Film and Philosophy 4500 words


Is there any philosophical route back from excessive self-consciousness?




In order to address the question in relation to film, I have had to break it down into several parts. The first section of my essay focuses on film as philosophy. This develops a theoretical framework to work in, considering not only whether film can operate as philosophy, but also what specific kind of philosophy it can produce. In this section, I draw on and critically engage with the work of Jerry Goodenough, Daniel Frampton, Gilles Deleuze and others. I use this section to expand Goodenough’s typology of film’s relations to philosophy, adding concepts of distance, openness and performativity.


Secondly, I shift my focus onto an analysis of Resnais’ and Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961) in order to ask what specific philosophical work is being done by the film. Here I focus on movement, time, sound and the relation between subjectivity and objectivity. I then consider what relation this can have to excessive self-consciousness. According to Goodenough’s reading, we inhabit the solipsistic consciousness of the film. I bring in Sass’ writing on madness and modernism, Münsterberg’s philosophy of cinema, and Nietzsche.


In my next section, I consider what philosophical routes back from excessive self-consciousness are available.  My focus is on Sartre’s theory of intersubjectivity, but I mention also Plato and Gilbert Ryle. Finally, to conclude, I return to the film and to my initial section, in order to suggest that it is only by adopting a ‘film as philosophy’ approach that we are able to address what is at stake in the question. Rather than offering ‘a route back’ from excessive self-consciousness, Last Year in Marienbad actually challenges the assumptions behind this statement, in order to propose and affirm the schizophrenic ‘excessive self-consciousness’ as the most ‘realistic’, refuting Cartesian subjectivity in a specifically filmic way.


Film as Philosophy


Film can bear many relations to philosophy. Goodenhough, in his Introduction to Film as Philosophy suggests five: Firstly he mentions, in order to dismiss, film as escapism. The image of Wittgenstein at the cinema watching cowboy films is given as an example of cinema as “a relief from the pressures of thinking philosophically” (Goodenhaugh 2005: 1). There are of course many problems with this dismissal. Firstly its binary distinction between the “banality” of mass entertainment/popular culture and the “significance” of philosophical thought is deeply problematic. Secondly, much philosophical work has been done on so-called modes of escape in popular forms of cinema. This could include focus on early cinema or contemporary modes of display as ‘cinema of attraction’ (see for example Gunning 1989, or Strauven 2007), a focus on the effect of new technologies on modes of distracted spectatorship (Mulvey 2005 for example), or a focus on the ideologies at play in this entertainment relation (Adorno 2002). My inclusion of such work in this category suggests that, rather than dismissing it, philosophy has been produced from this relation of escapism. However, I agree with Goodenough that this is not necessarily a specific form of film as philosophy.


His second example is “philosophy and the cinematic experience” (2). This is a focus on the social and psychological aspects of cinema-going, as well as perceptual experience. This mode is dominant in much existing film studies discourse, whether for example psychoanalytical, sociological or neuroscientific. In this category Goodenough includes films of the avant-garde that foreground their nature and status as film, and has been criticized for this by Daniel Barnett:


This prejudice against what sometimes are called experimental or substrate-

reflexive films is a curious characteristic of quite a few film-philosophers, and among Wittgenstinians it has puzzled me especially. Wittgenstein’s focus was on language, the medium of philosophy per se. Why should the Philosophy of Film explicitly ignore those works that are concerned with an exploration of the medium per se? (Barnett 2007: 138)


I think Barnett slightly misses the point with this rebuke, as if, as it seems, Goodenough is proposing ways of reading film rather than categories of film, then films of the avant-garde could equally be analysed as philosophy. The categories may overlap. Thirdly Goodenough suggest that films have been used to illustrate philosophical themes or ideas. While this may be useful for teaching concepts, it subordinates the film to the idea without giving it any power to affect on its own terms. I would expand this third mode in order to also include conventional post-structuralist ‘readings’ of films. Once you have a framework of feminist or Marxist critique for example, it is easy to apply it to whatever film text you have to hand. This category also suggests difficulties for historical, periodising, or ‘movement’ definitions of film texts. I think it is important to make a distinction between this mode and the final mode, as it can suggest how ‘film as philosophy’ offers an important departure from accepted ways of thinking about and using film.


