Truthfulness and Realism: Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

I’ve been teaching a course on philosophy and film. As it nears the end, I’m thinking about films that didn’t make it into the course but that could have and perhaps should have. This version of the course (I’ve taught it a few times) focused on the problem of identity and moral personhood: numerical identity in Inception and Solaris, for example, and differences between persons and what Harry Frankfurt calls “wantons” in A Clockwork OrangeThe Servant, and Vertigo, among others. We tended to focus more on content than form, but we were never very far from issues of truth, reality, and the art of film.  

Which made me want to identify films that bring these epistemological and ontological themes in both life and art together with personhood. In the films of Stanley Kubrick, there’s something of a dialectic between truthfulness and realism. Realism can reveal truth but also obscure it, and be obscured by it. And “realistic” isn’t the right word for the film I have in mind; “truthful” is closer to the mark. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) portrays intimate personal relationships truthfully. What does that mean?

The film is about a couple, Alice and Bill, who, although they’ve been married at least seven years, still seem to be adjusting to the transition from passionate love to a companionate marriage. When we first see them, as they are preparing to leave for a Christmas party, they are very much in the companionate mode: intimate and trusting, but something less than passionate. Continue reading

Time Travel and Temporalizing in Chris Marker’s “La Jetée”

Knowingly or not, Chris Marker’s metaphorical use of time travel in Ja Jetée (1963) elegantly exhibits Heidegger’s view that the human way of being is temporalizing. And it directs our attention to a phenomenon that is central to Heidegger’s argument in Being and Time, namely that temporality is the fundamental condition of intelligibility as such.

For Heidegger, the distinctively human way of being (“Dasein”) consists in making sense of things. We do this, he says, because things matter to us, and they matter to us because they make sense. To make sense of something is to take it as a certain thing – for example, as a tool, say a hammer, with a certain use (hammering), connections with other tools (nails, planks of wood), and connections with various ways of being (being a carpenter, being a handyman).

Intelligibility – that something is “disclosed” as something – depends on what Heidegger calls “finitude,” which is a characteristic of human temporality. Things show up to us as X rather than Y or Z; to take a hammer as a tool for hammering is to not take it as a paperweight (as we might do under certain circumstances). To exercise any given possibility of being is to refrain from exercising many others. If we were not finite, all of our possibilities would be accessible to us at all times, nothing would matter more or less than anything else, and there would be nothing to disclose because everything would be disclosed. Temporality and finitude thus go together as the possibility conditions of intelligibility, and because finitude is exhibited in mortality, it may be said that death gives life meaning. Continue reading

Michael Oakeshott, Susan Wolf, Conversation, and Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with André.”

Some characterizations of My Dinner with André1.

Wally feels obligated to dine with André but dreads it because he has heard that André is deeply troubled and feels there is nothing he can do to help. Wally is also overwhelmed by the pressures of practical life: he can’t do anything but worry about how he will pay his bills. He settles on a solution to his immediate problem: he’ll merely ask questions of André, something he enjoys doing. That works, but in the course of his dinner with André something more happens: the meal ends with Wally a little less overwhelmed than he was when it began.

André wants to live each moment as intensely as possible, but he seems to think that this requires him to eschew any sense of a quest for larger, objective value. Wally, on the other hand, indicates that he values stable and committed relationships and his contributions, however small, to the theater, and expresses an identification with the scientific enterprise and so with a central narrative tradition of Western Civilization. But he doesn’t find many moments of passionate intensity in his day-to-day life, which, in contrast to André’s, seems to have isolated him from others. The film, narrated from Wally’s point of view, conveys his renewed appreciation for the quality of immediate experience for those with whom he shares his world. On his way home after dinner he’s noticeably more attentive to what his city means to him, and he resolves to share his experience with his girlfriend Debby.

André and Wally have different views about the meaning of life. André wants to live each moment as intensely as possible and believes that he can accomplish this by undergoing extreme experiences. Wally values stable relationships and commitments and takes pleasure accomplishing the everyday tasks they require, hoping also to occasionally contribute to the theater. As the film begins, however, Wally doesn’t take any pleasure in ordinary life and doesn’t have time to contribute to the theater. André is passionately engaged with his activities, but they don’t seem to make sense to anyone but him. Wally’s values and aims are perfectly intelligible, but he doesn’t find them fulfilling. As he listens to André’s exotic stories, Wally realizes how much he loves his life and he reminds himself of this on his way home. We’re left wondering about whether the conversation has had an impact on André. Continue reading

Kubrick’s Style: Neoclassical Modernism

Stanley Kubrick’s visual style can be characterized by thinking about how Ezra Pound described Imagism. “An image,” he said, “is an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Among Pound’s instructions to poets are the imperatives “to employ always the exact word” and “to produce a poetry that is hard and clear.” F.S. Flint added the admonishment “to use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.” Pound likened the ideal poetic line to the musical phrase, and held that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

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