that was the beginning of my love of movies,” he says. At the same time, Singer was developing a passion for music and literature, which serves him well in this book. Some of his most engaging prose analyzes the short stories or ancient myths on which a given film is based. Even his more technical discussions never stray far from the greater questions of meaning in his subjects’ films. Singer believes that what moviegoers find interesting is the interaction between technique and meaning, rather than one or the other. “People don’t go to the movies to enjoy technique; they go in there to have a good time as human beings watching a story about other human beings struggling in our common attempt to find and create meaning in life.”

Whether film is better suited to deliver pure entertainment or to ruminate on the meaning of life is perhaps beside the point. Singer makes a strong case that, in the films of Hitchcock, Welles, and Renoir, at least, it is possible, even necessary, to do both.

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