Fourthly, there are films that deal with philosophy itself. Recent films on Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy for example could be added to Goodenhough’s example of the Wittgenstein film. These films are less common, and can overlap with the other categories depending on the film. Finally, in order to emphasise its difference from the preceding categories, he proposes ‘film as philosophy’:


The final reason for luring the philosopher into the cinema is the one at the core of this book: to see film as philosophy, as in some sense doing philosophy” (Goodenough 2005: 3)


It is this that I will focus on in this essay. In order to read film as philosophy, it must be seen not purely as illustrating philosophical points, but as capable of actively producing its own philosophical thought. As Daniel Frampton has argued in Filmosophy, film must be understood not merely as having a relation to the real, but being its own reality as well, “How we engage with film informs and reflects how we engage with reality – and that the nature of aesthetic experience as a form of knowledge, is as valid as rational thought” (Frampton 2006: 2). Or as Mulhall suggests of the Alien films, “[They] are not philosophy’s raw material, not a source for its ornamentations; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action – film as philosophizing” (cited in Goodenhaugh 2005: 20) What is common in these analyses is a concept of ‘performativity’. Taken from J.L. Austin’s linguistic theory, a performative utterance is one that does something by saying it, ‘I pronounce you man and wife’ for example, or ‘I promise to give you your money back’ (Austin 1970). To bring this back to film, film as philosophy gives film a performative force. Through the act of its projection, thought is produced. While the examples of film illustrating philosophy suggest a critical distance – I stand outside of the film and use it to illustrate a pre-existing concept – Film as philosophy suggests a sensitivity, or a kind of openness to the film, which allows it to develop its own thought.


Further, if film can do philosophy then it must be able to do philosophy in a specifically filmic way, allowing it to produce different concepts than other types of philosophizing. As Frampton suggests “film is simply different from our ways of thinking and perceiving…film can add a new kind of thought to philosophy” (Frampton 2006: 7, 11) Barnett again criticizes Goodenaugh for his argument that film as philosophy is not necessarily the product of the director’s conscious intention, “Marienbad, in my opinion, is philosophy at least partly because it was clearly intended as an investigation of principally existential/epistemological issues, and cannot be understood other wise” (Barnett 2007: 141). Here again I disagree with Barnett as it is surely the distinctive power of film philosophy to move away from thinking about human agency or conscious intention, and start to develop a truly filmic philosophy which challenges the boundaries of perception and subjectivity.  As Gilles Deleuze has argued in Cinema 2,  “It is only when movement becomes automatic that the artistic essence of the image is realized: producing a shock to thought, communicating vibrations to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral system directly” (Deleuze 2000: 156). It is thinking film as philosophy, rather than an illustration of philosophy that can engage with questions such as self-consciousness in a way unavailable to conventional philosophical methods or language.


Last Year in Marienbad


David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson describe films that have mixed up and alternative narratives. Usually these alternative futures are contained within a conventional narrative logic, cause and effect remains linear, character and settings remain consistent, one possible future is valorized over the others, “these films often appeal to the way we think in ordinary life…thus we easily understand the sort of game that these films present, and we are willing to play it” (Bordwell and Thompson 2004: 79). This is emphatically not the case in Last Year at Marienbad. Instead the film shifts effortlessly between places and times, with no framing or contextualization to allow us to contain the disjunctions. As Deleuze argues of the film, “How feeble the flashback seems beside explorations of time as powerful as this, such as the silent walk on the thick hotel carpet which each time puts the image into the past” (Deleuze 2000: 39) By eschewing cinematic conventions such as the flashback, the film produces more affective connections between events, places and time, suggesting an intensely subjective perspective. The character ‘A’ laughs for example, and the scene cuts to her laughing again, perhaps in another time, perhaps in another space. There are no indices to ground our interpretation, and affect becomes a structuring device leading us to feel a way through the film rather than stand outside of it and piece it together. Robbe-Grillet argues that people have become accustomed to the flashback, instead “our mind goes faster – or slower, on occasion…this mental time with all its peculiarities…is the tempo of our emotions, of our life” (cited in Goodenhaugh 2005:16). Rather than the flashback providing an objective view of events, it becomes here a device of ‘mental time’, extreme subjectivity, or perhaps, as Bordwell and Thomson suggest, it “hovers ambiguously between objectivity and subjectivity” (Bordwell and Thomson 2001: 91). Other writers have also picked up on this relation, “film seems at once subjective and objective in it actions of form…because film is simply different to our ways of thinking and perceiving” argues Daniel Frampton (Frampton 2006: 7). Deleuze argues that  “the most objectivist determinants do not prevent their realizing a ‘total subjectivity’” (Deleuze 2000: 7). In his view, it is not the case that the film is subjective or objective but that this distinction loses its importance, “we run in fact into a principle of indeterminability, of indiscernibility: we no longer know what is imaginary or real, physical or mental..because we do not have to know, and there is no longer even a place from which to ask” (7). There is no longer a place from which to ask, or judge the film, as there is no distinction between the objective and the subjective. This is the distinctive force of the film’s philosophy, and we inhabit it like a disease.


A disembodied voiceover emerges over the opening credits, whispering, moving in and out of sense, and fading in and out of earshot. It continues as the camera moves around the décor of empty hotel corridors and rooms. The voiceover is structured around repetitions, “all sound escapes the ear…the ear itself is far from the ground”. It describes the environment in a deadpan way, talking of the long corridors, pillars and the silence of the carpets, as the camera eye moves slowly around them. Already there is suggested a detachment from subjectivity, the ‘sound that escapes the ear’ is unperceived, independent of any subjective listener, and the movement around the space seems removed from any perspective, floating and mobile. When people enter the frame, they are still and silent as zombies, staring ahead, oblivious to the camera’s swoops over and across them. Like in much of the film, there is no sense of who is looking, from where, or who is speaking and from where. This objective movement, which seems inhabited by mysterious subjective agency, is repeated in the film. When characters are talking it will slowly move away from them while they continue to talk, as if distracted, its own consciousness continuing separately. As in when A is on the bed, it will cut between angles so we can never settle into one position of seeing. These movements have no relation to the plot, and the camera comes to take on a space of its own which is a-subjective. It is the affect of this movement which can be read as film thinking, a self-consciousness produced through movement and sound. When X wants to block out a memory the camera suddenly accelerates down a corridor, producing an image of pure movement. At other times flashes of shots intercut the scene. Force, movement and speed constantly disrupt the narrative, warding off memory, flowing or interrupting.


Excessive Self-consciousness


So, if film does philosophy, then what kind of philosophical work is being done in Last Year in Marienbad? Münsterberg, in his writing on film has made the link between film and the problem of self-consciousness, “We do not see the objective reality, but a product of our own mind which binds the pictures together” (Münsterberg, cited in Currie 1995: 31). All we have access to in this film is X’s perspective, and with no grounds in the external world, we know only what he knows. As Goodenaugh suggests, “All of the events of the film take place within the solipsistic universe of X’s mind” (Goodenough 2005: 17). The film repels easy reading with a seeming lack of reason, but this can be interpreted not as unreason but as hyperreason. Its techniques take skepticism to an extreme and produce an image of a solipsistic consciousness. If we maximize reason and become paranoid (hyper-conscious) then we may experience unreason not because we have abandoned reason altogether but precisely because we inhabit the world of rationality to a greater extent. The film, in this case, provides not a lack of meaning but a schizophrenic excess, “One of the symptoms of schizophrenia is that the patient seeks and finds meaning in what the rest of us would regard as random and contingent events and features. Part of their problem, perhaps, is that their meaning-detecting equipment is too aware, too sensitive” (Goodenough 2005: 18). Nietzsche has claimed that “growing consciousness is a danger and a disease” (cited in Rose 1995: 1). According to his perspectivism, as there is no objective truth, it must be formulated according to individual circumstances, “[the world] has no meaning behind it but countless meanings” (Nietzche 1968: 481). However, while sensitivities and awareness are to be encouraged, excess can lead to paralysis,  “a great, far-reaching decline, falsification, rendering of things superficial and general is bound up with all processes of becoming aware” (Colli and Montinari 1980: 593).


“You’re mad” A repeats to X throughout the film, as if she is addressing the film itself, and it is the film that seems to exhibit characteristics of Sass’s analyses of schizophrenia. He describes ‘illogical thinking’ for example, “Thinking that contains obvious internal contradictions or in which conclusions are reached that are clearly erroneous, given the initial premises (Sass 1994: 152). Or language, “Schizophrenics tend to use adverbs of a spatial type to replace those of a chronological type (where may replace when)… they emphasize the static and deemphasize the dynamic/emotional aspects… immobility of time… the past seems like disconnected fragments… infinite present…Silvano Artieti describes the ‘seriatum function’ in which schizophrenics lose the ability or will to organize acts or thoughts into causal sequence” (156). Another key repeated image in the film, both visually and verbally is that of freezing or stasis. The camera will rove then stop, people move and then freeze and the voiceover is obsessed with stillness, “It was so cold the fountains froze”; “This story is already over, in a few moments it will freeze into a marble past like these statues…like this hotel with its empty rooms”; “Conversations took place in a vacuum – as though they could never have meaning. A sentence would stop, as if frozen in flight”. The attempt to block out or freeze the external world creeps outwards to inhabit the architecture of the film, its language and all perceptions of it. As Goodenough suggests, “this freezing, this congealing of the world and its actions, is a feature of the schizophrenic experience, another hint about X’s mental condition” (Goodenough 2005: 19). Sass describes how for the schizophrenic, “time is crystallized into immobility” (Sass 1994: 158).


However, rather than just producing an image of solipsism, if the film can be seen to be doing philosophy in a performative sense, then it must do solipsism, not only represent it, but stage it in a filmic way. Here is the key quote from Goodenough’s analysis:


We are not invited to judge solipsism, we are solipsists. We inhabit solipsism (Goodenough 2005: 24)


We can’t judge solipsism because there is no critical distance between us and the film, instead we come to inhabit the excessive self-consciousness of the solipsistic cinema mind.




There are potential philosophical routes back from this. Drawing on a Platonic theory of Ideals for example would suggest that while we are trapped in the cinema watching projected images, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave, a philosopher guardian would have the task of guiding us away from ‘false reality’ towards ‘absolute truth’, “what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision” (Plato 1994: Book 7). Such an approach however makes an unhelpful binary between the world of illusion and an idealized world of universal rationality. While offering a superficial resemblance to the cinematic scenario, it takes no account of the cinematic mediation itself, or the effects of the images, and it relies on a pre-existing unified subject of thought and reason.


Perhaps another route is to move away from the dualism implied by solipsism – I can only know that my mind exists / I cannot know the external world – by challenging this opposition between internal and external. Gilbert Ryle attempted to refute Cartesian dualism by suggesting it is based on a category error, “when someone is described as knowing, believing or guessing something, as hoping, dreading, intending or shirking something, as designing this or being amused at that, these verbs are supposed to denote the occurrence of specific modifications in his (to us) occult stream of consciousness” (Ryle, cited in Tanney 2007: 14). We cannot propose a self-conscious unified subject with connected body and mind, as these are simply different categories. Rather than opposing the physical to the mental, Ryle’s ‘logical behaviourism’ draws on psychological behaviourism – describing human behaviour without recourse to mental events such as intention – to reformulate statements about the mental as a set of conditionals – if I poke you then you react. Tanney claims that this is a reductionist reading of Ryle and that, “rather, his important achievement in The Concept of Mind is to take the sting out of—or demystify—the Cartesian (inflationist or duplicationist) view by showing how the application of a wide range of mental predicates answers to the sorts of situations, circumstances, that we have no trouble in ordinary life seeing” (Tanney 2007: 15). Ryle’s argument however still runs up against many problems of behaviourism. It can’t account for deceptive acting for example, it can’t account for qualia – the ‘what it is like’ to be in pain say, or for a-subjective affect. As there is more to pain than a set of behavioural effects, so there is more to consciousness than logic. Both approaches are incommensurable with my analysis of the film’s dissolution of subject and object. If ‘there is no longer a place from which to ask’ then we can be saved neither by the rationalizing philosopher nor the experimental psychologist.


Bordwell and Thompson have described the influence of existentialism on Resnais, “Sartre and Camus proposed a concept of human freedom based upon the possibility of a deliberate and conscious choice in which the actions of human beings are not limited or determined by powerful cultural choices” (Bordwell and Thompson 2004: 194), and Sartre’s own defence of existentialism offers a potential route back from excessive self-consciousness. According to existentialism, ‘existence’ precedes ‘essence’, we exist before we have meaning, so we have the freedom and anxiety to make our own choices with no set characters and goals, “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself” (Sartre 2005: 1). However:


…the subjectivity which we thus postulate as the standard of truth is no narrowly individual subjectivism, for as we have demonstrated, it is not only one’s own self that one discovers in the cogito, but those of others too…when we say “I think” we are attaining to ourselves in the presence of the other, and we are just as certain of the other as we are of ourselves



Sartre proposes ‘intersubjectivity as a defense against the extreme skepticism of solipsism. According to Sartre, I cannot be anything unless I am recognized as such by the other, “I cannot obtain any truth whatsoever about myself, except through the mediation of another. The other is indispensable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself” (5). The existentialist’s revelation of freedom is at the same time the revelation of another freedom confronting mine “Thus, at once, we find ourselves in a world which is, let us say, that of “inter-subjectivity. It is in this world that man has to decide what he is and what others are” (5) In Sass’ analysis, as in Nietzche, the schizophrenic is paralysed into inaction – becoming too aware of one’s hand can restrict your ability to use it in the world. Intersubjectivity by contrast, suggests a subjective doctrine of action, with responsibility for the world,  “In fashioning myself I fashion man.” (6)




An alternative approach is suggested by Robbe-Grillet himself:


The spectator will try to reconstitute some ‘Cartesian’ scheme – the most linear, the most rational he can devise…Or else the spectator will let himself be carried along by… the actor’s voices, the music, the rhythm of the cutting…the story told will be the most realistic, the truest, the one that best corresponds to his emotional life. (cited in Goodenough 2005: 19-20)


In other words, not by illustrating philosophical themes but forcing the audience to engage with them affectively, the film can be critical of assumptions of the coherent unified self-conscious subject necessary for Cartesian philosophy. “Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind” (Descartes 2005: II)


Robbe-Grillet’s analysis proposes Last Year in Marienbad as a more ‘realistic’ form of cinema. It also suggests a way for the film to work philosophically. Rather than offering ‘a route back’ from excessive self-consciousness, it actually challenges the assumptions behind this statement. By proposing affective experience of the schizophrenic ‘excessive self-consciousness’ as the most ‘realistic’, it refutes Descartes in a specifically filmic way. So Goodenough concludes:


Thus the film becomes a refutation of the Cartesian project. It refutes it not by telling us, not by demonstrating the falsity of a proposition involved or the invalidity of a logical move, but by showing us, by showing us solipsism in action. If we cannot make sense of the film, then solipsism doesn’t make sense. And we cant. And it doesn’t  (25)


Barnett is critical of this, “it seems to me that the corollary, if we can make sense of the film, we can make sense of solipsism, is a clearer and more critical formulation” (Barnett 2007: 141). But this again relies on the Cartesian assumptions of a separate and coherent ‘I’ imposing order and sense on the surrounding world. The ‘route back’ in the question is a red herring when put into this context, because to assume a route back is to assume the negativity of excess. The film, on the other hand, affirms excessive self-consciousness, and operates as philosophy in a distinctive way. While film illustrating philosophy requires the critical distance necessary to impose order onto the film text, film as philosophy demands a kind of openness or sensitivity to let the film do its philosophical work. Film, here, is neither the cure nor manifestation of the disease of self-consciousness, but the schizophrenic producer of new thought.


Bibliography / Filmography


Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad) Dir. Alain Resnais. Screenplay Alain Robbe-Grillet. Starring Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig. France/West Germany/Italy/Austria, 1961 (Optimum World DVD, 2005)


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